Sunday, October 21, 2007

The indeterminable space where baldness begins and hairiness ends

Vagueness, and the philosophy behind it
Zoe Young Issue date: 10/10/07 Home > Features
If we were to meet a bald man named Harry who had very few, if any, hairs on his head, we would be right to call him bald, the professors explain. If we then met a man with a full head of hair - let's call him Really Hairy Harry - we would be right in saying that he had hair.
Vagueness is the margin between Bald Harry and Really Hairy Harry, the indeterminable space where baldness begins and hairiness ends. How many hairs do we have to yank from Really Hairy Harry's head before we can say that he's going bald? Well, that's a bit vague. Explaining this "naughty paradox" is the mission of professors Crispin Wright and Stephen Schiffer, two men who are also concerned with just how many definite concepts go into understanding the confusing philosophy of vagueness. The professors are leading a seven-week graduate class entitled "The Philosophy of Language: Theories of Vagueness."
Wright and Schiffer are at the front of their field regarding vagueness and their expertise is very attractive to the philosophy community. Of the 20 to 30 members of the class, a third of them are professors who hail from NYU or neighboring Ivy League schools. "We always worry about the level of actual student participation," Schiffer said. The class discussion is very intense - a heated dispute will erupt over something as trivial as whether a dash is necessary after a P in a diagram. But not surprisingly, no one argues as much as Wright and Schiffer, whose expert shouting matches set a high standard.
"Philosophy is about argumentation," Schiffer said. Wright added: "It's for [those] with an intellectual affliction." By teaching the class together, the professors have the benefit of building their own divergent perspectives into the curriculum. But on a very lucky day, they might agree. "Our ideas differ at the root, but they have the same conclusion," Wright said. "Stephen thinks he knows that the views we discuss are false.""And Crispin thinks you can't assume that Harry is bald," Schiffer said. Zoe Young is a contributing writer. E-mail her at

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