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Other Than Whom?

Diego Marconi
p. 13-19


'Noi' è un indicale impuro: il suo contenuto, e quindi la sua estensione, non sono fissati in maniera automatica dalle circostanze dell'enunciazione (come nel caso di 'io'), ma dipendono dalle intenzioni del parlante, che non sono sempre ovvie. Correlativamente, variano – in modo altrettanto opaco – il contenuto e l'estensione di "gli altri". Questa elasticità viene spesso sfruttata per rendere plausibile una caratterizzazione positiva di una qualche presunta identità collettiva o comunitaria, a cui contrapporre, implicitamente o esplicitamente, un'alterità caratterizzata negativamente. Tipicamente, un'asserzione della forma "Noi siamo..." (amanti della pace, tolleranti, solidali, ecc.) viene resa plausibile inducendo l'uditorio a interpretare 'noi' come riferito a chi parla e ai presenti, ma poi, quando si caratterizzano "gli altri", il riferimento di 'noi' è tacitamente esteso a una comunità molto più vasta, che a questo modo eredita - indebitamente e senza alcuna plausibilità - l'iniziale caratterizzazione positiva. Un uso più preciso e trasparente di 'noi' e 'gli altri' non comporta di per sé una condanna meno severa delle azioni e comportamenti che sono oggetto di biasimo, ma tende a dissolvere la sua valenza identitaria: le valutazioni positive e negative non sarebbero più associate a mal definite identità collettive, ma sarebbero riferite a chi ne è effettivamente responsabile.

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Testo integrale

1. “We” as an indexical

  • 1 Here as well as just below I hint at the circumstances in which this paper was first read, i.e. a c (...)
  • 2 They are sometimes made explicit by an apposition, as in “we Italians”, “we analytic philosophers”, (...)

1The pronoun “we” is an indexical expression, like “I”, i.e. an expression whose reference depends on context: it may be different in different contexts. However, whereas “I” is a pure indexical “we” is not: the linguistic meaning of “we” (what is usually called its character, Kaplan 1979) does not uniquely determine its reference in each context. When a speaker uses a sentence in which “I” occurs, e.g. by uttering “I am hungry”, “I” refers, and cannot but refer to the speaker herself, whatever her intentions. By contrast, “we”’s character only determines that a use of “we” refers to some collective body that the speaker believes to be a member of; it does not determine which collective body exactly the speaker refers to. If in the present context1 I utter a sentence in which “we” occurs I may be referring to people in this room, or to Italians, or to Europeans, or to human beings; I may also be referring to stamp collectors, to former students of my high school, to analytic philosophers, to people that are older than 60, and so forth, as the reference of “we” need not include the interlocutors of the utterance or a subset of them (it is not required that at least some of you be among us, as uttered by me). No use of “we” is completely disambiguated by its context of utterance, given the expression’s linguistic meaning. Both the context and background knowledge are often of help in framing referential hypotheses: for example, if I now said “We are grateful to Massimo for this invitation” it would be definitely unlikely that you took “we” to refer to stamp collectors, whereas it would be natural for you to assume that I am referring to people invited to this conference. But in the last analysis, the speaker’s intentions are always crucial in determining the reference of “we”, for each individual use of the expression. And intentions are not always made explicit2.

2Such relative indeterminacy of the reference of “we” reverberates on the reference of “the others”, as the others are those that we are not. If we are the Italians, the others are the non-Italians; if we are the analytic philosophers, the others are the non-analytic philosophers, and so on. The analytic philosophers example highlights that the extension of “the others” may or may not not be the Boolean complement of the extension of “we” (if it had to be, then in this case “the others” would refer to whomever is not an analytic philosopher: plumbers, Wall Street bankers, etc., provided they are not analytic philosophers as well). Pragmatic mechanisms may restrict the reference of “the others”, though always based on the implicit reference of “we”. Thus “the others” inherits the partial indeterminacy of the reference of “we”.

3Given such indeterminacy, it obviously follows that whether we have or lack the features we ascribe to ourselves by saying “We are thus-and-so” depends on how the reference of “we” is fixed; and similarly for the features we ascribe to the others. If I say: “We are going through a serious political crisis” having in mind the Italians, I say something true (or so I believe); whereas if I have the Europeans in mind the truth of what I say is at least doubtful, and if I intend to be talking about the stamp collectors, what I say is rather bizarre and presumably false.

2. The “we” rhetoric

4Now, it seems to me that many characterizations of group identity by way of assertions of the form “We are thus-and-so” rhetorically exploit the indeterminacy of the reference of “we”: they make themselves plausible thanks to such indeterminacy. Take an assertion such as “We are tolerant (the others are not)”. Suppose we are clear about what “tolerant” means in this context (though we usually aren’t). The assertion will be regarded as plausibly true. Why? Perhaps because the speaker’s interlocutors take “we” to refer to themselves and their friends, and believe that they and their friends are tolerant people. However, the speaker intended to be referring to the Europeans (or the Western Europeans). If this had been made explicit we might have had a few additional doubts, in the light of both European history and a row of recent episodes in several European countries. But it was not made explicit; thanks to which the speaker has earned some prima facie consensus, a certain rhetorical edge.

