Critical Thinking 5: Ambiguity

Arguments are, of course, made out of language, and language is always ambiguous to some extent. If you apply the embodied meaning understanding of the meaning of language, there can never be any precise equivalence between the meaning of a word, sentence or other symbol for any two people. Each understands that meaning in relation to their own body. We do manage to communicate, but only on a more-or-less  basis. If your language means something similar enough to you and to your audience, you will communicate to an extent. The same problem applies between you and your past or future self. The words you wrote in your diary ten years ago may not mean the same now.

However, issues of ambiguity are more striking in some cases than others, and where they arise more strongly in argument they are more likely to create misunderstandings and conflicts. There are two types of problematic ambiguity: ambiguity proper, which is multiple meanings for the same word or term, and vagueness, which is the lack of clear boundaries on the application of a term.

Very often, but not always, ambiguities and vagueness are just resolved by contextual judgement. For example, if I say “I’m going to the bank” and I’m carrying a chequebook, you don’t think I’m going to sit by the side of a river; and if I’m carrying a picnic basket, you don’t tend to think I’m going to have a relaxed picnic inside my local branch of HBOS. Vagueness also often does not matter: if I tell you I’m going for “a short walk”, you don’t need to know exactly how many metres I will be walking – and indeed, nor do I.

Ambiguity that affects the justification of an argument is known as equivocation. If you use the same term in a reason and a conclusion, but don’t realise that they have an importantly different meaning in each case, the justification of your conclusion is likely to be seriously undermined. Abstract words are most prone to this: for example, life, civilised, natural, beautiful, meaning, good, art, and (oddly enough) logical. Equivocal arguments often have a baggy abstract term in the middle of them that is in need of a bit of clarification, and if it’s not clarified needless disputes can ensue. Here’s an example of a dispute between Ken and Thelma:

Ken: Wind turbines are a natural way of generating energy without burning fossil fuel, so the government should be investing in them much faster.

Thelma: Natural! You’ve got to be joking! They’re the most artificial monstrosities you ever saw! A blot on the landscape!

Here Ken is using the idea of the “naturalness” of wind turbines as the basis of his argument for them, but “natural” obviously means something quite different to Thelma. They will not be able to make progress in resolving their disagreement until they have resolved what they mean by this deeply ambiguous word. They can do this by defining what each means by the term. Let’s imagine that the conversation continues in a helpful direction.

Ken: So what do you mean by “natural”, there, Josh? Is it to do with what wind turbines look like?

Thelma: Of course! It can’t be natural if it’s a big noisy metal contraption sticking up on a green hill, can it?

Ken: So “natural” means not noisy and metal? What does it mean more positively?

Thelma: In harmony with the landscape. Trees and pastures are natural, but wind turbines aren’t.

Ken: What about buildings? Are they natural?

Thelma: Most of them aren’t, but the more traditional buildings like stone barns are more natural-looking than modern buildings.

Ken: So, by “natural” you mean that it has an appearance that you feel blends harmoniously with the landscape?

Thelma: That’s right.

Ken: Well, that’s not what I meant when I said that wind turbines are a natural way of generating energy. I meant that they are sustainable and don’t cause pollution. They cause much less disruption to the eco-system as a whole when you compare them to a coal-fired power station, for example.

Whether or not Ken and Thelma can now resolve their disagreement about wind turbines, at least now they have clarified what they are arguing about.


Identify the ambiguous term or terms in each of these examples, and clarify the likely meanings of it for each person.Fontaine_Duchamp

1. Jake (looking at object pictured on right in an art gallery): How can that be art? This guy has just bought a urinal and stuck it in an art gallery!

Sandip: That’s precisely it. He’s stuck it in an art gallery. That makes it art.

2. Mother: I thought you were going to go to bed early tonight! It’s 11.30 already!

Teenaged son: But I went to bed at 12.30 last night.

3. Unionist: The management’s pay offer is only a 0.8% increase on last year’s pay, when the inflation rate is 2.3%. Some other workers in the same group are getting 2.7% rises. That makes the offer both unfair and unreasonable.

