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 generalizations that are formulated without the use of an overt quantifier. They are common in everyday language but also routinely found in every scientific discipline. Examples of scientific generics are sentences like “Terrestrial planets have secondary atmospheres” and “Americans overestimate social class mobility.” In this paper, I defend a new semantic theory about the type of generalization these sentences express. According to this theory, the generalization expressed by a generic sentence crucially contains the notion of kindhood, roughly saying that the generalized property is part of what makes the denoted individuals a kind. This semantic theory for generics is further combined with a relational theory of kindhood, according to which scientific kinds only exist in relation to the epistemic targets and practices of a particular discipline. I argue that this semantic theory for generics combined with a relational theory of kindhood explains several puzzling features of generics, including their context-sensitivity.
Philosophy of psychiatry without ‘natural kinds’ (Draft available upon request)
Philosophers of psychiatry often argue for or against the position that psychiatric disorders are ‘natural kinds,’ borrowing this notion from earlier philosophical disputes about kinds in natural sciences like chemistry and biology. In this paper, I argue that this is a mistake. Using the notion ‘natural kind’ in debates about psychiatric disorders leads to confusion. In earlier philosophical debates, this notion was mostly used to ask what I call the ‘mind-independence question,’ namely to what extent the distinctions and similarities in kind that we recognize in science exist independently of our theoretical perspectives and practical concerns. In philosophy of psychiatry, however, there are two other questions on the table as well, namely to what extent psychiatric disorders are kind-like in the first place and to what extent psychiatric disorders are (reducible to) natural phenomena. Since besides the ‘mind-independence question,’ both the ‘kindhood question’ and the ‘naturalness question’ are on the table as well, arguments over whether psychiatric disorders are natural kinds lead to confusion. This one notion is used to argue for and against several different positions in response to several different questions. In this paper, I introduce these different questions, explain the confusion surrounding ‘natural kinds’ in psychiatry, and argue that the best way to avoid this confusion is for philosophers of psychiatry to simply stop using the notion of a ‘natural kind’.
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.