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Tallis in Wonderland

The Professor of Data-Lean Generalisations

Raymond Tallis puts forward a very specific argument.

“All general statements are dangerous, including this one.” Alexandre Dumas

In November 1947, our household was visited (so I am told) by a large Dutch lady. It was a time of rationing: cakes and sweet things were in short supply. Without asking, the large Dutch lady helped herself to a second slice of cake, thereby clearing the plate. This single datum was sufficient evidence for a relative of mine (name withheld for the sake of the rest of his family) to draw uncomplimentary views about the Dutch people and the Dutch nation. He held these views for the remaining 51 years of his life.

In adhering to such data-lean generalisations, my relative was not particularly unusual, of course. And there is much fun to be had in collecting other people’s general statements. As James Thurber pointed out, it is not an expensive hobby and the collection requires little upkeep. There is rather less fun to be had in remembering one’s own. I don’t think I have ever gone so far as to summarise the great nation of India in five not very well chosen words, but I fear that I have come pretty close. I would venture that you have too.

There are circumstances in which you are more prone to do this kind of thing. You know how it is. A general discussion about this, that and the other suddenly flips into an argument about something in particular: New Labour’s foreign policy; the impact of the World Trade Organisation; the respective contributions of colonialism and indigenous corruption to the current catastrophes in Africa; whether the European Union is A Good Thing; the significance of the idea that quantum mechanics is incomprehensible; whether men are less likely than women to ask for help when they are lost; whether humans are on balance violent or peace-loving. Several things then happen: the temperature rises; casual observations are replaced by dogmatic assertions; the discussion moves from cooperation to competition; and you find yourself making, and defending, general statements that far exceed anything you are sure of, or even could be. Afterwards you feel more than a little disgusted with yourself for participating in a tussle between competing sophists. You have been dishonest, pretending to an authority that extends far beyond the places where it really holds sway.

Intelligence is no safeguard against the propensity to absurd generalisations. Indeed, if the history of French philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century is anything to go by, it only makes things worse. Many of the leading figures enhanced their reputations by make rude remarks about something called ‘the bourgeoisie’. The fact that these bourgeoise ‘salauds’ (bastards) constituted many millions of people living widely different lives across the curved surface of the earth, each with a different mix of vices and virtues, good luck and ill, did not inhibit many maitre a pensers from summarising them in withering one-liners. The palm must go to that truly great thinker Roland Barthes, who, in his book on a novel by Balzac, S/Z, was even able to summarise the difference between feudal and bourgeois society in terms of a shift from signs that did and signs that did not have a traceable origin. As for the bourgeois signs, he said they were “a metonymic confusion” [a confused figure of speech]. Thus: all the signs used by all bourgeoisies over many centuries and countries! And J-P Sartre, the most famous French intellectual since Voltaire, could hardly resist moving from the particular to the general. In his celebrated introduction to Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, an indictment of colonial rule in North Africa, he asserted that “We, the people of Europe, we too are being decolonized, by which I mean to say the colon in each and every one of us is being finally excised.” Did anyone tell Mrs Smith of Wigan, who is currently hanging out the washing?

The habit of data-lean generalisation is infectious. On the basis of these two data about French philosophy, I would invite you to conclude that being an intellectual, or aspiring to be one, seems to oblige one to make pronouncements whose scope far exceeds anything any mind could justifiable conclude. But this propensity goes beyond intellectual life: we are always exceeding our cognitive authority.

Data-lean generalisation may be ludicrous, but it comes from a deeper part of our consciousness than that which generates general statements. It an essential part of the cognitive equipment which enables us to navigate a complex and confusing world. This is why it is not confined to drunks in the lounge bar with lager-fuelled delusions of omniscience, or French thinkers.

