Ambiguity of information, in words, pictures, or other media, indicates the ability to express more than one interpretation. This is generally contrasted with vagueness, in that specific and distinct interpretations are permitted (although some may not be immediately apparent), whereas with information that is vague it is difficult to form any interpretation at the desired level of specificity. Context may play a role in resolving ambiguity. For example, the same piece of information may be ambiguous in one context and unambiguous in another.
- From the very beginning, existentialism defined itself as a philosophy of ambiguity. It was by affirming the irreducible character of ambiguity that Kierkegaard opposed himself to Hegel, and it is by ambiguity that, in our own generation, Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, fundamentally defined man, that being whose being is not to be, that subjectivity which realizes itself only as a presence in the world, that engaged freedom, that surging of the for-oneself which is immediately given for others.
- The impression that our general populace is better educated depends on an ambiguity in the meaning of the word education, or a fudging of the distinction between liberal and technical education. A highly trained computer specialist need not have had any more learning about morals, politics or religion than the most ignorant of persons. All to the contrary, his narrow education, with, the prejudices and the pride accompanying it, and its literature which comes to be and passes away in a day and uncritically accepts the premises of current wisdom, can cut him off from the liberal learning that simpler folk used to absorb from a variety of traditional sources.
- That gray net of abstraction, used to cover the world in order to simplify and explain it in a way that is pleasing to us, has become the world in our eyes. The only way to see the phenomena, rather than sterile distillations of them, to experience them in their ambiguity again, would be to have available alternate visions, a diversity of profound opinions. … Souls artificially constituted by a new kind of education live in a world transformed by man’s artifice and believe that all values are relative and determined by the private economic or sexual drives of those who hold them. How are they to recover the primary natural experience?
- If I take refuge in ambiguity, I assure you that it’s quite conscious.
- Kingman Brewster, Jr., on appointment as President of Yale University, as quoted in The New York Tribune (14 October 1963).
- Why do I require an hour to give this lecture when all I have to say really could go into roughly six sentences? Because I could not utter six sentences which are not so heavily charged with ambiguity that no one... would get the picture... Most human sentences are... aimed at getting rid of the ambiguity which you unfortunately left trailing in the last sentence. ...It is not possible to get rid of ambiguity in our statements, because that would press symbolism beyond its capabilities. And it is not possible to get rid of ambiguity because the number of responses that the brain could make never has a sharp edge because the thing is not a digital machine.
- Jacob Bronowski, The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination (1978)
- Ambiguity, multivalence, the fact that language simply cannot be regarded as a clear and final exposition of what it says, is central to both science and... literature. Why to science? ...you cannot make a single general statement about anything in the world which is really wholly delimited, wholly unambiguous, and divides the world into two pieces. ...you cannot say anything about a table or a chair which does not leave you open to challenge, "...I am using this chair as a table." ...the word "table" was not invented in order to bisect the universe into tables and non-tables. And if that is true of "table," it is true of "honor,"... "love,"..."gravity,"... "mass" and "energy" and everything else.
- Jacob Bronowski, The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination (1978)
- My narrative may be invaded by inaccuracy and confusion; but if I live no longer, I will, at least, live to complete it. What but ambiguities, abruptnesses, and dark transitions, can be expected from the historian who is, at the same time, the sufferer of these disasters?
- Ambiguity is not desirable or meaningful if it confuses an issue that is meant to be clear. This is the challenge of making a film that communicates but doesn't talk down: a lot of viewers and studio execs (and directors) hold that ANY ambiguity is the result of the filmmaker's failure. I disagree, but I also hold that, in order for ambiguity to be effective, certain things NEED to be unambiguous.
- If physics is too difficult for the physicists, the nonphysicist may wonder whether he should try at all to grasp its complexities and ambiguities. It is undeniably an effort, but probably one worth making, for the basic questions are important and the new experimental results are often fascinating.
