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Not Exactly: In Praise of Vagueness Paperback – May 16 2012
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Review from previous edition: "Amusing, persuasive. conversational and engaging." --John Gilbey, Times Higher Education Supplement 04/02/2010
"Engaging and approachable book." --John Gilbey, Times Higher Education Supplement 04/02/2010
About the Author
Kees van Deemter is a Reader in Computing Science at the University of Aberdeen. He works in computational linguistics, the area of artificial intelligence where computer science meets linguistics and his main areas of expertise are computational semantics and natural language generation. He has previously authored 90 research publications in philosophical logic, artificial intelligence and computational linguistics.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The author refutes the idea that vagueness is a fault and presents a certain number of different approaches to the problem
explaining the advantages and disadvantages of each.
You can read this book in bits.
I have training in formal logic, so my view is perhaps a little biased, but all in all I have rarely seen a book by a philosopher in which the author bends over
backwards trying to explain subtle concepts and succeeds like this one.
My only niggle is the chapter on Artificial Intelligence which in my opinion spends just a little too much time (for my liking) introducing the subject before
getting into the approaches to vagueness. I was expecting to see Dempster-Shafer theory discussed and didn't find it.
Not only will you read about vagueness, but you should be better prepared to read works on analytic philosophy, in particular a good crash course on formal logic is given, but I'm not the best judge as to how clear that is, as I know much of that. I'm also glad to see he talks about the work of the great Hans Kamp who does very original and useful work in logic.
This is a fun book on a subject which is disquieting. It might well challenge some of your basic views on reasoning. I have a good friend to whom I read parts of this over the phone, it's that well written.
It's interesting that the author is not just a philosopher by training but also works in a computer science department of a university. This might explain why the book is clear: he has a goal of making software deal with vagueness.
For Van Deemter the sorites (heap) paradox is emblematic and he uses it a great deal. Briefly it is a paradox relating to small differences. It is the misconception that if one small change makes no difference then a lot of small changes will not make a difference, such as the loss of a single hair, one at a time, leading to baldness. At some point a threshold is crossed and the word “bald” starts to become applicable. Chapter 4 discusses the case of “Old Number One”, a 1929 Bentley race car, that exemplifies the old paradox of the Ship of Theseus (which surprisingly the author omits). Buyer A wanted the “original” car, but over time the various pieces had been replaced, one at a time, so he sued the seller, claiming that he had been cheated. Even though there was a continuity of provenance, there was little if anything of the original vehicle remaining. Similarly, the cells in your body replace themselves over a 10 year period - yet you are still recognizably and legally you.
The main themes were that both language and measurement are imprecise and there are good reasons for both, which the author does an admirable job of summarizing, particularly in Chapter 11 “When to be Vague”. Vagueness usually means less to remember and easier to verify as long as we understand the context. The “tallest house” in a small set can be quickly verified by eye, rather than measuring the 22.8 meter building. About $500 is a better estimate for a repair job than $475.50, when there may be unknown problems lurking in the plumbing, and a politician would be wise not to be over specific in her promise of what she will do in order to lower the cost to her reputation should she be unable to accomplish it. Low commitments are easier to fulfill than higher ones, and a certain degree of ambiguity can be a strategic asset - while voters may be led astray by their own assumptions, ambiguous statements allow for plausible retreat. Nor should laws or mission statements be too specific, in order to deal with future contingencies; the example used is laws against “indecency” which are flexible to local sensibilities and the times.
It's not a bad book and I may keep it to drag off the shelf and point to a chapter and say “this is what I mean – read this”, or it may wind up donated to a book sale when I need some shelf space.
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