Sunday, November 13, 2022

 554. The freedom of vagueness

 Ambiguity and vagueness are not synonyms ( Solan & Tiersma, 2012). In ambiguity there are many specific manifestations of a general concept, such as many examples of ‘cat’, including my cat who shreds my furniture and speaks to me, and it is not clear which is at issue. The context offers disambiguation In vagueness there are dubious boundary cases. Lions and tigers are clearly not cats, but a lynx might be a dubious case

 Vagueness may be a bother, but it allows for boundary cases that permit some deviation from a norm, satisfying it partly, but deviating from it to some extent. I used this before, I don’t recall where, in a discussion of Michel Foucault’s struggle for authenticity under the institutional pressure to conform. This applies in all organisations, for example, where one is expected to conform to the organisational ‘focus’ of a shared purpose, ways of reporting and communication, conflict resolution, and operating procedures. Vagueness is needed to belong. Deviation can allow for some authenticity.

 This connects with ‘parole’, discussed in earlier items of this blog, that lives in the flux of more or less deviation from established ‘langue’, as that is applied in some specific action context, where in bumping into other ambiguous concepts, it is disambiguated, specifying which manifestation of a general concept is active, and possibly showing vagueness in idiosyncrasies that only partly satisfy the order of langue.

 The interaction between the order of langue and the flux of parole can create sifts of langue, when the idiosyncracy of parole is increasingly shared, and what used to be a dubious boundary case comes to belong to the core of a concept.

 An example is a human being who was excluded from a group, out of racism or other discrimination, and now comes to be accepted as a full member.

 There is vagueness everywhere. I propose that it is due to deeply ingrained habit of our language and thinking to expect things to be like objects in time and space, with clear identities and sharp boundaries. That is a result of human evolution, when the human being was hunter-gatherer, and the priority for survival was the correct identification of objects moving in time and space, such as a predatory animal one needs to flee from, or a prey one wants to pursue in hunting, or the shelter one seeks. This led to an ‘object bias’ in thought and language, as discussed earlier in this blog. This is not adequate for abstractions one now has to deal with. We try to understand abstractions, such as democracy, happiness, meaning. justice, guilt, right and wrong, and so on, in metaphor to objects in time and space (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980).

 This may yield what is called ‘epistemic vagueness’ (Posher, 2012): vagueness due to a discrepancy between language and extralinguistic reality. I prefer a process ontology, where everything is a process, where boundaries are fluid, and unexpected meanings come in continually. Even a stone is a process, of buzzing atoms, heat exchange with the environment, and decay into dust, though this is much slower and less visible than the development and decay of an organism. In abstractions’ there is ongoing vagueness, of shifting boundaries, and I cannot think of an abstraction without it.

 In law, in particular, vagueness abounds, and lawyers don’t only apply the law, but develop it. The fabric of law frays continually. It encounters knots, and the knitting of it goes on.

Lakoff , G. and M. Johnson. 1980, Metaphors we live by, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Posher, R. 2012, ‘Ambiguity and vagueness in legal interpretation’, in: L. Solan & P. Tierstra (eds.), Oxford: Oxford handbook  on language and law,

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