Philosophers dislike ambiguity, although, like lawyers, they make their living from discussing it. A word or a sentence is ambiguous if it can have two or more distinct meanings. For example, suppose you hear on the car radio that a bear has escaped from a safari park. You happen to be driving into a small town adjacent to the safari park and immediately read a large notice which says: Bear right in the middle of the town! You might decide to go back round the roundabout.
Even if an argument seems fully vaccinated against ambiguity – such as a formally valid Aristotelian syllogism – the virus of ambiguity might still create confusion. For example, consider the following syllogism:
Governments ought to subsidise producers of green energy;
Green energy is produced by tides;
Therefore governments ought to subsidise tides.
An ambiguity in the idea of 'producing' has created what logicians call a 'material' fallacy. In the major premise, 'produce' is to be interpreted in terms of processing or manufacturing, but in the minor premise, it is to be interpreted in terms of causality.
Another source of ambiguity is unclear punctuation, as in the well-known example which is the title of a book by Lynne Truss on the importance of punctuation. A panda enters a cafe, orders, eats and as he leaves produces a gun and shoots. The cafe owner says: What?! The panda points to his natural history book which says: Panda, a native of China, eats, shoots, and leaves.
Another example of ambiguity caused by poor punctuation (commas seem to be frequent culprits) was provided a while back by the literary theorist I A Richards in his investigation into how people respond to imagery. One of the volunteers in his literary experiment wrote: I visualise everything otherwise, things mean little to me.
Traditional logicians believed that ambiguity could be avoided by adhering to what were considered 'the laws of logic', commonly held to be derived from Aristotle. There are various versions of these so-called laws, but they can be stated as follows:
The law of identity: A is A;
The law of non-contradiction: Nothing can be both A and not-A;
The law of excluded middle: Something is either A or not-A.
It is the third of these, the law of excluded middle, which is relevant in a discussion of ambiguity.
The law must hold in formal languages such as the logic of computing: a switch is either on or off. But its relevance to natural languages is much more problematic. Consider some examples. You awake at 4am and look out the window. Is it light or not? Your partner, annoyed at being disturbed, says: 'Well, is it light?' You reply, 'Well, it is and it isn't', and you get the exasperated response: 'It's either light or it's not light'. But, no, it can be neither light nor not light. Or you quarrel with your friend, apologise and make it up. Are things between us the same as they were before? Well, yes and no.
The point is that natural languages, as distinct from formal languages, seem to operate without the law of excluded middle. And this reflects the ambiguity of much human experience. For example, what you said in a tricky situation wasn't exactly a lie – indeed, it was nothing but the truth – but neither was it the whole truth. As soon as we move outside formal systems, real life becomes messy and ambiguous, and our beliefs and actions are not determined by 'either A or not-A'.
Now, while logicians and philosophers are committed to clarity and deplore ambiguity, artists, writers and poets revel in ambiguity. Many years ago, there was a cult book of literary theory called Seven Types of Ambiguity
. These were types of ambiguity which can be detected in poems and other literary works, and can enhance their interest. Sometimes, in some moods, we like a definite happy ending when we find out who did it and the innocent person is exonerated, but the type of literature which retains our interest can be less clear in its ending, or in the way we view the characters. For example, we may have read halfway through a novel and are clear on the merits of the characters, and then we begin to wonder how reliable the narrator is. At the end of some John Le Carre plots, I am still unclear who the villain was.
And there can also be moral ambiguity. Kant had a magnificent theoretical intellect but a narrow and unforgiving moral outlook. For example, he says the courage of a villain makes him even worse in our eyes. No it doesn't! We can admire the final courage of Macbeth while deploring the rest of his character.
A literary device which can hold our interest is irony. A good novel/poem can make us wonder whether we are meant to believe what is said or whether we are being made fun of for believing it. The best writers can hold together in tension two different positions. That creates one kind of ambiguity. It is used to great effect in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
. Mark Antony's speech at the funeral of Caesar is a tour de force:
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
Some Existentialists have written in interesting ways about ambiguity. Indeed, Simone de Beauvoir is the author of a large volume entitled The Ethics of Ambiguity
. More approachable is Sartre's novel La Nausee
. In the novel, the narrator makes a discovery: adventures happen afterwards. He writes:
When you are living, nothing happens. The settings change, people come in and go out, that's all. Days are tacked on to days without rhyme or reason, it is an endless monotonous addition… That's living. But when you tell about life, everything changes; only it's a change nobody notices... events take place one way, but we recount them in a different way…
What he means is that life as we lead it is ambiguous, it has no shape or meaning. One of his favourite words to describe life is 'viscous'; it has no shape or form. But in the evening, say, when we reflect on the day, we may give it form. We remember one event rather than another or we emphasise one event, something someone said, and ignore or forget or downplay something else or the context. So what was one damn thing after another is given a shape and turned into an adventure. But an adventure is not what happened. What did happen? It's ambiguous.
In music, the use of ambiguity was developed by composers such as Debussy. His use of a whole-tone scale is successful in blurring the definite outlines which would be found in composers of the classical period such as Haydn or Mozart. In Debussy's great opera, Pelleas et Melisande,
everything is ambiguous – who Melisande is, what her relationship with Pelleas really was. And it is all enhanced by the ambiguity of the music. In art, the most famous ambiguous smile is on the face of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa
In a very romantic song, the ambiguity is celebrated by Nat King Cole. Ambiguity was expressed in a different way by the 'New Wave' French film directors of the 1970s. For example, in the cult film of the 1970s, L'Année dernière à Marienbad
(directed by Alain Resnais), it is not clear what is memory, what is imagination, what is past, and what is now happening. A New Wave French film director (Jean-Luc Godard) was challenged: 'Surely, a film must have a beginning, a middle and an end'. 'Ah, yes,' he replied, 'but not necessarily in that order'. No doubt someone said something similar before Jean-Luc Godard, but the saying fits the ambiguity of the films of 'nouvelle vague'.
Politicians are given to saying: 'I want to make one thing absolutely clear' – and then failing to make anything clear. Some great creators of art want to make things absolutely ambiguous – but succeed in making aspects of our messy lives clear.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow