Analytic Philosophy

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.”

About The Doc

"The Doc" is a professor at Vassar College (USA). However, the views expressed in his blog and comments are not necessarily those of Vassar, its administration, or other employees, none of whom bears any responsibility for his opinions.
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