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.