5Of course, the speaker’s assertion might not have been as indeterminate as that. He might have said: “In Western Europe, thanks to certain historical vicissitudes, many individuals endorse the value of tolerance and there are institutes, such as religious freedom, that both instantiate and promote that value”. A plausible, if somewhat platitudinous assertion; nothing to be compared with the rhetorical efficacy of “We are tolerant”. And what about the others? Is it true that many non-Europeans do not endorse the value of tolerance, or reject it outright? Many Canadians, for example? Many Brasilians? Many Mexicans? Hard to say. Though there may be geopolitical situations where tolerance is not widely recognized or endorsed, one should at least name such situations to be saying anything remotely plausibile, or even just evaluable.

6All this can be read as criticism of the most superficial and degraded aspects of identitarian rhetoric; in addition, it serves as an introduction to the issue I would like to raise. In public debate as well as in certain philosophical quarters, there is talk of the relation among different ethnic groups or different cultures coexisting within one public space. Peace-loving people wish such coexistence to be, indeed, peaceful, so that, besides preaching the value of tolerance in the usual ways -i.e. by appealing to relativist, or consequentialist, or Kantian arguments- they believe that understanding of differences ought to be promoted, as they are persuaded that better and deeper knowledge of the features of a culture would bring about some sort of reconciliation with those features, involving some reduction of aggressiveness (in this view aggressiveness is caused by fear, and fear, in turn, derives from ignorance).

  • 3 In this form the maxim can be read in Tolstoj’s War and Peace (I, 1, Ch.28), though he clearly inte (...)

7This conception and the ensuing conflict reducing strategy seem to me highly doubtful. For example, why would knowledge of the historical origins of certain attitudes, practices or types of conduct entail acceptance of them? It appears that this strategy of reconciliation with the “other” must rely on some version of the genetic fallacy. As the well worn example goes, knowledge of the historical origins, psychological roots, and social motivations of antisemitism does not contribute – or ought not to contribute – to the acceptance, not to say justification of antisemitism. Contrary to Benedetto Croce’s dictum, history is no justifier, nor is it true that «tout comprendre c’est tout pardoner» (a maxim whose author is unknown)3.

3. The other as one of us

8Whatever the merits (or lack thereof) of the strategy in question, it seems to be taking for granted that there are well defined ethnic or cultural identities facing one another, the problem being the modality of their interaction: while one fears it may be confrontational or even bloody, one wishes it to be civil, tolerant, and peaceful. However, it seems to me that such identities are rarely well defined, that when one tries to describe them more precisely they turn out to be both elusive and multifaceted, and most of all, that the “other”, the “different”, may turn out to be not too dissimilar from “us”, where “we”, in turn, are less monolithic than we are assumed to be. Here I do not just have in mind the obvious fact that – say – not every Algerian is an Islamic fundamentalist, nor is every Algerian of Islamic faith an Islamic fundamentalist, nor is every Algerian of intense Islamic faith an Islamic fundamentalist; so that it is not to be taken for granted that if one were to compare Algerians as such with, say, Lombards as such one would find a greater proportion of fanatics among the Algerians than among the Lombards. I am also thinking of the certified, card-carrying Islamic fundamentalist: he is the one that, perhaps, is not so different from “us”.

9How would we describe the Islamic fundamentalist as an ideal type? Perhaps as follows:

– he (or she) believes to be penetrated and sustained by deep faith, and intends his or her own life to be shaped by such faith;
– he (or she) loathes many aspects of the modern Western world and believes they ought to be actively opposed and eventually destroyed;
– he or she does not attribute much value to individual human life, whether his own or someone else’s, and generally believes that many ends justify the means.

10Thus the fundamentalist has beliefs he doesn’t question, though their justification may be shaky or non-existent; some among such beliefs have destructive implications; nevertheless, the fundamentalist is prepared to act in coherence with his beliefs (including their implications) “to the last consequences”, i.e. with no concern for any goods that may be sacrificed in the process. Does this sound familiar? Didn’t we have among us, even in relatively recent times, human types resembling the one I just described under the heading of the Islamic fundamentalist? Men and women entertaining rock-solid beliefs whose justification was, however, shaky or non-existent (some such beliefs having destructive implications); men and women who loathed Western society and were ready to act in coherence with their beliefs, with no concern for the goods that would be sacrificed, as their means were justified by their ends. Yet we have a different culture; we are no fundamentalists; among us, such an evil tree would be uprooted at birth.

4. Downsizing the others’ otherness

11In other words, our identity may be more varied as well as more conflict-ridden than we like to think. Hence we ought to be more careful in fixing and interpreting the reference of “we”, the highly underdetermined, impure indexical. In saying “we”, one is forever oscillating between referring to oneself and one’s friends and referring to wider collectives of which one is, or believes to be a member. Typically, a claim of the form “We are P” is made plausible by letting “we” be interpreted as referring to the speaker and a few of her friends; but then the claim is tacitly generalized to a wider collective, so that the broader claim undeservedly inherits the narrower one’s plausibility.

