ArgLab • Colloquium

David Plunkett, Rachel Sterken & Tim Sundell

Generics and Metalinguistic Negotiation

In recent work, two of us (Plunkett and Sundell) have developed the idea that some disputes are “metalinguistic negotiations”. In a metalinguistic negotiation, 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. It’s perfectly possible for speakers to communicate such disagreements explicitly, by saying things like “we should use language in such-and-such a way” or “we should use term X to express such-and-such concept”. In a metalinguistic negotiation, by contrast, speakers argue about such issues implicitly. They do so via competing “metalinguistic” usages of terms, wherein speakers seem to use (rather than mention) words to communicate views about the very words they are using. In this paper, we consider how this picture of metalinguistic negotiation interacts with a particular class of disputes that has received significant philosophical attention in recent years: namely, disputes involving generics. We argue that some disputes involving generics are best thought of as metalinguistic negotiations, and that these cases can be illuminating in the context of the more general literature on generics. Part of the aim of this paper is simply to put these cases on the table, and highlight the need for a theory of generics to account for them. We have three additional, more ambitious goals as well. The first is to argue that a particular theory of generics does the best job of accounting for these cases – namely, the sort of “contextualism” about generics that one of us (Sterken) has developed in other work – in combination with the tools we get from the other two of us (Plunkett and Sundell) about metalinguistic negotiation. Second, we argue that this result helps bolster the overall case for the importance of the idea of metalinguistic negotiation as a tool within philosophy of language. Third, we argue that our discussion has some interesting upshots for philosophical methodology, stemming from the fact that significant parts of philosophical discourse involve generics. Finally, we conclude with some reflections on what our discussion means for normative issues in “conceptual ethics” and “conceptual engineering” about the use of generics, such as normative arguments for or against the use of generics in different contexts.


David Plunkett, Dartmouth College (United States)

Rachel Sterken, University of Hong Kong (Hong Kong)

Tim Sundell, University of Kentucky (United States)