Although generic sentences are studied mostly in formal semantics, recently they attracted the attention of cognitive psychologists and social philosophers as well. The reason is that generics play a core role in the way we learn, represent and reason about  groups in the world (cf. Leslie, 2008). One of the important— and  worrying (Hasslanger 2011)— findings in these areas is (i) that we accept generic statements of the form 'Gs are P' typically if relatively many Gs have property P, but (ii) that if we are unfamiliar with a group and we learn a generic statement about it, we still interpret it in a much stronger way: (almost) all Gs are P (Cimpian et al 2010). In this talk I will provide an explanation of  (i) and (ii) based on a new interpretation of Tverky & Kahneman's (1974) 'Heuristics and Biases'-program of bounded rationality, by analyzing typicality in terms of relevance.

I will show how a weak semantic approach that accounts for (i) combined with a strong pragmatic analysis to account for (ii) explains why generics (and habituals) are excellent tools for persuasion, and easy to (mis)use by gifted advertisers and populists ('Muslims are terrorists', 'Hillary Clinton is a liar’).

Cimpian et al (2010), 'The power of generic statements', Cognitive Science
Haslanger  (2011), 'Ideology, Generics, and Common Ground', in Feminist Metaphysics
Leslie (2008), 'Generics: Cognition and acquisition', The Philosophical Review
Tversky & Kahneman (1974), 'Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases', Science


Robert van Rooij
Robert van Rooij

Robert van Rooij (University of Amsterdam)

Robert is a senior staff member of the Department of Philosophy of the University of Amsterdam. He has worked much on the formal semantics and pragmatics of natural language (e.g. conversational implicatures) and philosophy of language. More recently, he works also on topics in philosophical logic (e.g. vagueness) and metaphysics (e.g. universalia).
Read more on staff.fnwi.uva.nl/r.a.m.vanrooij/: