A Puzzle about Plural Pronouns

Ishani and I have been talking about an odd usage of “we” that seems to raise interesting philosophical issues. I’ll just set up the puzzle today, and hopefully over the week there will be some attempts to solve the issue.

It’s common to say that “we” is a first-person plural pronoun. It’s also common to use “we” when referring to the activities of a group that, strictly speaking, you’re not part of. So, when asked about Geelong’s latest game, I might say something like “We were three goals down at half time, but we played well in the second half and won by ten points.” Now there’s a group of 22 guys who, in the example, played well in the second half. But I’m not one of them. I’m too old, too unfit, too useless and, crucially, not a registered player for the club. What’s going on in cases like this?

The easiest thing to say is that this is simply a mistaken use of language. But I don’t think that will do. For one thing, it’s simply too widespread a mistake to be written off so easily. In some sense, a usage that widespread can’t be simply mistaken. For another, the usage shows some degree of systematicity, the kind of systematicity that we as philosophers/semanticists should be in the business of explaining. We’ll see some of the respects of systematicity as we go along, but for now let me note just two of them. The first is that it’s very hard to have this kind of usage for first-person pronouns. (There are exceptions, but this is the rule.) So (1) is fine, but (2) is marked.

(1) We played well in the second half.
(2) *I played well in the second half.

The other is that there aren’t that many cases where we can say We did X to mean that some group of which you’re particularly fond did X. So it is possible to say it about (most) liked sporting teams, but not about, say, your favourite restaurant. No matter how much you like Le Rat, if you’re simply a fan (rather than an employee) you can’t say

(3) *We got three stars from Bruni in the Times.

Similarly, it is possible to say We did X to mean that a political group you affiliate with did X, but not a rock band you are a fan of. So if you’re a fan and supporter of Peter Garrett both as a rock star and a politician, and Garrett has a number 1 single and an 8 point lead in the polls, then (4) could be permissible, but (5) seems considerably more marked.

(4) We have an 8 point lead in the polls.
(5) *We have a number 1 single.

So it looks like there is something interesting to explain about the pattern of usage here. In fact, there seem to be two distinct questions to ask.

The first of these we might call the truthmaker question. That is, what relation must hold between the speaker and the group whose actions constituted X happening for We did X to be true? (Or, if you don’t think these utterances are generally true, for it to be appropriate.)

The second of these we might call the semantic question. Say that we settle the truthmaker question by saying that the speaker S has to stand in some distinctive relation R to the group G that did X for We did X to be true. There remains a question about how We did X comes to have those truth conditions.

It could be that we picks out the group G. That would be an odd way for we to behave, since the speaker isn’t among the G. Call this result a kind of deferred ostension.

Or it could be that did X picks out a property that can be applied to a larger group than those that directly did X. So even if 22 guys on a field in Geelong won the game, won in We won could pick out a property that’s instantiated by a larger group, perhaps the group of all Geelong’s supporters. Call this result a kind of deferred predication.

The semantic question then is whether examples like (1) and (4) involve deferred predication or deferred ostension.

The truthmaker and semantic questions are related, we think, and hopefully by the end of the week we’ll have answers to them.

11 Replies to “A Puzzle about Plural Pronouns”

  1. This reminded me of the following comedy clip from the excellent Mitchell and Webb, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xN1WN0YMWZU which might even shed some light on the issue. It seems to me that there are groups that you merely like, or perhaps patronise, such as rock groups and restaurants, where you can’t really claim any hand in their success, although even there it would seem that if your favourite group won an award you might feel something more than if your favourite restaurant did. Then there are groupings which you could genuinely claim to be part of. A football club, rather than just a team can win a title, and presumeably this means the coaches get medals, the manager obviously, the groundskeeper, and we can make our way eventually to the fans, who arguably contribute to a team’s success. I think this use of ‘we’ can be quite reasonable. Of course as the comedy sketch shows, there are fans, and there are fans. the guy from miles away who has never been to a match, might be pushing it. I guess the same can go for “we won the election”, there might be a difference between a campaigner and a mere supporter. There the issue of representation comes in an complicates things further perhaps. Anyway as far as the truthmaker question goes, it must be some issue of contribution to a relevant degree, which a football suporter has, but perhaps a restaurant patron does not. A football team needs support to win a league, but a chef does not necessarily depend on that many customers to win a chef award. Likewise for a purely individual event such as wimbledon or perhaps the ‘golden boot award’ in football for the most goals scored by an individual you don’t see much use of ‘we’, although with wimbledon you might see the national issue creeping in (a great day for the spanish etc.)

