Towards an Ecology of Vagueness

In Richard Dietz (ed.), Vagueness and Rationality in Language Use and Cognition. Springer Verlag. pp. 87-113 (2019)


A vexing puzzle about vagueness, rationality, and evolution runs, in crude abbreviation, as follows: vague language use is demonstrably suboptimal if the goal is efficient, precise and cooperative information transmission; hence rational deliberation or evolutionary selection should, under this assumed goal, eradicate vagueness from language use. Since vagueness is pervasive and entrenched in all human languages, something has to give. In this paper, we focus on this problem in the context of signaling games. We provide an overview of a number of proposed ways in which vagueness may come into the picture in formal models of rational and evolutionary signaling. Most argue that vague signal use is simply the best we can get, given certain factors. Despite the plausibility of the proposals, we argue that a deeper understanding of the benefits of vagueness needs a more ecological perspective, namely one that goes beyond the local optimization of signaling strategies in a homogeneous population. As an example of one possible way to expand upon our current models, we propose two variants of a novel multi-population dynamic of imprecise imitation where, under certain conditions, populations with vague language use dominate over populations with precise language use.

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José Pedro Correia
University of Porto

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What is the Value of Vagueness?David Lanius - 2021 - Theoria (3):752-780.

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