Generic Terms and Their Relationship with Truth


When I say something terribly generic, I may make an incredibly true statement.  Get me to make a more specific statement that’s true and I might find that I can’t do it.  So what becomes the value of generic statements?  What is truth in light of these observations?  In continuing my ongoing general semantics discussion of language as generic, let’s see.

But first, let’s exemplify by giving you a generic, true statement:

My name is Ben Hauck.

A true statement, yes.  But generic?  “Generic” is a relative term, meaning that something may be generic from one vantage, but from the opposite vantage it may be specific.  So I’ll offer up a more specific sentence to show the genericity of my statement above:

My name is Benito Hauck.

This second sentence is a more specific–i.e., less generic–statement.  It is clueing you into my fuller name.  In terms of what it specifies, it specifies that my longer name is “Benito,” which is more information than the name “Ben” reveals.

So it’s a more specific statement, but is it still true?  No.  Because here’s a true statement that is also more specific:

My name is Benjamin Hauck.

My name isn’t Benito.  See how a more specific statement may be false while a related generic statement may be true?

This makes you wonder about science.  If science deals with the manufacture of categorical propositions (as opposed to hypothetical propositions, distinctions made by Cassius Keyser in his fabulous book The Pastures of Wonder), then its propositions (statements) bear a relative genericity (“they are relatively generic”), and the pursuit of science is to manufacture as specific a proposition as possible while also staying true.

Think of Zeno’s Paradox, which is explained popularly with a racing tortoise and hare.  In the story, the tortoise moves slowly, and the hare runs quickly, impaired in that he can only run half his distance every length.  (So, when he runs half the race, he then runs a quarter, then an eighth, then a sixtheenth, and so on.)  Theoretically, the hare never reaches the finish line and is beaten by the tortoise.

Scientists are like hares, admitting that they can never achieve the finish line (seeing what “really” is there and thus knowing “Truth”), but believing they can get incredibly close to Truth.  They make as specific a statement as possible that is true, but the statement always bears a genericity to it.  Scientists, I’m arguing, are hopelessly generic, though they may be more specific than the layperson could ever be.

I think Alfred Korzybski would argue something very similar.  He would show his model, the Structural Differential, and say that scientists can’t get beyond the object level of observation (the circle in the diagram) to see the event level (“what is going on,” as Samuel Bois called it).  Their verbalizations may get close, but “no cigar.”  Ever.

Alfred, I wish I could have given you the word “generic.”  I think it would have been a great teaching tool for you!

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