Generics: Inference & Accommodation (article in progress)
Generic claims, such as Birds fly, Men are violent, and Mosquitos carry Ross River Fever, seem pervasive across human thought and talk. We use generic claims to express our understanding of the world around us and our place in it. These generic claims are useful even though they admit exceptions. We can agree that birds fly, even though emus don’t. Mosquitos carry Ross River Fever, but not those in Africa. And you can agree that men are violent while conceding that not all men are, or even that most are. Generics remain important in our thought and talk in the presence of these counter-instances. Generic claims express rules of thumb, ways to see the world around us, and they provide heuristics for navigating that world. Generics also play a significant role in our maintaining the boundaries of social kinds, and in our attempts to shift those boundaries.
Arguments about contested generic claims can produce much more heat than light. When the topic of men’s violence against women is raised, it is a common refrain to hear the defensive retort “not all men,” as if that were an objection to the claim of male violence. It seems clear that generics play a significant role, particularly, in the ideologies of our social worlds, of characterising different social kinds and expressing our default orientations toward them, and towards ourselves as members of those kinds.
In this paper, I aim to explain the connection between generic claims and our practices of inference and explanation, to give an account of how and why the distinctive behaviour of generic claims arises. That there is a connection between generics and default inference is a relatively standard view, although there is less agreement about precisely how that connection is to be understood. The distinctive contribution of this paper is applying this connection to the social phenomenon of the formation of the common ground in discourse. This will help us account for how we come to accept characterising generics, even when they are not the explicit topic of discussion. We accept generics by a well-understood phenomenon of discourse accommodation, applied to inference. This connection, between accommodation, inference and characterising generics, will give us some better tools to engage in improving our use of generic claims, and what is at stake when we argue about them.
You are welcome to download and read this document. I especially welcome feedback on it. As it is not yet published in final form, if you want to cite the paper, please check with me first. Thanks.
I’m Greg Restall, and this is my personal website. ¶ I am the Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews. ¶ I like thinking about – and helping other people think about – logic and philosophy and the many different ways they can inform each other.
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