A heap of — what?

Castalian Stream
10 min readSep 1

Wittgensteinian musings on the ‘sorites’ paradox, with contemporary edgy examples (spoiler alert)

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Cicero’s De Academica presents a defence of philosophical scepticism that may well — we don’t know — be distantly behind the unkind derogatory use of the term ‘academic’. When this old word is used today in the news media, you can bet the user means something which is broadly ‘irrelevant, recondite, esoteric, nonsensical, a heap of …’

The ancient sceptics Cicero seemingly defends in the dialogue in fact faced a serious dilemma: the so-called apraxia problem. Their scepticism about whether we could know anything seems to make practical life impossible. For everyday activities just rest on basic kinds of know-how — and often, moral commitments which people take to be non-negotiable, not just ‘probable’.

Augustine would lambast Cicero on this apraxia front in his Contra Academicos. Many of the ancient sceptical arguments are however well worth considering, this side of an unconditional commitment to doubting everything (so you would not ‘know’ whether you are alive, and not dead, or not a giant insect (Kafka shout out), etc.)

One of these sceptical arguments that is worth considering, arguably, is the vexing ‘sorites’ paradox. It’s so named from the Greek word for ‘heap’.

Basically, the ‘paradox’ is that we use words like ‘heap’ or ‘pile’ to describe a relatively large number of smallish objects, whether seeds or grain or sand. The terms are contrasted with terms for ‘a few’ or ‘small amount’ of the unit in question: so, ten grains of sand is not yet a pile, I’d reckon. It’s just ‘a few’ grains. 10000 and we might be talking a ‘heap of grain’.

But how many is ‘many’, and how many make a ‘heap’? Annoyingly, lots of terms we use all of the time seem to be prey to the sorites paradox.

When is someone rich, for instance? Say, $400,00 a year? OK, so, what of someone who earns $390000? Are they not yet rich? Or $380000? Or what about $399,500? $399, 600 …?

At some point, if we use a term like ‘rich’ to contrast the relatively wealthy against the rest of us, there needs to be a limit, a boundary. Otherwise, the term makes no sense.

Castalian Stream

Articles on philosophy, psychology & classical thought (notably Stoic), aimed at renewing, spreading, and applying these ideas today.