- Edward Condon, Physics, in What is Science? : Twelve Eminent Scientists and Philosophers Explain Their Various Fields to the Layman (1955), by James Roy Newman, p. 102.
- Now I show trust of a robot as leader, a robot who is the suffering servant, which is to say a form of Christ. Leader as servant of man; leader who should be dispensed with — perhaps. An ambiguity hangs over the morality of this story. Should we have a leader or should we think for ourselves? Obviously the latter, in principle. But — sometimes there lies a gulf between what is theoretically right and that which is practical. It's interesting that I would trust a robot and not an android. Perhaps it's because a robot does not try to deceive you as to what it is.
- Humans are so deaf and blind to their own language's ambiguities, they concoct their wishes in terms so permeable that I can grant them in a way they never imagined. I want to be as rich as my father. Fair enough. Nelchael crashes the markets, Dad's bankrupt, and thanks for the soul, brother.
- Something happens whose ambiguity has left the historians of medicine at a loss: blind repression in an absolutist regime, according to some; but according to others, the gradual discovery by science and philanthropy of madness in its positive truth. As a matter of fact, beneath these reversible meanings, a structure is forming which does not resolve the ambiguity but determines it. It is this structure which accounts for the transition from the medieval and humanist experience of madness to our own experience, which confines insanity within mental illness. In the Middle Ages and until the Renaissance, man's dispute with madness was a dramatic debate in which he confronted the secret powers of the world; the experience of madness was clouded by images of the Fall and the Will of God, of the Beast and the Metamorphosis, and of all the marvelous secrets of Knowledge. In our era, the experience of madness remains silent in the composure of a knowledge which, knowing too much about madness, forgets it. But from one of these experiences to the other, the shift has been made by a world without images, without positive character, in a kind of silent transparency which reveals— as mute institution, act without commentary, immediate knowledge — a great motionless structure; this structure is one of neither drama nor knowledge; it is the point where history is immobilized in the tragic category which both establishes and impugns it.
- Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization (1964), Preface.
- We live in an essential and unresolvable tension between our unity with nature and our dangerous uniqueness. Systems that attempt to place and make sense of us by focusing exclusively either on the uniqueness or the unity are doomed to failure. But we must not stop asking and questing because the answers are complex and ambiguous.
- Stephen Jay Gould, Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes (1983), "Our Natural Place", p. 250.
- We can still have a genre of scientific books suitable for and accessible alike to professionals and interested laypeople. The concepts of science, in all their richness and ambiguity, can be presented without any compromise, without any simplification counting as distortion, in language accessible to all intelligent people.
- Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life (1989).
- Life is inherently ambiguous; baseball games pit pure good against abject evil. Even Saddam Hussein must have committed one act of kindness in his life, but what iota of good could possibly be said for aluminum bats or the designated hitter rule?
- Stephen Jay Gould, in "Baseball and the Two Faces of Janus", p. 272; originally published as "The Virtues of Nakedness" in The New York Review of Books (11 October 1990).
- The acceptance of ambiguity implies more than the commonplace understanding that some good things and some bad things happen to us. It means that we know that good and evil are inextricably intermixed in human affairs; that they contain, and sometimes embrace, their opposites; that success may involve failure of a different kind, and failure may be a kind of triumph.
- Sydney J. Harris, Clearing the Ground (1986) Learning to Live with Ambiguity.
- The finer sentiments of the mind, the operations of the understanding, the various agitations and passions, though really in themselves distinct, easily escape us, when surveyed by reflection; nor is it in our power to recall the original object, as often as we have the time to contemplate it. Ambiguity, by this means, is gradually introduced into our reasonings; similar objects are readily taken to be the same: the conclusion becomes at last very wide of the premises.
- The chief obstacle... to our improvement in the moral and metaphysical sciences is the obscurity of the ideas, and ambiguity of the terms.
- By what invention can we throw light upon these ideas, and render them altogether precise and determinate to our intellectual view? Produce the impressions or original sentiments, from which the ideas are copied. These impressions are all strong and sensible. They admit not of ambiguity. They are not only placed in full light themselves, but may throw light on their correspondent ideas, which lie in obscurity.
