views updated May 18 2018


By instinct humans yearn for reassurance and certainties and dream of an orderly universe where the reasoning process corresponds to external reality. This attitude is reflected by the assumption, authoritatively legitimized by Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.), that no responsible statement can exhibit internal contradictions. In his Categories, Aristotle states that the essential character of a substance seems to be its ability to host opposites. At any instant, however, one can assign either a quality or its opposite to a substance: According to Aristotle, "Nobody can be simultaneously sick and healthy. Similarly, nothing is at the same time white and black. No object exists simultaneously hosting opposites." No alternatives exist besides these two; any third possibility is excluded: tertium non datur.


According to Aristotle, the substitution of opposite qualities hosted by a substance during a transformation has a discontinuous character. His logic seems to imply a step-by-step flow of time and rules out the intervention of a critical situation where opposite qualities can smoothly cooperate and compete together in the same substance. This schematizes evolution as a quasi-static change of objects rather than a continuous course of events.

Aristotle's conception is reflected in the rigid aesthetic canons of the art of antiquity. For instance, in Myron's Discobolus (The discus thrower), fifth century b.c.e., Museo nazionale, Rome, time seems to be frozen in the act of launching the discus. Furthermore, throughout two millennia, the tertium non datur has influenced Mediterranean culture.

It is only during the twentieth century that, thanks to an attentive evaluation of the nature of time and the adoption of a probabilistic approach to the evolution of natural systems, ambiguity, meaning the coexistence or confluence of two or more incompatible aspects in the same reality, has acquired a non-negative connotation in the Western world.

Probability, Uncertainty, and the Arrow of Time

In the 1680s Isaac Newton's concept of absolute, mathematical time depicted a uniform flow deprived of any psychological aspect, including a propensity to flow only toward the future. In the 1700s Pierre-Simon Laplace's rigid, deterministic viewpoint left no space to uncertainties and contradictions.

In the 1820s, however, Nicolas-Léonard-Sadi Carnot's second principle of thermodynamics and Rudolf Clausius's principle of the increase of entropy or disorder in isolated systems attached a directional arrow to time from past to future. In the 1900s Albert Einstein's theory of relativity assigned time an additional role in the fourth dimension of physical space known as the space-time continuum. In the 1920s the probabilistic approach and Werner Karl Heisenberg's uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics brought an end to certainties. In the 1960s, the irreversible thermodynamics of nonlinear systems removed from equilibrium by fluxes of energy, matter, and information regarded time as the creator of spatial, temporal, or functional structural order. These systems include the mind.

Most likely the above breakthroughs in the Weltanschauung (worldview), relevant for an analysis ennobling ambiguity, played a role in focusing the attention of eminent philosophersImmanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Henri-Louis Bergson, and Jean-Paul Sartre, among themon the dynamics of the processes of transformation rather than on Aristotle's statics of the objects.

Even closer correlations can be conjectured between the scientific and artistic milieus. Look at, for example, Claude Monet's Waterloo Bridge, Effect of Fog (1903, Hermitage State Museum). While looking at this painting, the observer, driven by curiosity, correlates his or her sensory stimuli, assembling them in an interiorized pattern. While this mental pattern develops, the fog on the Thames seems to lift slowly, until a critical state is reached where the bridge, the boats on the river, and the urban background merge into the meaning of the painting. This critical state, at a boundary sharing foggy and meaningless scenery and, at the same time, a meaningful picture, is loaded with ambiguity.

The mental process just described can be viewed as a metaphor of Jean Piaget's statement, "The intelligence organizes the world while it organizes itself." This aphorism leads to self-referentiality. Contextually, ambiguity sneaks in: "Concerning what one cannot talk about, it's necessary to be silent," Ludwig Wittgenstein writes, and yet he talksand is "silent"at the same time.

Should one agree in interpreting ambiguity as equivocalness, self-referentiality would make the language totally ambiguous. Rome? A city, a town, and a four-letter word. Again with reference to the above breakthroughs, think of a cubist portrait by Picasso. Its perception lends itself ambiguously to several reconstructions of perceptsfront figure, profile, and so forthand recalls the process of measurement of a quantum structure: a process whose result allows us to access, with different probabilities, the several possible basic modes of being (or behaving) characteristic of the structure.

Similar considerations hold for the ambiguous representation of the fourth dimension on a two-dimensional canvas, seen in several futurist de-structured paintings and in Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912, Philadelphia Museum of Art), an organization of kinetic elements expressing the space-time continuum through the abstract representation of movement.

