“A proposition must restrict reality to two alternatives: yes or no” (Ludwig Wittgenstein).
One often hears the statement “It isn’t all black and white” supplemented with the
“shades of grey” utterance. But what exactly might this mean? As used in its appropriate
context (the context of attempting to weakly demonstrate that a given x is such that x is
less than clear and distinct, i.e., x is non-definitive) it seeks to present a form of relativism
(weak relativism to be sure).
The position can be stated as follows in the form of an argument:
(1) Some things are clear and distinct (read: black and white).
(2) Some things are not clear and distinct (read: shades of grey).
(3) Therefore, one cannot speak with certainty or exactitude about those things
which are shaded grey (neither black nor white).
(1) How does one know just which statements are black and white and which are
shaded grey? What are the determining criteria? If there is in fact a set of
criteria, can it be demonstrated as non-arbitrary?
(2) Is it the case that for that which is shaded grey to one might just in fact be
black and white to another (perhaps one with more background knowledge,
greater insight, or more experience)?
(3) Even if there are statements that are shaded grey, why could not one speak
with definitiveness about them? This seems less than necessary.
(4) Is the statement “It isn’t all black and white” coupled with “There are shades
of grey” itself black and white or shaded grey? If it is itself black and white (clear
and distinct) then there are in fact no shades of grey (self-refuting). If it is itself
shaded grey, then it is itself as well not clear and distinct, i.e., not black and white
and thus need not be taken seriously as we are uncertain as to its truth value as a
proposition. And, to utilize the principle behind the shades of grey argument, one
can’t speak with certainty regarding the principle that so certainly declares that
not all is so certain! For in so doing, one is presupposing black and white all
(5) On a formal note, premise (3) in the above argument does not clearly
follow from premise (2). Therefore, the argument isn’t deductively valid.
The shades-of-grey argument likely stems from a degree of indecisiveness or is used as a
justification for non-commitment on the part of its proponent (a psychological rather than
logical issue). The law of excluded middle states that either A or B but not both A and B
(exclusive sense of disjunction). (A v B) → ¬(A ⋅ B). One might take issue with this by
proposing a third option (we already have black and white and not black and white),
perhaps shades of grey is the third option. I think that this can be avoided by stating that
black and white statements are simply (or contain), in as much as they are reduced to
their logical constituents, either true or false propositions (in as much as the statements
satisfy the requirement of propositionhood). So-called shades of grey statements must,
necessarily and de facto, be either true or false as well--this can’t be avoided. So, as it
turns out, black and white statements and shades of grey statements are logical
equivalents with regard to truth value (the content of a proposition y is either true or false
as related to the facts of actual experience).
Now, it can be objected at this point that even though a statement z be true or false (in an
ultimate sense) it may not be the case necessarily that it be clear conclusively that such is
the case (z is a shade of grey in the immediate sense). This is the issue of practice vs.
principle. Even if z is less than clear with regard to its truth value in practice, nonetheless
it is knowable as true or false in principle and thus the objection is satisfied (if z can in
fact be said to have semantic significance (meaning) then z has a particular truth value).
It may be of some use to point out the failure of the analogy itself. Colors do in fact
occur on a continuum but not words; and if not words, then it follows not statements.
Words have meaning whereas what can be said about colors has meaning and not the
colors themselves. Colors are properties of things whereas words represent (stand in the
place of) things--even colors. Thus statements, in as much as they relate to the factual
world, have a particular truth value, i.e., they must be either true or false--nothing in the
middle. Representations are truth functional whereas properties are not (properties are
descriptive of representations and possibly the objects represented). The representational
statement of the instance of a pen having the property of blackness being at this moment
on my desk “There is a black pen on my desk” is either true or false; whereas simply
“black” is neither true nor false (“black” here not being a predicate of a thing). If a
statement corresponds to some fact or facts in the world, then it has a particular truth
value (cannot be shaded grey).
Now, one might argue that, ultimately, this isn’t a debate over whether or not there are in
fact propositions that are black and white and shaded grey but, rather, whether or not
there exist facts in the actual world that are themselves shaded grey and not black or
white. This can be dismissed rather easily. A proposition stands as a representation of
the facts of the world, thus, as propositions can be only black or white, i.e., true or false,
then it can’t be the case that there be facts that are shaded grey. The facts of the world
themselves have truth value (there are relationships that hold between the facts of the
A systems analyst by profession and a curious polymath by birth, I research and write on a variety of topics.