Get access

Cognitive Primitives of Collective Intentions: Linguistic Evidence of Our Mental Ontology


  • We thank Jason Alexander, Christian List, David McCarthy, Tom Smith, Robert Sugden and two anonymous reviewers of this journal for helpful input and are further grateful to the organizers and audiences of Perspectives on We-Thinking in Trento, Nudge: Joint Action Workshop in Warwick, the Choice Group at the London School of Economics, and the members of the 2009-10 Fellows' Reading Group at the Center for History and Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh, where preliminary versions of this material were presented. Gold's research was supported by an award from the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland. During the revisions to this article, Harbour was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council of the United Kingdom, via Project inline image (Atomic Linguistic Elements of Phi), Sub-Project inline image (We And We-intentions), grant AH/G019274/1.

Natalie Gold, Department of Philosophy, King's College London, Strand, London, WC2R 2LS, UK; Daniel Harbour, Department of Linguistics (SLLF), Queen Mary, Mile End Road, London E1 4NS, UK.;


Theories of collective intentions must distinguish genuinely collective intentions from coincidentally harmonized ones. Two apparently equally apt ways of doing so are the ‘neo-reductionism’ of Bacharach (2006) and Gold and Sugden (2007a) and the ‘non-reductionism’ of Searle (1990, 1995). Here, we present findings from theoretical linguistics that show that we is not a cognitive primitive, but is composed of notions of I and grouphood. The ramifications of this finding on the structure both of grammatical and lexical systems suggests that an understanding of collective intentionality does not require a primitive we-intention, but the notion of grouphood implicit in team reasoning, coupled with the individual concept I. This, we argue, supports neo-reductionism but poses difficulties for non-reductionism.