1.08.2006

vagueness dissolved

'Tis I, Seb. Hijacker. Fly hacker. Snidely Whiplash to Scott and Cristi's Dudley Do-Right. Or, more appropriately, the Murky Dismal to their Rainbow Brite (and those meddling Color Kids), as I attempt to wield science, analytic philosophy, and historical power dynamics to rid the world of all that is colorful and beautiful--art, the primacy of language, the culturally constructed, and (plot point!) lazy solutions to disturbing philosophical problems. No doubt, I will fail at the end of every 30-minute episode. But a recurring villian is nothing if not tenacious. So I'm back, and, in the words of Akrobatik,

"You could call it a prophecy, prediction or psychic
But I know as long as I possess my skill I'm gonna mic it"

So let's get down to brass tacks. And by brass tacks I mean mangos.

An enormous heap of mangos. That are being eaten, one at a time, by a ravenously hungry feral child.

"When is the heap no longer a heap?"

At the risk of beating a dead horse, I want to talk about vagueness again. Several weeks (months already?) ago, I went undercover to a short seminar on the subject of vagueness looking to pick a fight. And I got one, learned something, and wanted to mention it.

The fight I wanted to pick was: Why is vagueness considered a problem, as opposed to just a matter of fact?

The answer I got was informative. In most branches of philosophy, there is a particular philosophical stance that is easy to come up with, easy to say, easy to defend, but completely unsatisfying and untenable. In epistemology (philosophy of knowledge), this stance is skepticism, the belief that we cannot, in fact, know anything. It sucks. Everybody thinks so. Which is why so much philosophical time has been spent trying to get around it.

In philosophy of language, on the subject of vagueness, the bogeyman stance is less famous and more subtle, but in many ways it's the kid brother or sidekick of the skepticism monster--a chupacabra to skepticism's wendigo. According to the guy who ran the seminar, this ugly but diminutive mofo is Timothy Williamson's epistemicism--which is the view that while there is, in fact a moment when the feral child eats the last magic mango that unheaps the heap, we just don't know which mango that is.

It might be the 100th-to-last mango. It might be the second-to-last mango. Who knows?

Easy to say, easy to defend (I guess), but...well, personally, I feel the same way about heaps as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart felt about pornography: "I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it." Wouldn't you agree?

We need a way out of this mess. But don't fear--I'm packing a degree theory of truth which, like the neato tech the Ghostbusters use, looks ridiculous until you see it suck a giant, havoc-wreaking demon into a tiny box. More in a future post. Assuming this blog doesn't self-destruct in 5...4...3...2...

4 comments:

Cristi said...

seb, as much as I love your moustache twirling (not to mention my getting to be rainbow brite - or is that scott?), I don't think we disagree as much as you say we do.

I'll probably spend my responses to you trying to convince you of that fact.

Actually, I just wrote a long email to Chris Hill trying to convince him that vagueness is only a "problem" for theories that rely on logical laws to describe language.

And quoting Jay-Z: "This ain't no tall order, this is nothing to me. Difficult takes a day, Impossible takes a week."

Seb said...

Oh, Cristi. Of course we don't disagree on much. I just wanted to enter the scene with a spectacle--you know, like a pro wrestler. To entertain the viewing audience, and give them a sense of tension.... I might remain "in character" in the future, but don't take it seriously.

Chris Hill is still the man in my book. If he doesn't answer his email (I don't think he likes them, but good luck!), you can try what I did and print things out onto paper and put them in his school mailbox. He seemed to appreciate that when I did it in his Epistemology class.

However:

"vagueness is only a "problem" for theories that rely on logical laws to describe language."

Shock and horror!!!

Ok, it's true that language need not be amenable to description by logical laws. Language is a tool for communication, not for representation of the world. We need logical laws to work on our representations of the world, since that's what our beliefs consist of. (Right?)

However, to the extent that we have vague concepts--like the concept of 'heap'--which we hold beliefs about, we run into the same problems of vagueness. We really do want our beliefs to have truth value. (Preferably, we'd like them to be true.)

When you wrote your first or second post on vagueness, I think I may have complained about how it was odd for me to see it in the context of philosophy of language, as opposed to a philosophy of knowledge or truth. As somebody who sees language as only skin deep, vagueness cuts way deep. Basically, it strikes right down into the heart of everything we think about, which is why suggested solutions sometimes involve things as radical as changing how we think of truth.

Seb said...

ps. I was thinking of you and scott as a single unit jointly corresponding to Rainbow Brite. You can divvy up the Color Kids however you want.

Joshua said...

I never thought I'd ever see you place "I know it when I see it" in an argument, Seb.

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