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The Argument from Vagueness

Edited by Daniel Z. Korman (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Australian National University)
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Summary The argument from vagueness is an argument for mereological universalism, the thesis that for any objects you like, there is an object which is the mereological fusion of those objects. Here is the main idea behind the argument: If we say that composition only sometimes occurs, then presumably there can be borderline cases of composition, that is, cases where it is vague whether the objects in question compose anything. But there can’t be borderline cases of composition. That’s because if it were vague whether some things composed something (say, a hammer head that is just beginning to be affixed to a handle) then it would be vague how many things there are (the handle, the head, and a hammer, or just the handle and head?). But we can make claims about how many things there are without using any vague language whatsoever. Consequently, those claims can’t be vague; they must have determinate truth values. So it can’t be vague how many things there are, in which case it can’t be vague whether composition occurs. So composition must be unrestricted. 
Key works The argument first appears in Lewis 1986, pp. 212-213, and is defended in greater detail in Sider 2001, section 4.9. The prominent responses in the literature come in three varieties: (i) those that maintain that there can be vague existence, (ii) those that maintain that there are always sharp cut-offs with respect to composition, and (iii) those that deny that borderline composition need give rise to vague existence. See Hawley 2002 and Sider 2003 on type-(i) responses, Markosian 1998 and Merricks 2005 on type-(ii) responses, and Carmichael 2011 on type-(iii) responses. 
Introductions Sider 2001; Korman 2010 
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  1. Yuri Balashov (2005). On Vagueness, 4d and Diachronic Universalism. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 83 (4):523 – 531.
    I offer a new criticism of the argument from vagueness to four-dimensionalism [Sider 2001. The argument is modelled after an older argument for mereological universalism [Lewis 1986 and may be looked upon as a tightened-up and extended version of the latter. While I agree with other critics [Koslicki 2003; Markosian 2004 that the argument from vagueness fails precisely because of this affinity, my recipe for dealing with it is different. I reject the assumption, shared by Sider with his opponents, that (...)
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  2. Elizabeth Barnes (2013). Metaphysically Indeterminate Existence. Philosophical Studies 166 (3):495-510.
    Sider (Four-dimensionalism 2001; Philos Stud 114:135–146, 2003; Nous 43:557–567, 2009) has developed an influential argument against indeterminacy in existence. In what follows, I argue that the defender of metaphysical forms of indeterminate existence has a unique way of responding to Sider’s argument. The response I’ll offer is interesting not only for its applicability to Sider’s argument, but also for its broader implications; responding to Sider helps to show both how we should think about precisification in the context of metaphysical indeterminacy (...)
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  3. Elizabeth Barnes (2007). Vagueness and Arbitrariness: Merricks on Composition. Mind 116 (461):105-113.
    In this paper I respond to Trenton Merricks's (2005) paper ‘Composition and Vagueness’. I argue that Merricks's paper faces the following difficulty: he claims to provide independent motivation for denying one of the premisses of the Lewis-Sider vagueness argument for unrestricted composition, but the alleged motivation he provides begs the question.
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  4. Chad Carmichael (2011). Vague Composition Without Vague Existence. Noûs 45 (2):315-327.
    David Lewis (1986) criticizes moderate views of composition on the grounds that a restriction on composition must be vague, and vague composition leads, via a precisificational theory of vagueness, to an absurd vagueness of existence. I show how to resist this argument. Unlike the usual resistance, however, I do not jettison precisificational views of vagueness. Instead, I blur the connection between composition and existence that Lewis assumes. On the resulting view, in troublesome cases of vague composition, there is an object, (...)
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  5. Maureen Donnelly (2009). Mereological Vagueness and Existential Vagueness. Synthese 168 (1):53 - 79.
    It is often assumed that indeterminacy in mereological relations—in particular, indeterminacy in which collections of objects have fusions—leads immediately to indeterminacy in what objects there are in the world. This assumption is generally taken as a reason for rejecting mereological vagueness. The purpose of this paper is to examine the link between mereological vagueness and existential vagueness. I hope to show that the connection between the two forms of vagueness is not nearly so clear-cut as has been supposed.
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  6. Nikk Effingham (2011). Sider, Hawley, Sider and the Vagueness Argument. Philosophical Studies 154 (2):241 - 250.
    The Vagueness Argument for universalism only works if you think there is a good reason not to endorse nihilism. Sider's argument from the possibility of gunk is one of the more popular reasons. Further, Hawley has given an argument for the necessity of everything being either gunky or composed of mereological simples. I argue that Hawley's argument rests on the same premise as Sider's argument for the possibility of gunk. Further, I argue that that premise can be used to demonstrate (...)
