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2015年第1期:Semantic Vagueness from the Perspective of Categorization

时间:2016-08-02 02:43:00

 

Semantic Vagueness from the Perspective of Categorization
Xiaodan Sun
(Southwest University of Political Science and Law, Chongqing  401120, China)
Abstract: Vagueness is an important property of human languages. From the 20 th century, there have been theorists studying it form the perspective of linguistics, logic, pragmatics, cognition, etc. However, due to the intrinsic complexity and still non-systemic research, there still is a long way to go in the various aspects, especially in cognition. The meaning of language can not be separated from human thought and cognition. Categorization plays a significant role in cognitive process. For this reason, the category theory can serve as a feasible mechanism to explain semantic vagueness. There exists vagueness in prototypical effect, which is reflected by vagueness in language. By adopting categorization, the author provides a cognitive explanation for semantic vagueness.
Key words: Semantic Vagueness  Categorization  Cognitive Linguistics
1 Introduction
Vagueness is pervasive in language. For example, when we say someone is beautiful, it is not clear about the degree of beauty. Similar expressions are common in languages and frequently used in everyday life. Vagueness has, for a long time, been a concern of philosophers, linguists, legal theorists and scholars of other fields. In explaining it, traditional binary logic is found lame. Fuzzy set by Zadeh symbols a milestone of the research on vagueness and many puzzles. It deems vague expressions as a structure with a core and a fuzzy boundary, which corresponds to the prototypical model in Cognitive Linguistics. In the cognitive processes, human beings tend to look for a special term to stand for all the characteristics of the species it refers to. The term for this phenomenon is called category. The mental process of classification is called categorization, which counts as an important capability of the human mind. And like the development of logic, it also experiences a process from binary standard to fuzzy set. This thesis is intended to shed light upon the issue of vagueness from a cognitive perspective.
2 Semantic Vagueness and Vagueness Study
2.1 Vagueness
People have many beliefs about language, one of which is that a good usage of language involves clarity and precision. But language is deceptive. It allows a clever person to play tricks with mock precision and to combine vagueness with politeness. One way of writers to demonstrate their competence is through their use of a degree of vagueness. (Channell, 2000:1) Ullmann traced from Plato to Byron who felt the inadequacy, especially lack of precision of language to express thought. He also noticed that poets and writers thought vagueness as an advantage.(Ullmann, 1962:118)
Having many aspects and resulting from various causes, the term “vagueness” itself is vague. Ullmann attributed vagueness to four factors: generic character of words, context-bound idiosyncrasy of meaning, lack of clear-cut boundaries in non-linguistic world and lack of familiarity with what the words stand for. (ibid.: 118)
In study of philosophy of law, legal theorists also pay much attention to vagueness in law. There is a popular metaphor in the 20 th century to describe vagueness in law. Benjamin Cardozo wrote that “the borderland, the penumbra, where controversy begins”. In a review of legal problems about the meaning of words, Glanville Williams wrote “since the law has to be expressed in words, and words have a penumbra of uncertainty, marginal cases are bound to occur. Hart popularize the metaphor of core and penumbra in reference to the shadowy purlieu between the clear application of an expression and its clear inapplicability. (Endicott, 2000:8)
Pierce was the first to formulate the notion in a rigorous way. He said that a proposition is vague where there are possible states of things concerning which it is intrinsically uncertain whether he would has regarded them as excluded or allowed by the proposition. He held that language produce utterance without deciding certain fact to be excluded or be allowed. Endicott said in his Vagueness in Law that an expression is vague if there are borderline cases for its application.(Endicott, 2000:31) Borderline cases are cases where one, who knows facts well, do not know whether to apply an expression or not.
We can see from the above that vagueness is common in language and draw the attention of philosophers in many areas. Whether it is inherent or caused by outside factors, we can say that vagueness is a feature of language signifying borderline cases in the application of an expression.
2.2 Semantic Vagueness and Pragmatic Vagueness
In ordinary language, when you are invited to come to a party at 5 o’clock. It may be appropriate to come at 5:01 or 5:10 depending on different circumstances. The required time seem to be precise. But context makes it vague. Then the precise requirement is said to have a pragmatic vagueness, or rather to say it is vague. It depends on the circumstances if you have to decide what time is appropriate or reasonable. There is still no sharp boundary to the circumstance that should be taken to consideration. This form of vagueness is pragmatic vagueness.
Here we only focus on expressions which are vague in itself, without considering context.
