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the Complete Review
the complete review - philosophy

Not Exactly

Kees van Deemter

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To purchase Not Exactly

Title: Not Exactly
Author: Kees van Deemter
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2010
Length: 292 pages
Availability: Not Exactly - US
Not Exactly - UK
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  • In Praise of Vagueness

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid, serious philosophical discussion of vagueness

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Nature . 11/2/2010 Andrew Robinson
Sunday Times . 7/2/2010 Edward King
Times Higher Ed. . 4/2/2010 John Gilbey
Wall St. Journal . 2/3/2010 Andrew Stark

  From the Reviews:
  • "A welcome thread running through the book is the use of entertaining dialogues -- of the Platonic style -- to illustrate some of the more convoluted concepts. This works well and adds significantly to the clarity of the argument in a number of cases. (...) The style throughout is amusing, persuasive, conversational and engaging, but this does not detract from the thoroughness with which van Deemter approaches his thesis. Irrespective of the way the material is packaged, however, this text builds into an interesting mix of reasonably hard-core philosophy and computer science." - John Gilbey, Times Higher Education

  • "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." - Andrew Stark, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Much as we might like to believe that it's possible to be very precise about most things, it is, in fact, vagueness that rules the day. As Kees van Deemter points out, we tend to fall back on the inherently vague in much of what we do and say, using terms such as 'tall' that are relative and imprecise. Worse (or better) yet, precision proves very hard to come by because of that that border-situation: even if you define 'tall' (as in a tall person) very precisely -- say, 180 cm -- there remains a margin of error around that point; indeed, in measuring a human it's essentially impossible to measure height precisely without a rather large margin of error (several millimeters, at least). And it is a problem that doesn't go away, even as you get 'more precise' in your measurements, and that also crops up in very many different guises.
       This basic boundary problem is also part of the sorites paradox, which is the fundamental problem-case that Deemter repeatedly returns to throughout this book. In simplified summary: one stone does not make a stoneheap, and adding just one stone does not make a stoneheap -- but of course after a while of adding stones you have ... a stoneheap; exactly where is the point where you have reached a stoneheap ? It's not just a problem of a continuum, either -- more precise measurement, or the exact stone that puts the heap over the top -- as Deemter shows early on: in defining species, for example, we can find bits of the continuum -- the transitional elements/animals -- lost, yet still consider a set of animals as belonging to the same species.
       (Disappointingly, Deemter does not mention Stanisław Lem's classic story, 'Czy pan istnieje Mr. Johns ?' (originally translated as 'Are you there, Mr. Jones ?'), in which the body-parts of the title-figure, a race-car driver, are successively replaced by prosthetics -- eventually leading to questions of personal identity (at what -- if any -- point is he no longer 'Mr. Johns' ?). (Lem adds another twist in spinning this out entertainingly in having the company that provided the replacement parts want them back when he can't pay.))
       Not Exactly is a book of philosophy, as Deemter carefully (and with many examples) walks the reader through the philosophical issues, paradoxes, and implications of vagueness. From the everyday -- such as weather reports -- to how to deal with vagueness in Artificial Intelligence (i.e. how computers should and can handle vagueness, which is also Deemter's main professional interest), he looks at the advantages, dangers, and rationales of accepting vagueness. With the presentation quite well structured -- the chapters further sub-divided into shorter sections, and also including some philosophic 'dialogue intermezzos' -- the book remains fairly accessible even as it presents material of a rather academic and theoretical sort (as Not Exactly is a work of serious philosophy).
       Agreeably thought-provoking, thorough, and also entertaining, Not Exactly is also a work that goes considerably beyond just being a popular introduction to the subject matter.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 July 2012

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Not Exactly: Reviews: Kees van Deemter: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Kees van Deemter teaches at the University of Aberdeen.

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