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  7. Nikk Effingham (2009). Universalism, Vagueness and Supersubstantivalism. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 87 (1):35 – 42.
    Sider has a favourable view of supersubstantivalism (the thesis that all material objects are identical to the regions of spacetime that they occupy). This paper argues that given supersubstantivalism, Sider's argument from vagueness for (mereological) universalism fails. I present Sider's vagueness argument (§§II-III), and explain why - given supersubstantivalism - some but not all regions must be concrete in order for the argument to work (§IV). Given this restriction on what regions can be concrete, I give a reductio of Sider's (...)
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  8. André Gallois (2004). Comments on Ted Sider: Four Dimensionalism. [REVIEW] Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 68 (3):648–657.
  9. Hud Hudson (2000). Universalism, Four Dimensionalism, and Vagueness. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 60 (3):547-560.
    Anyone who endorses Universalism and Four Dimensionalism owes us an argument for those controversial mereological theses. One may put forth David Lewis’s and Ted Sider’s arguments from vagueness. However, the success of those arguments depends on the rejection of the epistemic view of vagueness, and thus opens the door to a fatal confrontation with one particularly troubling version of The Problem of the Many. The alternative for friends of Universalism and Four Dimensionalism is to abandon those currently fashionable arguments in (...)
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  10. Daniel Z. Korman (2014). The Vagueness Argument Against Abstract Artifacts. Philosophical Studies 167 (1):57-71.
  11. Daniel Z. Korman (2011). Ordinary Objects. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
    An encyclopedia entry which covers various revisionary conceptions of which macroscopic objects there are, and the puzzles and arguments that motivate these conceptions: sorites arguments, the argument from vagueness, the puzzles of material constitution, arguments against indeterminate identity, arguments from arbitrariness, debunking arguments, the overdetermination argument, and the problem of the many.
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  12. Daniel Z. Korman (2010). The Argument From Vagueness. Philosophy Compass 5 (10):891-901.
    A presentation of the Lewis-Sider argument from vagueness for unrestricted composition and possible responses.
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  13. Daniel Z. Korman (2007). The Naive Conception of Material Objects: A Defense. Dissertation, University of Texas at Austin
    Chapter 1: “Ordinary Objects and the Argument from Strange Concepts.” Chapter 2: “Restricted Composition Without Sharp Cut-Offs.” Chapter 3: “Three Solutions to the Grounding Problem for Coincident Objects.” Chapter 4: “Ordinary Objects Without Overdetermination.” Chapter 5: “Eliminativism and the Challenge from Folk Belief.” Chapter 6: “Unrestricted Composition and Restricted Quantification.”.
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  14. Kathrin Koslicki (2003). The Crooked Path From Vagueness to Four-Dimensionalism. Philosophical Studies 114 (1-2):107 - 134.
  15. David Liebesman & Matti Eklund (2007). Sider on Existence. Noûs 41 (3):519–528.
    In (2001), (2003), and elsewhere, Ted Sider presents two arguments concerning the existential quantifier which are justly central to the recent discussion of metaontology. What we will call Sider's indeterminacy argument is an attempted reductio of the suggestion that the existential quantifier might be semantically indeterminate. What we will call Sider's naturalness argument is an argument for the claim that the semantic value of the existential quantifier is the most eligible existence-like meaning there is, à la David Lewis' eligibility theory (...)
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  16. E. J. Lowe (2005). Vagueness and Endurance. Analysis 65 (286):104–112.
  17. Ned Markosian (1998). Brutal Composition. Philosophical Studies 92 (3):211-249.
    According to standard, pre-philosophical intuitions, there are many composite objects in the physical universe. There is, for example, my bicycle, which is composed of various parts - wheels, handlebars, molecules, atoms, etc. Recently, a growing body of philosophical literature has concerned itself with questions about the nature of composition.1 The main question that has been raised about composition is, roughly, this: Under what circumstances do some things compose, or add up to, or form, a single object? It turns out that (...)
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  18. Ned Markosian (1998). Brutal Composition. Philosophical Studies 92 (3):211 - 249.
    According to standard, pre-philosophical intuitions, there are many composite objects in the physical universe. There is, for example, my bicycle, which is composed of various parts - wheels, handlebars, molecules, atoms, etc. Recently, a growing body of philosophical literature has concerned itself with questions about the nature of composition.1 The main question that has been raised about composition is, roughly, this: Under what circumstances do some things compose, or add up to, or form, a single object? It turns out that (...)