12Similarly with “the others”. As we saw, what we find in this case is not just a natural, though dangerous inclination to minimize or ignore differences (“tarring everyone with the same brush”). There is an additional reluctance to see the others – those we have in mind when we say “the others” – as some of us, or akin to some of us. We don’t see the others as being part of us because we are at that moment narrowing down the reference of “we” so as to guarantee differences: “They are intolerant, we [myself and my friends] are tolerant”. A moment later, we are ready to extend the reference of “we” in order to generalize such differences to the community we are honoured to belong to (“We [Europeans] are tolerant”). All this would be just childish, if it were not dangerous.

13The consequence of more careful use of the word “we” would not necessarily be a more justificatory, “understanding” attitude with respect to “other people’s” ways of life and types of conduct that arouse our prima facie disapproval or outright condemnation. Not disapproval, but otherness might melt away: we would see such ways of life and types of conduct as quite familiar, as they have been and still are present among us; maybe we criticized and possibly fought them as an evil part of ourselves. This would also free us from the self-imposed captivity of cultural relativism, the view on which types of conduct and ways of life are not to be evaluated (least of all condemned) when they can be brought back to cultures different from our own. Cultural relativism is just the other side of racism and chauvinism. A chauvinist does not perceive the variety and inner conflicts of other cultures: e.g. an anti-Italian chauvinist would not see that, in addition to its not being the case that all Italians are thieves, it is a fact that many Italians spend their life fighting thieves. Symmetrically, a relativist doesn’t perceive the variety and inner conflicts of our culture: he doesn’t see that such types of conduct of other people as he – the relativist – believes we ought to refrain from condemning may well be identical with types of conduct we disapprove of in ourselves, the relativist himself being perhaps first in condemning them.

5. The other within each of us

  • 4 E.g. Berlin 1990: 33.

14Let me add in conclusion that although I have been pretending that both variety and inner conflicts only concern collectives, large or small, this is obviously not the case. Both variety and conflicts concern each individual human being. Each of us endorses values and pursues ends that may not always be compatible (as Isaiah Berlin, among others, strongly emphasized)4 because her background moral culture may, and usually does include a plurality of values: liberty and equality, justice and mercy, truth and compassion; an ideal of «entire truthfulness, integrity, and strength of character» as well as «gentleness and clear-headed concern for the actual feelings of others» (Hampshire 1978: 46). Moreover, as Hampshire noticed, habituation within a moral culture does not entirely seal one off from alternatives that are characteristic of a different moral culture (Hampshire 1983: 149). Though I am basically tolerance-oriented, I am not insensitive to the attraction of rigorous coherence with a faith (which can turn me into a persecutor, given the right circumstances). Or again, though I am committed to a work ethics I also feel the appeal of aesthetic life; and so on. This kind of sensitivity is usually appreciated as a vehicle of recognition of, and even identification with “the other”. However, it can equally motivate the opposite attitude: I fear in the other something that is part of myself, so I reject it and fight it to keep my own tensions under control. Here we are not talking of rational strategies, but of more or less unconscious manipulation of one’s emotions. That there are rational strategies – i.e. that the variety of our value endorsements can be rationally disciplined by higher moral principles – is not to be taken for granted, as (once more) Hampshire underscored. A person’s inner moral conflicts, like a culture’s inner moral conflicts, need not have a rational resolution, as tragedy taught us and moral philosophers occasionally forget.

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Berlin, I.
– 1990, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, Princeton, Princeton University Press

Hampshire, S.
– 1978, Public and Private Morality, Cambridge (Mass.), Cambridge University Press
– 1983, Morality and Conflict, Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard University Press

Kaplan, D.
– 1979, On the Logic of Demonstratives, in P.A. French, T.E. Uehling, H.K. Wettstein (eds), Contemporary Perspectives in the Philosophy of Language, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press: 401-412

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1 Here as well as just below I hint at the circumstances in which this paper was first read, i.e. a conference organized by Massimo Dell’Utri at Sassari University.

2 They are sometimes made explicit by an apposition, as in “we Italians”, “we analytic philosophers”, and so on. However, this is by no means linguistically obligatory.

3 In this form the maxim can be read in Tolstoj’s War and Peace (I, 1, Ch.28), though he clearly intended to be mentioning a truism that had been around for a long time. However, no earlier occurrence of the maxim is known. Approximations can be found in Goethe, Mme. de Staël, and others.

4 E.g. Berlin 1990: 33.

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Per citare questo articolo

Notizia bibliografica

Diego Marconi, «Other Than Whom?»Rivista di estetica, 56 | 2014, 13-19.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Diego Marconi, «Other Than Whom?»Rivista di estetica [Online], 56 | 2014, online dal 01 juin 2014, consultato il 16 juin 2021. URL:; DOI:

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Diego Marconi

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