Review of Stewart Shapiro, Vagueness in Context [Book Review]

Philosophical Review 118 (2):261-266 (2009)
Abstract
Stewart Shapiro’s book develops a contextualist approach to vagueness. It’s chock-full of ideas and arguments, laid out in wonderfully limpid prose. Anyone working on vagueness (or the other topics it touches on—see below) will want to read it. According to Shapiro, vague terms have borderline cases: there are objects to which the term neither determinately applies nor determinately does not apply. A term determinately applies in a context iff the term’s meaning and the non-linguistic facts determine that they do. The non-linguistic facts include the “external” context: “comparison class, paradigm cases, contrasting cases, etc.” (33) But external-contextsensitivity is not what’s central to Shapiro’s contextualism. Even fixing external context, vague terms’ (anti-)extensions exhibit sensitivity to internal context: the decisions of competent speakers. According to Shapiro’s open texture thesis, for each borderline case, there is some circumstance in which a speaker, consistently with the term’s meaning and the non-linguistic facts, can judge it to fall into the term’s extension and some circumstance in which the speaker can judge it to fall into the term’s anti-extension: she can “go either way.” Moreover, borderline sentences are Euthyphronically judgment- dependent: a competent speaker’s judging a borderline to fall into a term’s (anti- )extension makes it so. For Shapiro, then, a sentence can be true but indeterminate: a case left unsettled by meaning and the non-linguistic facts (and thus indeterminate, or borderline) may be made true by a competent speaker’s judgment. Importantly, among the non-linguistic facts that constrain speakers’ judgments (at least in the cases Shapiro cares about) is a principle of tolerance: for all x and y, if x and y differ marginally in the relevant respect (henceforth, Mxy), then if one competently judges Bx, one cannot competently judge y in any other manner in the same (total) context.1 This does not require that one judge By: one might not consider the matter at all..
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