Over-generalisation begins with our need to make wider sense of the particulars we encounter. This is an essential part of the process of making the world intelligible. We classify the objects before us on the basis of partial evidence, and in most cases we are roughly right. When we translate that brown surface into the flank of a horse we are usually correct, and the expectations we entertain of it are on the whole justified. When what is presented to us is another person, classification is often less efficient. We think we know exactly what to make of that jar-headed youth who has just cut us up in his souped-up Ford Escort, dispensing through its open window aorta-shaking music which is filling the street. He is a lout, doubtless beats up women, pays few taxes, fills the historic cities of Europe with shouting and vomit on stag nights, and – horror of horrors – probably supports Chelsea. A second look and we realise that he is that nice lad who once knocked on the door telling us that we had left our car lights on.

At any rate, it is (generally) easier to mock the general statements others make than to adopt a critical stance about our own, or even notice them. The interior monologues of the characters in James Joyce’s great novel Ulysses remind us how we are at it all the time. There is a certain level of generality to which our minds naturally gravitate, and we sometimes seem more at ease thinking the general than noticing the particular. We seem more confident making comments about entire nations, or entire periods of history encompassing the experiences of millions of people over hundreds of years, than with particular observations about particular people, places and things, at particular times. Distance lends clarity – or the illusion of it. Remote objects are more amenable to being grouped, and distant groups are more word-shaped, perhaps because we come upon them as words: to use Bertrand Russell’s distinction, we have knowledge of them by description rather than by (direct) acquaintance. Whatever the reason, it seems easier to characterise a nation than to characterise a group of people we know personally. The better we know individual people, the more difficult it is to sum them up. Even an account of ourselves, however honest in intention, would be consciously pick-and-mix. I would be hard-put to summarise the adult life of Raymond Tallis. Indeed, describing what is distinctive about the English character seems less of a challenge than giving a full account of my own behaviour, with all the motives driving it, over a twenty-four-hour period.

Life without evidence-lean beliefs would be difficult indeed, and impoverished. Once we have the notion that we live in something called ‘the world’, it is entirely honourable to want to make some kind of sense of that boundless, multi-dimensional space, so that, at the very least, we might act responsibly within it. We have to relate to, and hence imagine, the city, the nation, the world we know we inhabit, even though our knowledge is woven out of ill-founded (and less ill-founded) rumours. For we need to take a position on approaches to global warming, on New Labour’s foreign policy, on the rights and wrongs of the EU constitution, on the impact of liberalisation of trade or international aid on the Third World, and so on. We are obliged, in short, to punch above our cognitive weight: to have a reach that exceeds our grasp and to collude with the illusion that we are grasping something that in fact far exceeds our reach.

There are, of course, general statements which have the widest scope and yet are highly reliable. To their sum total we give the name ‘science’. Scientific generalisations (ie laws) differ in many respects from the things we trot out in pub arguments or even in seminars on politics, but these are some of the most important: they are based on adequate data obtained under carefully regulated conditions; they are in a process of constant revision; they are connected with, and in important senses checked by, the other general statements that form the coherent corpus that is science; and they are lean in content in precisely the way that Bertrand Russell meant when he said that the scientific world-picture is cast in a mathematical form not because we know so much but because we know so little. For all of these reasons, the extraordinarily general claim that the speed of light in a vacuum is the same throughout the universe is safer than the seemingly less ambitious assertion that the Russian temperament is unstable.

Alas, science and its methods do not extend to the general impressions upon which we have to act or make decisions. The belief that we can somehow escape the fallibility of our everyday consciousness is the founding dream of scientism, from which much nonsense – sometimes catastrophically harmful – has flown. Human life, especially contemporary human life, obliges us to be professors of data-lean generalisations. And for that reason we should be endlessly vigilant and treat our own assertions with the utmost suspicion. This is entirely in the Socratic spirit of the philosopher who is sure of one thing above all: that he or she knows very little indeed – even if we have the facts at our fingertips through a Blackberry that gives us access to the internet.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2008

Raymond Tallis is a physician, philosopher, poet and novelist. His new book The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Fantastical Journey Round Your Head is published by Atlantic.

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