Jump to accessibility statement Jump to content

94th Joint Session of the Mind Association and Aristotelian Society

94th Joint Session of the Mind Association and Aristotelian Society site image

Postgraduate Sessions: Generalism without dependence

Ezra Rubenstein (Rutgers)


I distinguish two versions of generalism: permissive generalism holds that truths about individuals express non-basic worldly facts (individuals depend on purely general basic facts); strict generalism holds that truths about individuals are non-perspicuous (reality in itself is entirely general).

I argue that permissive generalism faces a serious problem concerning almost-symmetric worlds: none of the available options for characterising the dependence of individualist facts on the general facts at such worlds seems plausible. This problem is solved by switching to strict generalism, which allows for indeterminacy in the way that individualist truths are made apt by the underlying general truths. I illustrate this alternative approach by proposing a supervaluationist strategy for accommodating individualist truths in a purely general world.

In addition to showing how generalism can meet a central challenge, my discussion serves more broadly as an illustration of two importantly different approaches to one of metaphysics’ central tasks: the task of explaining the non-fundamental in terms of the fundamental.



Ezra Rubenstein is a PhD student at Rutgers University, with research interests in metaphysics, philosophy of science, and philosophy of mind. He previously completed an MMathPhil and a BPhil at the University of Oxford. His thesis, supervised by Jonathan Schaffer and Ted Sider, focuses on metaphysical explanation and the idea that the world is fundamentally qualitative. His other work is on probability, causation, the metaphysics of mind, and the foundations of quantum mechanics.


  • Graeme A Forbes

    11th July 2020 at 10:48 pm

    Why is worldy indeterminacy a cost? To borrow a line from William James, “It seems a priori improbable that the truth should be so nicely adjusted to our needs and powers as that. In the great boarding-house of nature, the cakes and the butter and the syrup seldom come out so even and leave the plates so clean. Indeed, we should view them with scientific suspicion if they did.”

    Have you seen Jenn Wang’s Open Session? https://research.kent.ac.uk/js2020/open-sessions/#Jenn%20Wang.
    It seems like you two might have things to talk about.

    1. Ezra Rubenstein

      12th July 2020 at 9:05 pm

      Thanks for this, and thanks for pointing me in the direction of Jenn’s interesting talk!

      I guess I see a couple of ways one might resist worldly indeterminacy. In some moods, I think the notion is simply incoherent – indeterminacy seems to be like inaccuracy: it is a matter of how some representation relates to reality. So I don’t know what it would mean for reality itself to be indeterminate, any more than I know what it would mean for reality itself to be inaccurate. In other moods, I prefer a more concessionary style of argument, having to do with (ideological) parsimony: it seems that there is just no good reason to posit worldly indeterminacy, and so we should make do without it. Here the idea is not that indeterminacy is especially costly (more than modality, tense, or other metaphysical structure), just that positing some structure must always be justified by its explanatory pay-off. (Of course, this style of argument requires engagement with those who use worldly indeterminacy to explain phenomena such as the open future or quantum effects – it would need to be shown that these phenomena may be adequately explained without appeal to worldly indeterminacy.)

      I certainly agree with the sentiment of the William James quote, but I’m not sure which way it cuts in this case! One might have thought that it is those who would posit worldly indeterminacy that are guilty of making the truth ‘nicely adjusted to our needs and powers’ – just because our language is indeterminate, for example, doesn’t mean that we should take reality itself to be. Similarly, one might take the openness of the future to have more to do with our needs and powers as agents (manipulation/prediction), than with reality itself (I know that you probably disagree with this last point!)

  • Pete Faulconbridge

    12th July 2020 at 2:29 pm

    Thanks for an interesting talk! I’m afraid I don’t know too much about the motivations for generalism, but I was wondering which apparent facts about individuals the generalist defending a dependence approach will need to try and preserve. In particular, I was wondering why she should feel the need to reject fragility, at least as it applies to the spheres case you discuss?

    1. Ezra Rubenstein

      12th July 2020 at 9:37 pm

      Thanks for this! So, I don’t think the permissive generalist needs to preserve ALL apparent facts about individuals. (Indeed, it might be taken to be an ‘apparent fact’ about individuals that they do not depend on purely qualitative facts, in the way the permissive generalist alleges!) But I take it that the idea for the permissive generalist is to try and recover as many apparent facts about individuals as they can – after all, what’s the point of recovering individuals if they’re nothing like the ones we thought we had!

      Fragility is the idea that the existence of an individual does not (at least typically) depend on very specific qualitative details of their situation. I take it that fragility is not a part of our ordinary conception of individuals. Of course, the two spheres cases I’m focusing on is so austere and abstract that one might not have very strong intuitions about it (or one might not see much reason to trust any intuitions about it). But it’s worth noting that analogous issues arise for ordinary individuals e.g. people. For example, consider a world containing two identical copies of our own. Which of the individuals at such a world would be Obama? Supposing neither of them would be entails that whether Obama exists depends in part on what is going on very far away from here (e.g. on whether or not there is an identical copy of our solar system millions of lightyears away..) But this seems strange. It’s not a knockdown objection – it just seems like the kind of conclusion which is nice to avoid if you can!

  • Taymaz Azimi

    12th July 2020 at 6:11 pm

    Very interesting talk. Thanks. However, I was a little confused about the relation between Castor and Pollux of TWINS and Dent and Perfect in TWINS*. You do not clarify whether TWINS* is/are either spatiotemporally or metaphysically posterior to TWINS or not; if it/they is/are not then Dent does not have to be in any sense dependent on either Castor or Pollux. The problem could be addressed with a de re modal claim. But I assume that you have a kind of posteriority in mind, in which case I believe that the defender of the dependence approach could comfortably argue for partial dependence of Dent on its dent and since it is “partially” dependent on its dent I don’t find her argument to be in danger of ‘fragility’ [even if fragility is at all dangerous].

    1. Ezra Rubenstein

      12th July 2020 at 9:48 pm

      Thank you for watching my talk and getting in touch! Apologies for the unclarity! What I had in mind with TWINS and TWINS* was just two slightly different qualitative situations – you can think of them as possible worlds if you like – with no spatiotemporal or metaphysical relations between them. The issue for the generalist is to go about distributing individuals across these situations i.e. to say how many individuals there are in each situation and what the cross-situation identity relations are. Any way of doing this labelling seems to come with a cost. I agree that Dent could be partially dependent on its dent. But if this is to avoid fragility, then Dent must exist at TWINS. And if Dent exists at TWINS, we can ask: which of the two individuals at TWINS is it? (Or are there in fact more than two individuals at TWINS?)