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According to Wikipedia, "any definition that attempts to set out the essence of"

According to Wikipedia, "any definition that attempts to set out the essence of" a concept "specifies the necessary and sufficient conditions for a thing being a member of" the set corresponding to that concept. Ok. But I wonder if it wouldn't be great if, for some more difficult concepts, we could at least specify some sufficient conditions in a way that we would pick most things that are members a the corresponding set. For instance, wouldn't it be a nice philosophical progress if we could get a "definition" (?) of beauty that would cover most beautiful things and no non-beautiful thing? I mean a definition that is not circular, of course.

I haven't looked at the wikipedia article, but the view it expresses is VERY old-fashioned. Since Wittgenstein's "family resemblance" concept, and especially since cognitive scientists such as Eleanor Rosch's work in the 1970s, it's far more fashionable to think of concepts (and categories) as constituted not by "necessary and sufficient conditions" but by prototypes and similarity relations, far more befitting "fuzzier" concepts -- for example the way we think about "dogs" is not to generate an "essence" of necy/sufficient conditions, but by having in mind some prototypical dog at the center and then linking it to less familiar, less central, other examples ... This is far more in keeping with your nice suggestion, that what we seek (as I'd put it) are some "characteristic" properties of the paradigmatic members of the set, recognizing that other creatures may share these properties to various degrees and still count as members of the set in question ... So unless the wikipedia article was specifically using the word "essence" to mean what it used to mean (necy/suffic condns), and to distinguish essences from concepts, then I'd say your view is far more on the right track than the wiki's view ....

hope that's useful--

ap

Most words function properly because we more or less agree on what they mean. I

Most words function properly because we more or less agree on what they mean. I can say "chair" and you will most likely have a good idea of what I am talking about. There are other terms, however, where people seem to squabble quite a bit about what a term actually means - like "art", "personhood", "fairness", etc. My question is: Can such terms be useful even if there are several opposing interpretations of what they mean? How? No doubt the debate itself is informative, but if we don't have a clear understanding of what "art" means, I wonder how useful it is to talk about the qualities of art, the study of art, or whether something counts as art. So how useful are terms where people can't agree on a concrete meaning? When does a term become too vague or disputed to be useful?

Great question, though I might worry that words like "useful" are about as vague as any of those in your examples, and thus your question may suffer from the same problems! ... I like your point that "the debate itself is informative" -- assuming that's true, which seems plausible, why couldn't that be "useful" enough? We learn an awful lot about our own concepts and beliefs when we grapple over what constitutes a person, or a work of art, or fairness ... So I'm a bit curious why, after recognizing that as a value for even these vague terms, you seem to demand something significantly more. Perhaps you would like these terms to take on refined and precise meanings like those in natural science, at least paradigmatically -- but then again, these terms DO often take on such precision, at least once they're in the hands of philosophers debating the issues. Bertrand Russell has a nice bit where he observes that if scientists are entitled to develop their own terminology and refine ordinary words to make them "useful to science," then philosophers should do the same .... But then, lastly, one more point: even if the examples you mention don't have "clear" or "precise" or "agreed upon" semantic boundaries, all of them seem to display the archetypal properties of vague terms: they have central, "clear" cases, at the same time as they lack clear peripheral borders. (eg "tall" "mountain" -- Mt Everest is definitely a mountain, even if we can't say precisely when smaller things stop being mountains ...) ... So perhaps the primary "usefulness" of such expressions comes from the agreed upon "central" cases, and then the other kind of "usefulness" comes from the informative debate about the boundaries?

hope THAT is useful ... :-)

ap

Are definitions falsifiable?

Are definitions falsifiable? It seems that if I find something of category X that does not fit category X's definition, then it isn't actually of category X, and thus doesn't prove anything. But on the other hand, if that is the case, it seems no definition cannot be falsified or otherwise demonstrated to be inadequate (unless it is inherently contradictory or so).

Let's focus on the phrase "something of category X that does not fit category X's definition." One on interpretation, we can't possibly find something of that description: if it doesn't fit category X's definition, then it's not something of category X, as you say. But that interpretation assumes that I've already got a correct definition of category X, a definition that's neither too broad nor too narrow. What if my definition of 'chair' is 'item of furniture with four legs' and you show me a bean-bag chair or an IKEA Poang chair? Haven't you shown me an item of category X that doesn't fit my definition of category X? Haven't you falsified my definition of 'chair', at least as a definition of the word in ordinary use, by showing that it's too narrow? (It's also too broad, as I realize when you show me a four-legged table.)