2.3 A Review of Vagueness Study
In 1957, English linguist Jones noticed the frequent use of unclear, imprecision expressions in our speeches and writings and said that they are necessary in language.(Wu Tieping, 1999:36) In later studies of such expressions, theorists failed to explain them with traditional logic which can be traced back to Aristotle.
Zadeh in 1965 published Fuzzy Sets, symbolizing the birth of vagueness theory and for the first time use “fuzzy” to describe vagueness. His main idea is that unlike the abstract world, quite often, we encounter objects with fuzzy boundaries. Membership of a set, instead of being exact o or 1, is actually moving on the scale between them. In his period when traditional logic still dominants, fuzzy sets means an outright novel approach to many puzzles, to an extent, changing the way of thinking. It provides a new apparatus for subjects like mathematics, logic, psychology, linguistics, etc. In linguistics, it brings about a new way to semantic vagueness. Fuzzy set theory cannot be emphasized more due to its revolutionary function to modern research of vagueness.
Lakoff adopted fuzzy sets to expound meaning. He pointed out that the logic of fuzzy concept can be systemic with an intrinsic internal structure, and that there is no absolute truth value in natural language. (1973, 458-508) Putnam also found traditional set does not work and that the key to solve the problem is fuzzy set. McCawky then elaborated the problem by using membership analysis. (Cui Fengjuan, 2007)
In Pragmatics, Bums probed into the sorites paradox, made comments on previously proposed solutions and concluded that vagueness should be recognized as pragmatic changebility with specific rules. Based on practical data analysis, Channell examined different types of vagueness in English and applied pragmatic maxims to vague language to make clear its pragmatic value.
In Cognitive Psychology, Moxey and his colleagues studied vague classifiers and found that the interpretation of vague classifiers depends on people’s expectations. Williamson gave vagueness a cognitive view. He deems vagueness as a cognitive phenomenon resulting from lack of knowledge of physical world.
With greater importance researchers attach to cognition and its rapid development, an increasing number of linguists adopts cognitive approach to vagueness and it proves itself feasible. However, there still a long way to form a system of vagueness studies.
3 Vagueness in Categorization
3.1 Categorization in Cognition
The integrated study of linguistic meaning with its conceptual structure, significantly results in the analysis of categorization process. Thus the study of meaning can be started from the research on the process of categorization and categories. Cognitive linguists hold that meaning is in the human cognition. If human cognitive thought is subject to vagueness, then meaning which is computed and generated in the human cognition is susceptible to vagueness as well. That is the reason why we set out this research into semantic vagueness from the understanding of categorization in human mind.
The human capacity to classify information is a necessary part of our cognitive apparatus, allowing us to reduce overwhelming amounts of information into simple, salient reasoning blocks. Without this faculty, our perceptions would amount to endless barrage of unordered data, and we would not probably deal with the things and people we encounter everyday.
As Zadeh argues, perhaps most human cognition and interaction with the outside world involves constructions which are not sets in the classical sense, but rather fuzzy set. (1987, 338-353)According to Ungerer and Schimid (2001:33), categorization refers to the mental process of classification, and its products are the cognitive categories like the color categories RED, GREEN, BLUE, BLACK and WHITE.
3.2 Importance of Categorization
Lakoff(1987:5) thinks that there is nothing more basic than categorization to our thought, perception, action and speech. Every time we see something as a kind of thing, for example, a tree, we are categorizing. Whenever we reason about kinds of things, intentionally perform any kind of action, or produce or understand any utterance of any reasonable length, we are employing categories.
Linguists also discover that language has heavy dependence on the categorization because it underlies use of words and use of language in general. So long as men produce and understand language, cognitive process is involved undoubtedly, primarily categorization process. Once categorization takes place in human mind, mental concepts and conceptual structures will be stored and processed in the mind.
Labov said if linguistics can be said to be any one thing, it is the study of categories; that is, the study of how language translates meaning into sounds through the categorization of reality into discrete units and sets of units. (Hou Lijuan,2007)
Categorization is such a fundamental and obvious part of linguistic activity that the properties of categories are normally assumed rather than studied. Thus, once we settle down the problems of categories, the problems of words will be readily solved.
3.3 The Classical Model of Category
On the whole, the exploration of categorization concentrates on one principle of family resemblance and two models. The classical model dates back to the period of Aristotle whose contribution should not be underestimated. Up to now, many linguists also follow his philosophy and doctrines. Taylor (1989) concludes the assumptions about category in classical model as follows:
1)                  Categories are defined in terms of a conjunction of necessary and sufficient features.
2)                  Features are binary.
3)                  Categories have clear boundaries.
4)                  All members of a category have equal status.
