Andy Blunden January 2007

Can an organisation have an intention?

In what way is it sensible to say that a “social subject” (such as an organisation, social movement or other collective) has an intention, or for that matter knows something (“corporate knowledge”) or wants or expects something (“the voters wanted a change”)? What sense is there in ascribing a state of mind to a collective?

We might say that “The (British) Labour Party intends to nationalize industry,” on the basis that Clause Four of the Constitution of the Labour Party, committing the Party to “common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange ... etc” remains in force. But everyone knows that long before the clause was amended in 1995, it was a “dead letter,” in just the same way that a couple’s “until death do us part” promises may become a “dead letter” even while formally still in force.

Even the leaked minutes of yesterday’s committee meeting constitute only evidence of the intention of a majority of the committee, not the intention as such – the minute may have been deceitful, the intentions of a minority may turn out to have been the decisive intentions or the committee meeting may have been inquorate. Whether the intention of a particular person or group of people constitutes the intention of a certain social subject raises other problems.

But no kind of artefact, whether written records or official documents, constitutes an intention, whether of an individual person or of some social subject. Nevertheless, artefacts can constitute the material form of intentions in another important way. To give an example, most of the delegates who voted for Clause Four at the 1918 Labour Party Conference not only voted truthfully and really intended that it should be carried out, but by enshrining it in the Labour Party constitution they placed a lever in the hands of future socialists to help force the Party to implement the socialist objective. That is, to some extent they did make the Labour Party into a social subject which intended to implement the socialist objective, and individuals joining and supporting the Party were genuinely expressing their own intention to bring about socialism of the kind envisaged by the early Labour Party.

We act out the intentions of those who have gone before all the time. All those people who designed, built and used motor cars driven by petrol-burning internal combustion engines, demanded and built the roads, and all the related infrastructure for using cars, and so on, their purposes are acted out by us today, as well as the unintended consequences. The entirety of material culture – language, industry, artwork, even our own body-forms, are the embodiment of the purposive activity of our cultural predecessors and material culture both constrains and “affords” our current activity. Purposes and intentions are transmitted to others, and become the purposes of others through the medium of material culture.

So there is some sense in saying that the Labour Party intends to implement socialism because its constitution says so ... but a stronger reason for disbelieving such a claim would be that looked at with a much broader lens, the Labour Party is a certain kind of organisation, an electoral party embedded in the constitutional processes of an old imperial power, which by its very nature is geared to Fabian-style reformism.

So social subjects, being associated with and partially constituted by certain elements of material culture (rules, possessions, discourses, human forms), are thereby afforded certain activities and restrained from others, and so by dent of the purposes of others, support and transmit certain purposes and not others. Artefacts, being dead matter and not living spirits, cannot have intentions, but transmit and “afford” the intentions of human beings through the association of people with a social subject with which the artefact is associated. People grow up and develop their intentions within a material culture which affords certain aims and inhibits others.

Political parties, self-help groups, social movements, capitalist companies, government departments and governments and states themselves, sports teams, groups of people collaborating on a short-term project, all self-evidently have intentions. These are teleological formations; they make sense only by recognition that they are for a purpose, and furthermore it is not someone else’s purpose of which they are instruments, but their own purposes. All these social subjects are constituted by a certain combination of artefacts, individual psyches and a system of human activity. The question is that if intentions can only be found in the psyche of the individual participants, how is it that the social subject can have an intention? – if we accept that artefacts cannot have intentions, just as activities can demonstrate or fulfil intentions, but cannot themselves sensibly be described as having intentions.

A first guess at the answer to this conundrum might be to suppose that a group of people has an intention if it is an intention shared by all the individuals who belong to the group. This would be like understanding the statement: “women want access to the same jobs as men” to refer to all women or “the Liberal Party wants to reduce the rights of employees” to mean all members of the Liberal Party, and that the word “all” is implicit if not explicit.