I was reading some questions on this site regarding vagueness and the Sorites

I was reading some questions on this site regarding vagueness and the Sorites conundrum and I'm not sure I understand the fascination with figuring out what does or doesn't qualify as a heap. Isn't the word heap useful precisely BECAUSE it doesn't have a strict quantitative requirement? We choose to use the word "heap" and not a different word (like grams, or tons, or twenty-seven, etc.) because it offers us flexibility. I'm not sure exactly why this "puzzle" has received so much attention. The fact that there hasn't been an accepted solution makes perfect sense to me because there is nothing to solve. It seems like trying to apply precision to a word intentionally designed to be imprecise. It seems to me that if we figure out the exact point at which something becomes a heap then we will no longer be able to use the word as freely. Am I misunderstanding the problem? Thanks in advance!

I think you understand at least one aspect of the problem quite well. As you say, words like 'heap' are useful only if they're vague. Indeed, their vagueness seems built into their meanings: they're essentially vague; they wouldn't be the words they are if they weren't vague. The problem is that their vagueness seems to imply the contradiction that is the sorites paradox (see the two SEP entries that I cited here). And it's not just 'heap', a word we might not care too deeply about. Practically every concrete noun and ordinary adjective we use ('car', 'fetus', 'child', 'person', 'tall', 'rich', 'unjust', 'toxic', 'honest', 'safe', and on and on) is essentially vague and hence apparently implies a contradiction. Yet we can't help thinking that plenty of things do answer to those nouns and adjectives. Surely there are rich people and toxic chemicals, but the sorites paradox seems to show that there can't be. It's as ubiquitous as it is hard to solve.

I recently asked a question about the sorites paradox, and I received the

I recently asked a question about the sorites paradox, and I received the following response, which seems to me to have a logical fallacy in it. In other words, the answer below does not seem to "explain" the paradox as much as it "contains" the paradox.... Here is the reply: "Because the paradox itself results from commitments of common sense: (a) some number of grains is clearly too few to make a heap (maybe 15, as you say); (b) some number of grains is clearly enough to make a heap (maybe 15,000); and yet (c) one grain never makes the difference between any two different statuses (heap vs. non-heap, definitely a heap vs. not definitely a heap, etc.). Given commonsense logic, (a)-(c) can't all be true, but which one should we reject? Most philosophers who try to solve the paradox attack (c), but I certainly haven't seen a refutation of (c) that I'd call 'commonsense.'" It seems that point (c) above presupposes that either we have 100% heap or 0% heap; however if we can have a number of grains such...

I supplied the response you found unsatisfying, so thanks for not pretending you were satisfied by it!

You're right that my response did assume that there's only a "yes" or "no" answer to such questions as "Can N grains (for some particular N) make a heap?", "Can N grains definitely make a heap?", and so on. I also claimed that my assumption was an element of common sense.

As I understand it, your counter-proposal is that N grains can be enough to make, for instance, "an 85% heap" (or maybe "85% of a heap") but not "a 100% heap" (or maybe "100% of a heap"). But what's an 85% heap? What's 85% of a heap, except a smaller heap? More plausibly, maybe you're proposing that the statement "N grains can make a heap" is only 85% true rather than 100% true. Proposals of this sort are well-known in the literature on the sorites paradox, usually under the heading of "many-valued logics" (see section 3.4 of the SEP article "Sorites Paradox" that I linked to in my previous reply).

These many-valued approaches face serious problems. For instance:

(1) What's the smallest number N that's enough grains to make a 100% heap (or 100% of a heap, or that makes it 100% true that N grains can make a heap)? I take it there's no non-arbitrary answer, not simply that we can't know or say what the answer is.

(2) The logical systems that go with many-valued approaches produce implausible results: suppose that some N makes the statement "N grains can make a heap" only 50% true; then the clearly false conjunction "N grains can make a heap and N+1 grains can't make a heap" ends up being roughly 50% true, rather than 0% true.

