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Generics and metalinguistic negotiation


In this paper, we consider how the notion of metalinguistic negotiation interacts with various theories of generics. The notion of metalinguistic negotiation we discuss stems from previous work from two of us (Plunkett and Sundell). Metalinguistic negotiations are disputes in which speakers disagree about normative issues concerning language, such as issues about what a given word should mean in the relevant context, or which of a range of related concepts a word should express. In a metalinguistic negotiation, speakers argue about such issues implicitly, via competing “metalinguistic” usages of terms. Here, we argue that some disputes involving generics are best thought of as metalinguistic negotiations, and that these cases can be illuminating for our more general theorizing about generics. Specifically, we argue that the “contextualist” theory of generics that one of us (Sterken) has developed in other work is best equipped to account for these metalinguistic negotiations, relative to other leading views of generics. We thus argue for a “package deal” view of generics: a view that combines Plunkett and Sundell’s account of metalinguistic negotiation with Sterken’s contextualist view of generics.

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  1. For the relevant co-authored work by Plunkett and Sundell that we summarize in this paragraph, see Plunkett and Sundell (2021a, 2021b, 2013a, 2013b, 2014). Plunkett and Sundell both develop and expand on these core ideas in solo authored work, including Plunkett (2015, 2016) and Sundell (2011a, 2011b, 2016, 2017).

  2. See Sterken (2015a, 2016a).

  3. See Sterken (2015a).

  4. See the examples found in Plunkett and Sundell (2013a, 2013b), Sundell (2011b), drawing on work from Barker (2002), and Ludlow (2008). Some of these examples are rehearsed in Sect. 3 below.

  5. Sterken (2015a).

  6. Sterken (2015a, p. 1).

  7. Sterken (2015a), discussing a case from Nickel (2008).

  8. See Sterken (2015a).

  9. See Sterken (2015a) for the relevant arguments and cases that attest to this claim.

  10. See Nickel (2016), Pelletier and Asher (1997), Asher and Pelletier (2013), and Asher and Morreau (1995).

  11. See Krifka (2012).

  12. See Leslie (2015).

  13. See Cohen (2001b).

  14. See Carlson (1995).

  15. See Nguyen (2020) and Tessler and Goodman (2019).

  16. See Carlson (1977), Liebesman (2011), and Teichman (2016).

  17. The framework that we summarize below is put forward in Plunkett and Sundell (2021a, 2021b, 2013a, 2013b, 2014).

  18. See Plunkett and Sundell (2013a) for emphasis on this point.

  19. See Plunkett (2015) for emphasis of this point.

  20. See Plunkett and Sundell (2013a), drawing on Barker (2002).

  21. In Plunkett and Sundell (2013a), Plunkett and Sundell introduce this kind of dispute as one kind of non-canonical dispute. They do so on the assumption that metalinguistic usage is best thought of as a pragmatic mechanism. However, as Plunkett and Sundell underscore, their primary interest is in the phenomena of metalinguistic disputes themselves, and not with the question of whether metalinguistic usages are best understood as semantic or pragmatic. Depending on how metalinguistic uses are best analyzed—and also, perhaps, on one’s broader views about the semantics/pragmatics distinction itself—it could turn out that metalinguistic disputes are better thought of as canonical disputes. For example, on dynamic analyses such as the one in Barker (2013), the communicated information about the threshold for ‘hot’ is just as much a part of the semantic content as the information about the temperature. See Plunkett and Sundell (2021b) for further discussion. In what follows, for ease of presentation, we will stick with the simplifying assumption that metalinguistic disputes are best thought of as a kind of non-canonical dispute.

  22. See Kaplan (1989).

  23. In folding together metalinguistic disputes involving context-sensitivity and disputes focusing on character, Plunkett and Sundell differ from other authors who offer analyses that are similar in spirit (even if not ones that are fully “metalinguistic” by their own lights), but that apply only to expressions that are context-sensitive (in a more or less traditional sense of “context-sensitive”). See, for example, DeRose (2004), Khoo and Knobe (2016), Khoo (2020), and Silk (2016). If metalinguistic negotiation of Gen is real, it’s an example of metalinguistic dispute involving ordinary context-sensitivity. Argumentatively, this works to our advantage in this paper, as those who grant that metalinguistic negotiation happens, but are skeptical that “metalinguistic negotiation” over the character of a term is in fact the same basic phenomenon as that which happens over the context-sensitive aspects of a term, can remain fully on board with our conclusions here.

