CCHU9054 Humanities
Borderlines – Questioning Boundaries in a Vague World

[This course is under the thematic cluster of ‘Sustaining Cities, Cultures, and the Earth’.]

Course Description

What are boundaries in human societies? On what grounds are social, legal, medical and scientific boundaries drawn, and who draws them? When do we need to draw boundaries? These are the central questions that will be discussed in this course. We will focus especially on the problem of borderline cases, which arise as an inevitable consequence of drawing boundaries in a world that seems inherently vague and gradual. A boundary, whether it is physical, social, political or intellectual, creates separation. Once such a separation is created, we typically find that there are borderline cases: things that do not quite belong on either side of the boundary. Sometimes these borderline cases will be unproblematic, but frequently they affect human lives. Boundaries define whether you are a citizen or a foreigner, healthy or ill, alive or dead. What happens in cases where we cannot tell on which side of these boundaries a person falls? To address these questions, we will be using a theoretical approach that is well grounded in particular case studies, such as legal and medical determinations of life and death, the setting of measurement standards in the natural sciences, and the establishment of socio-economic boundaries like poverty-lines.

Course Learning Outcomes

On completing the course, students will be able to:

    1. Explain the problems arising from borderline cases, and identify real-life examples of such cases in a number of different areas.
    2. Apply thinking about borderline cases to propose methods of how best to resolve real-life disputes that turn on borderline issues.
    3. Identify and assess different institutions and methodologies involved in drawing boundaries and establishing thresholds in a range of different fields.
    4. Critically analyze the establishment of boundaries, and develop a sensitivity for the different stakeholders affected by the establishment of a particular boundary or threshold.

Offer Semester and Day of Teaching

First semester (Wed)

Study Load

Activities Number of hours
Lectures 24
Tutorials 10
Reading / Self-study 24
Online discussion 12
Assessment: Essay / Report writing 20
Assessment: Presentation (incl preparation) 20
Assessment: Online presentation 20
Total: 130

Assessment: 100% coursework

Assessment Tasks Weighting
Online presentation 20
Short essay 30
Group presentation 30
In-class participation and discussions 20

Required Reading

  • Ad Hoc Committee of the Harvard Medical School to examine the definition of brain death. (1968). A definition of irreversible coma. Report of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Harvard Medical School to examine the definition of brain death. Journal of the American Medical Association, 205(6), 337-40.
  • Jackson, N. (2010, December). How I killed Pluto and why it had it coming. The Atlantic.
  • Lam, C. (2013). Hong Kong’s First Official Poverty Line − Purpose and Value. From
  • Richardson, S. (2014, May). Slate.
  • Singer, P. (1995). Is the sanctity of life ethic terminally ill? Bioethics, 9(3), 327-343.
  • Slater, M. (2015). Sport & gender: A history of bad science & ‘biological racism’. BBC.
  • van Deemter, K. (2012). Not exactly: In praise of vagueness. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Chaps. 2, 3, 7]

Recommended Reading


  • Becker, L. (1975). Human being: The boundaries of the concept. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 4, 334-359.
  • Dawkins, R. The Ancestor’s Tale.
  • DeGrazia, D. (2011). The definition of death. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 ed.). From
  • Gillie, A. (1996). The origin of the poverty line. Economic History Review, XLIX/4, 726.
  • Kukla, R., & Wayne, K. (2011). Pregnancy, birth, and medicine. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 ed.). From
  • Little, M. O. (1973). Abortion and the margins of personhood. Brain, 57, 59.
  • Maienschein, J. (2007). What is an ‘embryo’ and how do we know? In D. L. Hull and M. Ruse (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to the philosophy of biology. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sorensen, R. (2013). Vagueness. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 ed.). From
  • Tal, E. (2013). Old and new problems in philosophy of measurement. Philosophy Compass, 8, 12.
  • Varzi, A. (2001). Vagueness in geography. Philosophy and Geography, 4, 49-65.


  • Alder, K. (2002). The measure of all things: The seven-year odyssey that transformed the world. Little, Brown and Company.
  • Chang, H. (2004). Inventing temperature: Measurement and scientific progress. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Sainsbury, R. M. (1995). Paradoxes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Recommended Website

Course Co-ordinator and Teacher(s)

Course Co-ordinator Contact
Dr J.F. Asay
School of Humanities (Philosophy), Faculty of Arts
Tel: 3917 4333
Teacher(s) Contact
Dr J.F. Asay
School of Humanities (Philosophy), Faculty of Arts
Tel: 3917 4333