It would be a big mistake to identify the intentions of a group with the intentions of all of its participating individuals, because such a conception limits the concept of social group to an ‘abstract general’ category. The aims or some members of a collective are far more decisive in relation to the group’s intention as a whole than that of others. The effect of the reduction of group to individual properties can only be to invert the relation, so that the social group having an intention means nothing more than the abstract collection of all those individuals who have the relevant intention. The very concept of “social group” is thereby limited to a sociological category, all those individuals having this or that attribute (in this case an intention), and the idea of a social group as some system of activity, let alone a self-conscious system of activity is excluded. Such an abstract general collection (“Employment category IV-B” or something) cannot have an intention or any other collective attribute since it has no existence other than its individual members, it has no “mind of its own.”

It would also be a mistake to divine an intention simply from the activity of a group. A strike may bring about the bankruptcy of a company, but may be far from the intentions of the strikers and it cannot be said that the strike intended to bankrupt the company, even if such a result was inevitable and publicly proven to be so, if none of the strikers had that intention. Bringing about unintended consequences is not to have an intention. “Intention” is a subjective actiiity.

So neither the documented constitution of a party, the actual effects (“objective meaning"?) of its activity nor the intentions of its members alone constitute the intention of a party, but self-evidently some combination of these does constitute the intention of a party. For example, many organisations will require that new members acquaint themselves with the group’s aims and rules and agree to them at the time of joining. In this way, an organisation seeks to ensure that the aims of all its members coincide with the aims of the organisation. Still, unless the aims of the individual and that of the organisation are mediated by the activity of the individual within the organised division of labour of the whole organisation, such a coincidence may be worthless. For example, many people subscribe to organisations nowadays solely to contribute money to professional lobbyists or to purchase a service. In such a case, with no active involvement of ‘members’, there can be no sense in speaking of the aims of the organisation as such; the full-time officials may be conceived of as a social subject with intentions, but the broad membership of the organisation are no more than a subject ‘in-itself’, much like ‘Liberal voters’, members of an abstract general category.

Not only is it necessary that the aims of an organisation itself and its members be mediated by the activity of the members, it is also necessary that the purposive activity of the members be mediated by the organisation’s own principles; otherwise, we may have an ‘arena of struggle’ in which individuals pursue their own ends, but not a social subject having a purpose.

In general it is likely that there will always be a degree of dissonance between the culture, activity and consciousness of a group, but any ‘teleological formation’ can be described as a social subject, having an intention, on the basis of whatever degree of coincidence there is between the three aspects of its subjectivity.

But there is another aspect to this problem which puts the boot on the other foot, so to speak. No intention can be manifested by an individual, or for that matter even the very capacity for intention (I am here talking of a higher psychological function, rather than an elementary reflex) unless that intention, and that capacity to form intentions, had previously existed in the form of external semiotic activity, i.e., in the form of social subjectivity. This is the principle first enunciated by Fichte in 1799 ["Since what is required here is an object, it must be given in sensation, and in outer, not inner, sensation; for all inner sensation arises only through the reproduction of outer sensation"] and posited as a principle of psychology by Vygotsky in the 1920s: “the higher mental functions are constructed initially as external forms of behaviour and depend on an external sign” and that every higher psychological function is a “social method of behaviour applied to one’s self.” [LSV CW v. 6 p. 53]

In other words, even though collective or group intention depends upon and can only exist through individual, psychological intention, conversely, inner, psychic intention can arise only on the basis of intentions first existing between people by means of more elementary psychological functions operative in the social relations in which an individual is involved.

For example, a women’s emancipation movement could only arise on the basis of millions of women resisting in the most elementary way, the various forms of maltreatment at the hands of men, exclusion from social life and other forms of disrespect and oppression, but without a concept of women’s liberation. But the higher mental functions which are implicit in the various forms of struggle for women’s liberation are today possible only because of the successive waves of feminism which have translated those elementary strivings into concepts embodied in ‘teleological social formations’.

Thus participation in or interaction with social subjects is the means by which individuals appropriate the aims of a social subject and internalise them in forms of self-control, such as intention. Intentions first make themselves real in forms of collaboration and conflict between people, giving definite form to the elementary strivings of individuals and becoming their intentions.