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  19. Trenton Merricks (2007). Remarks on Vagueness and Arbitrariness. Mind 116 (461):115-119.
    other things, that the Vagueness Argument for unrestricted composition fails. In ‘Vagueness and Arbitrariness: Merricks on Composition’, Elizabeth Barnes objects to my argument. This paper replies to Barnes, and also offers further support for the views defended in my original paper.
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  20. Trenton Merricks (2005). Composition and Vagueness. Mind 114 (455):615-637.
    says that there are some composite objects. And it says that some objects jointly compose nothing at all. The main threat to restricted composition is the in.uential and widely defended Vagueness Argument. We shall see that the Vagueness Argument fails. In seeing how this argument fails, we shall discover a new focus for the debate over composition's extent.
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  21. Daniel Nolan (2006). Vagueness, Multiplicity and Parts. Noûs 40 (4):716–737.
    There’s an argument around from so-called “linguistic theories of vagueness”, plus some relatively uncontroversial considerations, to powerful metaphysical conclusions. David Lewis employs this argument to support the mereological principle of unrestricted composition, and Theodore Sider employs a similar argument not just for unrestricted composition but also for the doctrine of temporal parts. This sort of argument could be generalised, to produce a lot of other less palatable metaphysical conclusions. However, arguments to Lewis’s and Sider’s conclusions on the basis of considerations (...)
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  22. H. W. Noonan (2010). A Flaw in Sider's Vagueness Argument for Unrestricted Mereological Composition. Analysis 70 (4):669-672.
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  23. Theodore Sider (1997). Four-Dimensionalism. Philosophical Review 106 (2):197-231.
    Persistence through time is like extension through space. A road has spatial parts in the subregions of the region of space it occupies; likewise, an object that exists in time has temporal parts in the various subregions of the total region of time it occupies. This view — known variously as four dimensionalism, the doctrine of temporal parts, and the theory that objects “perdure” — is opposed to “three dimensionalism”, the doctrine that things “endure”, or are “wholly present”.1 I will (...)
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  24. Donald Smith (2006). The Vagueness Argument for Mereological Universalism. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 87 (3):357–368.
    In this paper, I critically discuss one of the more influential arguments for mereological universalism, what I will call ‘the Vagueness Argument’. I argue that a premise of the Vagueness Argument is not well supported and that there are at least two good reasons for thinking that the premise in question is false.
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  25. Nicholas Smith (2005). A Plea for Things That Are Not Quite All There: Or, Is There a Problem About Vague Composition and Vague Existence? Journal of Philosophy 102 (8):381 - 421.
    Orthodoxy has it that mereological composition can never be a vague matter, for if it were, then existence would sometimes be a vague matter too, and that's impossible. I accept that vague composition implies vague existence, but deny that either is impossible. In this paper I develop degree-theoretic versions of quantified modal logic and of mereology, and combine them in a framework that allows us to make clear sense of vague composition and vague existence, and the relationships between them.
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  26. Irem Kurtsal Steen (2010). Three-Dimensionalist's Semantic Solution to Diachronic Vagueness. Philosophical Studies 150 (1):79-96.
    A standard response to the problem of diachronic vagueness is ‘the semantic solution’, which demands an abundant ontology. Although it is known that the abundant ontology does not logically preclude endurantism, their combination is rejected because it necessitates massive coincidence between countless objects. In this paper, I establish that the semantic solution is available not only to perdurantists but also to endurantists by showing that there is no problem with such ubiquitous and principled coincidence.
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  27. Tuomas E. Tahko (2009). Against the Vagueness Argument. Philosophia 37 (2):335-340.
    In this paper I offer a counterexample to the so called vagueness argument against restricted composition. This will be done in the lines of a recent suggestion by Trenton Merricks, namely by challenging the claim that there cannot be a sharp cut-off point in a composition sequence. It will be suggested that causal powers which emerge when composition occurs can serve as an indicator of such sharp cut-off points. The main example will be the case of a heap. It seems (...)
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  28. Achille C. Varzi (2007). Promiscuous Endurantism and Diachronic Vagueness. American Philosophical Quarterly 44 (2):181-189.
    According to a popular line of reasoning, diachronic vagueness creates a problem for the endurantist conception of persistence. Some authors have replied that this line of reasoning is inconclusive, since the endurantist can subscribe to a principle of Diachronic Unrestricted Composition (DUC) that is perfectly parallel to the principle required by the perdurantist’s semantic account. I object that the endurantist should better avoid DUC. And I argue that even DUC, if accepted, would fail to provide the endurantist with the necessary (...)
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