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The Phenomenology of Joint Action: Structure, Mechanisms, and Functions

Deadline for Abstracts: 31 January 2020

Editorial Information

Guest Editors: 
Franz Knappik
Nivedita Gangopadhyay

Journal Editors: 
Cees van Leeuwen, University of Leuven, Belgium
Mitchell Herschbach, California State University, Northridge, USA

Philosophical Psychology

Recent years have witnessed intense debate on various aspects of joint action. Philosophers have proposed various analyses of the structure of joint action (e.g. Bratman 1992, 1993, 1999, Searle 1990, Tuomela 2006), as well as of the nature of the mental states involved in it (e.g. Searle 1990, Tuomela 2006). Psychologists have studied the perceptual and cognitive processes involved in joint action, and developed hypotheses about how abilities for joint action develop in childhood (e.g. Trevarthen 1980, Rochat 2001, Reddy 2008, Carpenter 2009, Meyer et al. 2016). There is also growing research in neuroscience to uncover the neural mechanisms that enable fundamental joint action capacities—for example, basic motor cooperation and prediction, and the relationship of such capacities to brain areas thought to be involved in mentalizing or knowing other people’s mental states (e.g. Chaminade et al. 2012, Sebanz & Knoblich 2009).

Amid this burgeoning interdisciplinary research, an area of investigation that has so far received less attention is the phenomenology of joint action. How do we consciously experience joint action? What mechanisms underlie our experience of joint action? What are the functions of this experience? In the case of individual action, analogous questions have been the subject of much interest in interdisciplinary research over the last decades—especially with regard to the “sense of agency”, the experience of being the author of an action (e.g. de Vignemont & Fourneret 2004, Bayne 2008, Balconi 2010, Haggard & Eitam 2015). Inspired by such research in the sense of agency for individual actions, some researchers have, of late, focused on conceptual discussions and empirical studies of the “sense of joint agency” (an experience of us being the author of an action), mechanisms that subserve and factors that modulate the sense of joint agency as well as further aspects of the phenomenology of joint action (e.g. Pacherie 2012, Richardson et al. 2018).

It is the aim of this special issue to promote this emerging interest in the phenomenology of joint action, bringing together work by philosophers both in the analytic and the phenomenological tradition and other cognitive scientists. We invite contributions from all relevant fields, including analytic philosophy, phenomenology, theoretical and experimental psychology and neuroscience. Empirical researchers who reflect upon their work from a theoretical/philosophical perspective, and theoretical psychologists and neuroscientists casting a perspective on the empirical literature, are particularly encouraged to submit.

All papers to be published in the special issue will be subject to double blind peer review. The guest editors will decide about inclusion of submitted papers in the special issue based on the reviewers' recommendations, thematic fit and available space. Priority will be given to reviewer recommended papers that are a strong fit with the research questions elaborated below.

Authors who are interested in submitting a paper are kindly asked to send an extended abstract of ca. 500 words to the guest editors at franz.knappik@uib.no and nivedita.gangopadhyay@gmail.com, with “Abstract Special Issue PhilPsych” as subject, by January 31, 2020. The guest editors will notify authors by February 15, 2020, whether the planned paper is suitable for submission.

The deadline for submission of the final paper for review is July 31, 2020. The submission platform is at https://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/cphp (when asked "Is this submission for a special issue?", select “The phenomenology of joint action. Structure, mechanisms and functions” from the dropdown box).

The word limit for submitted papers is 10.000 words (notes and bibliography included, abstract excluded). Submitted papers must be completely anonymized, and should include an abstract of ca. 200 words. There are no particular style/formatting requirements for review purposes, but when accepted for publication, papers must be adapted to the journal’s style (https://www.tandfonline.com/action/authorSubmission?journalCode=cphp20&page=instructions).

Submitted papers should address one or more of the following topics and questions:  

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  1. From individual to joint action:

Recent work on the phenomenology of agency for individual action distinguishes a number of different phenomenal elements (Pacherie 2007, 2008, Bayne 2008). These include consciousness of one’s goals, consciousness of one’s means, and consciousness of being the agent of an action (sense of agency), where the latter has been subdivided into a sense of intentional causation, a sense of initiation, a sense of being in control and a sense of having to exercise control (Pacherie 2008). Do these distinctions apply to the phenomenology of joint action, too? Are there additional phenomenal features of joint action that have no counterpart in the case of individual action, such as a sense of mutual trust (Seemann 2009, Schmid 2013), a sense of joint commitment (Michael et al. 2016) or a sense of coordination? How do the phenomenology of individual action and the phenomenology of joint action relate to each other conceptually and ontogenetically? Is the phenomenology of joint action prior to the phenomenology of individual action in any of these respects? Are the phenomenal elements of our experience of joint action distinctly intersubjective, or do joint and individual actions feel just the same in the relevant respect? If the former, what is it that makes the phenomenology of joint action intersubjective? Is such phenomenology experienced by some group subject, or does it involve a specifically intersubjective mode (Schmid 2014), or is it intersubjective in virtue of its content (cf. Pacherie 2017)?


  1. Mechanisms and modulators:

What cognitive and neural mechanisms underlie possible elements of the phenomenology of joint action? In particular, are these the same/similar mechanisms as for individual action or are there different mechanisms, for example – a special predictive model, at play in the case of joint action? Is there something specific to the phenomenology of dedicated joint action mechanisms, for example – joint attention, which enables and sustains joint action?

How do factors that modulate the sense of joint agency—like amount of coordination (Bolt et al. 2016), predictability of the partners’ actions (Bolt & Loehr 2017), scale and hierarchical structure of the action (Pacherie 2012)—relate to the various phenomenal elements of the sense of joint agency? Are there further relevant modulating factors, e.g. the presence or absence of personal relations between the participants?


