Vagueness / Indeterminacy (PHIL-GA-2297)

NYU - Fall 2013

Graduate Seminar

Tuesday 11am-1pm

Bldg: Philosophy Department, Main seminar Room (2nd floor)

Instructor: Prof. Paul Egré

Office hours: Wed. 3.30-5 pm and by appointment


We will discuss recent work on vagueness from various domains, including logic, epistemology, formal semantics and the philosophy of language. Our leading thread will be the question whether the phenomenon of vagueness in language, and in particular the conception of vague predicates as tolerant (C. Wright), warrants a revision of the laws of classical logic -- as several of the founding fathers of logic hinted (Frege, Peirce, Russell) – or whether tolerance should be treated by holding on to a classical semantics with an adequate pragmatic module attached to it (viz. Williamson, Pagin). We will discuss various nonclassical treatments of vague predicates (including super- and sub-valuationism, truth-functional three-valued models, and fuzzy accounts), which will be compared to the strict-tolerant account developed recently in joint work with P. Cobreros, D. Ripley and R. van Rooij. I will argue that this framework combines a number of appealing features from those rival approaches, while allowing us to remain much closer to classical logic. The framework will be further compared to other accounts in its vicinity (in particular Zardini’s tolerance logic, and Smith’s fuzzy approach). Further aspects will be discussed, such as: the impact of granularity on our intuitions of tolerance ; how vague idiolects are coordinated under the assumption of tolerance ; the relevance and scope of probabilistic treatments of vagueness ; what the sources of tolerance intuitions might be (indiscriminability vs. semantic indeterminacy).

Plan for the course

The seminar will be organized in 6 main blocks:

1. Introduction. What is vagueness? [Sept. 3]
    We present the main symptoms, potential sources and candidate definitions of vagueness.

2. Margins of error, Central gaps. [Sept. 10]
    A discussion of two strategies to defend classical logic in the face of the sorites: margins of error (Williamson) and domain restriction (Pagin)

3. Super- and sub-valuationism. [Sept. 17-24, Oct. 1]
     An in-depth examination of two dual strategies to explain vagueness: as underdetermination and as overdetermination.

4. The Strict-Tolerant account [Oct. 8-22-29]
      The leading idea is to combine notions of semantic overlap and underlap to handle vagueness. Comparison with Zardini's nontransitive treatment, discussion of some objections, and a look at dynamic sorites.

5. Degrees of truth or Probabilities? [Nov. 5-12]
    Focus will be on Smith's conception of vagueness as closeness. A parallel and comparison will be made with statistical accounts of vagueness relying on the notion of probability (specifically: Borel, Black, Lassiter)

6. The sources of vagueness [Nov. 19-26, Dec. 3, 10]
     Why is our language vague? A closer look at nontransitivity, imperfect discrimination, similarity in categorization, and the nature of borderline cases; time permitting, at functionalist perspectives on vagueness and communication in language.


NB 1.  Fall Recess on October 15, no session then.

NB 2. The schedule is subject to change as the semester proceeds


Readings and active participation in the seminar.

1 term paper of no less than 4000 words and no more than 7000 words. A first outline of 4-9 pages is required for October 20. Then a second expanded version by November 22. The final version is due December 22. Suggestions will be posted and students are encouraged to talk with me about possible topics. There will be no incomplete grades for this class.


No reading is required for the first session. Should you be interested in pre-reading one paper, read O. Bueno and M. Colyvan's 2012 short Ratio paper, "Just what is vagueness?", which I will use as one of the background papers.

The readings and detailed syllabus will be made available to the participants of the seminar via a shared Dropbox folder or via NYU Classes.