Generic stereotypes

Generics are generalizations that are not explicitly quantified, like “Tigers are striped”. We use them to state a general fact about a kind, without explicitly specifying how many of its members we are talking about. Instead of saying that “Most tigers are striped”, for example, a generic generalization simply says that “Tigers are striped”. Although generics appear to be very simple generalizations, they have puzzled linguists and philosophers for decades. To understand why they are so puzzling, consider the following examples:

  1. Tigers are striped.
  2. Lions have manes.
  3. Turtles are long-lived.
  4. Humans are right-handed.

Spelling out what these sentences say about the world (i.e. their truth conditions) has proven very difficult. This is partly due to the fact that different generics seem to mean different things. Clearly, none of them just express a universal generalization. Sentence (1) is true, for instance, yet there are some albino tigers without stripes. Perhaps then, (1) says that most tigers are striped. Yet this cannot be what all generics say, since (2) is also a true generic even though only adult male lions have manes. What’s even more striking is that (3) is a true generalization about turtles, even though 99% of turtles dies shortly after hatching. Still, it is a true statement that “Turtles are long-lived”. The puzzle is complete when one thinks about all the generic sentences that are false even though most members of the kind do have the generalized property, like (4). So what do generic sentences say about the world such that “Turtles are long-lived” is true, but “Humans are right-handed” is false?

According to some proposals, generics say that all normal members of the kind have the property. Others believe that generics express something about the probability of a member of the kind having a property. The details of the most promising semantic theories are intricate and complicated, but none of them are without counter-examples. One goal of this project is to defend a new, epistemically motivated semantic account of generics. For a draft of my answer to this problem, see here.

Finding a correct semantic theory for generics is interesting in its own right, at least for philosophers of language and for linguists. But this debate also has wider implications. Some of the most objectionable stereotypes have a generic form. Consider statements like:

  1. Muslims are terrorists.
  2. Black people are lazy.

It is obvious that these statements are highly objectionable, perhaps even more so than explicitly quantified stereotypes. Why is that exactly? Perhaps one would want to answer that these generic stereotypes are false overgeneralizations. But given that generic sentences can be true even though only a minority instantiates the property (see 2 and 3 above), it is not clear that these sentences really overgeneralize. A second goal of this project is to spell out what exactly is said by uttering generic stereotypes like (5) and (6), and how one can respond to such statements. After all, if generics are not just claims about the majority of the kind, one will also not be able to falsify them simply by providing evidence of many counterexamples.

In my work on generic stereotypes, I argue that generic sentences have disjunctive truth conditions but by default entail a conjunction of these conditions. Very roughly, (5) expresses the proposition that “most Muslims are terrorists” or “at least some Muslims are terrorists by virtue of being Muslims”. Given a conjunctive assumption that is by default in the common ground, however, this proposition entails that both claims hold. This explains not only why generically formulated stereotypes strike us as particularly objectionable, but also why generics are so hard to falsify in a conversation. The generic statement (5) is by default interpreted as saying that most Muslims are terrorists and that this is the case by virtue of them being Muslims. This is what makes the generic stereotype so objectionable. Yet this conjunction is a default inference based on what is in fact a disjunctive proposition. Hence if one responds to a statement like (5) by only denying that one of the two claims is false, the original speaker can still maintain that the stereotype is true based on the other condition. I have argued that there are two strategies in responding to generic stereotypes; either one must deny both the disjuncts at once, or one must argue that one of the presuppositions triggered by a generic sentence is false.