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.
Posted by Brian Weatherson in Uncategorized