SPRAGGETT ON CHESS
The Trouble With Precision
A little vagueness helps us to live with differences of opinion and debate each other without too much savagery.By ANDREW STARK
March 2, 2010
‘If I seem unduly clear to you,” former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan once remarked, “you must have misunderstood what I said.”
As Kees van Deemter tells it in “Not Exactly,” Mr. Greenspan’s famous imprecision is simply the most advanced form of a syndrome that besets all of us. Our language is befogged with vagueness, by which Mr. van Deemter means that almost all words have “fuzzy” boundaries. Think of “short” and “tall.” We cannot say definitively where one ends and the other begins. Even words that seem models of precision are vague: Mr. van Deemter notes that “meter” is an inexact measurement term—the platinum bar regarded as the definitive meter turns out to have been mismeasured by about 0.00005 millimeters.
Vagueness, then, may be unavoidable. But is it a problem? Not according to Mr. van Deemter. He explores vagueness in everything from notions of personal identity (“the average age of all the cells in an adult person’s body is only around ten years”) to artificial intelligence: Chess-playing computers can be powerful, but having a general policy or “rule of thumb” is meaningless to them—chess, to these computers, “is all tactics and no strategy.”
But Mr. van Deemter reserves his most piquant observations for politics. Think of a typical political disagreement: say, the wrangling over fat bonuses for bankers. Some people will describe such sums as “well-deserved,” others as wholly “undeserved.” Such disagreement is possible, Mr. van Deemter argues, only because the line between “well-deserved” and “undeserved” is a fuzzy no-man’s land. The vague boundaries of political terms—others include “equal” and “free”—are what allows for the differences in opinion that lend democracy its vibrancy. Vagueness, in Mr. van Deemter’s view, is language’s gift to civic culture.
Yet surely some kinds of political vagueness are worse than others. Compare “victory,” President George W. Bush’s stated goal for America in Iraq, with “withdrawal,” President Barack Obama’s in Afghanistan. What victory borders on, however fuzzily, is its opposite, defeat. Any attempt to define victory too far down—say, to cover an Iraq that, though democratic, becomes a base for terrorist operations—would eventually become implausible. “Defeat” lays a better claim to that scenario. The fuzzy boundaries of “withdrawal,” by contrast, stretch out endlessly without ever reaching a point where we can say with certainty: “OK, obviously there’s never going to be any withdrawal.” Hillary Clinton believes that “withdrawal” is compatible with our not having “locked ourselves into leaving” at all. As political vagueness goes, Mr. Obama’s is of a distinctly less clear variety.
Mr. van Deemter may be able to take a sanguine attitude toward political vagueness because “Not Exactly” doesn’t address totalitarianism. Stalinists teased out the boundaries of language so far that a word’s original meaning and its opposite could be embraced. Terms such as “democracy,” as George Orwell wrote, came to bear “two irreconcilable meanings,” on which “mass deportations [were] right and wrong simultaneously.” If they were Soviet deportations then they were democratic, otherwise not—and woe to anyone who didn’t gasp the elasticity of the word “democracy
by Kees van Deemter
Oxford, 341 pages, $29.95
If Mr. van Deemter seems overly forgiving about the political implications of vagueness, he comes across as too alarmist when he considers another kind of mushy political language: ambiguity. While vagueness refers to the imprecision with which language captures states of the world, ambiguity occurs when language conveys imprecision in our states of mind. Consider former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder’s remark: “I’m not the kind of politician who says one thing to one audience and a different thing to a different audience; I say the same thing to all audiences and let them fight about what I meant.” For Mr. van Deemter, ambiguity offers a discreditable way for politicians to lead the electorate on, hoarding political capital, until forced to take a stand.
But here Mr. van Deemter paints with too broad a brush. Not all ambiguities are created equal. At times President Bush was ambiguous about whether his goals in Iraq were to get rid of weapons of mass destruction or to effect regime change, but at least those two intentions are compatible. The same cannot be said for Mr. Obama, whose ambiguity about Afghanistan straddles opposing intentions: America must bear any burden in the fight for “freedom and justice . . . for all peoples,” but we must also focus our energies inward, since the nation we should be “most interested in building” is, he says, “our own.” As ambiguity goes, Mr. Bush’s has the virtue of being coherent.
Mr. van Deemter’s disparagement of ambiguity again neglects totalitarian systems, where ambiguity has been a valuable protective shield for citizens. Think of a joke told by Soviet dissidents: “During Stalin’s time our economy stood at the precipice of disaster. Since then we have made great strides forward.” The teller of the joke, far from conveying opposite meanings neither of which he fully means, intends only one meaning—the caustic one—presented under a cloak of ambiguity. The Viennese aphorist Karl Kraus paid tribute to the indispensable role that ambiguity plays for citizens in totalitarian states: “Satire that the censor understands is rightly censored.”
In democracies, as Mr. van Deemter suggests, vagueness may help along a spirited debate between citizens while ambiguity affords an irritatingly evasive tactic for leaders. In totalitarian systems, by contrast, vagueness hands a treacherous weapon to leaders while ambiguity helps citizens express their discontent. However fuzzy the boundaries between words may be, the lines between political systems could not be clearer.
Kees van Deemter
Computing Science Department
University of Aberdeen
”I am an academic working in Computational Linguistics, the area of Artificial Intelligence where Computer Science meets Linguistics. My main areas of expertise are Computational Semantics and Natural Language Generation. I take a lively interest in logical and philosophical issues arising in these areas.”
SPRAGGETT ON CHESS