Statements divide into the singular and the general. General statements divide into the universal, the particular, and the generic. Generic statements are interesting not only to the logician and linguist and philosopher but also to critics of ideology and conservative critics of leftist ideology critique. For example, leftists will find something 'ideological' about the generic 'Women are nurturing' whereas conservatives will hold that the sentence expresses the plain truth and that some sort of obfuscation and chicanery is involved when leftists deny this plain biologically-based truth and try to tie its very meaning to the legitimation and preservation of existing power relations in society.
In this entry, perhaps the first in a series, I confine myself to presenting examples of generic statements and to giving a preliminary exegesis of the linguistic data, noting some features of generic generalizations, and some philosophical questions that arise.
Examples of Generic Statements
Some of the examples are my own, some are culled from the literature. Some of the following are true, some false, and some politically incorrect. Trigger Warning! All girly girls and pajama boys out of the seminar room and into their safe spaces! Uncle Bill will visit you later with milk and cookies and cuddly animals.
- Dutchmen are good sailors. (Arnauld)
- Germans are industrious.
- Jews are very intelligent.
- Birds fly.
- Chickens lay eggs.
- Germans make better soldiers than Italians.
- Cigars are what Bill smokes these days.
- Men are taller than women.
- Blacks are more criminally prone than whites.
- Priests don't ride motorcycles.
- Reducing taxes leads to increased economic growth.
- Turks are hospitable.
- Turks are very bad drivers.
- Analytic philosophers do not know the history of philosophy very well.
- Humanities departments are lousy with leftists.
- The dodo is extinct.
- Schockley invented the transistor.
- The lion has a mane.
- Blacks are not good at deferring gratification.
- Conservatives are racists.
- Women are nurturing and better with children.
- Fred drinks wine with dinner.
- The potato is highly digestible.
Some Features of Generic Statements
One obvious feature of generic statements is that they are not replaceable either salva veritate or salva significatione by either universal or particular quantified statements. It is true that Germans are industrious, but false that all are. That some are is true, but 'Some Germans are industrious' does not convey the sense of 'Germans are industrious.' The generic and the particular generalization agree in truth value but differ in sense.
In a vast number of cases, if I assert that the Fs are Gs I do not mean to endorse the corresponding universal generalization. No doubt birds fly, but it is false that all birds fly: the penguin is a bird, but it doesn't fly. And I know that. So if I say that birds fly, you can't refute me by bringing up the penguin. And if I say that Italians and those of Italian extraction are frugal and masters of personal finance, which is manifestly true, you cannot refute me by bringing up your cousin Vinny, the spendthrift of Hoboken. The same goes for 'Humanities departments are lousy with leftists.' 'Chickens lay eggs' has the interesting property that all the roosters strutting around in the world's barnyards cannot counterexample it into falsehood.
It is interesting to note that one can make a generic statement (express a generic proposition) using a sentence with 'all' or 'every.' My example: Omnis homo mendax. 'Every man is a liar.' An assertive utterance of this sentence in normal contexts expresses the proposition that people lie, not the proposition that all people lie. Or if someone says, unguardedly, or Trumpianly, 'All politicians are crooks,' he won't be fazed if you point out that the late Patrick Daniel Moynihan was no crook. The speaker may have engaged in a hasty generalization, but then again he may have intended a generic statement.
On the other hand, we sometimes omit the universal quantifier even though the proposition we intend to express is a universal quantification. An assertive utterance of 'Arguments have premises' intends Every argument has premises. The possibility of counterexamples is not countenanced. Contrast this with the generic 'Chickens lay eggs' which is plainly true even though only hens lay eggs.
'Arguments have premises' is non-generic and elliptical for 'All arguments have premises.' But what about 'Men are mortal'? Is it replaceable salva significatione with 'All men are mortal'? Perhaps not, perhaps it is a generic statement that admits of exceptions, as generics typically do. After all, Christ was a man but he was not mortal inasmuch as he was also God.
A clearer example is 'Man is bipedal.' This cannot be replaced salva veritate by 'All men are bipedal' since the latter is false. Nor can it be replaced salva significatione by 'Some man is bipedal, which, though plainly true, is not what 'Man is bipedal' means. And the same holds for translations using the quantifiers 'many' and 'most' and 'almost all.'
We are tempted to say that 'Man is bipedal' by its very sense cannot be about individual humans, whether all of them, most of them, many of them, or some of them, but must be about a common generic essence that normal, non-defective humans instantiate. But how could this be? No generic essence has two feet. It is always only an individual man that has or lacks two feet. Here, then, is one of the philosophical puzzles that arise when we think about generic statements. It is the problem of what generic statements are about, which is not to be confused with the question whether they have truth makers.
And then there is 'Man is a rational animal.' Let us agree that to be rational is either to possess the capacity to reason or to possess the second-order capacity to develop this first-order capacity. Aristotle's dictum is true, while 'All humans are rational animals' is false. So Aristotle's dictum is a generic sentence that cannot be replaced by a quantified sentence. It is false that all humans are rational animals because an anencephalic human fetus, while obviously human (not bovine, canine, etc.), having as it does human parents, is not rational in the sense defined.
And of course we cannot replace 'Man is a rational animal' with 'Most men are rational animals.' For the dictum plainly intends something like: it the nature or essence of man to be rational. What then is the dictum about? If you tell me that it is about the generic essence man, then I will point out the obvious: no abstract object reasons, is capable of reasoning, or has the potentiality to acquire the power to reason.
Some philosophers hold that every truth has a truth-maker. What then are the truth-makers for the vast class of true generics? Do they have any?
Panayot Butchvarov, Anthropocentrism in Philosophy: Realism, Antirealism, Semirealism, de Gruyter, 2015, Chapter 8, "Generic Statements," pp. 151-168.