All or Nothing

One way you know you’re on soft ground in an argument is to hear something like His supporters are all nuts, or Her policies won’t help anyone. In conversations that are trying honestly to get somewhere, to test one’s opinions against the thoughts of others, generalities like these are as dangerous as a riptide that will engulf any particular that gets too close.

When we are in our best logical frame of mind, we are aware of two kinds of statements, universal and particular. Universal statements say something about all or every: All politicians worry about themselves first or Every last one of them should be thrown out of office. The subjects here, all politicians and every last one of them name what is called a class, and such statements are called universal because they assert something about each and every member of the class they name.

Particular statements are not so confident. If I can summon the courage in an argument with someone to correct myself and say, Well, I shouldn’t say all politicians, but it’s true that some politicians worry about themselves first, I have, in the interest of more careful thinking, changed the universal statement into a particular: not all, but some. Where a universal will bravely assert something of an entire class, a particular cuts with a finer blade, recognizing that life rarely first appears so clean cut.

All of this has to do with what is called generalization. It seems to be an inveterate inclination of human beings to look for answers, for the causes and reasons, whys and wherefores of what is going on in the world. We generalize in order to come to some conclusion, and we do it properly after we’ve taken note of a sufficient number of particular instances. Examining the particulars ensures the health of our generalizations; it is what we rely on our doctors and scientists and technicians to do with care and integrity, so that they don’t move too fast and rest on an answer that is only true in part.

But thinking clearly is not an easy friend, and when we just don’t want to take on the effort of explaining ourselves, of making finer distinctions of fact and evidence—when we just want the big answer, the one pill now to solve it all, we give rein to other of our natural propensities and declare it dauntlessly as we already know it to be. Generalization, in other words, can slacken into a logical fallacy called hasty generalization. If genuine generalization is the search for a principle after looking closely at the facts, hasty generalization has no time for such careful consideration: I know what I know. And so the angels shudder.

Knowing the difference, then, between universal and particular statements can put us on our guard to be more careful, not only in our own thinking but in taking on board the over-confident conclusions of others. Whether the words all or some are actually present in a statement or only assumed, they mark two very different kinds of assertion, and relying only and often on the universal can be of doubtable value in a complicated world.


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