  24. Plunkett and Sundell (2013a), discussing a case from Ludlow (2008).

  25. It should be noted that one general reason to expect at least some metalinguistic negotiations about the character of terms is that some people make explicit proposals in conceptual ethics that either are explicitly stated as ones about shifting the character of a term (at least as that term is used in a given range of contexts), or else could be charitably interpreted as doing so. (For example, see some of the cases discussed in Burgess and Plunkett (2013a, 2013b), Cappelen (2018), and Cappelen and Plunkett (2020), including certain ways of reading the proposals in Carnap (1947/1956), Haslanger (2000), and Scharp (2013). If people sometimes make explicit proposals to change the character of a given term, then we should expect them to also sometimes implicitly do so via engaging in metalinguistic negotiation.

  26. If it turns out to be more complex than that, it will only serve to make the following points more strongly.

  27. Kennedy (2007).

  28. See Benbaji (2009).

  29. Sundell (2016).

  30. See Sundell (2016, p. 19). In that paper, Sundell argues for a pair of controversial claims about the semantics of expressions like ‘tasty’: that they are not semantically evaluative, and that they do not have an argument position for an “experiencer” or “standard”. Whether those claims are right need not affect the use of these cases as an illustration in this paper, as the idea that predicates of taste are relative gradable adjectives with elements of indeterminacy to their scale is consistent with a range of more conventional semantic accounts. Other parallel examples are easy to construct by analogy to these cases, if even that much turns out not to be true of predicates of taste specifically.

  31. For further discussion and defense of this idea, see Plunkett and Sundell (2021b).

  32. Note that it’s unclear whether we should think there is a difference in kind between “revolutionary” and “reforming” proposals, or whether it’s just a matter of degree. We don’t take a stand on that issue for our purposes in this paper.

  33. It should be noted that this issue connects to the first in some key ways. For example, one might think that changing the character of a term as used by a certain group of people A requires making changes in the patterns of use in a much bigger group of people B, perhaps along with perhaps a range of other factors that matter on “externalist” accounts of meaning.

  34. Krifka (2012) considers similar cases, which he calls “definitional uses” of generics.

  35. Following Sterken’s discussion in Sterken (2015a) of King (2014), we could see this on the model of supplementative expressions like ‘ready’, or ‘enough’, where, in many uses, an expression’s considerable context variability is resolved enough to allow for easy communication, yet needn’t be thought of as fully determinate.

  36. We should emphasize that there are alternative ways of describing details of the context where one gets a different reading of the exchange in PIZZA 1, on which it isn’t a canonical dispute. This result might also be secured by adopting certain general theoretical views in linguistics or philosophy of language. For our argumentative purposes here, what matters is just that, given the context as we’ve described it in setting up PIZZA 1, and given a range of plausible general views in linguistics and philosophy of language, it’s plausible to read PIZZA 1 as a canonical dispute. The same general point applies to the other three pizza disputes we describe below.

  37. See Plunkett and Sundell (2013a) for emphasis on this point.

  38. We could make it slightly less fantastic by imagining simply that it is mutually known roughly what proportion of Norwegians like pizza, and that basic facts about which subpopulations are unlikely to like pizza (for obvious reasons) are part of the conversational common ground. The point is more vivid the more exact we imagine the agreement on non-linguistic facts to be, although the exact amount of vividness won’t affect the argument either way.

  39. If you are having trouble hearing (25) as a felicitous, then try imagining (25) as uttered in the following context: the speaker of (24) is writing a guidebook for immigrants to Norway to help them understand important distinctive aspects of Norwegian culture.

  40. Note that, as we emphasized earlier, it’s possible for speakers to have mistaken self-interpretations of their own activity. Thus, even in cases where speakers say things that seem to involve the denial of the idea that they are engaged in a metalinguistic negotiation (as in the previous reading of PIZZA 4), they might be wrong. Moreover, as Plunkett and Sundell bring out in other work, disputes wherein speakers claim that they are fundamentally engaged in arguments about what X “really is” (such as what “morality really is”, or “freedom really is”), might best be interpreted at the end of the day as metalinguistic negotiations see Plunkett and Sundell (2013a) and Plunkett (2015). Thus, even if the dispute in PIZZA 4 doesn’t end up proceeding in this alternative way, and instead goes in the former way, the metalinguistic analysis of this case might still be correct.

