Generics with normative force (Final draft here, under review)

Some generic generalizations have both a descriptive and a normative reading. The generic sentence “Philosophers care about the truth,” for instance, can be read as describing what philosophers in fact care about, but can also be read as prescribing philosophers to care about the truth. Similarly, the generic stereotype “Men are tough” can also be understood in a normative way, saying that men ought to be tough. According to one prominent view, these normative generics are ambiguous between expressing a statistical generalization and a normative generalization. This paper first argues against this ambiguity thesis, focusing on Leslie’s most recent articulation of it. In response, a new contextualist semantic theory for generics is introduced. On this theory, generics express context-dependent kindhood generalizations. Generics that have both a descriptive and a normative reading are not ambiguous but contextually underspecified.

The strong but deniable meaning of generic stereotypes (Draft available upon request, under review)

There are things that are risky to say, sometimes rightly so. When publicly asserting a negative stereotype about a social kind, for instance, the speaker often risks reputational damage. One strategy that a speaker can use to mitigate this risk, is to formulate the stereotype as a generic. A speaker who states that “Muslims are terrorists,” for instance, will by default be interpreted as claiming both that a majority of Muslims are terrorists and that this is so by virtue of their being Muslims. Yet when challenged on either one of these two claims, the speaker can plausibly deny ever having said it. This paper first draws attention to the fact that generic stereotypes combine this strong default meaning with speaker deniability, and then provides a theory that explains the occurrence of these two phenomena. On this theory, a generic stereotype expresses a non-specific generalization that by default gives rise to a strong and more specific conversational implicature when uttered.

The public relevance of philosophy (With Stijn Conix and Pei-Shan Chi, draft available upon request)

Various authors have recently expressed doubts about the public relevance of academic philosophy. These doubts target both academic philosophy in general and particular subfields of philosophy. In this paper, we respond to these doubts by first arguing that public relevance, broadly understood, is indeed an important aim for a publicly funded field like philosophy. We therefore conduct two empirical tests to investigate whether philosophy and its subfields meet this aim. These tests suggest that academic philosophy in general is not publicly relevant and confirm the hypothesis that some subfields of philosophy are more publicly relevant than others. We argue that this is caused by the incentive structure of academic philosophy and propose a range of individual-level and incentive-level solutions.

A kind theory for scientific generics (In preparation)

Generics are generalizing sentences that are not explicitly quantified, like ‘Ravens are black’ and ‘Electrons have negative charge’. Generic sentences like these are commonly found in every scientific discipline. Yet recent research on the semantics of generics suggests this might be a problem, given that generics are thought to express psychologically primitive and biased generalizations. This paper responds to this worry, arguing that generics have a fundamental epistemic role in science by virtue of their kindhood semantics. According to this semantic theory, a generic sentence says that the generalized property is part of what makes the designated individuals a kind. ‘Kindhood’, furthermore, is argued to be a context-sensitive notion. Within a particular epistemic context, like a scientific discipline, it denotes those groupings that accommodate the contextually relevant epistemic concerns. It is this context-sensitive notion of ‘kindhood’ that explains the variety in meaning between generics of various scientific disciplines, as well as their fundamental epistemic role in each of these disciplines.

In what sense are mental disorders natural kinds? (Draft available upon request)

This paper argues that the difficulty in determining whether mental disorders are natural kinds is partly due to the ambiguity of the phrase ‘natural kind’ itself. This phrase is used to talk about several different phenomena. On the account defended in this paper, ‘natural kind’ is ambiguous between several combinations of three more basic concepts, namely that of a kind, that of a representation corresponding to reality, and that of a phenomenon belonging to the domain of the natural sciences. By using the phrase ‘natural kind’ for various conjunctions of these basic concepts, the phrase is not only ambiguous but also less precise than desirable. This paper argues that it would be less ambiguous and more precise for philosophers of psychiatry to ask whether mental disorders are kinds, whether their representation corresponds to reality, and whether they belong to the domain of the natural sciences.

The history of natural kinds (Full text here)

This is the first chapter of my PhD dissertation on ‘The scientific classification of natural and human kinds’. This chapter provides an overview of the history of the philosophical concept of ‘natural kinds’, and develops a particular interpretation of the debate between Whewell and Mill on natural classification. Perhaps this will some day be rewritten as a journal article.