I am blessed with outstanding junior colleagues working in a variety of sub-fields of philosophy. One of them gave a presentation the other day on how to handle vague terms. The talk was impressively precise, and I think I will fail to do justice to it here. But allow me to try and give the gist.
“Salty” is a vague term. If I start with water with no salt in it, it clearly is not salty. If the water has 10% salt, it is definitely salty. But what if it is somewhere in the middle? Suppose I am unsure whether to apply the term “salty” to a given sample of water. Since I am conflicted, I might say that I should be 50% confident that the water is salty and 50% confident that it is not. However, this turns out to give results that are implausible for technical reasons. Instead, my colleague proposes a particular function that maps interpretations of “salty” onto a confidence range. I might end up with something like, “I have no lower than 35% confidence that the water is salty, but no more than 65% confidence that it is salty.”
Again, I’m not sure I’ve done justice to the talk (which was, to some extent, over my head because of the technicalities involved). However, I do have a couple of observations. (1) The talk illustrates a style of “analytic philosophy” that uses examples that are far removed, sometimes intentionally, from ordinary experience. As I noted in the discussion period after the talk, no chef or foodie would simply say “This is salty” and not have a more specific meaning in mind. They might mean, “This is TOO salty for the kind of dish it is,” or “The salt overwhelms the taste of the potatoes.” As a result of (1), I think (2) the particular analysis given does not provide useful information. If someone tells me that “The likelihood that you will complete your inside straight on the river is only 8%,” they have given my useful information that I know how to act on. However, a chef or gourmet who is told (or determines herself) that “my confidence that this is salty is in between 35% and 65%” does not have a premise of practical reasoning.
I should note that all my junior colleagues seem much smarter and more energetic than I am. Consequently, if you are unsure whom to believe, they are probably a better bet. Nonetheless, when sending my steak back, I refuse to say simply, “It’s salty.”