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Tuesday, November 15, 2016


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Dear BV,

have you had a chance to read Philippa Foot's book Natural Goodness? She seems to think that generic statements convey a norm pertaining to the life form of an organism- though (from what I can tell) her argument seems to be that if we don't reference the form of a thing with these statements, then we can't tie the statement to an individual, which is a problem I guess. Not sure how convincing one might find that.

Hi Bill,

I don't have a theory about truth makers, but I'm also not convinced these statements make up a single philosophically significant category, or even that there is not considerable variation in the meaning of your examples, depending on context (in actual cases, not just possible ones). In some cases, they might describe some kind of prototypical individual of some kind (e.g., a prototypical lion, or a prototypical human), but the prototype varies depending on context, or describing some specific type of individuals in a certain category (some subcategory, perhaps), who/which aren't explicitly specified, but that also might be widely variable.

As for some of your examples:

* The lion has a mane.

Tsavo lions either do not have a mane, or have a very small one, and they're not sick. In fact, I wouldn't be inclined to say that those are abnormal lions.
Maybe "The lion has a mane" is sometimes a false statement about normal lions, or healthy lions, and sometimes a statement either describing some sort of prototypical lion (not explicitly identified), or some specific kind of lions (also, not explicitly identified), and/or sometimes a statement that most lions (presently) are like that, etc.

* Blacks are not good at deferring gratification.
* Blacks are more criminally prone than whites.
Those might be unwarranted statements about some alleged genetically-based predisposition. Or they might be descriptions of an alleged but unrealistic prototypical Black person. Or false universal statements, etc.
The meaning might just vary considerably, depending on the context of utterance.

* Conservatives are racists.
That might be a false universal statement, or a false statement about some prototypical, or usual, conservative. It's probably statement about non-defective conservatives, but also the meaning might vary considerably depending on context of utterance (in actual cases).

* Women are nurturing and better with children.
That might be a statement about normally functioning, non-defective women. Or it might be a statement comparing most women to most men. The meaning might also vary from case to case.

* Man is bipedal.
That might be a statement about all normal humans, or about all humans that are normal foot-wise.

Dear Thomas,

Thank you for the recommendation. I just now ordered a copy of Foot's book via Amazon. Used. $13.99 plus S and H.


>> I'm also not convinced these statements make up a single philosophically significant category,<<

Are you denying that they are all generics?

Of course there is a mixed bag within this class.

For example, bare plural generics such as 'Cats have whiskers' are different from those featuring definite and indefinite articles such as 'The cat has whiskers' and 'A cat has whikers.'


I'm not denying that they're all generic, but saying that I'm not sure that the term "generic" denotes a category with enough similarities that warrant study them together (e.g., searching for truth-makers), as opposed to dealing with specific cases.
I'm not denying it, though, but more tentatively doubting it.

Why is it not possible or wrong to say that the generic statement "Man is a rational animal" applies to the normal man. Why it must be the essence "man"?

Well, who is "the normal man"? Where can I find him? Can you point him out to me?


The numerous contributors to the large literature on generics would disagree with you.

>> What then are the truth-makers for the vast class of true generics?
This is the one that interests me, and I have just been reading up on the science of genetics to understand it better. Consider

Terriers are bold and energetic dogs
which I took at random from the web. The science of dog genetics suggests that there is a physical ground for these behavioural characteristics. I am still reading up on this, more later.

The "normal man' is analogous to the "ideal triangle" as defined in geometry.

Another example:

Young drivers are more likely to have an accident
Here you can endorse the corresponding universal generalization, for it is true to say ‘every young driver is more likely to have an accident’. But that is because ‘more likely’ itself incorporates some kind of generic. But what? There is a post hoc statistical fact:
Drivers aged 17-19 only make up 1.5% of UK licence holders [1], but are involved in 9% of fatal and serious crashes where they are the driver (link)
This states a fact, without implying any ground or disposition. However, the article goes on to say
Research shows that the combination of youth and inexperience puts younger drivers at high risk. Their inexperience means they have less ability to spot hazards, and their youth means they are particularly likely to take risks. In this way, crash risk not only reduces over time with experience but also is higher for drivers who start driving at a younger age.
This assigns a cause to the statistics, namely inability to spot hazards, which in turn is caused by inexperience. Later on in the article, there is a speculation that the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that helps control impulses and emotions and assesses risk, is not fully developed until the mid-20s. So an environmental factor (inexperience) leads to a lack of ability (a disposition) which is grounded in a physical state (of the frontal lobe).

I suspect many generic statements are made true by in such a probabilistic way, i.e. by some kind of physical ground which makes it likely but not certain, even far from certain, that the individual case will be realised. This seems to be the case with ‘Terriers are bold and energetic dogs’. There is compelling scientific evidence that the form and behaviour of breeds is grounded in genetics.

Herding breeds, such as the border collie, are used to manage the movement and behavior of livestock. As their name implies, guarding breeds, such as the kuvasz, live among the livestock, usually unattended, and guard against predators. Both types of dog have been developed to work with livestock; however, they present radically divergent behavioral responses to their charges. Herding breeds strongly express predatory motor patterns such as stalking. More advanced aspects of the canine hunting sequence (grabbing) are differentially developed among herding dogs, with breeds like the Australian cattle dog, which is used to work typically stubborn cattle, strongly expressing grab-biting behaviors.5 In contrast, livestock-guarding breeds only weakly express predatory motor patterns. Good livestock-guarding dogs do not chase, stalk, or even attempt to play with livestock' (link)
My emphasis. This does not mean that some livestock-guarding dog will not exhibit characteristics of a herding dog, or vice versa. Rather, that a animal with livestock-guarding parents is far more likely to exhibit guarding, rather than herding characteristics. This likelihood is grounded in genetic structure, which also has a probabilistic nature.

