The way I am walking has no clear margin, leaf litter and mud creeps in from the edges. It is not even clear where the edges are. There are bumps and holes and roots of trees, there are stones. I go straight but the way is curvy. In a sense, I create the way by using it as a way; I create it by applying the concept “way” to it.
The concept of “way” has no clear margin. I may modify it each time I use it. I may apply it to a wilderness, to a barely visible path. Using the word “way”, I declare something to be a way. If you hear me saying it, you can creatively understand it even if you did not see a way before. I may transfer it to something else, using it in a non-literal sense invented on the spot.
It is an error to think that all concepts must be clearly defined. It is an error to think that something is wrong with concepts that are not clearly defined. It was an error of some philosophers to try to reduce language to logic. If our languages had only exact concepts, they would not be useable again. We could not make a single step because we would never be sure if our way is a way.
Most concepts in our languages are vague. A vague concept can be creatively modified by the people using it. Its definition is not fixed but can be modified each time the concept is used. There is no formal theory or algorithm completely describing this process of adaption or modification. The speaker may use a word and the listener can creatively construct a meaning that makes sense in the situation. There is no complete formal theory or algorithm for him to do this. The “software” in the mind of the speaker and of the listener that is used to create and understand utterances is vague itself; it can be modified all the time and extended in the process. Using and understanding language are creative processes.
That way, a child can learn a language, starting with almost nothing. That way you can understand faulty language, an unfamiliar dialect, a word new to you. That way language can change and be extended and adapted. That way, language could arise in the first place.
The world is richer than any particular theory about it. It has more properties than can be described in or derived from any single theory about it. Our languages must therefore be changeable and extensible.
Formal, exact languages can only cover limited analytical spaces. They are useful for special purposes but they are always embedded into the normal language that is vague and adaptive. Vague concepts about which we have only limited and incomplete knowledge can also be viewed as analytical spaces.
The risk of misunderstandings is the inevitable consequence of the creative nature of language. But if we would eliminate that risk, we would have to stop talking at all. The young Wittgenstein thought that anything you say should be clearly said and one should remain silent about the rest. The old Wittgenstein knew better.
Vagueness, I therefore conclude, is not a defect of language but its very core.
The way I walk is a way for me and maybe for you. The tussock in its middle does not know nor care.
See also these related posts:
(Picture from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Colourful_path.jpg, © cwet4e)