The Common Mind.

The Common Mind. – book reviews

Margaret Gilbert

Pettit argues that in order to come to grips with the nature of social explanation and political evaluation we need “an overall view of people and society” and that for this we need “a picture of what it is to be psychologically equipped in the manner of human beings” (p. viii). He begins at the beginning, working up through the book from psychology to politics. Clearly, this is an ambitious book.

Part I, “Mind”, builds up the picture of the thinking human agent which will be presupposed in the later parts. Pettit draws a distinction between intentional subjects in general (these are discussed at length in Chapter 1) and thinking subjects (Chapter 2): an intentional subject interacts with its environment in ways that make sense in belief-desire terms, non-accidentally (p. 3). In order to be capable of thought, an intentional subject must meet two main requirements. One is “intentional ascent”, achieved by not only believing that p, but by also having beliefs about the proposition expressed by “p”, that it is true, well-supported, and so on (p. 63). The other is rule-following, which raises the problem of how to “target rules that are determinately enough fixed to make infidelity possible” (p. 79).

Here Pettit draws on Kripke’s discussion of Wittgenstein, and offers, in effect, a “straight” solution of the sceptical problem posed there, a solution he characterises as “naturalistic”. (Broadly speaking plationistic doctrines are not countenanced.) Pettit argues that it is only by giving other subjects or one’s own “past selves” some say as to when a rule is correctly applied that one can target rules about which one may go wrong.

In Part II, “Mind and Society”, Pettit turns to two issues that he takes to be the crucial problems of “social ontology” (p. 117). The first is whether, as he puts it, “Our intentional psychology is compromised by aggregate social regularities” (p. 118). This is what he refers to as the problem of “individualism” versus “collectivism”.

In Chapter 3 he argues against collectivism. A collectivist, Pettit observes, may argue that social regularities “override” intentional regularities (being more powerful forces) or, more modestly, that they “outflank” them (somehow determining which intentional regularities exist). He argues against both of these positions. Against an extreme version of the “overriding” thesis that, in effect, denies the existence of intentional regularities, he argues, rightly in my view, that “it should take a lot to persuade us to give up thinking of ourselves as intentional subjects” (p. 114). Against the less extreme view that when social regularities are in conflict with intentional regularities the former override the latter, he argues that there is no conflict of the required sort, assuming the supervenience of both types of regularity on the same fundamental physical regularities and conditions. Against the “outflanking” thesis, Pettit argues that it requires “an unusual gene-based, grouplevel selectional history” (pp. 162-3).

Chapter 4 addresses Pettit’s second problem in social ontology: “holism” versus “atomism”. As Pettit construes it, social holism holds there to be a type of non-causal dependence between a given person’s having a thought and the thoughts of other people. Social atomism denies any such dependence. Pettit argues for a form of holism (thus he argues, overall, for a “holistic individualism”). Building on the “interactive thesis” of Chapter 2 (thought depends on interpersonal relations with others or intertemporal relations with oneself), Pettit claims that in practice interpersonal interaction is always involved. He argues that human thought in fact satisfies a certain publicity condition, and that any form of thinking that does so depends on interpersonal interaction. The condition is this: “one human being can knowledgeably identify, as such, the rules followed by another and identify them as rules she can follow herself” (p. 180).

As the discussion continues Pettit’s holist thesis appears to come down to something like the claim that the constitution of a public language requires personal interactions involving the negotiation of a “consensus” (p. 193) with respect to the proper aplication of rules. It does not speak against a form of “atomism” according to which it is in principle possible for a socially isolated being to think or use language. Those who argue for such atomism are probably more concerned with the concepts of language and thought in general than with public language. Pettit’s holist thesis may indeed be the strongest acceptable form of the idea that language as such is social and of related theses. (Cf. Margaret Gilbert, On Social Facts, London: Routledge, 1989; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992, Ch. 3.) He is right to suggest that from the point of view of how it is with human beings, examination of the requirements for a public language are of great importance. Though his statements sometimes seem to ignore the distinction (and thus make his conclusions seem more provocative than they are) his discussion as a whole makes it clear that he is not about to show that rule-following as such has a necessary interpersonal base.

In Part III “Mind, Society, and Theory” Pettit explores the implications of his holistic individualism for social explanation and political evaluation. In Chapter 5 he argues for an explanatory ecumenism according to which explanations of a variety of types–in particular “structural”, “historicist”, and “rational choice” explanations–may all play a role in our understanding of human society and history. With respect to those explanations which appear to move away from human psychology Pettit argues that “more detail does not necessarily make for better explanation” (p. 219): “the macro-level story may be informationally indispensable” (p. 220). With regard to social choice theory, he argues that, in brief, selfinterest may be a “standby cause” of conformity to certain established patterns of behaviour, whatever the role of other factors. Thus his holistic individualism allows for the validity of these different approaches.

With respect to political evaluation, Pettit suggests, in Chapter 6, that his holistic individualism cuts more ice. It argues, he contends, against a contractualism which holds that a certain kind of contractural eligibility is the essence of political rightness. Here he suggests, among other things, that certain arguments for contractualism from bargaining theory do not respect the nature of humans as reasoning as well as rational beings. With respect to “value-centred” thought, holistic individualism undercuts the search for values that are realisable by someone in isolation from society. It supports a republican conception of negative liberty, according to which the state’s support of non-interference in people’s lives is an important value. This chapter concludes with a discussion of how the feasibility of certain institutional arrangements may be assessed, Pettit arguing for the potency of a system which can exploit the desire to avoid others’ disapproval.

Pettit’s book is dense with explanation and argument, all of it thoughtful and careful, much of it liable to interest those concerned with the relevant issues. A host of pertinent topics are discussed. The book is very clearly written and well organised. There are lengthy advance summaries of each of the three main parts.

Given the scope of the book, not everything touched upon can be dealt with in equal detail, nor can everything relevant be touched upon. Nonetheless, with respect to the discussion of social ontology, there is a striking lacuna. Though Pettit refers to Durkheim a number of times, he takes a dismissive approach to Durkheim’s more provocative assertions in this area. He has almost nothing to say about the “moi commun” of which Durkheim spoke. In spite of Pettit’s suggestion to the contrary, what many would regard as the central question of social ontology–the nature of social groups and their properties–is all but ignored in this book. Pettit might perhaps argue that he has said all that need be said: society is composed of individuals in interaction. But how so? Enough has been said, by Durkheim and others, to suggest that Pettit has left virtually untouched the question of “what there is in the social arena” (p. 117).

The dismissiveness just mentioned is not without impact on Pettit’s admittedly standard conception of the scope of political theory. He sees nothing to question in the idea, which he sees as following from his own brand of individualism, that political theory will not be concerned with the interest of “corporate or aggregate entities”, with “supra-individual entities like communities and culture, nations and states” (pp. 287-8). He implies that it is only insofar as the nature and existence of a community impacts on its members’ well-being that political theory. will have a concern for it. Individuals themselves, however, often care about the survival of their cultures and communities in a far less instrumental way. They want this particular nation, say, to survive. This should give the political theorist who avows a purely instrumental concern some pause, whatever the eventual conclusion.

In sum, this book represents a serious attempt to deal with a wide range of important issues and to connect these issues together. In spite of appearances, however, it has more to say about mind than about society.

COPYRIGHT 1994 Oxford University Press

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