Generic generalizations such as ‘mosquitoes carry the West Nile virus’ or ‘sharks attack bathers’ are often accepted by speakers despite the fact that very few members of the kinds in question have the predicated property. Previous work suggests that such low-prevalence generalizations may be accepted when the properties in question are dangerous, harmful, or appalling. This paper argues that the study of such generic generalizations sheds light on a particular class of prejudiced social beliefs, and points to new ways in (...) which those beliefs might be undermined and combatted. (shrink)
Ducks lay eggs' is a true sentence, and `ducks are female' is a false one. Similarly, `mosquitoes carry the West Nile virus' is obviously true, whereas `mosquitoes don't carry the West Nile virus' is patently false. This is so despite the egg-laying ducks' being a subset of the female ones and despite the number of mosquitoes that don't carry the virus being ninety-nine times the number that do. Puzzling facts such as these have made generic sentences defy adequate semantic treatment. (...) However complex the truth conditions of generics appear to be, though, young children grasp generics more quickly and readily than seemingly simpler quantifiers such as `all' and `some'. I present an account of generics that not only illuminates the strange truth conditions of generics, but also explains how young children find them so comparatively easy to acquire. I then argue that generics give voice to our most cognitively primitive generalizations and that this hypothesis accounts for a variety of facts ranging from acquisition patterns to cross-linguistic data concerning the phonological articulation of operators. I go on to develop an account of the nature of these cognitively fundamental generalizations and argue that this account explains the strange truth-conditional behavior of generics. (shrink)
Generic sentences (e.g., bare plural sentences such as “dogs have four legs” and “mosquitoes carry malaria”) are used to talk about kinds of things. Three experiments investigated the conceptual foundations of generics as well as claims within the formal semantic approaches to generics concerning the roles of prevalence, cue validity and normalcy in licensing generics. Two classes of generic sentences that pose challenges to both the conceptually based and formal semantic approaches to generics were investigated. Striking property generics (e.g. “sharks (...) bite swimmers”) are true even though only a tiny minority of instances have the property and thus pose obvious problems for quantificational approaches, and they also do not seem to characterize kinds in terms of the principled or statistical connections investigated in previous research ( Prasada and Dillingham, 2006 ; Prasada and Dillingham, 2009). The second class — minority characteristic generics (e.g. “ducks lay eggs”) — also poses serious problems for quantificational accounts, and appears to involve principled connections even though fewer than half of its instances have the relevant property. The experiments revealed three principal discoveries: first, striking generics involve neither principled nor statistical connections. Instead, they involve a causal connection between a kind and a property. Second, minority characteristic generics exhibit the characteristics of principled connections, which suggests that principled connections license the expectation that most instances will have the property, but do not require it. Finally, the experiments also provided evidence that prevalence and the acceptability of generics may be dissociated and provided data that are problematic for normalcy approaches to generics, and for the idea that cue validity licenses low prevalence generics. As such, the studies provided evidence in favor of a conceptually based approach to the semantics of generics ( Leslie, 2007 ; Leslie, 2008; see also Carlson, 2009). (shrink)
This paper explores the role of generics in social cognition. First, we explore the nature and effects of the most common form of generics about social kinds. Second, we discuss the nature and effects of a less common but equally important form of generics about social kinds. Finally, we consider the implications of this discussion for how we ought to use language about the social world.
We argue that generic generalizations about racial groups are pernicious in what they communicate (both to members of that racial group and to members of other racial groups), and may be central to the construction of social categories like racial groups. We then consider how we should change and challenge uses of generic generalizations about racial groups.
Psychological essentialism is the belief that some internal, unseen essence or force determines the common outward appearances and behaviors of category members. We investigated whether reasoning about transplants of bodily elements showed evidence of essentialist thinking. Both Americans and Indians endorsed the possibility of transplants conferring donors' personality, behavior, and luck on recipients, consistent with essentialism. Respondents also endorsed essentialist effects even when denying that transplants would change a recipient's category membership (e.g., predicting that a recipient of a pig's heart (...) would act more pig-like but denying that the recipient would become a pig). This finding runs counter to predictions from the strongest version of the “minimalist” position (Strevens,2000), an alternative to essentialism. Finally, studies asking about a broader range of donor-to-recipient transfers indicated that Indians essentialized more types of transfers than Americans, but neither sample essentialized monetary transfer. This suggests that results from bodily transplant conditions reflect genuine essentialism rather than broader magical thinking. (shrink)
Higginbotham argues that conditionals embedded under quantifiers constitute a counterexample to the thesis that natural language is semantically compositional. More recently, Higginbotham and von Fintel and Iatridou have suggested that compositionality can be upheld, but only if we assume the validity of the principle of Conditional Excluded Middle. I argue that these authors’ proposals deliver unsatisfactory results for conditionals that, at least intuitively, do not appear to obey Conditional Excluded Middle. Further, there is no natural way to extend their accounts (...) to conditionals containing ‘unless’. I propose instead an account that takes both ‘if’ and ‘unless’ statements to restrict the quantifiers in whose scope they occur, while also contributing a covert modal element to the semantics. In providing this account, I also offer a semantics for unquantified statements containing ‘unless’. (shrink)
Much evidence suggests that, from a young age, humans are able to generalize information learned about a subset of a category to the category itself. Here, we propose that—beyond simply being able to perform such generalizations—people are biased to generalize to categories, such that they routinely make spontaneous, implicit category generalizations from information that licenses such generalizations. To demonstrate the existence of this bias, we asked participants to perform a task in which category generalizations would distract from the main goal (...) of the task, leading to a characteristic pattern of errors. Specifically, participants were asked to memorize two types of novel facts: quantified facts about sets of kind members and generic facts about entire kinds. Moreover, half of the facts concerned properties that are typically generalizable to an animal kind, and half concerned properties that are typically more idiosyncratic. We predicted that—because of the hypothesized bias—participants would spontaneously generalize the quantified facts to the corresponding kinds, and would do so more frequently for the facts about generalizable properties. In turn, these generalizations would lead to a higher rate of quantified-to-generic memory errors for the generalizable properties. The results of four experiments supported this prediction. Moreover, the same generalizable-versus-idiosyncratic difference in memory errors occurred even under cognitive load, which suggests that the hypothesized bias operates unnoticed in the background, requiring few cognitive resources. In sum, this evidence suggests the presence of a powerful bias to draw generalizations about kinds. (shrink)
Cognitive science poses a variety of philosophical questions. In this forthcoming volume, leading researchers debate five core questions in the Philosophy of Cognitive Science: Is Universal Grammar required to explain our linguistic capacities? Are some of our concepts innate or are they all learned? What role do our bodies play in cognition? Can neuroscience help us understand the mind? Can cognitive science help us understand human morality? The volume contains two accessible essays on each topic, each advocating for an opposing (...) approach. (shrink)