In this approach, meanings of words, phrases or sentences are described by a series of necessary and sufficient semantic features. Each semantic feature shall be an either-or property of a word and a sufficient member of this series of semantic features which would bring about the meaning of a word.
Categories in this model possess clear-cut boundaries, described by binary system. For each member in the category, it is attached with equal importance. But it meets some doubts.
Firstly, words in a natural language are not generally yes or no; there are things of which description tree and things of which the description is clearly false, to be sure, but there are a host of borderline cases. Worse, the line between the clear cases and borderline cases is itself fuzzy. (Hou Lijuan, 2007:35)
Secondly, people should take a dynamic view to embody the world. Semantic features tend to be rigid and fixed in certain period, but things change. It is impossible for a theorist to count over fixed sufficient and necessary conditions to make judgment in the changing world.
3.4 Family Resemblance Principle
Wittgenstein is the first to acknowledge the major crack in the classical model. In addressing the question of how to define game, he finds that it is best to describe the category with the family resemblance. The essence of family resemblance is that every member in GAME semantic category enjoys some resemblance to another, but the shared resemblances between every two members may not be found in the third member. He concludes that various games have a complicated network of similarities overlapping and crisscross:: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of details. (1953:32)
All in all, Wittgenstein exposes three properties of semantic category of daily words by the metaphor of family resemblance:
1)      The semantic features of structuralism cannot adequately describe semantic category.
2)      The boundary of a semantic category is open,
3)      The member in a semantic category are unequal in status(Wu Shixiong& Chen Weizhen, 2004:38)
3.5 Vagueness in Prototype Model
3.5.1 Prototype Model
Modern prototypical theory of categories derives partly from Wittgenstein’s family resemblance and is highlighted by Rosch’s research into the internal structure of categories. Rosch sets up a research paradigm to demonstrate centrality, family resemblance, basic-level categorization, basic-level primacy, and reference-point reasoning, as well as certain kinds of embodiments.
The main contents of prototype theory of categories are:
1)      Entities are categorized on the basis of their attributes.
2)      Attributes, far from being the abstract between entities, are properties of real-world entities that are readily accessible.
3)      Categories form around prototypes; new members added on basis of resemblance to prototype; prototypical categories exhibit a family resemblance structure, or more generally, their semantic structure takes the form of a radial set of clustered and overlapping readings (Taylor, 1989:40-46).
Rosch in 1975 does some researches with respect to this aspect later on. Her purpose is to explore one of the major structural principles which, she believes, may govern the formation of the prototype structure in semantic categories. And the results are in accordance with family resemblance principle and her assumption.
4)      No one single attribute is essential for distinguishing one category from the others.
5)      There exists the degree of membership in a category.
6)      Categories are blurred at the edges (Rosch, et al, 1975:573).
3.5.2 Vagueness in the Prototype Effects
The classical structure of natural language concepts implies that a concept can be modeled from the perspective of referents to which it may be applied, disregarding the criterion for applicability or can be modeled from the perspective of the description of the basis to which a concept may be applied, disregarding of which the concrete referents it is applicable to. The two perspectives are respectively on the extensional level and intentional level. However, in cognitive semantics, concepts can have a prototypical structure as well. Language users compare a referent to a typical case (prototype) to decide whether, and to which extent, a concept is applicable to a referent.
Based on the above illustration of the prototype theory, there is no doubt that this theory will shed light on the research in meaning. It has to be suggested that the prototypical character of semantic categories determines the ways of semantic change that will result in vagueness in meaning. Though, there is no agreement on the details which underlie the mechanism that may result in the non-classical concepts. Geeraerts  has singled out for investigation four specific prototypical effects, derived from two fundamental characteristics of prototypically structure, namely “non-equality” of the members of a prototypical category (salience effects, internal structure of core and periphery ) and “ non-discreteness” (demarcation problems, flexible applicability). (Hou Lijuan, 2007:46) The four effects can be described as follows:
Extensional non-rigidity: there are no definite set boundaries; the concept is not always applied in the same rigid, fixed way.
Extensional non- equality: there is no binary set membership feature (or at least it would not do reality justice to model it as such); some referents are more representative than others.
Intentional non-rigidity: no conjunction of atomic criteria can adequately function as condition for applicability of the concept.
Intentional non-equality: rather than meeting a common condition the referents to which the concept is applicable partially resemble each other, forming chains of family resemblance; some of these referents have more of the features that take part in the family resemblance than others.
The first prototype effect can be illustrated by fuzziness of the prototypical category’s edges. According to this principle, the edges of a prototypical category can be extended without limit. Based on that, word meanings also can be extended by certain mechanisms such as metaphor and metonymy over a period of time. Therefore changes of word meaning may be incidental and transient especially for the purpose of expressive efficiency.
