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To understand the world, we categorize everything around us. That is a car, that is a tree, that's a cupcake. What we're really doing is applying a set of common traits to groups of objects or ideas. All cars have more than two wheels, can go forwards and backwards, are primarily for transport, can carry up to a certain number of people, are controlled by one person, et cetera, et cetera. By creating these categories and giving them names, we make communication and understanding easier.
If I say, let's go for a ride in my car, you instantly know that you'll be sitting in a vehicle with tires that will drive on a road in the direction the driver is facing. But there are many things you don't know about the car, things that will only become apparent once you investigate further. What type of fuel does the car use? What color is it? What brand? How many people does it seat? This is because the category, car, is a broad one. It encompasses all vehicles of a certain type and leaves a lot of room for variety.
Within the category car, we find many subcategories that further specify what type of car it is, two-seater, convertible, electric, three-wheeled, German, red, four-wheel drive, stick shift and so on. In logic, this distinction between broad categories and more specific categories is referred to as universal versus particular. And this is an area where humans and logic often find themselves at odds with each other.
You see, universality dictates that you can only move in one direction, from universal to particular. Let me give you an example. When I say, let's go for a ride in my car, you can infer from this that the car has seats, because this is a universal truth about a car. That definition of car, as in automobile tells us that it's powered by a motor, so we can safely assume it has a motor. However, if you discover that my car has leather seats, you cannot infer that the car next to it also has leather seats.
That's because while you can find cars that also have leather seats, leather seats is not a defining factor of the category car. Instead, they're a defining factor of a particular sub-category of cars. And you can't make an inference from the particular to the universal. Sadly, this is something people do all the time. If I say, all cupcakes are sweet, you'll likely believe me, but this isn't true. Even if no one has ever made a savory cupcake, the definition of cupcake, does not infer sweetness.
We have a bad tendency of applying qualities of the particular to the universal. We observe the world and make universal assumptions based on our limited experience. And in many cases, especially in politics, we make sweeping judgments on groups of people or ideas based on individuals. It is, in truth, a logician's nightmare. But, now that you're aware of it, it's easy to avoid. When making statements, make sure you're always going from the universal to the particular.
If you know of a property that applies to a single item, say, a $20 bill that's made of fabric. But you don't know if that property is universal. Mention the item specifically. This dollar bill is made of fabric. Or, if you want to create a broader statement, use a particular qualifier instead of a universal one. Some dollar bills are made of fabric. Because although the dollar bill I'm currently holding in my hands is made of fabric, if you travel far enough north, you'll discover that some Canadian dollar bills are made of plastic.
They even have a window in them. By being particular about your statements and only speaking universally when you know you are applying a universal value, you can be certain your statement is true and that you are communicating clearly.
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