  1. Intentional binding:

Some recent studies have suggested that the effect of “intentional binding” that characterizes our experience of our own actions (Haggard et al. 2002) is also displayed by our experience of joint actions in which we participate (e.g. Obhi & Hall 2011a, Capozzi et al. 2016). Others have argued that intentional binding characterizes our perception of actions (including those of other agents) in general (Wohlschläger et al. 2003). To what extent does intentional binding depend on one’s agentive involvement in the production of a given effect?


  1. Which role in joint action?

Bratman (1992, 1993, 1999) and others (Carpenter 2009, Tomasello et al. 2005, Moll & Tomasello 2007) have proposed accounts of joint action that assign important coordinating roles to explicit propositional attitudes. Such accounts have been criticized on the grounds that joint actions presuppose the cognitive sophistications whose ontogenetic development they are supposed to explain (e.g. Butterfill 2012, Dokic 2010). Can phenomenal features of joint agency play some of the relevant roles in coordination, and hence support a less demanding, and developmentally more plausible, account of the structure of joint agency? Are there further roles that such phenomenal features may play, e.g. roles in the control and monitoring of joint actions? If there are such roles, does this support the idea that what is shared in joint agency and facilitates such agency is not merely an understanding of ‘internal’ mental states but also a special kind of understanding of ‘external’ shared joint action space?


  1. An epistemological function?

Several authors have argued that we have a special epistemic access to joint actions that we participate in, similar to the special access we seem to have to our own individual actions (Stoutland 2008, Laurence 2011, Schmid 2016). If this is true, can this epistemology be explained—always, or at least in some cases—on the basis of the phenomenology of joint action (cf. Schmid 2016)? Or is an alternative explanation needed? Are phenomenology-based explanations for the epistemology of joint action compatible with the neo-Anscombian idea, defended by some authors (Stoutland 2008, Laurence 2011, Schmid 2016), that knowledge of joint action is “non-observational”, not justificatorily dependent on sense-perception, and a form of “practical knowledge”, a knowledge that is the cause of its objects rather than the other way round?


  1. A moral function?

It has been argued that the sense of being in control over our individual actions supports a sense of being responsible for them, which is fundamental for our practices of holding each other morally responsible for our actions (Frith 2014). Conversely, it has been shown that the sense of agency for individual actions is sensitive to the moral relevance of those actions (Moretto et al. 2011). How do the phenomenal features of joint action relate to moral responsibility? Does moral relevance have an impact on those phenomenal features, too? To what extent do our practices of assigning collective responsibility depend on them? Do cultural differences in the ascription of responsibility affect the phenomenology of joint action, and/or vice versa? Do impairments in the phenomenology of joint action, as in some forms of psychopathology and human-machine interaction, have an impact on how we ascribe moral responsibility in such cases?


  1. Conflicts and breakdowns:

Joint actions can involve elements of competition (Bratman 2014, 55f.) and conflict. How do more competitive and conflictual joint actions phenomenally differ from the more cooperative ones? How do they affect the sense of agency of participating agents? Do any experienced asymmetry between agents influence the sense of agency in joint action? A substantive body of psychological literature is dedicated to failures of the sense of agency in the case of illusions (e.g. Wegner 2002) that are induced by particular experimental set-ups, and of pathological conditions such as delusions of control in schizophrenia. Are there analogous cases of a break-down of the sense of agency and/or of other phenomenal features of agency for joint action? Should we rule out any possibility of successful joint action for people categorized as having an impaired understanding of other people’s mental states? Moreover, knowledge of common ground is considered central to joint action (e.g. Tomasello 2008) and some authors propose that central to the establishment of common ground is detecting and correcting misunderstandings (e.g. Bjørndahl et al. 2015). What is the role of the phenomenology of joint action in such repair mechanisms that help reestablish common ground, rebuild sense of agency and resolve conflicts?   


  1. Emerging complexities:

Most of the current discussions of joint action are confined to small scale, egalitarian joint actions where there is emphasis on face-to-face interactions. In these cases, the coordination between agents is achieved largely by perceptual and embodied information. However, human joint action may extend to vastly more complex scenarios where the action space is spatio-temporally spread out, the organization is hierarchical, and involves large numbers of participants who may not be in face-to-face interaction. Do such cases of joint action, too, have characteristic phenomenal features? If so, what are these features, how do they relate to the phenomenology of small-scale joint action and individual action, and by what mechanisms are they subserved?

In cases of joint action with particularly strong and complex phenomenology such as artistic expression (e.g. in dance, theatre, music), religious experience (in cult actions), psychotherapy (in various forms of group therapy), and social-political activism, what impact does the phenomenology have on the nature of the action? For example, how, and in virtue of what features, does the phenomenology of joint action support artistic expression or how, and in virtue of what features, can the phenomenology of joint action be abused for anti-democratic purposes (cf. Pacherie 2012: 373ff. on loss of the sense of self in joint action)?

Finally, what implications does our steadily increasing involvement with technological devices both as means of joint action (e.g. when digital media are used in playing an immersive online game with a number of participants across the world) and as fellow participants of joint actions (e.g. in human-robot interaction) have for our experience of joint actions? Do these new forms of joint actions have a transformative effect on our experience and knowledge of sense of self, agency and intersubjectivity? Recent studies suggest that the sense of joint agency does not arise or is strongly reduced in interaction with non-human-like machines (Obhi & Hall 2011b, Berberian et al. 2012, Sahaï 2019), while it can be present in interaction with human-like machines (Khalighinejad et al. 2016). On what exact features of machines does it depend if interaction with them gives rise to the sense of joint agency or not? Are there further possible phenomenal differences between human-human and human-machine joint action and what are the implications of such differences in our understanding of social cognition?


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