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Sennett, A. (2016). Ambiguity. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. October 3, 2017, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ambiguity/.
|Resource type: Web Encyclopedia Article
ID no. (ISBN etc.): 1095-5054
BibTeX citation key: Sennett2016
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Publisher: Stanford University (Stanford)
Collection: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
|Attachments||URLs https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ambiguit ...|
"Fun fact: the word ‘ambiguous’, at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is ambiguous between two main types of meaning: uncertainty or dubiousness on the one hand and a sign bearing multiple meanings on the other. I mention this merely to disambiguate what this entry is about, which concerns a word or phrase enjoying multiple meanings. In this sense, ambiguity has been the source of much frustration, bemusement, and amusement for philosophers, lexicographers, linguists, cognitive scientists, literary theorists and critics, authors, poets, orators and just about everyone who considers the interpretation(s) of linguistic signs.
Philosophers’ interest in ambiguity has largely stemmed from concerns regarding the regimentation of natural language in formal logic: arguments that may look good in virtue of their linguistic form in fact can go very wrong if the words or phrases involved are equivocal. It would be logical folly, for example, to conclude from the true (on one reading) sentences ‘All bachelors are necessarily unmarried’ and ‘Adam was a bachelor’ that Adam was necessarily unmarried. In other words, philosophers have often found ambiguity the sort of thing one needs to avoid and eradicate when they do their serious philosophical business. Frege worried about the phenomenon enough to counsel against allowing any multiplicities of sense in a perfect language. Authors, poets, lyricists and the like, on the other hand, have often found ambiguity to be an extremely powerful tool. Thomas Pynchon’s sentence “we have forests full of game and hundreds of beaters who drive the animals toward the hunters such as myself who are waiting to shoot them,” (Against the Day, p. 46) utilizes the referential ambiguity of ‘them’ to great effect when said by his fictionalized Archduke Ferdinand. Shakespeare’s “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man” (Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene 1 line 97–98) plays cleverly on the double meaning of ‘grave’. Comedians have often found ambiguity useful in the misdirection essential to some forms of comedy. Groucho Marx’s “I shot an elephant in my pajamas” is a classic of this genre.
Ambiguity is important and it is worth examining what the phenomenon is and how it differs and relates to similar phenomena such as indexicality, polysemy, vagueness, and especially sense generality. While ‘is an uncle’ can be satisfied by both brothers of mothers and brothers of fathers, the phrase is not ambiguous but unspecified with respect to parent. The article will focus on what the phenomenon is and isn’t and deal with some of the interesting factors that confound the easy detection and categorization of apparent ambiguities."