Stanford philosopher Michael Bratman recognized for his work on human behavior

Stanford philosopher MICHAEL BRATMAN has been honored for his work on the basic forms of human social interactions and cooperation.

Michael Bartman
Michael Bratman (Steve Castillo)

Bratman, the U. G. and Abbie Birch Durfee Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, was one of two scholars to receive the 2019 Dr. Martin R. Lebowitz and Eve Lewellis Lebowitz Prize for Philosophical Achievement and Contribution. Philosopher Margaret Gilbert from UC-Irvine shared the prize.

“Both professors Bratman and Gilbert are accomplished authors at the apex of their field,” according to an announcement by the American Philosophical Association and the Phi Beta Kappa Society. “They caught the attention of the panel for the 2019 Lebowitz Prize with their topic, ‘What is it to Act Together?’ Their proposed dialogue focuses on their respective views of the philosophical underpinnings of how two or more individuals come together in a collaborative effort.”

The Lebowitz Prize, established in 2012, is awarded to two philosophers who hold contrasting views on a chosen topic of current interest in philosophy. They present their views and engage in a dialogue at an annual Lebowitz symposium, which will be held in April 2020 in San Francisco.

“This is the Platonic form of what this prize should be about, and I am so pleased that it has been awarded so appropriately,” said Stanford philosopher R. LANIER ANDERSON, senior associate dean for humanities and arts. “Bratman and Gilbert have, over a stretch of many years, carried out an ongoing debate about a genuinely deep and important question, where the disagreement illuminated the issue and the parties stayed focused on the advance of understanding, rather than ‘scoring points.’ Too few debates on our field have these virtues, and it is nice to see the prize awarded in a way that so clearly advances its proper spirit.”

Bratman wrote about his philosophical work and findings in the 2014 book Shared Agency: A Planning Theory of Acting Together. His main claim is that the key ingredients in human shared activity are the intention to do something together, combined with the interlocking and intended meshing of plans. He outlined these ideas in his 2013 talk at the Cognitive Science Society.

“The topic of what is involved in our acting together is very important,” Bratman said. “It extends way beyond philosophy, so I’m happy that this idea and discussion is getting attention.”

Bratman has been working on the topic of shared agency for almost 30 years. He has also written about practical reason and moral responsibility. His most recent book, Planning, Time, and Self-Governance, discusses how people’s ability to make rational plans contributes to their sense of personal freedom and autonomy.

“It’s an honor,” Bratman said of the prize. “What is important are the ideas, and it’s good that there will be an open public discussion about them because of this prize.”