Vagueness and Inaccuracy: The Case of ‘Making a Difference’

Vagueness and Inaccuracy

I am intrigued by how the philosophical problems of vagueness and inaccuracy are played out in laypersons’ experiences of everyday life, particularly in the lives of those pursuing the active life. Vagueness pertains to two different sets of issues while inaccuracy, at least of the kind I’m often presented with and especially concerned with, with only one distinct issue. Someone is being vague, let’s say, when (a) the concept he uses does not apply to one or more objects to which it is meant to refer and/or (b) there are ‘borderline cases’ where it is unclear whether or not the concept applies in terms of its extension. Inaccuracy, unlike vagueness, calls us to doubt whether the concept being applied actually is the right concept under which to subsume this phenomenon.

To illustrate the concepts of vagueness and inaccuracy, let me consider someone who says that he is feeling guilty. If he were asked, ‘What sorts of things do you feel guilty about?,’ he might answer  objects X and Y. However, upon closer inspection it may seem vague whether guilt should be attached to these objects since the latter may not be those amenable to the application of guilt. (E.g., ‘I feel guilty because my child, whom I’ve properly tended to, happens to have a cold today.’) Alternatively, he could be applying the concept of guilt in such a way that it ranges beyond the bounds of the typical extension of the concept. (E.g., ‘I feel guilty because it is dark and stormy outside today.’) Now, it’s also possible that he is being inaccurate. He may think that it is guilt, and yet it could be another concept: shame, disappointment, worry, remorse, etc.

In philosophy, in brief, we are learning to ask,

  • Which objects are within a certain range of the application of concept X?
  • Which objects fall outside of the extension of concept X?
  • Might there be some other concept that fits the phenomenon or phenomena in question?

A Test Case: ‘I want to Make a Difference’

My introductory remarks above make it seem as if vagueness and inaccuracy have to be errors only and are therefore unhelpful for someone learning to think well. This assumption is not true. Better to say that vagueness and inaccuracy can be starting points for a philosophical inquiry into what is actually going on and why. For when one is brought to an awareness that there is a dialectical misfit between concept and object, he is thereby driven to inquire about how the two could be brought into harmony. Thus is he carried forward in his thinking in the hope of pinpointing with the utmost precision what is the case.

Continue reading

Choosing the Right Spiritual Path

The Scene of Bewilderment

One is soon bewildered after one awakens to the realization that there must be more than this. The realization comes, comes surely and painfully, and cannot be taken back. Despite the realization striking home with the force of conviction, one does not know what one means when one says and believes, ‘There must be more than this': what is the ‘this’ to which I’m referring? More than what? Where is this more? And why ‘must’ there be?

This much is for sure: one is making a cut between how one lives and how it would be better for one to live, and one is pronouncing the former to be pale in the radiant light of the latter. To say ‘there must be more than this’ is to mean, at least, that ‘There must be more to human life than the life I am currently leading. And whatever this surplus is, it promises to make human life better somehow: to overcome this restlessness, this disquiet, this strife, this vacuity and to make it fuller, truer, realer, more splendid. In the light of that which is namelessly, enigmatically higher, I could be transformed into that, or a part of what, I seek.’

Existential Choice as Devotion

Now comes the existential choice concerning which spiritual path to take, for that is what it is: an, perhaps the, existential choice. This sort of choice is not a choice without matter or consequence but is, as Pierre Hadot says, a ‘choice of life.’ To say this is to say that it is not the sort of choice that one can easily renege upon or back out of in an instant; it is devotion, a fundamental and ongoing act of commitment, a something to which one is related, tied, wedded. It is rather like choosing a spouse. Granted, one can seek separation or get a divorce later on but not without considerable consequences, lifelong implications, uneasy disentanglements, the painful waves of severance. Furthermore, this existential choice, unlike the garden variety decisions one makes on any given day, is that in the light of which one lives, values, appreciates, affirms, confirms, or denies, rejects, disconfirms certain facets of everyday life. Without this orientation toward others, the world, events, oneself, one is scarcely the same person, barely known to oneself. Thus, the existential choice of life is far more serious than a matter of life and death since in it lies the very possibility of, the delicate key to my life’s going well. It is a gossamer thread I wish not to break.

Continue reading

Kaos Pilots: A Comprehensive View (Part 2)

I mentioned a second method that, if applied, could help Kaos Pilots or a school like it to make sense of a wide array of phenomena by bringing that wide array into a single, comprehensive view of things.

In Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, the Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre observes that there come times when competing traditions confront each other. Quite often, tradition B will do no more than reject tradition A, claiming simply that A’s views are incompatible with its views. Occasionally, tradition A concedes that some of B’s minor claims may be placed at the outskirts of A yet nothing else need be modified. In MacIntyre’s telling, most medieval theologians before Aquinas simply rejected Aristotelian cosmology on the grounds that it wasn’t compatible with the Augustinian theology they had inherited and were committed to espousing.

Continue reading

Kaos Pilots: A Comprehensive View (Part 1)

Kaos Pilots is a fairly unique school in that its students are taught by a wide array of guest lecturers who discuss a vast array of subjects. The latter include courses in business strategy, process consulting, and appreciative inquiry as well as workshops on personal development and theories of narrative–just to name a few. Over its 20 year history, the school has not had an overarching vision of what the school is about (its telos) nor has it had a curriculum in the old-fashioned sense of a relatively unchanging course of study the primary aim of which is for each student to acquire a specific body of knowledge.

Over the past three years, one of the remarks I have heard from students is something that has also struck me: it is that they can have a hard time coming up with a comprehensive view of how all the diverse items they have learned over the three years can be fit together in one picture. The project concerned with achieving a synoptic view is, without question, a philosophical one.

In the past two posts, I have described what could provide Kaos Pilots with greater cohesiveness and unity: an explicit emphasis on the cultivation of character as well as a clear commitment to the articulation and specification of the statement, ‘I want to make a difference.’ I believe the third element would be to supply the school with some philosophical methods for bringing seemingly disparate phenomena into a single whole.

Continue reading

Kaos Pilots: The Cultivation of Character

What would unify the curriculum at Kaos Pilots? One way, which I explored in yesterday’s post, would be to treat the education as articulating and specifying what, concretely, making a difference means for me. A second way would be to explicitly teach the cultivation of character. This is called character education.

As far back as antiquity, the question of how to teach young men to be excellent or outstanding, the further question of what virtue was, whether it could be taught, and which should be taught, and other related questions were considered and debated with the utmost seriousness. And as recently as the eighteenth century, Enlightenment reform pedagogues sought to ground education on character and citizenship: a good education would furnish the pupil with training in character development and would instill in him a commitment to being a good citizen.

Continue reading