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.

One common case where we can grasp the value of vagueness as potentially playing a role in furthering one’s thinking is in that of those who are starting off on the path of the active practical life. The first, fledging articulation is or is close to this: ‘I want to make a difference.’ Or: ‘I would like to lead my life in such a way that as a result of my contributions some part of the world would thereby be better off than had I not so acted (and existed).’

As is evident, the statement remains vague so long as the utterer does not know to which objects precisely he is committed and, more specifically, on what path in particular he wishes to set forth. For there are so many ways of making a difference that it can seem impossible to start to even consider which way would be best for him. How to begin? How to overcome endless second-guessing? How to defeat opportunity cost thinking? How not to waver or waffle or immediately change paths once one has begun?

Second of all, might the speaker be making an inaccurate statement, believing that the active life is the life for him when in actuality the contemplative life is more well-suited for a man of his constitution? One would have to inquire of him to know.

These questions about vagueness and inaccuracy in connection with the active life are philosophical questions that can only be answered by moving in one’s thinking from vagueness and possible inaccuracy to clarity, distinctness, and specificity.