The problem of the many

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2016 (2014)
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Abstract

As anyone who has flown out of a cloud knows, the boundaries of a cloud are a lot less sharp up close than they can appear on the ground. Even when it seems clearly true that there is one, sharply bounded, cloud up there, really there are thousands of water droplets that are neither determinately part of the cloud, nor determinately outside it. Consider any object that consists of the core of the cloud, plus an arbitrary selection of these droplets. It will look like a cloud, and circumstances permitting rain like a cloud, and generally has as good a claim to be a cloud as any other object in that part of the sky. But we cannot say every such object is a cloud, else there would be millions of clouds where it seemed like there was one. And what holds for clouds holds for anything whose boundaries look less clear the closer you look at it. And that includes just about every kind of object we normally think about, including humans. Although this seems to be a merely technical puzzle, even a triviality, a surprising range of proposed solutions has emerged, many of them mutually inconsistent. It is not even settled whether a solution should come from metaphysics, or from philosophy of language, or from logic. Here we survey the options, and provide several links to the many topics related to the Problem.

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Brian Weatherson
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Citations of this work

Deconstructing Ontological Vagueness.Matti Eklund - 2008 - Canadian Journal of Philosophy 38 (1):117-140.
Multiple Constitution.Nicholas K. Jones - 2015 - In Karen Bennett & Dean W. Zimmerman (eds.), Oxford Studies in Metaphysics, Volume 9. Oxford, GB: Oxford University Press UK. pp. 217-261.

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References found in this work

Word and Object.Willard Van Orman Quine - 1960 - Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press.
Reason, Truth and History.Hilary Putnam - 1981 - New York: Cambridge University Press.
Material beings.Peter Van Inwagen - 1990 - Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Universals and scientific realism.David Malet Armstrong - 1978 - New York: Cambridge University Press.

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