The Dynamics of Ambiguity

Open systems, far removed from (thermodynamic) equilibrium by intense fluxes of resourcessuch as matter, energy, and informationexceeding certain critical thresholds, undergo dynamic instabilities resulting in the emergence of spatial, temporal, or functional order. These instabilities exhibit a critical region where the transformation has not yet occurred and yet, at the same time, has already occurred. This region hosts ambiguity, an ambiguity that can be captured at the critical state marking the onset of convective motions in an initially still fluid heated from below (for example, think to the critical state of the formation of the Giants Causeway, the hexagonal volcanic rocks of Northern Ireland), at the starting of a chromatic chemical clock during the Belousov-Zhabotinsky autocatalytic reactions, or at the arising of a synchronized, ordered applause from a stochastic clapping when the audience in an auditorium, driven by enthusiasm, demands an encore from the soloist.

Dynamic instabilities occur under special critical conditions in nature and in society. They also occur during perception, not seldom but continuously and systematically. Their outcome, at the critical state of the perceptive process, is the emergence of visual thinking.

Vivid examples of ambiguity in the mind can be experienced while looking at an ambiguous structure such as Fragment of Psychoplastic Structure (1963, collection of the author). This figure may be conceived as a visual metaphor for a diatomic hydrogen molecule formed by two identical atoms. It helps to visualize both the two lower energy modes of being (the so-called stationary states) of this molecule and its resonant behavior during a spectroscopic observation of it.

At first this figure, by construction, could be envisaged superficially as a two-dimensional structure exhibiting a center of symmetry. Keep looking at it as passively as possible. Its central region around the center of symmetry could be described in two ways: (1) as belonging 50 percent to the modulus at left and 50 percent to the modulus at right and, paradoxically, (2) as belonging neither to the modulus at left nor to the modulus at right. These two descriptions, though quite acceptable if considered separately, are incompatible if attributed to the same reality simultaneously, as they should be in this case. Indeed, we react instinctively to the absurdity of the situation and hasten to remove the ambiguity built into the figure by letting the two-dimensional figure invade the three-dimensional space and assign its central region to the right-or to the left-hand cubic modulus. Thereafter, visual thinking cannot get stuck in either of these positions: soon an endless sequence of approximately periodic perceptive alternations of right/left/right prospects sets in.

As anticipated, the process of perception, leading to the dynamics of visual thinking, turns out to resemble closely the process of measurement of a homonuclear diatomic molecule according to quantum mechanics. Both processes share ambiguity.

Ambiguity as a Permanent Cultural Value

In conclusion, complex concepts of quantum physics and the structure of matter are intimately connected with optical illusions, paradoxes, and ambiguity, features usually attributed to the world of art rather than to science. Both art and science are produced, emotionally and rationally, by our thinking. And our thinking proceeds chaotically, on the jagged watershed of a permanent cultural value: ambiguity.

See also Authority ; Metaphor ; Perspective ; Quantum .


Arnheim, Rudolf. Visual Thinking. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

Caglioti, Giuseppe. The Dynamics of Ambiguity. Berlin: Springer, 1992.

. "Perception of Ambiguous Figures: A Qualitative Model Based on Synergetics and Quantum Mechanics." In Ambiguity in Mind and Nature: Multistable Cognitive Phenomena, edited by Peter Kruse and Michael Stadler. Berlin: Springer, 1995. Psychologists, physicists, neurologists, and chemists analyze multistability in perception.

Empson, William. Seven Types of Ambiguity. London: Chatto and Windus, 1953.

Haken, Hermann. Synergetics, an Introduction: Nonequilibrium Phase Transitions and Self-organization in Physics, Chemistry, and Biology. 2nd ed. Berlin: Springer, 1983.

Hoffmann, Roald. The Same and Not the Same. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Piaget, Jean. La construction du réel chez l'enfant. Neuchâtel, France: Delachaux and Niestlé, 1937.

Prigogine, Ilya. La fin des certitudes: temps, chaos et les lois de la nature. Paris: O. Jacob, 1996.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus logico philosophicus. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1922.

Giuseppe Caglioti


views updated May 21 2018


Uncertainty or doubtfulness of the meaning of language.

When language is capable of being understood in more than one way by a reasonable person, ambiguity exists. It is not the use of peculiar words or of common words used in a peculiar sense. Words are ambiguous when their significance is unclear to persons with competent knowledge and skill to understand them.

There are two categories of ambiguity: latent and patent. Latent ambiguity exists when the language used is clear and intelligible so that it suggests one meaning but some extrinsic fact or evidence creates a need for interpretation or a choice among two or more possible meanings. In a classic case, Raffles v. Wichelhaus, 159 Eng. Rep. 375 (Ex. 1864), a contract was made to sell 125 bales of cotton that were to arrive on a ship called Peerless that sailed from Bombay, India. Unknown to the parties to the contract, two ships of the same name were to arrive from the same port during different months of the same year. This extraneous fact necessitated the interpretation of an otherwise clear and definite term of the contract. In such cases, extrinsic or parol evidence may be admitted to explain what was meant or to identify the property referred to in the writing.

A patent ambiguity is one that appears on the face of a document or writing because uncertain or obscure language has been used.

