Delia Graff Fara Explored a Philosophical Concept With a Heap of Sand

Delia Graff Fara Explored a Philosophical Concept With a Heap of Sand

The Lives They Lived
The New York Times Magazine

James Ryerson, Senior Story Editor

Tackling a paradox: Fara in 2004. Credit Steve Pyke

She philosophized about vagueness — and lived with it too

The “paradox of the heap” seems at first like a trick, a brainteaser that must have some clever catch. But it reveals itself, as it defies easy understanding, to be a philosophical problem. You might approach it as a puzzle, only to end up devising a solution so deep that it would challenge our thinking about language, knowledge and the nature of reality. By the time of her death from brain cancer in July at 48, Delia Graff Fara, a philosopher at Princeton, had done just that.

Start with a heap of sand. If you remove a single grain, it remains a heap. Repeat this process enough times, however, and you have a heap of sand that contains, say, one grain. This is absurd: One grain is not a heap. Something has gone wrong, but it is not obvious what. Either there is a precise number of grains at which point a heap becomes a nonheap, or there is no such thing as a heap, or classical logic is flawed (perhaps it is only ever sort of true that something is a heap). Which bullet to bite?…

…When it came to racial diversity, an area in which philosophy is similarly lopsided, Fara was also a champion, if more circumspect. Her mother, who raised Fara as a single parent in New York, was African-American; her father, who died when she was a child, was of Irish and Jewish descent. Because of her appearance, Fara was often assumed to be white or queried clumsily about where she was “from.” She told her husband she hoped to avoid being defined by her race. But as much as she let misperceptions slide, or answered politely that she was “born in Queens,” it was an issue she could never fully escape…

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