    I’m really not sure what to say about the semantic question though.

  2. Is this that mysterious? People don’t just like football teams and political parties, they identify with them. When this feeling of identification is considered normal, a person’s audience will let them get away with saying “we.”

    The real evidence for this isn’t the way people identify with political parties, but the way they identify with nations. When there is a popular war, it is perfectly natural to say things like “We were victorious at the Battle of the Bulge.”

    In the aesthetics literature, there is a lot of discussion of what it means to identify with a character in a story. There are problems with saying that you feel the emotions of the character. Noel Carrol suggests that it is a moral matter. To identify with a character is to say that it is just or right for the character to prevail in her struggle. This idea transfers well over into the sort of group identification that you see with nations and football teams.

    I don’t know if it makes much sense to talk about truth makers here. Is it correct to identify yourself with your nation? Is it right for a citizen of a democracy and not a citizen of Nazi Germany? If you are thinking simply in terms of “correct” identification, you might say yes. But I bet the justice of a government has about zero impact on whether people feel nationalistic identification.

  3. Another good example: Family identification. Parents of young children say “we” all the time about their children’s activities. “We’re into dinosaurs now.” People will also say we about their ancestors. “We came over in the 19th century from Ireland.”

    Haven’t sociologists covered the ins and outs of identification and identity pretty thoroughly?

  4. That’s interesting. The deferred predication route sounds quite plausible. There is a question of whether fans of a team are an extra man on the field. It could be that one thinks that the team would not have won without the support so in effect the fans were part of the we who won. Maybe the same could be said about the politician case. In contrast, restaurants could still do the same food without the fans, maybe?

    I wonder if the speaker meaning/sentence meaning distinction could do some work here. It could be thought that the sentence ‘we played well’ is literally false. But, it would be uncharitable to take the speaker to say something so obviously false. So, we can interpret his utterance to mean something that would be playing by the rules of conversation – like that his favourite team played well. Maybe this is an implicature not used in the restaurant talk and so not really recognised (even though I wonder whether real foodies talk in that way).

  5. I don’t know what to say about the two questions. It’s fairly clear what’s going on psychologically in the speaker, however: it’s a process of identification with a group. In fact there is research that shows that speakers are more likely to use “we” language when their team has won, and they drop off to “they” language when the team loses. So maybe there is some Gricean story to tell here.

    An important related point is how philosophers are always going on about “our” intuitions and what “we” would say or can take seriously. An old but very good essay on this is by Michael Forster, “‘We’ in Modern Philosophy” in Faith and Logic: Oxford Essays in Philosophical Theology ed. Basil Mitchell 1957.

  6. An example, and then some thoughts. I once had a conversation with a friend from the Pacific Northwest about how Southerners feel about the American Civil War. For a Southerner, it’s “we lost.” My friend said that he had no particular opinions about the Civil War except that “we won.” (This is true of white Southerners, anyway. I don’t know how black Southerners feel, and it would be interesting to find out.)

    Anyway: It is fairly easy to answer your questions for cases with the following structure:
    “We Fs are G.” As in (to borrow from Rorty), “We pragmatists are political not metaphysical.” Here, the group picked out by ‘we’ is the Fs and the claim is true just in case the speaker is an F. The trouble is that in many of the interesting cases you mention, there is no obvious set of Fs, and what seems to be going on is that the speaker is, by saying ‘we’, including themselves in some nebulous group, perhaps performatively.

    Part of the question, then, is why there are such groups for sports teams but not for restaurants. I’m very doubtful that this is a semantic question.

    In any case, it seems fallacious to appeal to the group of people who “directly did X”. After all, a player who wasn’t on the field can correctly say, “We just scored a goal.” Similarly, we are at war in Iraq, though most of “us” are here in America.

