11.05.2005

on vagueness

it's that time of year again, when all philosophy of language students' minds must turn to fanciful musings about their final papers. Will we write anything original? Will we write anything original the night of december 5, when we stay up at the sci-li all night in a panic?

to ensure that this doesn't happen, i'm going to attempt some pre-write blogging on my chosen topic, one near and dear to all our hearts: vagueness.

Gareth Evans' now famous essay "can there be vague objects?" begins,
It is sometimes said that the world might itself be vague. Rather than vagueness being a deficiency in our mode of describing the world, it would then be a necessary feature of any true description of it.


He's right, and it's a promising idea, but I'd like to point out that what is never said is that language is what allows us to talk about objects as though they were not vague.

he then introduces logical operators meaning 'definitely' and 'indefinently' and concludes that they always lead to contradiction. and then the essay ends. very abruptly. it's only a page! turning the page over, we find an essay by David Lewis in which he defends Evans and uses the word 'precisifications' many times. well done, Lewis.

but Lewis, too, addresses a simple dichotomy in the way philosophers think of vaguness: there are those who believe that objects are vague, and there are those who believe that descriptions are vague. in either case, vagueness is a fault which, if we are to be logical, we must remedy by precisifying our concepts before using them in formulas.

over my next few posts (and maybe that paper?) i'd like to argue that vagueness is not a weakness of language or the world, but a necessary, interesting, and productive part of the connection between the two. and arguments about vagueness might provide a way to bootstrap up into a debate about the nature of properties of objects and whether or not logic bows to language.

until next time, consider this classic(al) sorites problem, which led to original formulations of vaguness:
is a man with one hair on his head bald? (yes?)
is a man with two hairs on his head bald? (yes?)
can we reasonably make a distinction between his being bald or not bald on the basis of the addition of any single hair? (no.)
then by this reasoning, we can continue adding one hair at a time until you must admit that a man is not bald even if he has 20,000 hairs on his head. (doh!)

2 comments:

Seb (vaguely) said...

Hurray for vagueness!

But a couple notes:

- I get mad when vagueness is relegated to a problem in (philosophy of) language when it seems to me to be a problem of conceptualization and categorization. The terminology in cog sci is that some concepts are "fuzzy"--our representations of "baldness" allow us to make judgments like "kinda sorta but not really bald."

- Thankfully, logic can be generalized over fuzziness. The logical rules that are used are called, appropriately, fuzzy logic, and work by defining truth over a continuum (between 0 and 1) instead of as a binary relation (all things are true or false). While this is rarely used in human reasoning explicitly (although it may well be implicitly), it is used with great success in artificial intelligence work.

Off topic, maybe--and I'm of course always in danger of telling you something you already know.

But regardless, I love vagueness, or acknowledging vagueness, because I think it trashes a lot of bad theory. So again, hurray.

Cristi said...

dude, seb. how many times are we going to have this fight - how is categorization and conceptualization not language?

go. post.

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