Leslie on generics


This paper offers three objections to Leslie’s recent and already influential theory of generics (Leslie in Philos Perspect 21(1):375–403, 2007a, Philos Rev 117(1):1–47, 2008): (i) her proposed metaphysical truth-conditions are subject to systematic counter-examples, (ii) the proposed disquotational semantics fails, and (iii) there is evidence that generics do not express cognitively primitive generalisations.

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  1. 1.

    See, e.g., Haslanger (2011), Sorenson (2012) and Smith (2010).

  2. 2.

    Our primitive cognition is understood as quirky because it involves cognitive heuristics and biases. In other words, the truth-conditions of cognitively primitive generalisations are dependent on the quirky sensitivities of these cognitive mechanisms.

  3. 3.

    Just how to understand the connection between the mechanism and the accuracy conditions is a subtle matter. An anonymous referee suggests that a better interpretation is that certain conditions make the primitive mechanism activate. When the mechanism is triggered, the mind then, ceteris paribus, forms a corresponding generic belief.

  4. 4.

    There are, in fact, at least forty species of flightless bird living today.

  5. 5.

    This example is adapted from Nickel (2008).

  6. 6.

    See, e.g., Nisbett and Ross (1980).

  7. 7.

    Focus-sensitive particles look to alternatives to the focused constituent of the sentence for their interpretation. See, e.g., Rooth (1985) and Beaver and Clark (2008). The alternatives appealed to in the semantics of focus-sensitive particles are not the same as the psychologically based alternatives in Leslie’s theory—they are distinct notions which are attempting to explain distinct phenomena. The fact that too, even and only are focus-sensitive is not crucial to the counterexamples.

  8. 8.

    The most notable discussions of the interaction of focus-sensitive particles with generics can be found in von Fintel (1997) and Cohen (2003). In the latter, Cohen uses examples such as these to argue that generics and habituals can have what he calls quasi-existential readings. As Cohen’s explanation of such cases appeals crucially to quantifier domain restriction, Cohen’s explanation is not available to Leslie: Leslie (2007a, 2008) denies that generics contextually restrict their domains, as quantified sentences do.

  9. 9.

    Given the right context, they can come out as intuitively true—for example, consider:

    1. (19)

      A: What surprising things do humans do?

      B: Humans kill themselves.

    However, these are not the right sort of contexts for Leslie since the inquiry masks the strikingness. Any context-sensitivity arising must be accounted for by Leslie by appeal the contextual aspects of the psychological features she appeals to.

  10. 10.

    Cavedon and Glasbey (1994, 1996) provide a few additional good cases.

  11. 11.

    Perhaps distinctive properties is not strictly speaking correct. Norwegians and other cultures eat horse meat. As such, we might be better off with characteristic properties.

  12. 12.

    See Krifka et al. (1995, pp. 81–83).

  13. 13.

    Krifka et al. (1995, p. 9), for example, take such A-quantifiers to be close in meaning to Gen.

  14. 14.

    One theory of generics along these lines can be found in Declerck (1986). There are various authors who promote pragmatic mechanisms which Leslie might exploit—see, e.g., Recanati (2002), Carston (2000) and Sperber and Wilson (1995). According to such views, the generalisations communicated might be unarticulated constituents or freely enriched as part of the content of the generic utterance.

  15. 15.

    For an analogous argument, see Stanley and Szabo (2000).

  16. 16.

    Sterken (ms.) provides independent arguments that Gen is an indexical.

  17. 17.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for this journal for help with this point.

  18. 18.

    Further, one could add that given that Leslie is committed to cognitive biases playing a content-determining role, why think there is anything domain-specific going on—that is, why think there is a dedicated mechanism, the primitive cognitive mechanism of generalisation—which is specifically responsible for playing the content-determining role for generics? It seems more plausible given the forgoing that if cognitive heuristics and biases play a content-determining role, then they do so domain-generally—drawing on a variety of cognitive mechanisms.

  19. 19.

    These two arguments are also adduced in a more elaborate form in Sterken (forthcoming).

  20. 20.

    A further explanation of the contradictory feeling associated with (42c) is that (42c) is indeed contradictory on a strong interpretation. If (42c) is read such that they is anaphoric on the kind ravens and sometimes quantifies over situations or events in which the first conjunct is true, then one should hear a contradiction on the strong interpretation.

  21. 21.

    That is, if it is read as Mosquitoes can carry the West Nile virus, even though most don’t. See, e.g., Nickel (ms.), and Asher and Pelletier (2012).


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This paper has benefited from discussions with Mahrad Almotahari, Nicholas Asher, Herman Cappelen, Ephraim Glick, John Hawthorne, Torfinn Huvenes, Philipp Koralus, Nick Kroll, Sarah-Jane Leslie, David Liebesman, Michael Morreau, Bernhard Nickel, Jeff Pelletier, Jennifer Saul, Jonathan Schaffer, Martin Smith, Andreas Stokke, Brian Weatherson and Elia Zardini. Parts of the paper were presented at a Workshop on Philosophy of Language at Harvard University, the Society for Exact Philosophy (SEP) Conference held at the University of Alberta, the Harvard/MIT Graduate Conference, the Yale/UConn Graduate Conference, the Princeton/Rutgers Graduate Conference, the University of Oslo (CSMN) and the University of St Andrews (Arché). I thank the audience members and organisers at these events. I also thank an anonymous referee for this journal for helpful comments.

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Correspondence to Rachel Katharine Sterken.

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Sterken, R.K. Leslie on generics. Philos Stud 172, 2493–2512 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-014-0429-2

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  • Generics
  • Disquotation
  • Context
  • Gen
  • Generalisation
  • Primitive