  41. See Plunkett and Sundell (2013a) for further discussion.

  42. See Sterken (2020).

  43. See Burgess and Plunkett (2013a), Cappelen and Plunkett (2020), and Sterken (2020) for overviews of some cases, including, for example, Haslanger (2000)’s revolutionary proposals for gender and race terms.

  44. Recall: ‘metalinguistic negotiation’ is introduced as a technical term equivalent to ‘normative metalinguistic dispute’. So, one should not get fixated on certain resonances of the term ‘negotiation’ that might imply a certain kind of cooperative commitment to reaching a resolution.

  45. See Podosky (2021) for connected discussion about issues tied to control and power that can arise in metalinguistic negotiations.

  46. Lewis (1996).

  47. See Cimpian and Scott (2012).

  48. For a small sample of relevant work in psychology, see Chambers et al. (2008), Cimpian and Erickson (2012), Cimpian et al. (2010), Gelman et al. (2002), Gelman et al. (2010), Hammond and Cimpian (2017), Hollander et al. (2002), Pappas and Gelman (1998), and Wodak et al. (2015) and references therein.

  49. See Gelman (2004) and Haslanger (2011).

  50. See Leshin et al. (2021) and Leslie (2017) amongst others. There are different ways of thinking about how speakers should use generics in light of the connections between generics and mistaken forms of “essentialist” thought. Leshin et al. (2021), Leslie (2017) advocate that we limit our use of generics involving social kind terms, especially around children. Anderson et al. (2012) suggest that we explicitly challenge those who use it. Metalinguistic negotiation offers another tool to explore using in response, which might be used in combination with either of the above suggested remedies.

  51. Leslie’s view (as developed in Leslie (2007) and Leslie (2008)) is exemplary in providing an explanation of many of the psychological connections since her view is constructed based on these results. Liebesman (2011) and Sterken (2015a) include discussion of how the kind-predication theorist and contextualist, respectively, can explain the early acquisition of generics and other important results in psychology. Sterken and McKeever (2021) discuss how a contextualist view like Sterken’s can account for their epistemological, psychological and social roles. See also Bosse (2021). Nickel (2016) includes discussion of their importance in causal explanation, as well as their social and psychological importance.

  52. For example, see Ludlow (2014).

  53. For example, although Plunkett and Sundell express sympathy for Ludlow’s more radical views, they also underscore how their schematic account of metalinguistic negotiation is compatible with views on which it plays a more limited role in communication than it does on Ludlow’s view, and which is consistent with more traditional view about meaning and content. See Plunkett and Sundell (2013a) and Plunkett and Sundell (2021b).

  54. See Haslanger (2011), Langton (2021), and Sterken and McKeever (2021).

  55. Anderson et al. (2012, p. 764).

  56. For example, we omit discussion of Greenberg (2002), Nguyen (2020), and Tessler and Goodman (2019).

  57. See, for example, Ludlow (2014).

  58. The distinction is discussed in Lawler (1973), Burton-Roberts (1977), Carlson (1995), Cohen (2001a), and Greenberg (1998), amongst others.

  59. ‘Quasi-essential’ in this context refers either to essential properties or to properties that are quite modally robust.

  60. Hesni (2022) argues that we can extend Krifka’s account to cover the class of cases that Leslie (2015) calls normative generics. Hesni’s account resonates with our own discussion of Leslie in what follows, insofar as we agree with Hesni that the idea of metalinguistic usage of generics is a helpful tool for providing an alternative to Leslie’s account of normative generics.

  61. More specifically, Krifka suggests that the topic-comment structure of a sentence determines which expression in the sentence is defined by a definitional use of it.

  62. Our discussion of Krifka here is congenial. However, it’s unclear whether Krifka would ultimately agree with our view. If metalinguistic readings of statements involving generics are as prominent as we suggest, it would rob Krifka of his main tool to distinguish bare plural and indefinite singular generics. Furthermore, his view of definitional generics is a semantic one, while our view of metalinguistic uses needn’t be semantic.

