Borel on the Heap

Erkenntnis 79 (S5):1043-1079 (2014)
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In 1907 Borel published a remarkable essay on the paradox of the Heap (“Un paradoxe économique: le sophisme du tas de blé et les vérités statistiques”), in which Borel proposes what is likely the first statistical account of vagueness ever written, and where he discusses the practical implications of the sorites paradox, including in economics. Borel’s paper was integrated in his book Le Hasard, published 1914, but has gone mostly unnoticed since its publication. One of the originalities of Borel’s essay is that it puts forward a model of vagueness as imprecision, making particular use of the Gaussian law of measurement errors to model categorization. The aim of our paper is to give a presentation of the historical context of Borel’s essay, to spell out the mathematical details of his model, and to provide a critical assessment of his theory. Three aspects of Borel’s account are particularly discussed: the first concerns the comparison between Borel’s statistical account and posterior degree-theoretic accounts of vagueness. The second concerns the anti-epistemicist flavor of Borel’s approach, whereby the idea of statistical fluctuation is used to undermine the notion of sharp boundary for vague predicates. The third concerns the problematic link between Borel’s model of vagueness as imprecision and the notion of semantic indeterminacy. An English translation of Borel’s original essay is appended to this paper (Erkenntnis, this issue)



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Author Profiles

Anouk Barberousse
Sorbonne Université
Paul Egré
École Normale Supérieure

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The Structure of Appearance.Nelson Goodman - 1951 - Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard University Press.
The Foundations of Science.Henri Poincaré - 2017 - New York and Garrison, N.Y.,: The Science press. Edited by George Bruce Halsted.

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