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Advancing the ‘We’ Through Narrative

Abstract

Narrative is rarely mentioned in philosophical discussions of collective intentionality and group identity despite the fact that narratives are often thought important for the formation of action intentions and self-identity in individuals. We argue that the concept of the ‘we-narrative’ can solve several problems in regard to defining the status of the we. It provides the typical format for the attribution of joint agency; it contributes to the formation of group identity; and it generates group stability.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Thus, “a joint intention can, upon analysis, be said to consist of the participants’ mutually known we-intentions…. In the joint intention to perform a joint action X, it is precisely the content of the intention that is shared, viz., the content of doing X jointly is shared. Each agent tokens this content, and because a necessarily act-relational intention is involved this amounts to his intention to perform his part or share of X” (Tuomela 2005, 330).

  2. 2.

    It’s not clear that we would need a shared intention to communicate in order to get the communication started. If you and I are potential communicators (e.g., we belong to a community that speaks English), we can start communicating and out of this practice we can form a ‘we’ with the intention to do some joint action. As potential communicators, you and I are not necessarily a ‘we’, nor do we need more than a shared background set of practices and individual intentions to speak and to be heard. In any case, even if I (or you) am (are) pre-reflectively aware of our potential to communicate (and even if that were a necessity to start the communication), it’s not clear how this adds up to a plural self-awareness rather than a plurality of individual self-awarenesses. For other problems with Schmid’s concept of a plural pre-reflective self-awareness, see Szanto (2014); Stapleton and Froese (2015); and Salice et al. (this issue).

  3. 3.

    Ricoeur (1988, 246 ff) suggests that communities, as well as individuals, have narrative identities. ‘The notion of narrative identity also indicates its fruitfulness in that it can be applied to a community as well as to an individual. We can speak of the self-constancy of a community, just as we spoke of it as applied to an individual subject. Individual and community are constituted in their identity by taking up narratives that become for them their actual history’ (247). Importantly, Ricoeur notes that narrative identity is not ‘a stable and seamless identity’ – it is always possible to tell different (or even opposed) narratives about the same events – which may be a dialogue between history of fact and fiction. Also, narrative identity ‘does not exhaust the question of self-constancy’ (249).

  4. 4.

    This doesn’t mean that the other two forms of intention and their differing timescales are irrelevant. Asking what happens on all three scales may provide a way to talk about a dynamics of the collective we, since social interactions among participants involve all three timescales. Interactional dynamics that include relations to external environmental elements, for example, can involve entrainment, which can be expressed in a set of attentional dynamics. Collective attentional processes emerge out of such entrainment processes. Evidence for this can be found in a study of entrainment in the dynamics of human collective attention. Fusaroli et al. (2015), for example, examined the content and patterns of hundreds of thousands of Twitter messages during 2012 US presidential debates, showing that collective social behavior co-varies across all timescales in response to debate events.

  5. 5.

    In this paper we have not considered the idea that narratives often operate in an implicit way, shaping the way that we see and understand the world. We don’t deny that narratives can operate in this way, but it would take us beyond the scope of this paper to develop the point. See Carr (1986b) and Gallagher and Hutto (2008) for some discussion. We thank one of the reviewers for raising this issue. .

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Acknowledgements

SG’s research is supported by the Humboldt Foundation’s Anneliese Maier Research Award (2012–17).

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Correspondence to Shaun Gallagher.

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Gallagher, S., Tollefsen, D. Advancing the ‘We’ Through Narrative. Topoi 38, 211–219 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11245-017-9452-1

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Keywords

  • Narrative
  • Joint agency
  • Identity
  • Stability
  • Critical theory