Vagueness And The Sorites Paradox

Noûs 36 (s16):419-461 (2002)
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A sorites argument is a symptom of the vagueness of the predicate with which it is constructed. A vague predicate admits of at least one dimension of variation (and typically more than one) in its intended range along which we are at a loss when to say the predicate ceases to apply, though we start out confident that it does. It is this feature of them that the sorites arguments exploit. Exactly how is part of the subject of this paper. The majority of philosophers writing on vagueness take it to be a kind of semantic phenomenon. If we are right, they are correct in this assumption, which is surely the default position, but they have not so far provided a satisfactory account of the implications of this or a satisfactory diagnosis of the sorites arguments. Other philosophers have urged more exotic responses, which range from the view that the fault lies not in our language, but in the world, which they propose to be populated with vague objects which our semantics precisely reflects, to the view that the world and language are both perfectly in order, but that the fault lies with our knowledge of the properties of the words we use (epistemicism). In contrast to the exotica to which some philosophers have found themselves driven in an attempt to respond to the sorites puzzles, we undertake a defense of the commonsense view that vague terms are semantically vague. Our strategy is to take fresh look at the phenomenon of vagueness. Rather than attempting to adjudicate between different extant theories, we begin with certain pre-theoretic intuitions about vague terms, and a default position on classical logic. The aim is to see whether (i) a natural story can be told which will explain the vagueness phenomenon and the puzzling nature of soritical arguments, and, in the course of this, to see whether (ii) there arises any compelling pressure to give up the natural stance. We conclude that there is a simple and natural story to be told, and we tell it, and that there is no good reason to abandon our intuitively compelling starting point. The importance of the strategy lies in its dialectical structure. Not all positions on vagueness are on a par. Some are so incredible that even their defenders think of them as positions of last resort, positions to which we must be driven by the power of philosophical argument. We aim to show that there is no pressure to adopt these incredible positions, obviating the need to respond to them directly. If we are right, semantic vagueness is neither surprising, nor threatening. It provides no reason to suppose that the logic of natural languages is not classical or to give up any independently plausible principle of bivalence. Properly understood, it provides us with a satisfying diagnosis of the sorites argumentation. It would be rash to claim to have any completely novel view about a topic so well worked as vagueness. But we believe that the subject, though ancient, still retains its power to inform and challenge us. In particular, we will argue that taking seriously the central phenomenon of predicate vagueness—the “boundarylessness” of vague predicates—on the commonsense assumption that vagueness is semantic, leads ineluctably to the view that no sentences containing vague expressions (henceforth ‘vague sentences’) are truth-evaluable. This runs counter to much of the literature on vagueness, which commonly assumes that, though some applications of vague predicates to objects fail to be truth-evaluable, in clear positive and negative cases vague sentences are unproblematically true or false. It is clarity on this, and related points, that removes the puzzles associated with vagueness, and helps us to a satisfying diagnosis of why the sorites arguments both seem compelling and yet so obviously a bit of trickery. We give a proof that semantically vague predicates neither apply nor fail-to-apply to anything, and that consequently it is a mistake to diagnose sorites arguments, as is commonly done, by attempting to locate in them a false premise. Sorites arguments are not sound, but not unsound either. We offer an explanation of their appeal, and defend our position against a variety of worries that might arise about it. The plan of the paper is as follows. We first introduce an important distinction in terms of which we characterize what has gone wrong with vague predicates. We characterize what we believe to be our natural starting point in thinking about the phenomenon of vagueness, from which only a powerful argument should move us, and then trace out the consequences of accepting this starting point. We consider the charge that among the consequences of semantic vagueness are that we must give up classical logic and the principle of bivalence, which has figured prominently in arguments for epistemicism. We argue there are no such consequences of our view: neither the view that the logic of natural languages is classical, nor any plausible principle of bivalence, need be given up. Next, we offer a diagnosis of what has gone wrong in sorites arguments on the basis of our account. We then present an argument to show that our account must be accepted on pain of embracing (in one way or another) the epistemic view of “vagueness”, i.e., of denying that there are any semantically vague terms at all. Next, we discuss some worries that may arise about the intelligibility of our linguistic practices if our account is correct. We argue none of these worries should force us from our intuitive starting point. Finally, we cast a quick glance at other forms of semantic incompleteness.

Author Profiles

Kirk Ludwig
Indiana University, Bloomington
Greg Ray
University of Florida


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