Further problems are mentioned in section 3.4 of the SEP article and discussed thoroughly in Keefe (2000), Chapters 4 and 5, cited in that article. Indeed, I recommend Keefe (2000) as an expert guide to the issues (even though I think she's far too optimistic about the ability of supervaluationism to solve the paradox).

So my advice is to read the SEP articles "Sorites Paradox" and "Vagueness" and then dive into some of the works they cite. There's no substitute for engaging with the writings of those who've thought carefully and systematically for years about this paradox. They've proposed many solutions, including the one you propose yourself. If you discover a many-valued approach that overcomes the objections arrayed against it, please let us know. I'll be very pleasantly surprised!

If language limits the things we can think about, and we can only think about

If language limits the things we can think about, and we can only think about things that our language is capable of discussing, how then do we create new terms that describe things previously not incorporated into the language?

Just because we use language to express our thoughts, it does not follow that the limits of language are the limits of our thought. For one thing, we can and do change and extend language to incorporate new ideas that cannot fit into the existing language. It is rather like the ways in which science changes. Given the theory of a particular period, an alternative way of looking at the world is literally incomprehensible, but eventually the old theory is seen as having so many holes in it that a new one is required, and the crucial terms in the old theory are often changed or stretched to make sense of the new theory. If language was fixed and immutable, then this would present huge problems for changes in thought. Fortunately for the possibility of development in our ideas, our language can also develop.

I read about the sorites paradox, especially "what is a heap?" and was a bit

I read about the sorites paradox, especially "what is a heap?" and was a bit puzzled about the reasoning. Isn't it fairly straightforward to say, "fiftenn grains is not a heap" and "fifteen thousand grains is a heap" and then say, "even if we cannot give a single precise number where "not a heap" ends and "is a heap" begins, we can narrow down the range within which it occurs, right? In other words, a sort of "bounded fuzziness" applies, where we know for sure what is a heap and what is not a heap (the "bounded" part) while we cannot say exactly where the transition occurs (the "fuzziness" part). It also reminds me of Alexander the Great's solution to the Gordian Knot problem, in a way. People are getting confused because they are using the wrong tools, not because of the nature of the problem itself. the argument seems reminiscent of the supposed paradox about achilles and the tortoise, you can calculate the exact time at which Achilles catches and passes it.

The sorites paradox -- the paradox of the heap and similar paradoxes exploiting more important concepts than heap -- is a terrific topic. It's great to see people thinking about it.

You wrote, "we cannot say exactly where the transition occurs." Some philosophers would respond, "It can't occur exactly anywhere, because heap (or bald or tall or rich ...) isn't a concept that allows exact status-transitions. To say that there's an exact point of status-transition, even a point we can't know or say, is to misunderstand what vague concepts are."

Some philosophers would also object to your suggestion that the fuzziness can be "bounded," if by that you mean "sharply bounded." They'd say that any boundary around the fuzzy cases must itself be a fuzzy boundary: like the boundary between heap and non-heap, the boundary between definitely a heap and not definitely a heap isn't precise to within a single grain. (This phenomenon is usually called "higher-order vagueness.") In that case, the fuzziness that brought into doubt the existence of heaps also brings into doubt the existence of fuzzy boundaries themselves.

I don't think there's any way to cut the Gordian Knot here, if by that you mean finding a commonsense solution that cuts through the paradox. Why? Because the paradox itself results from commitments of common sense: (a) some number of grains is clearly too few to make a heap (maybe 15, as you say); (b) some number of grains is clearly enough to make a heap (maybe 15,000); and yet (c) one grain never makes the difference between any two different statuses (heap vs. non-heap, definitely a heap vs. not definitely a heap, etc.). Given commonsense logic, (a)-(c) can't all be true, but which one should we reject? Most philosophers who try to solve the paradox attack (c), but I certainly haven't seen a refutation of (c) that I'd call "commonsense."

I wish I knew the answer, or even knew of an answer that comes close to being satisfying. I sometimes worry that we human beings are smart enough to have discovered the sorites paradox but constitutionally too dumb to solve it. I'd love to be shown that my pessimism is unwarranted!

Recommended reading:
SEP, "Sorites Paradox"
SEP, "Vagueness"

What is the difference between a "fallacy" and a "cognitive bias"?

What is the difference between a "fallacy" and a "cognitive bias"?

