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Generics and typicality: a bounded rationality approach

Abstract

Cimpian et al. (2010) observed that we accept generic statements of the form ‘Gs are f’ on relatively weak evidence, but that if we are unfamiliar with group G and we learn a generic statement about it, we still treat it inferentially in a much stronger way: (almost) all Gs are f. This paper makes use of notions like ‘representativeness’, ‘contingency’ and ‘relative difference’ from (associative learning) psychology to provide a uniform semantics of generics that explains why people accept generics based on weak evidence. The spirit of the approach has much in common with Leslie’s cognition-based ideas about generics, but the semantics will be grounded on a strengthening of Cohen’s (1999) relative readings of generic sentences. In contrast to Leslie and Cohen, we propose a uniform semantic analysis of generics. The basic intuition is that a generic of the form ‘Gs are f’ is true because f is typical for G, which means that f is valuably associated with G. We will make use of Kahneman and Tversky’s Heuristics and Biases approach, according to which people tend to confuse questions about probability with questions about representativeness, to explain pragmatically why people treat many generic statements inferentially in a much stronger way.

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Funding

The funding was provided by FP7 Ideas: European Research Council (Grant No. Marie Curie Actions—Initial Training Networks (ITN)).

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Correspondence to Robert van Rooij.

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The ideas behind this paper were developed in 2016 and first presented at the beginning of 2017 during a conference on lying in Leiden. Afterwards, the ideas were presented by both authors at other occasions in Amsterdam, Berlin, Bochum, Munich, Stockholm, Venice and Zurich. We received many comments after these talks and they all (hopefully) positively influenced our paper. We would like to thank everyone for their comments during these events, in particular Nils Franzén, who acted as a commentator of this paper at the ‘Philosophy Meets Linguistics’ Workshop in Zurich, 2017. We also like to thank Dean McHugh and Shane Steinert-Threlkeld for commenting on the manuscript, including correcting for style and typos. Finally, and most obviously, we would like to thank the reviewers of this paper for their stimulating comments and (mostly) constructive criticism.

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Rooij, R.v., Schulz, K. Generics and typicality: a bounded rationality approach. Linguist and Philos 43, 83–117 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10988-019-09265-8

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Keywords

  • Generic sentences
  • Formal semantics
  • Pragmatics
  • Associative learning
  • Probability