In the law of contracts, ambiguity means more than that the language has more than one meaning upon which reasonable persons could differ. It means that after a court has applied rules of interpretation, such as the plain meaning, course of dealing, course of performance, or trade usage rules to the unclear terms, the court still cannot say with certainty what meaning was intended by the parties to the contract. When this occurs, the court will admit as evidence extraneous proof of prior or contemporaneous agreements to determine the meaning of the ambiguous language. Parol evidence may be used to explain the meaning of a writing as long as its use does not vary the terms of the writing. If there is no such evidence, the court may hear evidence of the subjective intention or understanding of the parties to clarify the ambiguity.

Sometimes, courts decide the meaning of ambiguous language on the basis of who was responsible or at fault for the ambiguity. When only one party knew or should have known of the ambiguity, the unsuspecting party's subjective knowledge of the meaning will control. If both parties knew or should have known of the uncertainty, the court will look to the subjective understanding of both. The ambiguity no longer exists if the parties agree upon its meaning. If the parties disagree and the ambiguous provisions are material, no contract is formed because of lack of mutual assent.

Courts frequently interpret an ambiguous contract term against the interests of the party who prepared the contract and created the ambiguity. This is common in cases of adhesion contracts and insurance contracts. A drafter of a document should not benefit at the expense of an innocent party because the drafter was careless in drafting the agreement.

In constitutional law, statutes that contain ambiguous language are void for vagueness. The language of such laws is considered so obscure and uncertain that a reasonable person cannot determine from a reading what the law purports to command or prohibit. This statutory ambiguity deprives a person of the notice requirement of due process of law, and, therefore, renders the statute unconstitutional.


views updated May 17 2018

AMBIGUITY. Actual or potential uncertainty of meaning, especially if a word, phrase, or sentence can be understood in two ways: for example, the written statement They can fish, which could mean They may or are able to fish and They put fish in cans. Many statements are ambiguous in isolation but clear in context or are amenable to logical analysis: although there are scores of meanings of run, someone who speaks of running the marathon is not likely to be using the word in the sense of running a company, although that is possible and may in some circumstances be so. In conversation, ambiguity can usually be resolved by asking, ‘What do you mean, X or Y?’, but in reading there is no one to ask and, unless the term is marked so as to designate the meaning intended, it may be impossible to distinguish one meaning from another but in such sentences as They can fish some distinction can be made in speech through stress and intonation. Because of their compactness, newspaper HEADLINES are particularly prone to peculiar elliptical effects, as in MACARTHUR FLIES BACK TO FRONT, referring to US general Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War. See DOUBLE MEANING, DOUBLE TALK, PUN, PUNCTUATION.


views updated May 11 2018


An obscurity of meaning that leaves a statement open to contrary interpretations, often as a result of faulty grammar or insufficient context (see fallacy). The phrase "systematic ambiguity" has been used by Bertrand russell to characterize the function of certain key words in formal logic. According to Russell, the word "true," for example, applies to statements belonging to a number of logically distinct types. If we apply it to a sentence that combines statements of different types, contradiction may result. By avoiding such combinations the logician can guard against this (see antinomy). Some scholastic philosophers speak of the systematic ambiguity of terms used in metaphysics. Such everyday words as "being" and "good" can be applied to the divine order, but at the risk of hidden equivocation. To eliminate this risk, the metaphysician takes note of whatever in the term's original signification carries over into its other uses (see analogy).

[h. a. nielsen]


views updated Jun 11 2018

am·big·u·ous / amˈbigyoōəs/ • adj. (of language) open to more than one interpretation; having a double meaning: the question is rather ambiguous. ∎  unclear or inexact because a choice between alternatives has not been made: this whole society is morally ambiguous.DERIVATIVES: am·big·u·ous·ly adv.


views updated May 14 2018

15. Ambiguity

  1. Delphic oracle ultimate authority in ancient Greece; often speaks in ambiguous terms. [Gk. Hist.: Leach, 305]
  2. Iseults vow pledge to husband has double meaning. [Arth. Legend: Tristan ]
  3. Loxias epithet of Apollo, meaning ambiguous in reference to his practically uninterpretable oracles. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmer-man, 26]
  4. Pooh-Bah different opinion for every one of his offices. [Br. Opera: The Mikado, Magill I, 591592]


views updated May 11 2018

am·bi·gu·i·ty / ˌambiˈgyoō-itē/ • n. (pl. -ties) uncertainty or inexactness of meaning in language: no ambiguity in this section of the Act. ∎  a lack of decisiveness or commitment resulting from a failure to make a choice between alternatives: the film is fraught with moral ambiguity.


views updated May 18 2018

ambiguous XVI. f. L. ambiguus, f. ambigere go round, f. amb- AMBI- + agere drive; see ACT, -UOUS.
So ambiguity XV. —(O)F. or L.