Wednesday, August 08, 2007

On the Semantic Indecision of Vague Singular Terms

I've just seen that Donald Smith's ‘Vague Singulars, Semantic Indecision, and the Metaphysics of Persons’ is out in PPR.

Smith argues that if ‘I’ is indeed vague, and the view of vagueness as semantic indecision correct after all, then ‘I’ cannot refer to a composite material object. But his considerations would, if sound, also establish that ‘Tibbles,’ ‘Everest,’ or ‘Toronto,’ do not refer to composite material objects either—nor hence, presumably, to cats, mountains, or cities. And both considerations can be resisted, anyway.

As to the first, it suffices to observe that if ‘I’ (or ‘Tibbles’) is vague, and the view of vagueness as semantic indecision is correct, then, when I assert a sentence containing it, I do no need to take myself to having successfully referred to any particular thing—if that is understood as definitely referring to something. Rather, I aim my statement to turn out true on any admissible way of making the semantic decisions that are not (and should not, and maybe could not, be) made.

As to the second, one just has to notice that the “many” solution to the problem of the many is certainly not the only solution that defenders of the view of vagueness as semantic indecision can adopt—and have indeed adopted. One rival solution by disqualification is the so-called “supervaluationist” solution, mentioned by Lewis and more recently defended by McGee & McLaughlin, Varzi, and Weatherson. According to this alternative solution, each sharpening of ‘is a cat’ or ‘is a person’ selects just one of the many candidates—different ones in the different sharpenings, thus respecting the arbitrariness felt in denying that they all had an equal claim. ‘Tibbles is a cat’ serves as a penumbral connection, guarantying that it is rendered inadmissible any sharpening that selects a different candidate as the referent of ‘Tibbles’ from the one that is selected as belonging to the extension of ‘is a cat’—inasmuch as ‘If it is not red, then it is orange’ serves to exclude sharpenings in which borderline rose Fifí is assigned both to the extension of ‘is red’ and to that of ‘is orange.’ Thus the many candidates are indeed equally eligible as referents of ‘Tibbles,’ but it definitely the case that one and just one of them is a cat after all. Mutatis mutandis, once again, for persons.

My response will appear shortly in Sorites.

4 comments:

ChrisB said...

Dan,

Even if only one out of all the candidates is a 'person', aren't there still multiple thinking beings present. I take it that Smith would still find this troubling. Also, this solution appears to have the consequence that persons are not essentially persons, which may be ok.

Dan López de Sa said...

Hi ChrisB!

Even if only one out of all the candidates is a 'person', aren't there still multiple thinking beings present. I take it that Smith would still find this troubling.

Well, I imagine that the defender of the so-called "supervaluationist" solution could try the same trick with 'thinking', 'conscious', etc. than with 'person'. But I agree with the underlying thought: reflecting on the fact that the many candidates do share the features that are ultimately relevant for something to be of the given kind (plus the fact that there are paradigmatic cases of that kind) may eventually give rise to an argument why the defender of the view of vagueness as semantic indecision should not at the end of the day hold the so-called "supervaluationist solution" to the problem of the many. (I myself think there is such an argument forthcoming, see this paper, and also Williams 2006 for a different argument for the same conclusion.)

Also, this solution appears to have the consequence that persons are not essentially persons, which may be ok.

I also think that it might be ok that persons are not essentially persons. But I didn't quite see how this would be a consequence of the view. I guess it will depend of how 'determinately' and 'necessarily' interact, did you have some particular view in mind?

chrisb said...

Thanks for the links.

I think my line of reasoning was that since there are precisisifications of 'person' according to which candidate x isn't a person, then x isn't essentially a person. On the other hand, if I have the view right, x never fails to be a person on that particular precisification that counts x as a person. So if we think of this particular precisification as 'person*', then x is essentially a person*.

I'm sure you know this terrain better than I, so feel free to impart some wisdom.

Dan López de Sa said...

Actually, I find this quite interesting, and I am not sure about what to say: many thanks for raising the issue!

It is (super-)true that whatever is a person is indeed a person, and thus arguably necessarily if something is a person then it is a person. But I guess essentialism, in the relevant sense, would count as vindicated only if the following turns out to be (super-)true:

If something is a person then necessarily this thing is a person.

Take an arbitrary precisification and let x be something that counts as a person according to it. What is it for x to count, wrt to that precisification, as such that necessarily it is a person? I’ll have to revisit the literature on how the space of precisifications and that of possible worlds should interact. Interesting!