Brexit and the fallacy of collective intentionality

There’s a big philosophical problem lying at the very heart of all this Brexit rhetoric. It concerns statements such as ‘The British people want / believe / have decided that…’. Such statements are at best vacuous, at worst malicious attempts to curtail serious discussion of very complex situations.

In philosophy, the term ‘intention state’ refers to the relationship between a thinking and feeling subject, a person, and the object or state of affairs that they, in some way, have a thought about or an emotional response towards. At one level this is reasonably straight forward. For example, whilst I may hold a false belief that the Earth is flat, it is at least reasonably easy for me, if challenged, to construct some argument to defend my belief, and for my challenger to point out the errors of my judgement. Both the subject (me) and my intentional object (the Earth) are sufficiently clear and capable of being discussed with the minimum of ambiguity. At the very least my challenger and me can agree that we talking about the same subject and object, about the same intentional relationship.

It is an all together different situation when it comes to ‘collective intentionality’. This term is defined by the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy as “The idea that a collective can be the bearer of intentional states such as belief and intention”, and by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as “the power of minds to be jointly directed at objects, states of affairs, goals or values.” There are problems, serious problems, here regarding clarity of both subject and object. Both are collectives, yet are referred to and discussed in singular terms. Even if the entire membership of a particular collective, say the British people, had the same belief, say that membership of the EU was a bad thing, if interviewed in any depth it would soon become clear that the nature of their belief would be different in each case. It would have to be. They are all individual minds. And whilst I would resist any attempt to overstate our individualism, and believe strongly that our thinking is, to a large degree, informed and shaped by those people we interact with, I would still argue that our individual thoughts are the result of a unique process, a unique set of circumstances.

This means that even in the impossible situation described above, where a defined collective all believe that a certain state of affairs is the case, when examined closely the relationship in each particular case will be shown to be different. And coming back to the real world for a minute, no collective is ever of the same mind about the same object. Both collective subject and collective object are inevitably multiple – loose groups of different members that, at best, are held together by a common thread of description. A thread that unravels as soon as it is examined closely. So any statement with the form ‘the British people want / believe / have decided that…’ is actually devoid of any meaning other than the most simplified of generalisations. Such generalisations can be accepted as convenient terms in a general discuss, but are totally inappropriate when trying to resolve any issue with even a modicum of complexity. Such generalisations mask the complexity of the real world that gave birth to them.

A more malicious interpretation of the use of such statements is that they are used to intimidate and bully people of different opinions into believing that they are out of step with the dominant narrative and that they should therefore step into line and accept the majority view. This interpretation would suggest an attempt to deliberately curtail debate and dominate the political landscape; to deliberately hide the intrinsic complexity of social and political life under a warm cosy duvet of simplicity.

These problems also extend to such phrases as ‘a good deal for Britain’. For all the reasons stated, there can not be an objective ‘good deal for Britain’ that every rational subject, if using their power of reason correctly, can identify with. What constitutes ‘a good deal’ will, to varying degrees, be different for everyone. It will relate to an individual subject’s world view and to the meaning and purpose that they assign to life. It will be ‘a deal’ that supports or enhances that view. At best, because we all partake of a shared world view or narrative to some degree, this ‘good deal’ will relate to our differing narratives – those of the extreme nationalist, the neo-liberal business person, or the green oriented socialist for example. I strongly suspect that my notion of ‘a good deal’ will be quite different to that of Jacob Rees-Mogg. And whilst I would passionately argue for mine rather than his, these views are ultimately incommensurable; the reference points against which they are judged are different. The real issue concerns our differing world views.

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