Monday, March 10, 2014


136. Productive ambiguity

In this blog I have identified three issues concerning ideas and their meaning.

First, while we need universals, they should not be seen as absolutes, applying everywhere and always. I discussed that also in the preceding item in this blog. Meanings change according to contexts of application. Sentence meaning depends on word meaning but also, vice versa, word meaning depends on sentence meaning. What a word means depends on other words in the sentence, and the practical context in which it is uttered. This notion that ideas and meanings change in their application, depending on how they work in living one’s life, is part of the pragmatist view.

Second, understanding and interpretation are formed by mental categories that are formed along life paths, and hence vary between people. That is the constructivist view. This variety of cognition is a source of both misunderstanding and learning. It leads to a plea for recognition of the importance of the other for oneself, and of dialogue, in knowledge and ethics.

Third, but related to the above, there is no uniquely identifiable ‘truth’ in knowledge, in the sense of correspondence with some external, objective, substantial  reality. Instead, I advocated a view of truth as warranted assertability. Also, there is no unique, identifiable meaning to what an author wrote, and authors say more than they mean: new meanings and interpretations may be added to what they wrote. That is the hermeneutic view.

As a result, there are several forms of ambiguity, all around us, in the context dependence, shift and multiplicity of meanings. To deal with this, with reference to Pascal I proposed to consider the spirit of finesse next to the spirit of geometry. And I proposed to see all this as instances of imperfection on the move.

I give this summary because it may help to understand and utilize ancient Chinese philosophy, which incorporates ideas similar to those of pragmatism and hermeneutics. I am thinking here, in particular, of Taoist texts (the texts named after Lao, Zhuang and Lie)[1]. To a Western mind, they are noriously difficult to understand. I have had a hard time trying. But I see the attempt as an exercise in practising what I have preached. I find that what I have been saying is congenial to old Chinese thought. Hence, I may learn more by immersing myself in it, in trying to see how in those old texts meanings hang together and depend on context, how they shift according to shifts of context. Perhaps the endeavour to understand the texts is not entirely hopeless.

As a Westerner, educated and trained in rational, analytical, empirical thought and practice, I am used to rigorous, clear, unambiguous and logical argument. But I am aware that if indeed universals are problematic and context matters, and shifts of meaning occur in the use of ideas across contexts, then ambiguity can be productive.

And perhaps the most adequate form of reasoning and presentation is narrative, where ideas are exemplified in stories, and understanding progresses by exploring analagous cases (as Coutinho put it). If dialogue is key to understanding, then that is what one may expect in philosophical writing. Narrative philosophizing is not, I admit, where my strength lies. And I keep on striving for clarity, coherence, consistency and rigour of argument whenever possible. But I try to be open to requisite and productive ambiguity.


[1] Here I am making use of Steve Coutinho, An introduction to Daoist philosophies, New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. Coutinho cautions that while there a commonalities there is also diversity within Taoist thought. But I think that applies to all streams of philosophy: pragmatism, enlightenmen thought, analytic philosophy, etc. It applies, more widely, to the meanings of words. It is the rule rather than an exception. It is an exception only to those who expect essences everywhere.