Note also ‘Good livestock-guarding dogs do not chase, stalk, or even attempt to play with livestock’. A move from the causal to the teleological.


We are agreed that there has to be a biological basis for the truth of the generics you cite.

Now consider 'Women are nurturing.' If I understand Haslanger, she objects to this on the ground that the pragmatic implicature of the sentence, namely, 'Women are by nature nurturing despite many who are not' is false. I take her view to be that women have been socially constructed to be by nature nurturing when there is nothing in reality beyond the socio-cultural that makes them be such.

We of course think that there is a biological basis for the fact that women are more nurturing, more agreeable, less contentious, more submissive, etc. than men.

Furthermore, I think you and I agree that the nurturing and agreeable and conciliatory nature of women is a good and beautiful thing, and that (some) feminists who rebel against this want to be like men. Unfortunately, some succeed!

>>If I understand Haslanger

I am not sure I do. She says in “The Normal, the Natural and the Good: Generics and Ideology” that

‘Women are more nurturing than men,” usually implicates that there is something about what it is to be a women and about what it is to be a man that explains their supposed differential capacities to nurture.
It all depends what ‘something about ...’ means. I dropped you an email this morning about the 'typological' versus the 'population' views of nature. The typological view is the Aristotelian/Platonic position that there the physical grounding of the nature is possessed by one group of individuals, but not possessed by others, and that the physical grounding is the root cause of the properties and accidents of the individuals that possess it. The population view by contrast is that there there are multiple grounds, all of which are possessed by all individuals, but some of which predominate in some, but not so much in others, and there is no underlying or root cause, other than the predomination or strength of these factors. Thus all humans can run, and there is a physical basis for this, and it is the same in all humans, but is stronger (as it were) in some than in others. Moreover, this strength is heritable.

On both the typological and the population view there is physical grounding, so these are both ‘realist’ views. Both of these are distinct from the ‘nominalist’ or ‘social construct’ view. Haslanger is clearly denying the essentialist or typological view, and I think she is right to do so. Whether she is wedded to the population or social construct view is more difficult. I suspect the latter, but it’s not clear.

For what it is worth, it seems to me that generic statements like, “Germans are industrious,” are just ambiguous, in this case leaving it not clear whether what is being asserted is that all Germans are industrious, that most Germans are industrious, or that some Germans are industrious; the first two possibilities seem to me more likely than the third. I’d probably let that particular generic statement go without fuss in most circumstances. But I, even I, would ask for clarification if presented with another one of your examples, “Conservatives are racists.” And I certainly would ask for one if I were to come across, as I read somewhere, a proposition like “Leftists hate conservatives because of the collapse of the USSR and the failure of communism.”


It is easy to quibble over particular examples, but I don't think anyone will agree with you if you are maintaining that every generic is replaceable by a quantified sentence in a way that preserves both the truth and the sense of the generic.

'Roosters are chickens' is replaceable salva veitate et significatione by 'All roosters are chickens.' But 'Chickens lay eggs,' while true, is not replaceable by a quantified sentence.

Not by 'All chickens lay eggs' because of those cocky roosters. That's obvious.

But it also seems that none of the other quantifiers does the trick either.

It is true that birds fly, but not true that all birds fly. The penguin is a bird that does not fly. Should we say that a few, some, many, most birds fly?

But sentences with these quantifiers do not capture the sense of 'Birds fly.' The latter conveys something like: it it the nature of the bird to fly, where 'nature' has normative bite, prescribing as it does what a normal bird typically does. This is why a bird with broken wings or a bird born without wings is no counterexample to 'Birds fly.'

It is agreed in the literature that 'Birds fly' is irreducibly generic. Unclear, however, is what it is about. A nature or generic essence?

I wouldn't expect anyone to agree with me if I were to maintain that every generic is replaceable by a quantified sentence in a way that preserves both the truth and the sense of the generic. I spoke of generic statements like "Germans are industrious."

Re the closing thoughts in your post about the Aristotle's "dictum," "Man is a rational animal." I could slide back into my habitual liberalism and, accordingly, feminism and rewrite it as "The human is a rational animal," just to irritate you, but I'll let the occasion pass. As you say, the dictum is true. You also hold, however, that the the universal affirmative proposition, "All men are rational animals," is false. I'm not so sure, thinking that it depends upon what it is understood that being a rational animal is. But I'll grant the point, for present purposes.

The point granted, it may well be that Aristotle would tell us that he should have inserted "by nature" into the latter proposition, so that it would read, "All men by nature are rational animals." He did, you'll remember, it insert into the statement with which he opened the Metaphysics, "All men by nature desire to know" (Ross translation). And he may have gone on to say that "always or for the most part" could be substituted for "by nature."

'Human' doesn't irritate me, but 'man' irritates you -- but why should it given that it is obviously being used in a gender-neutral way?

Is a neonate human a rational animal? I would say yes even though it does not have the ability to speak or reason: it has the potentiality to develop these abilities. But an anencephalic neonate human lacks this potentiality, which is why I say that 'All humans are rational' is false.

All teasing and riposte aside, your bringing in the case of the anencephalic neonate human leads me to ask your thoughts re: Does the "all men" of "All men by nature are rational animals" include anencephalic neonate humans?

I would think so on the ground that the anencephalic neonate is genetically human, being the offspring of human parents. So it is a human being or man -- to use the radioactive word -- that is not rational. So it is not the case that all men are rational. This leaves us with the task of understanding the logical form of 'Man is rational'and 'The cat is four-legged.'

Note the difference between 'The cat is four-legged' and 'The cat is on the mat.' The latter is singular, not generic, despite the surface similarity.

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