Friday, May 21, 2010

Generally speaking

Bill Vallicella defends generalization. As Bill says, it really is amazing how silly and inconsistent people can be on this subject. The same people who express outrage at any suggestion that the actions of Islamic terrorists might have something to do with Islam have no qualms about making sweeping statements about conservative Christians. Defending themselves, they might say “We’re not claiming that every single conservative Christian is bigoted [or ignorant, or a threat to civil liberties, or whatever]. We’re saying that there’s something in their view of the world that has a tendency to lead to bigotry etc., which is why we think that many, though not all or even most, conservative Christians are that way.” And yet they insist on uncharitably reading the corresponding claim about Islam as if it meant “Every single Muslim is a terrorist or potential terrorist” – a silly claim which they have no difficulty refuting. But that is, of course, not what is meant by those who claim there is a link between Islam and terrorism.

To draw a general conclusion on the basis of an inadequate sample of particular cases is indeed a fallacy – the fallacy of hasty generalization. But it is crucial when evaluating some general conclusion to determine what kind of generalization it is, for this will determine in turn whether the sample is adequate and how to evaluate potential counterexamples. Some generalizations are strict generalizations – they claim that every single member of a certain category S has some attribute P. In that sort of case, to find even a single S that is not P suffices to refute the generalization. But many generalizations are what we might call loose generalizations. They do not claim that every single S is P, but rather only that S’s are for the most part P. And here, obviously, to refute the generalization it does not suffice to find single counterexample or, if the class of S’s is very large, even many counterexamples. When people say things like “Women are less aggressive than men,” they don’t mean “Every single woman is less aggressive than any man,” and it does not refute their claim to point to several examples of notably aggressive women and notably non-aggressive men. What they mean is that for the most part, even if not in every case, women are less aggressive than men. Those who treat such claims as if they were strict generalizations and then pat themselves on the back for their logical acumen when they come across a counterexample really only show themselves to be incapable of making a very simple distinction.

Then there are what Philippa Foot and Michael Thompson call “Aristotelian categoricals,” general statements of the form “S’s are P” that convey a norm. For example, when we say “Dogs are four-legged,” we don’t mean that every single dog without exception has four legs, but neither do we merely mean that dogs for the most part have four legs. We mean that in the normal case a dog will have four legs, that every dog qua dog has an inherent tendency to have four legs unless impeded by injury, genetic defect, or the like. Hence, to refute an Aristotelian categorical, it also does not suffice to point to various counterexamples.

In short, you might say: We shouldn’t generalize about generalizations. They’re not all the same.


  1. This is a literally perfect application of what I, for one, call "Scholastic method." May I please state without shame that, for me, this is the only method and I openly defy all men everywhere to produce a better one.

    But the article exposes a much larger problem with liberal generalizers, namely, their profound cultural and intellectual deficiency extending to a complete breakdown in rational or logical thinking.

    For, the sad robots manufactured in today's sovietized government re-education system are deprived of ordinary modes of right thinking, if not thought itself, implied in that formal engagement of the human mind with the Western intellectual heritage anciently referred to as "education."

  2. Hi, Jonathan Speke Laudly here,
    The "normal case'?
    Why not just say all dogs have four legs unless they are born without them or lose them, and dogs with less than four legs are rare.
    Generalizations are necessary.
    How can you have a name for each separate thing? You'd have to have a world's worth of proper names but no one would know what you refer to anyway. No, generalization is the foundation of our language--is our language really.: What is more fundamental than --x is a y--?
    But general categories are vague
    and necessarily so---if we need them to be useful. "All pink houses in Gary, Indiana" is a general category. "The two pink houses in Gary Indiana", is really a form of proper name, and so of limited use.
    But vagueness is annoying too.
    How much do you lop off a dog before it's no longer a dog?
    The ears? The tail? The bark?
    The snout? How many hairs must you lose before you are bald?
    Unless you are there to be the arbiter of dogness or baldness each time a question of dogness or baldness arises, any description could still make someone unfamiliar with earth animals take a pig for a dog or a hairy man for bald.
    We learn dog by seeing dogs and baldness by seeing a thing
    being told--"it's a dog" or "it's a bald dog" or some such.
    Generalization of dogness is cat--egorization. And in the absence of
    new categories new things get put into the old categories. Never seen a dog before?-so you say it's "kinda like a pig".
    Malaria, flu, cholera, yellow fever and other illnesses all used to be placed in the "fever" category---until biology sorted it out. Schizophrenia is a catch-all like fever was.
    Don't be so quick to generalize?
    We have no choice.
    How many exceptions invalidate the generalization? Up to you.
    A pig does resemble a fat dog that squeals.

  3. Of course the biggest and most pervasive generalization is summed up in the phrase "the Christian understanding"--or Buddhist, or Hindu

    There is of course no such thing.

    Only individual Christians, one at a time are capable of understanding anything.

    Plus if one thoroughly interviewed, and thus challenged 100 different Christians about any number of topics, the answers and response thus given would be wide and varied. And most often contradictory between individuals.

  4. And thus nominalism strikes again!