- From this circumstance alone, that a controversy has been long kept on foot, and remains undecided, we may presume that there is some ambiguity in the expression, and that the disputants affix different ideas to the terms employed in the controversy.
- If men attempt the discussion of questions which lie entirely beyond the reach of human capacity, such as those concerning the origin of worlds, or the economy of the intellectual system or region of spirits, they may long beat the air in their fruitless contests, and never arrive at any determinate conclusion. But if the question regard any subject of common life and experience, nothing, one would think, could preserve the dispute so long undecided but some ambiguous expressions, which keep the antagonists still at a distance, and hinder them from grappling with each other.
- The abundance of our definitive words about God shows that we don't view him as a great mystery anymore, but as a sterile calculation without ambiguity or obscurity.
- Skye Jethani, The Divine Commodity : Discovering A Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity (2009).
- Freedom succumbs to dizziness. Further than this, psychology cannot and will not go. In that very moment everything is changed, and freedom, when it again rises, sees that it is guilty. Between these two moments lies the leap, which no science has explained and which no science can explain. He who becomes guilty in anxiety becomes as ambiguously guilty as it is possible to become.
- If the child sees its mother distressed, it never thinks of tracing the distress back to God as the cause, or that there might be an ambiguity of distress and accordingly that the distress might come from God for the very purpose of drawing the person to God. The child, however, immediately thinks of evil people.
- The subject of a gestalt demonstration knows that his perception has shifted because he can make it shift back and forth repeatedly while he holds the same book or piece of paper in his hands. Aware that nothing in his environment has changed, he directs his attention increasingly not to the figure (duck or rabbit) but to the lines of the paper he is looking at. Ultimately he may even learn to see those lines without seeing either of the figures, and he may then say (what he could not legitimately have said earlier) that it is these lines that he really sees but that he sees them alternately as a duck and as a rabbit. … As in all similar psychological experiments, the effectiveness of the demonstration depends upon its being analyzable in this way. Unless there were an external standard with respect to which a switch of vision could be demonstrated, no conclusion about alternate perceptual possibilities could be drawn.
- Ambiguity: the bastard child of creativity and cowardice.
- Yahia Lababidi, Signposts to Elsewhere (2008).
- “Which alternative is worse, I wonder?” she said. “To deny death and thus risk never being wholly alive, or to face oblivion squarely and risk paralysis by dread?”
“Nobody knows,” I said. “It’s ambiguous.”
“If I ever get to be God,” she said, unleashing the grin of the person who’d invented Largesse, “my first act will be to make ambiguity illegal.”
- What I love about fiction is the way this form of expression allows an author to wrestle an idea to the ground, as opposed to the bumper-sticker dialectics that pass for political and philosophical discourse in most sectors of our culture. In the age of mass communication, we need the quiet, contemplative and often ambiguous medium of the novel more than ever.
- In highly charged political matters, one person's ambiguity may be another person's truth.
- Richard Mottram, in February 1985, as a prosecution witness in the case against Clive Ponting, as quoted in 'Sir Richard Mottram" by Richard Norton-Taylor, in The Guardian (25 February 2002).
- Most people aren't sure what's going to happen on a first date. Given that ambiguity, every woman must be totally aware at every moment that she is responsible for every choice she makes. … protect yourselves. See trouble coming.
- Camille Paglia, in interview for Playboy magazine (May 1995).
- Rules for Definitions. I. Not to undertake to define any of the things so well known of themselves that the clearer terms cannot be had to explain them. II. Not to leave any terms that are at all obscure or ambiguous without definition. III. Not to employ in the definition of terms any words but such as are perfectly known or already explained.
- Blaise Pascal, The Art of Persuasion (1658).
- Variant translation: Rules necessary for definitions. Not to leave any terms at all obscure or ambiguous without definition; Not to employ in definitions any but terms perfectly known or already explained.