The third prototypical effect considers clustering of reading into family resemblances and radial sets. Because there are not necessary or sufficient characteristics, you are a member of the concept if you have enough of the primitive features. Similarly word meaning can be changed with a clustered set structure.
In cognitive linguistics, The line of thought in this prototype is that applying the concepts to the referents is not taken as relying solely on processes or structures within the language model, but also taking advantage of human experience of the outside world and using the general world knowledge.
4 Vagueness in Category and Semantic Vagueness
4.1 Relationship between Vagueness in Category and Semantic Vagueness
Vagueness in category has a close relationship with semantic vagueness. Obviously, the former sees vagueness as the indeterminacy of category boundaries and discretion of membership in category; the later deems vagueness as unclear classification of things. Essentially, they are talking about the same by different methods. Fuzzy set theory uses forms to describe vagueness, while prototype theory using non-numerical method. The former emphasizes the continuity of membership while the later stressing the representation of the prototype. Fuzzy set makes semantic vagueness describable. Thus, semantic vagueness is a vague category with a core and fuzzy boundaries and every member has a membership ranging between 0 and 1. Prototype plays an important role in a fuzzy set and influences its semantic category.
4.2 The Reasons for Semantic Vagueness
The contributing factors leading to semantic vagueness can be explored from three perspectives, namely, cognitive, linguistics and pragmatics perspectives.
First of all, semantic vagueness is the fruit of vague thinking in the process of categorization. This statement can be proved by Gestalt theory. Gaetano Kanizca refers to it as “organized structure” (Moore & Fitz, 1993:137). Gestalt theorists followed the basic principle that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, the whole (a picture, a car) carried a different and altogether greater meaning than its individual components (paint, canvas, brush; or tire, paint, metal, respectively). In viewing the whole, a cognitive process takes place – the mind makes a leap from comprehending the parts to realizing the whole.
The ability to categorize objects vaguely in the Gestalt theory reveals human’s thinking operates neither precisely and rigidly as a machine nor arbitrarily. It follows the four principles:
1)  proximity-elements tend to be grouped together according to their nearness,
2)  similarity-items similar in some respect tend to be grouped together,
3)  closure-items are grouped together if they tend to complete some entity,
4)  continuation-elements that suggest a continued visual line will tend to be grouped together, and elements will be perceived as whole if they only have few interruptions (Ungerer& Schimid, 2001:33).
The principle of proximity, similarity, closure, continuation in human categorization, generally in human thought in some degree is susceptible to vagueness. When people use vague thought to categorize the world and to connect the world with language, language can not avoid the characteristics of the thought. Most linguists hold a belief that language is a tool to convey human mind. To put it in a simple way, Language helps the thought to speak aloud and the thought determines language respectively.
Secondly, semantic vagueness can be traced down from language system itself. The conflict between meaning and forms is the direct source of semantic vagueness. Meaning represents human’s experience of the world that is consistent and endless. But language forms are limited. There is no direct correspondence between every object in the outside world and every language form. The contradiction emerges when people have to use limited language forms to represent infinite things and events in the outside world. People have to categorize the experienced world. Once categorization process is vague, the categories and concepts will be vague. If conceptual structure is vague, meaning shall be vague as well.
Thirdly, pragmatic and other external factors can result in semantic vagueness. For the sack of maxims of co-operation in communication, people tend to provide the right amount of information. With regard to the right amount of information, speakers and hearers covertly acknowledge the economy principle to save the efforts. We think it is best to get the maximum information with the minimum efforts. We use short sentences with vague words to convey our idea efficiently. Economy principle is also implied in cognition. People do not need to process millions of objects, actions, and events in daily life. Analysis, inference, synthesis and generalization of every single instruction in the mind involve the cooperation of hundreds of concepts and millions of human cells. The circumstance here is that the less the concepts are involved, the less the efforts are needed. The least categories we have are the best. As a result, one word of category can represent many things as long as it does not impair our categorization of world.
To sum up, this thesis focuses on cognitive expounding of semantic vagueness and polishing the relationship between concepts and semantic vagueness. A linguistic item is vague so far as the borderline cases of applicability loom large in comparison with its prototypical cases. Problems in categorization process give people some hints in understanding semantic vagueness, category and prototypes. The study of some semantic categories reveals that vague words are susceptible to fuzzy extension boundaries. Causes of vagueness in meaning and language can be traced from cognitive aspect, language system and external factors in communication or social parameters.
 
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