Thomas Pendergast Vladeck home

Nouns are not necessarily agents

It’s not uncommon to see statements like “Wall Street needs to give this company a break” or “Silicon Valley should fund more cleantech firms”

These statements, in some sense, make perfect sense. They are shorthand for, respectively, “investors in this company need to be more patient with it”, and “partners in venture capital funds based in Silicon Valley should fund more cleantech firms”.

But they are nonsensical in another interpretation. Because both are nouns, they can be the subjects of a sentence, so they are the “something” undergoing or causing an action - a verb. But grammar makes no distinction between those verbs that require agenthood or not, so they can be used in a seemingly meaningful way in sentences that could never be realized and have questionable meaning, like “the painting should [decide to] walk across the floor.”

So these sentences can look, and be interpreted as, phrases that are not shorthand. The twisted interpretation is that an abstract concept or representation can “decide to” do something.

Both the named cases, Wall Street and Silicon Valley, are representations of collections of things, but the relationship between the representation and its constituents is not symmetric. The constituents of each (the VC, or the Mutual Fund, for example) are agents of the representation, but not vice versa.

The long story short is that this confusion causes a lot of sloppy thinking, and leads people to go down “garden alleys” of logic that assume that a group can coordinate its actions or otherwise be treated as a decision-making unit. Much (if not most) of the time, they can’t, and statements or arguments that contain that implicit assumption are flawed from the outset.