Can vague concepts, which I am thinking of as concepts without boundaries, though there are I assume other ways of thinking about them, be necessary, especially if that modality changes?

Supposing it's vague that this is a "heap" of pebbles, can it nevertheless necessarily be a heap of pebbles? Can what is necessarily a heap of pebbles become a non-heap?

I found an article about modality and vagueness, but I don't have access. I also know that Timothy Williamson specialises in both, and believes he exists necessarily, which is the sort of conclusion - in different language - I might want to make.

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    Another possible example: there should be no vague obligations, because being obligated is a serious enough matter, with rigorous enough requirements in play. OTOH what about possibility and permissibility? I don't have JSTOR/similar access, but shoot me a link to the essay you mentioned and I'll see if I can find a related essay that's more accessible. ---Also, consider that "it is vague that" might be taken for a modal operator, and if there is higher-order vagueness, then "it is vague that it is vague that" is admissible. Jul 16 at 21:18
  • e.g. "This semantics validates a distinctive combined logic of vagueness and modality, which includes principles stating that modal and vagueness-theoretic notions commute with each other in a certain way. This chapter shows that this logic is inconsistent with the vagueness of metaphysical necessity, and then demonstrates that the preferred symmetry semantics does not have this consequence." @KristianBerry not trivial anyway, but yeah
    – user66760
    Jul 16 at 21:56
  • by "artices" i mean i just googled modality and vagueness and saw that some philosophers were talking about it @KristianBerry e.g. ideally, this alternative account, with symmetry semantics, does not work with temporal logic. but who cares. i just believe vagueness is the best bet for proving anything about religion etc
    – user66760
    Jul 16 at 22:06
  • "Vagueness and Modality" on academia.edu is accessible for free at least if you have a Google/Facebook account. They bring up Bacon's text, which was forthcoming at the time of their writing, however. I'll give it a look and see if I can apply it to your OP. FWIW one of the authors is currently listed as faculty at the Australian Catholic University, so there might be an implied religious relevance. Jul 16 at 22:20
  • ha i'm not a catholic. if you can answer the question, ofc that would be great @KristianBerry thanks. i have a williamson book but it is long...
    – user66760
    Jul 16 at 22:28

1 Answer 1


Yes, and arguably, all concepts are vague insofar as all concepts are described with language, and language wrestles with vagueness.

First, so we're clear, there is a different between a concept and an explanation of a concept. From WP:

Concepts are defined as abstract ideas. They are understood to be the fundamental building blocks underlying principles, thoughts and beliefs. They play an important role in all aspects of cognition.

In this way, concepts resemble emotions in that a description of an emotion ("Happiness is having nothing to worry about and is a feeling of elation") is not the actual emotion itself, but a linguistic artifact which describes the experience. While precising definitions, examples, and explanations can and are used to reduce vagueness, they are by no means perfect solutions, and some have argued that vagueness inheres to reality itself. From WP:

Vagueness is a major topic of research in philosophical logic, where it serves as a potential challenge to classical logic. Work in formal semantics has sought to provide a compositional semantics for vague expressions in natural language. Work in philosophy of language has addressed implications of vagueness for the theory of meaning, while metaphysicians have considered whether reality itself is vague.

So, there is a balance with concepts between precision and vagueness that often requires a normative approach to deciding when a concept is adequately clear, and that might range anywhere from a simple intuitive understanding through a complex definition in a specialty reference all the way to an exegesis on a topic. Philosophers use all three. For instance, discussion about 'consciousness', which is generally taken to be a vague term, might range from an appeal to personal experience, might lead to the description in the article Consciousness in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or may be resolved to satisfaction relying on Daniel Dennett's book on the topic, Consciousness Explained (GB).

Ultimately, what a community of language users finds an acceptable level of disambiguation is matter of discussion, debate, and consent according to the rules of the language game in play. Thus, there is no objective, universal rule of when a concept has been sufficiently disambiguated, and rather depends on the context. A discussion of consciousness in elementary school will be necessarily different from one in a graduate level philosophy class on the topic.

  • For a detailed analysis on reality and concepts, see Mind and World by John McDowel.
    – J D
    Jul 17 at 15:22

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