Manager: The pay offer is in line with the going market rate in the industry. That makes it perfectly fair. It is all that the company can afford without threatening its competitiveness. It would not be reasonable to expect the company to go out of business to meet an excessive pay settlement. 

4. Camilla: The Quakers are not really Christians. They don’t believe in the Trinity, or that the Bible is the Word of God.

Billy: But they have an idea of God, and they come from the Christian tradition. They rely on personal experience of God rather than on the Bible or doctrines, that’s all. 

5. Rosie: Your directions were rubbish! You said to go straight ahead by the Dog and Duck Inn, but there isn’t any road straight ahead at the Dog and Duck Inn, just left and right. I didn’t know which way to go! I was wandering around for ages!

Lee: The directions were perfectly clear. You just have to interpret them with common sense, that’s all! There’s a staggered junction by the Dog and Duck Inn, which means you go left and then right, but that’s practically the same as straight ahead. It should have been obvious!

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

3 thoughts on “Critical Thinking 5: Ambiguity

  1. 1.
    The question what is ‘art’ – the word art used here is with a lack of clear boundaries so there is vagueness?
    ‘Urinal,’ is its use only functional or has it become an art object –
    more than one meaning -ambiguity proper?
    What is early, referring to ‘time’ – vague or maybe ambiguous proper?
    ‘Pay offer’ an equivical argument?
    Fear of going out of business – equivocation?
    ‘Christians’ – differing beliefs – ambiguity proper?
    ‘experience of God’ equivocal argument?
    5. ‘Go straight ahead’ -vagueness, lack of boundaries?
    Interpret ‘with common sense ‘ equivocal argument?

  2. 1. Art is the ambiguous term. Jake appears to view art as something that is the product of skill and application and is possibly ethically pleasing to look at. Sandip seems to take the view that an object is or becomes a work of art if it is displayed in an art gallery.
    2. Early is the ambiguous term, with mother and son believing early to be before and after 11.30 respectively.
    3. Fair and reasonable and pay offer are the ambiguous terms. The unionist believes a fair and reasonable pay offer is one that is in line with inflation and with the pay rises of other workers in the same group. The manager believes such a pay offer is one that is in line with the going rate of the industry and is set at a level that doesn’t compromise the company’s competitiveness.
    4. The main ambiguity here is arguably what it means to be a Christian. For Camilla, a Christian needs to believe in the Trinity or that the Bible is the word of God. For Billy, the Quakers conform to being Christians by coming from the Christian tradition and relying on personal experience of God rather than the Bible or doctrines.
    5. In this example the ambiguous term is directions. Rosie believes they should be written in such a way so they can be interpreted literally. Lee believes directions need to be interpreted with a degree of common sense.

  3. Here are my answers:
    1. I’d agree with Barry’s account of the two meanings of ‘art’ here. I didn’t think of ‘urinal’ being ambiguous, but I guess it is, as you say, Norma.
    2. The ambiguous term is ‘early’. The mother seems to have a fixed scale determining what is ‘early’, by which 11.30 would not be so. The son think of ‘early’ relative to other occasions.
    3. ‘Fair’ and ‘reasonable’ are the key ambiguous terms here. I agree with Barry’s explanation of them
    4. Here the definition of ‘Christian’ is ambiguous, one using belief as the criterion and the other using relationship to a tradition.
    5. The ambiguous term here, as Norma spotted, is ‘straight ahead’. This is a vague term when applied to a crossroads, because we don’t know how far a junction can be staggered but still count as ‘straight ahead’. I’m not sure that ‘directions’ is especially ambiguous – the two people agree about what directions are but just differ on what constitutes a good example of them.

    The last example is based on a real misunderstanding I had with my wife Viryanaya. She has a poor sense of direction, and I find it easy to constantly underestimate the explicitness of the directions she needs – they have to be extremely explicit and unambiguous. It also seems to be a widespread problem that written or oral directions are inadequate for the more geographically challenged. If people are unable to follow directions, this can then create a feedback loop whereby a lack of confidence about directions is reinforced by the gap between different people’s ability to interpret the language used to describe them.

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