Saturday September 15, 2007
Everybody generalises. Everything you say about people is a generalisation unless it’s about a named individual and then it’s gossip. That’s why you can’t do generalised gossip or gossipy generalisations.
Primitive languages don’t allow generalisation. If you’re not talking about something specific, then you’re not making any sense. The modern equivalent of this is scientific journals where only facts with footnotes are allowed. Breakthroughs are made by scientists who ignore this rule and go for big general theories, such as relativity, leaving footnotes to others. It’s the same in real life. Glorious generalisers in search of broad truths are followed by legions of nit-pickers.
The ability to generalise is what separates mankind from the animals. We have big ideas of no relevance to the immediate search for our next meal. That’s why philosophers steer clear of supermarkets: it’s impossible to generalise when you’re grubbing for food. Marx put down the lack of a proper British revolution to our failure to generalise beyond our individual misery. He failed to understand that the British enjoy misery.
Ants are a very successful species because they ignore their individual needs and continually generalise about the greater good. You’ll notice that they have lots of worker ants but there’s no room for nit-picker ants.
The more you generalise, the simpler things get. It’s impossible to generalise about something that makes the picture more confused, except for weather forecasting which attempts to give a detailed general picture. The highest order of generalisation simplifies everything into a featureless cosmic semolina similar to thinking nothing at all.
These days, accusing someone of generalising is tantamount to calling them a liar. But generalisations are only so-called by people who don’t agree with them. Generalisations you really like feel like self-evident truths.
Interestingly, generalisations start with an individual point of view. When you say that all Wednesdays are rubbish, it’s based on your experience. Other people with similar experiences will agree with you, and even people who haven’t will begin to think that Wednesdays aren’t so good. Eventually everyone will come to know and expect that Wednesdays are the low point of the week. That’s how big ideas get started, generally.