Knowledge involves generalizations. The science of amphibians is not about specific frogs, but about frogs in general. A veterinarian, asked to treat a specific frog, would call upon a store of generalizations to help make a diagnosis and to recommend treatments. Even if the vet was very familiar with past episodes of sickness of that particular frog, he would still be generalizing across instances. i.e., in the past, when this frog burps purple bubbles, it has meant that he is reacting to eating a certain kind of fly. The frog is burping purple bubbles, therefore…
It is true that there is nothing logically precise or rigorous about induction. Technically, induction can even be regarded as an error. Just because 100,000 white swans have been observed, it does not mean all swans are white.
On the other hand, since human knowledge is finite, and people are often operating in conditions of uncertainty, it is frequently necessary to make educated guesses based on past experience.
In the past, that chair has supported my weight. Therefore, it can be expected to support my weight this time and it will not be necessary to subject it to analysis before sitting down. Likewise, even with unfamiliar chairs in other people’s homes, or at work, sitting down in a chair is not normally a case of taking your life in your hands.
There is a philosopher who claims that he does not “believe” in induction and inductive arguments. Since someone’s beliefs can be determined by his actions, an observer could be expected to see this philosopher not eating any food, since the fact that this particular item of food was nourishing and not poisonous in the past does not mean it will be today, not expecting his car to start in the morning, to gingerly place his feet on the ground upon exiting bed in case the floor no longer supports his weight, and to duck just in case his wife has decided to imitate a boxer that morning. Failing to observe any of these strange behaviors, it is possible to conclude that the “philosopher” is in error about what he believes and does not believe.
To live a functioning human existence is to believe in induction.
It is possible to get carried away with theory and abstractions and to have a reliance on logic with no wiggle room for intuition and lived experience. It is also possible to fixate on the concrete and specific and to anathematize generalizations. Several smart, educated women I know have begun discussions by saying “That’s a generalization.” I have learned to be ready with the reply, “Yes. But there are such things as true generalizations.”
I have never actually had a man take an anti-generalization stance in conversation.
It seems to be related to the fact that more smart men are interested in theoretical matters than smart women. Men and women balance each other out in this regard; one group trying to find commonalities and another prioritizing the unique and particular.
If this is true and my experience reasonably representative, then it is true as a generalization that women tend not to like generalizations. Since it is not actually possible to live non-inductively it is more a matter of emotional allegiance to the particular than something women can actually live out all the time.
In many instances, this emotional allegiance has a nurturing motivation – a concern for the lost sheep who does not match expectations and the rule. There is a motherly concern for the person who does not fit in. This gives a perhaps inborn tendency to be suspicious of generalizations a moral dimension. Your generalization means someone will be left out and that’s not nice!
These issues tend to come to the fore on the fraught topic of feminism. On the one hand there are proven psychological facts such as men tending to be more interested in things than women. Women tend to be more interested in people than things. On the other hand, there is a motherly concern that such general truths will harm women who are more interested in things than people. Anyone who diverges from expectations, from inductive generalizations, might face prejudice. A man more interested in people and a woman more interested in things might be seen as anomalous. Although, since neither men nor women tend to care about the welfare of men very much, the anomalous male can be forgotten, unless he wants to be a woman, in which case he is worthy of concern.
Characteristics of groups necessarily generalize across individuals. If the attributes of individuals are the focus, then groups as a topic simply exit the picture.
Feminism, however, cannot exist without generalizations and theory. It is in the business of making broad sweeping statements about such things as the history of the relations between men and women. The fact that there are fewer women engineers than men is characterized as being the result of discrimination against women – though the fact that 75% of psychology majors are women is regarded as non-problematic.
In fact, the more egalitarian a country is, the more sex differences emerge. A hyper-egalitarian country like Sweden has just 23% of its engineers being women. In India and Iran, it is 50/50. It turns out that when women are given more free rein to choose what they want to study their choices diverge from men’s choices more.
Claims of discrimination necessarily refer to groups. They are generalizations across individuals. Women as a group, it is imagined, are somehow being prevented from entering STEM subjects – despite enormous financial incentives to choose them in the form of job opportunities and financial aid.
The only way to counteract such paranoid assertions is to point to differences between groups – in this case, sexual dimorphism. Men and women as groups have different preferences and tend to make different field of studies and career choices accordingly. No “discrimination” is going on – or, if there is, it is not the root cause of massive society-wide differences.
The critic of feminist complaints is faced with claims about groups. He responds with facts about groups. These facts about groups are then described as potentially injurious to individual women who tend towards the exception rather than rule. Question – “So, we are to avoid making gross generalizations in case individuals who do not conform get hurt in the process? Generalizations are stereotypes and stereotypes confirm or result in prejudice?” Response: “OK. If you stop making generalizations about all men and all women and the relation between the sexes. If you stop claiming sexist discrimination based on differing outcomes between men and women as groups, I’ll stop referring to general truths about men and women as groups.”
The only way to counter generalities is to refer to other generalities. The motherly concern for the lost lamb, and for the possible negative consequences of publicizing true generalizations has to stop in this particular context.
If you stop making general claims, I’ll stop making general claims!
Put the gun down! (While pointing gun) Put the gun down! Put the gun down! (Gun is put down) BANG!
The feminist interlocutor generalizes about men, women and the “patriarchy.” Motherly concern for the plight of women is evinced. Then, also out of motherly concern, men are forbidden from pointing out general facts about sexual dimorphism to explain the error of thinking women are being discriminated against and oppressed out of fear that such general truths will harm individual women who do not conform to the rule. The fact that men are referring to general facts about men and women as groups is then regarded as further evidence of the oppressive nature of men and all opponents of feminism.