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Question Session 05

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This section introduces the notion of an aggregate subject and the fundamental question about them:

How can there be aggregate subjects?

Perhaps the best understood cases of aggregate subjects are animals like the Portuguese man o' war (physalia physalis), which is an animal comprised of animals. In this case, the aggregate subject exists because its component subjects are biomechanically joined. But that would be a rare extreme for humans.

One way of answering this question invokes Pettit (2014)’s idea about self-representing agents. Roughly, if several individuals each represent themselves as components of an aggregate subject (Pettit says ‘group agent’) and if this causes each of them to act as if they were components of an aggregate subject, then they will constitute one.

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aggregate subject : A subject whose proper parts are themselves subjects. A paradigm example would be a Portuguese man o' war (Physalia physalis), which is an animal that can swim and eat and whose swimming and eating is not simply a matter of the swimming or eating of its constituent animals. Distinct from, but sometimes confused with, a plural subject.


Bratman, M. E. (2014). Shared agency: A planning theory of acting together. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from
Dennett, D. C. (1987). The intentional stance. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Gold, N., & Sugden, R. (2007). Collective intentions and team agency. Journal of Philosophy, 104(3), 109–137.
Helm, B. W. (2008). Plural agents. Nous, 42(1), 17–49.
Kutz, C. (2000). Acting together. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 61(1), 1–31.
Pettit, P. (2014). Group Agents are Not Expressive, Pragmatic or Theoretical Fictions. Erkenntnis, 79(9), 1641–1662.