- Rules for Demonstrations. I. Not to undertake to demonstrate any thing that is so evident of itself that nothing can be given that is clearer to prove it. II. To prove all propositions at all obscure, and to employ in their proof only very evident maxims or propositions already admitted or demonstrated. III. To always mentally substitute definitions in the place of things defined, in order not to be misled by the ambiguity of terms which have been restricted by definitions.
- Blaise Pascal, The Art of Persuasion (1658).
- Variant translation: Rules necessary for demonstrations. To prove all propositions, and to employ nothing for their proof but axioms fully evident of themselves, or propositions already demonstrated or admitted; Never to take advantage of the ambiguity of terms by failing mentally to substitute definitions that restrict or explain them.
- Ambiguity — the Devil's volleyball.
- Emo Philips, E=MO² (1985) "A Fine How Ya Do".
- Skepticism with regard to the senses had troubled Greek philosophers from a very early stage... The Sophists, notably Protagoras and Gorgias, had been led by the ambiguities and apparent contradictions of sense-perception to a subjectivism not unlike Hume's.
- As for myself, I confess to a preference for clear-cut situations, for radical and even extreme positions. But I also feel a secret and very strong attraction to ambiguous situations.. ..for example, that hovering moment when it is no longer day and not yet night, the shades of emotion between indifference and friendship … (they) are so fascinating because they are so indefinable. That which is pure transition, is all the more appealing to the mind because of its elusiveness.
- Michel Seuphor, Abstract Painting (1964).
- Men have an all but incurable propensity to try to prejudge all the great questions which interest them by stamping their prejudices upon their language. Law, in many cases, means not only a command, but a beneficent command. Liberty means not the bare absence of restraint, but the absence of injurious restraint. Justice means not mere impartiality in applying general rules to particular cases, but impartiality in applying beneficent general rules to particular cases. Some people half consciously use the word "true" as meaning useful as well as true. Of course language can never be made absolutely neutral and colourless; but unless its ambiguities are understood, accuracy of thought is impossible, and the injury done is proportionate to the logical force and general vigour of character of those who are misled.
- James Fitzjames Stephen, in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873-1874) Ch. 4.
- There are ambiguities in the art of painting but they are the ambiguities of a fine precision: the discovered fact of the image containing at the same time the reverberations of the unknown, the truly mysterious… I would take this further and add that painting is itself precise in its ideas. In the sense that the image is the idea in its purist form.
- Patrick Swift, in "The Painter in the Press", X magazine, Vol. I, No.4 (October 1960).
- Like such titles as Christian and Quaker, "anarchist" was in the end proudly adopted by one of those against whom it had been used in condemnation. In 1840, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, that stormy, argumentative individualist who prided himself on being a man of paradox and a provoker of contradiction, published the work that established him as a pioneer libertarian thinker. It was What Is Property?, in which he gave his own question the celebrated answer: "Property is theft." In the same book he became the first man willingly to claim the title of anarchist.
Undoubtedly Proudhon did this partly in defiance, and partly in order to exploit the word's paradoxical qualities. He had recognized the ambiguity of the Greek anarchos, and had gone back to it for that very reason — to emphasize that the criticism of authority on which he was about to embark need not necessarily imply an advocacy of disorder.
- George Woodcock, Anarchism : A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements (1962), Prologue.
- More often than not, the classes of objects encountered in the real physical world do not have precisely deﬁned criteria of membership. For example, the class of animals clearly includes dogs, horses, birds, etc. as its members, and clearly excludes such objects as rocks, ﬂuids, plants, etc. However, such objects as starfish, bacteria, etc. have an ambiguous status with respect to the class of animals. The same kind of ambiguity arises in the case of a number such as 10 in relation to the “class” of all real numbers which are much greater than 1.
- Lotfi A. Zadeh, in "Fuzzy Sets", in Information and Control, Vol. 8, issue 3 (1965), p. 338.