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The Question

Getting a pre-theoretical handle on joint action is best done by contrasting joint actions with actions that are merely individual but occur in parallel.

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In considering joint action from a philosophical point of view we face a counterpart to the The Problem of Action:

What distinguishes doing something jointly with another person from acting in parallel with them but merely side by side? (I’ll call this The Problem of Joint Action)

Here is a recent, more careful (if overly jargoned) formulation of the Problem:

‘When we act together [...] we are not each simply acting in light of expectations of the actions of others while knowing that those actions of others depend on their expectations of our actions. [...] merely publicly walking alongside each other on a crowded sidewalk without colliding, while involving complex forms of mutual responsiveness, is not yet walking together in a shared intentional way. Can we articulate conditions that go beyond such strategic interaction and are sufficient for and illuminating of our acting together?’ (Bratman, 2014, pp. 1--2)

After this section, you should understand what The Problem of Joint Action is. But is it really a problem?

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joint action : Many of the things we do are, or could be, done with others. Mundane examples favoured by philosophers include painting a house together (Bratman, 1992), lifting a heavy sofa together (Velleman, 1997), preparing a hollandaise sauce together (Searle, 1990), going to Chicago together (Kutz, 2000), and walking together (Gilbert, 1990). These examples are supposed to be paradigm cases of a class of phenomena we shall call ‘joint actions’.
Researchers have used a variety of labels including ‘joint action’ (Brooks, 1981; Sebanz, Bekkering, & Knoblich, 2006; Knoblich, Butterfill, & Sebanz, 2011; Tollefsen, 2005; Pettit & Schweikard, 2006; Carpenter, 2009; Pacherie, 2010; Brownell, 2011; Sacheli, Arcangeli, & Paulesu, 2018; Meyer, Wel, & Hunnius, 2013), ‘social action’ (Tuomela & Miller, 1985), ‘collective action’ (Searle, 1990; Gilbert, 2010), ‘joint activity’ (Baier, 1997), ‘acting together’ (Tuomela, 2000), ‘shared intentional activity’ (Bratman, 1997), ‘plural action’ (Schmid, 2008), ‘joint agency’ (Pacherie, 2013), ‘small scale shared agency’ (Bratman, 2014), ‘intentional joint action’ (Blomberg, 2016), ‘collective intentional behavior’ (Ludwig, 2016), and ‘collective activity’ (Longworth, 2019).
We leave open whether these are all labels for a single phenomenon or whether different researchers are targeting different things. As we use ‘joint action’, the term applies to everything any of these labels applies to.
problem : a question that is difficult to answer.
The Problem of Action : What distinguishes your actions from things that merely happen to you? (According to Frankfurt (1978, p. 157), ‘The problem of action is to explicate the contrast between what an agent does and what merely happens to him.’)
The Problem of Joint Action : What distinguishes doing something jointly with another person from acting in parallel with them but merely side by side?


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