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Episode 46: Frank Veltman discusses normality

This month, we talk with Frank Veltman, Professor of Logic and Philosophy at the Institute for Logic, Language, and Computation in Amsterdam.  Click here to listen to our conversation.

Frank VeltmanMost of our everyday reasoning involves the notion of things normally being one way rather than another.  But sometimes, this gets us into trouble.  Statements of prejudice and bigotry, for instance, usually make recourse to the idea of normality.  Imagine I’m xenophobe, and I say, ‘Greek people are normally lazy.’  Now, clearly that’s an offensive thing to say because it shows that I’m buying into a harmful stereotype.  But to make matters worse, on top of being offensive, it’s difficult to try to refute.  Why?  Because whenever someone tries to give me a counterexample–a Greek person who isn’t lazy–I can just reply that that counterexample doesn’t matter, because I was only saying that they’re normally lazy.  Not that you couldn’t find me the odd Greek person here or there who wasn’t.

You might think that this response is generally fallacious.  Perhaps these ‘normally’ statements are all just hedges that aren’t really saying anything.  But the problem is that in most other contexts, we need them.  It seems to be 100% true, for example, that bears normally hibernate in the winter.  That’s something you would explain to a child during a lesson about what a bear is, even though you know that (for example) the bear in the local zoo is an exception.  Or think about how you would teach a child to cross the street.  Wouldn’t you have to explain to her that drivers normally stop when the light is red?  Here it makes perfect sense to insist that that’s true, even though (for example) some drunk driver last night didn’t.  In these cases, it’s perfectly legitimate to argue that some counterexamples don’t falsify the general statement.

In this episode, Frank Veltman offers an account of what it takes for a normality statement to be true.  Yes, normality statements are immune to certain counterexamples.  But not to others!  That’s how we can refute xenophobic statements: by giving the right kind of counterexample.  Tune in to find out what kind that is.

Matt Teichman

Posted in Podcast.

3 Responses

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  1. Mark Balaz says

    I think this “normal” idea just gives us the basis to live life to a degree, as with most things a certain level of assumption is needed for “normal” life. I point to the traffic light story. I stop at a red light because I really hope others will follow these basic traffic laws and traditions. Without a set of “laws” or assumptions, life would seem to get much more complex and problematic. We don’t know it all, so a certain degree of our world needs to take into account this assumption of normality. We see how people’s lives can turn out when they respond/react to the norm…

  2. Dan Goodhue says

    Does anyone know if Frank Veltman has ever discussed the semantics of normality in writing anywhere?

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