  7. Also, presumably the reason that you can say (1) but not (2) is that the predicates typically invoked in this use of ‘we’ do not distribute. E.g. “We Native Americans are a vanishing race” not “I, a Native American, am a vanishing race.” And (less securely) presumably the reason that non-distributing predicates are invoked in this use of ‘we’ is that (i) the speaker wishes to identify with the group, so cites properties of the group in the first person, and (ii) there are no (or few) distributing predicates for which her statement would remain true.

  8. Hi Brian,

    Interesting question. I have been wondering about a similar phenomenon with ‘we’ and tense. Imagine a scientist at a convention discussing a long-lasting theory. Speaking of the scientific community, he says, “We believed the theory of evolution back in the 1800s and we believe it now.” Say you are a presentist and think no scientist from the 1800s exists (though they existed). And say you have a theory where pronouns like ‘we’ get their reference from contextually salient features of the conversation/speaker/etc. The sentence seems felicitous, and the ‘we’ seems like it should have the same meaning throughout. But what does it refer to? Seems like another example of deferred ostension—but ostension to what? It’d be nice if there were another way to explain the broad ‘we’.

  9. It seems to me that identification is only one perspective, and representation is the other. So I don’t need to identify with my national soccer team but would nonetheless be justified in saying “we won”. Because the teams represents the nation of which I am a part.
    In sports representation of this kind is clearly well known and structured, usually with geographic areas. I can say “we won” about my local club or the team of my university or whatever.
    I think one has to differentiate between identification: that may be an arbitrary relation between speaker and the object she identifies with, the sole connection consisting in the want to identify; and representation as an non arbitrary relation with some real connection as shown above and in the examples by the commentators above: geographical, ethnical (war), familial …

  10. Thanks for this post and the newer one, I found them very interesting.

    Here are some thoughts about what existing theories of indexical (in particular, pronouns) might say about this.

    The theory advanced by Nunberg (1993), who of course is famous for this kind of example and also for the ham-sandwich kind you discuss in the other post, the semantics of indexicals falls into three components. First, there is a deictic element which picks out what Nunberg calls the index. The index is not what is contributed to the interpretation (/proposition expressed/ what is said or what have you); Nunberg reserves referent for that. Secondly, there is a classificatory compononent which specifies what kind of thing any referent must be (animity, gender, perhaps other things). Thirdly, there is a relational component which specifies a relation which a referent must stand in to the index.

    In the case of we, the index is the speaker, but the referent can be anything from a group of people to a property. In the case where the referent is a property, the relational component specifies that the speaker must instantiate the property in question. In the case, where the referent is a group of people, the relational component specifies that the speaker must be a member of the group.

    So, it actually looks like Nunberg’s story won’t handle the cases you bring up. There seems to be no property instantiated by the speaker, which we could select as referent to make sense of (1). Nor is the speaker a member of any relevant group of people which could be referred to, as you say. Quite interesting that this doesn’t work, since the examples at first glance look a lot like Nunberg’s own. I have been working on this lately, and I actually had the thought that it just seems too strong to require that the speaker instantiate the property in question. Incidentally, Nunberg does the same for ‘I’, so in the famous condemned prisoner’s utterance of, “I’m traditionally allowed to order whatever I like for my last meal”, the utterer must be a condemned prisoner, which seems too strong.

    Another kind of theory is the presuppositional theory of pronoun features, such as the one found in Heim & Kratzer’s (1998) textbook. Briefly, here the idea would be that when you utter we, you thereby generate the presupposition that the referent of the pronoun (i) includes the speaker, (ii) is a plurality. So, again, this seems to fail for the cases at hand, since the speaker is not a member of the group referred to in (1), i.e. the team. However, theorists who defend this kind of view usually argue that one can succeed in referring to objects who fail to satisfy the features if one is willing to present oneself as presupposing that they do. So, regarding (1), one might say that the speaker presents herself as presupposing that she is a member of the team. This idea looks pretty good to me. Perhaps this is exactly what we are doing when we talk as in (1). We kind of present a presupposition that, even though everyone knows it is false, conveys something about how we feel about the referent, i.e. in this case, affection, rapport or attachement.

    Definitely worth thinking more about. Thanks again.

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