What do We Mean by “We”?

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The analytic philosophy form of the problem of collective intentionality originated with the claim that individual statements of the form “I intend x” cannot add up to a “we intend x” statement. Analytic philosophers from Wilfrid Sellars on have pursued a strategy that construes these sentences as individual tellings of statements whose form is collective. The point of the strategy is to avoid the problematic idea of a real collective subject. This approach creates unusual epistemic problems. Although“telling” of collective intentions is parallel to the expression of individual intention, one can be deceived about them. I suggest that none of the supposed evidence could solve the problem of deception, because there is no fact of the relevant kind to be deceived about. I also argue that this strategy is unnecessary. Statements like Joe Namath’s “guarantee” of victory in the Superbowl are model non-collective statements which are interchangeable with many supposed collective statements. Yet, no novel mode of “telling” and nothing epistemically anomalous is required by this statement. The statement is merely an individual statement conditional on a variety of facts, which happen to include facts about other people, whose only commitments are epistemic. Sellars’s problem structure is then itself critiqued to suggest that it confuses a grammatical problem with a factual-theoretical problem about the reality of collectivities and the cognitive character of intention attributions, and further confuses collective intentionality with a problem about the nature of morality.

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ProtoSociology, v. 18/19, p. 139-162