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Vagueness can prove beneficial

'The 1970s saw an explosion of interest in vagueness, ' says an intriguing note on the dustjacket of one of my favourite reads (or attempted reads) of recent months. Vagueness: A Reader (MIT, £24.95) contains too much mathematics for my old-style two-cultures brain, but provides fascinating insights into the philosophy of logic and language. Different groups of vagueness theorists each have an interpretation of a key vagueness touchstone, the sorites paradox.

This concerns a heap of sand: remove one grain and you still have a heap; the logical conclusion is that by continual removal of single grains, when you only have one grain left you still have a heap.

The belief in the sort of precision which means you can say that one person is 'tall' while another, 10mm shorter, is not, denies the existence of the borderline case and, in a different context, fuzzy logic. When it comes to architecture, the distinctions between precision, calculated inaccuracy, approximation, creative distortion and tolerance are not to be underestimated. Moreover, in consideration of architecture writ large, the lust for certainty almost invariably leads to disappointment or failure. The belief in all-ornothing propositions explains why we will soon be on our fourth scheme to 'improve' London's South Bank. When will the proposers of this sort of scheme take into account the inevitable changes which will be demanded as the result of delay, or changing appetites?

Another example of the surreal belief in absolute certainty is the judgment in the Baden Hellard action, over whether use of the initials 'RIBA' by an unregistered person is automatically intended to con the unwary into thinking - well what, exactly?

The great comfort to be drawn from all legal actions is that lawyers, on average, are wrong half the time. We can only hope that other judges will overturn this mad decision.

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