Vague Terms, Indexicals, and Vague Indexicals

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  • Vague Terms, Indexicals, and Vague IndexicalsAuthor(s): Joshua GertSource: Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the AnalyticTradition, Vol. 140, No. 3 (Sep., 2008), pp. 437-445Published by: SpringerStable URL: .Accessed: 07/08/2013 01:18

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  • Philos Stud (2008) 140:437-445 DOI 10.1007/s 11098-007-9154-4

    Vague terms, indexicals, and vague indexicals

    Joshua Gert

    Published online: 5 September 2007 ? Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007

    Abstract Jason Stanley has criticized a contextualist solution to the sorites par adox that treats vagueness as a kind of indexicality. His objection rests on a feature of indexicals that seems plausible: that their reference remains fixed in verb phrase ellipsis. But the force of Stanley's criticism depends on the undefended assumption that vague terms, if they are a special sort of indexical, must function in the same

    way that more paradigmatic indexicals do. This paper argues that there can be more than one sort of indexicality, that one term might easily have both sorts, and that therefore, and despite Stanley's worries, vagueness might easily be assimilated to

    one form.

    Keywords Vagueness Sorites Indexicality Contextualism

    Jason Stanley (2003) has criticized one kind of contextualist solution to the sorites paradox. The paradox, in one standard sort of incarnation, depends on the apparent

    undeniability of premises of the form 'If thatn is a heap, then thatn+1 is also', where the subscripts indicate that the demonstrative is being used to pick out, respectively, two adjacent collections of grains of sand, and where each collection in the sequence has one less grain than the last. If 'that]' indicates a collection that is clearly large enough to count as a heap, and if our sequence is long enough to reach a collection with, say, only one grain, then we seem forced, by an unobjectionable series of inferences, to the false conclusion that a lone grain of sand makes a heap.

    One kind of contextualist solution to this paradox depends on the following two ideas. First: vague terms, such as 'heap', function like indexicals in that their

    J. Gert (S) Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL 32306, USA e-mail:

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  • 438 J. Gert

    content, on particular occasions of use, is determined by features of the context.1 Second: when we consider two similar objects (here, collections of grains of sand), and the question of whether or not the vague predicate applies to them, this very process of consideration itself affects a relevant feature of the context. The particular contextual feature of relevance is a state of the speaker: a disposition to classify objects in terms of the predicate. Consideration of two adjacent members of a sorites series affects this contextual feature as the result of a kind of pressure or tendency to

    apply the same predicate to both members of the series, given how similar they are. A consequence of these two ideas is that when we consider any two adjacent collections of grains of sand, the semantics of the vague term 'heap' interacts with the context to make the relevant conditional ('If thatn is a heap, then thatn+1 is also') true. This results in a subtle equivocation as we consider distinct conditionals in a long sorites argument, and this subtle equivocation?so says the contextualist?saves us from

    having to say that a valid argument leads from truth to falsity.2 Stanley's worry about this kind of solution to the sorites paradox depends

    essentially on the following 'fact about indexical expressions': they have invariant

    interpretations in Verb Phrase ellipsis.3 Consider the sentence: 'John likes this room, and Bill does too'. Here the Verb Phrase in the second clause is elided. It corresponds to the explicit Verb Phrase 'likes this room' in the first clause. Now, suppose that I utter the first part of the sentence in the dining room, and Victoria (overhearing what I've said and shouting from the kitchen) adds the second part. Victoria's addition

    would not indicate that Bill likes the kitchen, as it would have had she not elided the Verb Phrase. Rather, because of the ellipsis, Victoria's addition indicates that Bill also likes the room that / referred to: the dining room. The elided indexical phrase 'this room' has the same content in the elided Verb Phrase as it had in the unelided

    Verb Phrase. The problem for the contextualist can then be made vivid with a one sentence version of the paradox of the heap: 'If thati is a heap then so is that2, and if that2 is, so is that3, and if that3 is, so is that4...'. For if Stanley's 'fact about indexical expressions' is really a fact, then all the occurrences of 'so is' in this long sentence should have the same content: 'is a heap', where 'heap' has the content of its first actual (i.e. non-elliptical) occurrence. That is, Stanley's 'fact' precludes the shifting content strategy from being applicable, since it is, in essence, a stipulation that content does not shift. And, since Stanley is surely right that the one-sentence version of this sorites paradox does not differ in the source of its plausibility or puzzlingness from the more common many-sentence version, the contextualist seems not to offer a

    solution to the many-sentence version either.

    One might worry about Stanley's quick move from the contextualist's central idea, which is that vague terms are context-sensitive, to the idea that the

    contextualist is committed to taking vague terms to be indexicals. Indeed, Raffman?whom Stanley includes in his list of targets, and whose account formed

    1 For present purposes we need not distinguish content from referent. 2 This contextualist solution borrows heavily from Raffman (1996), although it omits many details and probably distorts others. Raffman no longer counts herself as a contextualist about vagueness. See Raffman (2005). The present sketch is not meant to be an improvement on Raffman's, but is only meant to supply a clear sample target for Stanley's general criticism. 3

    Stanley (2003) p. 271.