How about this? A fallacy is an actual mistake in reasoning. A cognitive bias is a tendency to commit certain sorts of mistakes. Not all fallacies are the result of cognitive biases, and having a cognitive bias doesn't guarantee that you'll commit the corresponding error.

Hello. This submission will include two questions. The panelist´s are of course

Hello. This submission will include two questions. The panelist´s are of course free to answer only one of them, if the other turns out to be of no interest. I´m no student of philosophy in the conventional sense, but lately it does consume much of my time. I remember reading Frege´s "The thought: a logical inquiry" a while back, and his answer to "an unusual objection" he thought he heard, puzzled me; "what if it were all a dream?" It seems to me that questions of this kind are unanswerable, and that Frege´s answer to this question is unsatisfactory. The (short) reason for this is simply that the question is one of fact, and one would have no possible way of empirically proving that one is not. What is your take on my objection? (I am aware that it is not one of the sections in the article that did the most impact on future philosophy) The second question relates to the distinction between analytic and extra-logical statements. After reading "Two dogmas of empiricism" by Quine, I am left wondering...

Thank you for these interesting reflections! As for your first point, there are a number of philosophers who address radical skepticism (e.g. can any of us know with certainty that we are not, as we seem to be, wide awake and acting in the world rather than, say, dreaming?) in the way you suggest. Arguably, life may continue just as it appears until one's death and yet there would be no decisive reason to rule out the possibility one was merely a brain in a vat. And because of this, some philosophers think that such radical skeptical hypotheses are idle or nonsensical or of no interest. I am somewhat of the other mind: I think we can imagine radical hypothetical states of affairs in which we are indeed systematically mistaken in almost all our beliefs about ourselves in the world (in brief, I think it conceivable that we might be in the matrix). While this does not have awesome practical consequences, I think it should humble us in our knowledge claims. As for the second point, Quine set out to dismantle the very categorical distinction between the analytic and synthetic. Today, some think he was spot on, but there are large numbers of philosophers (including myself) who believe the analytic category is sensible and intelligible. I think it is an analytic truth that 1+1 equals 2 --based on the principle of identity or A is A (because 2 simply is '1+1' and so 1+1 equals 2 because 1=1 equals 1=1. You ask about explanations. On that point, things get quite interesting. The concepts of necessity, impossibility, and possibility can be explained in terms of one another. So the statement '1+1 = 2 is necessary' is equivalent to '1+1=2 is possible and 1+1 is not equal to 2 is not possible. To many of this, explanations like this are acceptable, but to some radical thinkers, such explanations are considered insufficient. For a great defense of the analytic category and the concepts at issue, check out Alvin Plantinga's classic On The Nature Of Necessity.

What's in a name? Recently, Ron Artest, a member of the world famous NBA LA

What's in a name? Recently, Ron Artest, a member of the world famous NBA LA Lakers team changed his name, officially, to "Meta World Peace". Apparently the sports announcers have been rebuked by the league for calling him by his former name, what someone might consider a "real name" or legitimate name. So now, when he does something great, the announcers excitedly shout what some might consider a slogan rather than a name: "World Peace!" I suspect there are a tangled network of issues involved here, and I'd appreciate some untangling. One issue that occurs to me, for instance, is whether the league's insistence that the announcers call this player "World Peace" is genuinely motivated by a respect for his choice of name. If he had named himself something offensive (a name involving a curse, for instance), would they insist the same? Ethically, as a society, do we prioritize respecting his choice of name over our taboos involving language? Is this even the right way to think about this issue? Are there...

This is an interesting one. One rather tangential aspect of your question is the fact that the backetball player formerly known as Ron Artest (whom I have watched play numerous times) seems a very poor role model on the topic of peace (or peaceful demeanor)!

Anyway, such sniping aside, the news is that he changed his name to Metta World Peace (not Meta)--go figure!

OK, so what is the philosophical issue here? Well, it seems there is a question as to whether or not we have a right to be called by our legal names. This does not seem to me to be a matter of "respect" for his choice of name, but a matter of recognizing that the name is now legally Metta World Peace. But I don't see why announcers couldn't refer to him as "MWP" or "Peace" without implied disrespect. In the end, public figures such as Metta World Peace (by any name) should get used to the idea that they do not have complete control over what others say about them or what others call them. I think one should expect as much respect as one earns. 'Nuff said!

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