  63. See Asher and Morreau (1995), Asher and Pelletier (2013), and Pelletier and Asher (1997).

  64. See Nickel (2016).

  65. See Nickel (2016, pp. 70 and 203).

  66. See Sterken (2016b) and Liebesman (2017).

  67. Leslie (2007) and Leslie (2008).

  68. Given Leslie’s disquotational semantics, her view may not lend itself well to describing these as metalinguistic negotiations. Her view might be better suited to describing these as disagreements about whether one of the disjuncts of her metaphysical truth-conditions obtains—i.e., about whether a certain truth-maker obtains. However, Leslie’s disquotational view might be repaired in various ways (cf. Sterken (2015b)) to accommodate metalinguistic uses. Alternatively, of course, she might appeal to other non-semantic mechanisms.

  69. Having said this, there is the possibility that speakers are not even aware of what generics give voice to, and do in fact attempt such negotiations in vain. There is, after all, quite a bit of evidence that speakers are not very good at reflecting on the meaning of generics. To underscore this fact, experts in the area have spent the last sixty years trying to theorize the correct semantics and there is wide disagreement among them on how to understand the meaning of generics. Further, such attempts might not even be in vain if, for instance, they have the capacity to change the character of Gen from something attached to our primitive cognitive mechanism of generalization to something else entirely, like a more conventional quantificational meaning. Though this is a possibility, we take it that it isn’t a very attractive or plausible one.

  70. Leslie et al. (2011).

  71. See Leslie (2015).

  72. See Knobe and Prasada (2011). See also Knobe et al. (2013). On Knobe and Prasada’s account, “dual character” concepts characterize their members in terms of both descriptive features and normative ideals. Purported examples of dual character concepts include the concepts scientist, artist, and girl, in contrast to the concept raccoon (which is purportedly not a dual character concept). On their account, dual character concepts provide both descriptive and normative bases upon which to categorize and to evaluate category members.

  73. See Hesni (2021) for supporting arguments against Leslie’s ambiguity/polysemy view of normative generics.

  74. Leslie writes the following: “We are now in a position to understand what disagreement over such generics might consist in. Perhaps the most straightforward case is one in which there is disagreement over whether a particular role is a plausible candidate for being the primary role for the kind in question, and hence for determining the associated ideal.” Leslie (2015, p. 128). Another possibility for disagreement arises if one agrees about the kind’s primary role, but disagrees that a particular property is important or necessary for fulfilling that role. Two people may agree that a philosopher’s role is to seek truth and understanding (or something to that effect), yet one may believe that knowing Kant’s work inside out is important for this end. If the first asserts “a true philosopher knows Kant’s work inside out”, the second may disagree with this statement, even though the two are in agreement about the primary role of philosophers.

  75. See Liebesman (2011), Carlson (1977), and Teichman (2016).

  76. See Carlson (1977) and Teichman (2016) for “sophisticated” kind theories (that posit a covert VP operator Gn). Similar problems arise for sophisticated kind theories, so we do not consider them in detail here.

  77. See Liebesman (2011).

  78. For more on this kind of argumentative strategy, see Plunkett (2015), which (put roughly) argues that if there is good reason to think that a number of everyday disputes among ordinary speakers are metalinguistic negotiations, then so too is there reason to think that a number of disputes among philosophers are metalinguistic negotiations, given the similar kinds of evidence at play in each case.

  79. See Sterken (2015a, 2016a).


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Thanks to Annie Bosse, Ray Briggs, Herman Cappelen, Natalie Dokken, Patrick Greenough, Quinn Goddard, Nat Hansen, Samia Hesni, Jonah Hirsch, Nithya Kasarla, Justin Khoo, Anders Knospe, Max Kölbel, Zachary Lang, Lukas Lewerentz, David Liebesman, Bernhard Nickel, Jonathan Phillips, Griffon Pion, Kate Ritchie, Adrian Russian, Ravia Thakral, Daniel Wodak, and anonymous referees for helpful feedback and discussion. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at Dartmouth College, MIT, the University of St. Andrews, University of Vienna, and the University of Zurich. Thanks to everyone who participated in those discussions. This research was funded by the Norwegian Research Council Toppforsk project Concept Lab at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Oslo (project number 144259).

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Correspondence to Rachel Katharine Sterken.

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Plunkett, D., Sterken, R.K. & Sundell, T. Generics and metalinguistic negotiation. Synthese 201, 50 (2023).

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  • Generics
  • Metalinguistic negotiation
  • Contextualism
  • Metalinguistic usage