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  • Vague terms, indexicals, and vague indexicals 439

    the basis of the sample contextualist account presented above?denies that her

    (1996) contextualist solution made vagueness a matter of indexicality.4 Rather, she claims that on her account the referent of a vague term depended on context in a way analogous to the way in which the referent of 'big' depends on whether we are

    talking about buildings or fleas. I myself am slightly suspicious of taking this analogy (which Raffman uses very effectively to explain and motivate her account) as more than an analogy. There is a way in which the sense of 'big' in 'That flea is big' can

    really be understood as the same as the sense of the relational predicate 'big-for-a flea'. But the

    'orange' in 'That car is orange' seems much less plausibly to have the

    linguistic disposition of the speaker (or anything else that Raffman would count as the relevant aspect of context) as part of its sense. Rather, Raffman's account seems

    most plausible if we take the disposition of the speaker to be an aspect of content that

    merely determines reference, much as we take the intentions of the speaker to do in the case of more paradigmatic indexicals such as 'that'. Of course much more would need to be said here to settle this issue. Happily, we can leave this worry about Raffman aside, since we can take Stanley's target to be an explicitly indexical version of Raffman's account. Moreover, and more importantly, even if we grant

    Stanley his claim that the contextualist holds vague predicates to be indexicals, his argument still fails. At least, this is what the present papers aims to show.

    Jonathan Ellis (2004) has offered one response on behalf of the contextualist. His suggestion is that even such paradigmatic indexicals as 'here' do not really have invariant interpretations in Verb Phrase ellipsis. Let me briefly describe the situation that Ellis takes to provide a counterexample to Stanley's claim. A number of people, as part of a game, are to stand in various locations. The first person, Jill, takes her position and says 'I'm going to stand here'. 'Here', as used by Jill on this occasion, presumably has a certain reference?perhaps vague?that excludes, for example, a

    point six feet away from her. The second person, Tom, as a sort of joke, takes his position very close to Jill, whereupon Jill says 'And so is Tom!' The third person, Sally, then continues the joke, standing as close to Jill as possible, and Jill says 'And I guess Sally is too!' About 30 people later, Jonathan takes his position, as close to Jill as possible, and Jill says 'And so, of course, is Jonathan!' But Jonathan is now six feet from Jill, at the periphery of a small dense crowd. Had Tom?the second person to take a position?stood where Jonathan now stands, Jill would have been speaking falsely had she said 'Tom is standing here too'. But, according to Ellis, Jill speaks truly in making her claim about Jonathan. Thus Ellis takes his example to falsify Stanley's claim about invariance, since the elided 'here' seems to change in content as the game progresses. Stanley (2005) has disputed this, but his grounds for dispute seem to rest on a misunderstanding of the point of Ellis' story. In particular, Stanley takes Ellis to be offering a story in which a sorites series leads us from a true statement ('So is Tom') to dubious or false one ('Jonathan is too').5 But contrary to 4

    Raffman (2005) p. 245. 5

    Stanley (2005) pp. 165-166. It is unclear why Stanley thinks that the sentence 'Jonathan is too' is not true, and I side with Ellis in thinking that it is plausibly true. One possible explanation is that Stanley was

    thinking that Ellis was somehow trying to tie the vagueness of 'here' to its obvious indexicality. Although this would be an extremely uncharitable reading of Ellis, it would explain why, in discussing Ellis'

    example, Stanley writes (166) 'vagueness remains even when indexicality goes away'.

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  • 440 J. Gert

    this understanding, it seems clear that Ellis intends his readers to take the latter claim to be simply and unambiguously true: when Jill says, at the end of the game, 'And so, of course, is Jonathan', she is speaking truly, and clearly truly. Ellis' point is that the claim about Jonathan is rendered true in part by the presence of the small dense crowd and the history of its formation, while that same claim would have been unambiguously false had Jonathan taken his same

    position immediately after Jill. That is, a contextual feature (the presence of the dense crowd) alters the content of the final elided indexical (the implicit 'here' in 'so is Jonathan') from what it originally was, showing that the content of that indexical is not invariant in the way Stanley claims. Below I will explain the

    important way in which Ellis is correct. But I will also explain why Ellis'

    presentation of the example ignores a truth to which Stanley's position is an

    (oversimplified) response. Here is my initial worry about Stanley's objection to contextualism: he offers

    absolutely no reason to think that all indexicals behave in the same way. It may well be true that some indexicals have invariant interpretations in Verb Phrase ellipsis. But why can we not simply say that vague terms are indexicals that do not have invariant interpretations in Verb Phrase ellipsis? There is absolutely no theoretical pressure to elevate the feature of indexicals that Stanley mentions in offering his 'fact about indexicals'?a feature that may well be instantiated in the indexicals with which Stanley chooses to illustrate it?into an essential feature of all indexicals. On the contrary, there is theoretical pressure to deny this, and to hold that not all indexicals share this feature. For the whole force of Stanley's objection to the

    contextualist's proposal rests on the undefended assumption that vague terms, if they are a special sort of indexical, must function in the same way that more paradigmatic indexicals do. To the degree, then, that we find the contextualist proposal independently plausible, we can take Stanley's argument to place pressure on the undefended assumption on which it rests. That is, Stanley's argument provides theoretical pressure to say that what differentiates vague terms from non-vague indexicals is precisely the fact that vague terms are indexicals that do vary in content in Verb Phrase ellipsis.

    Stanley asserts that any response that the contextualist gives to his argument 'must be consistent with the fact that switching interpretations under [Verb Phrase]

    ellipsis is not possible with other indexicals'.6 By 'other indexicals', Stanley means 'indexicals other than vague terms, which the contextualist it trying to treat as a

    special kind of indexical'. And by using 'other' in this way, he reveals his

    assumption that, on any contextualist account that explains vagueness as a kind of

    indexicality, indexical terms will fall into two mutually exclusive classes: (1) those that are not vague terms, and that therefore have invariant reference in Verb Phrase

    ellipsis, and (2) those that are vague terms, the vagueness of which is a distinct species of indexicality that does allow variation in reference in Verb Phrase ellipsis.

    An example from class (1) might be T, while an example from class (2) might be

    6 Stanley (2003) p. 273.

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  • Vague terms, indexicals, and vague indexicals 441

    'orange'.7 But reflection on these two examples quickly reveals that a large and

    important class of terms has been omitted: terms such as 'h...