9.275 vagueness & ambiguity

Humanist (mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Tue, 7 Nov 1995 21:18:57 -0500 (EST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 9, No. 275.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)

[1] From: Willard McCarty <mccarty@epas.utoronto.ca> (36)
Subject: a vague example

[2] From: PRFIJK@puknet.puk.ac.za (16)
Subject: 9.266 vagueness

[3] From: Galen K. Pletcher <pletchgk@potsdam.edu> (47)
Subject: Re: 9.268 vagueness

Date: Mon, 6 Nov 1995 22:33:39 -0500
From: Willard McCarty <mccarty@epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: a vague example

Marta Steele, in Humanist 9.268, asks for examples of vagueness germane to
my earlier point (if it can be called that) about poetic text escaping
markup. I suppose fit examples are legion and have been discussed far more
systematically than I can manage, and perhaps I should be told to go reread
Empson on the 7 types. Allow me, however, to toss out one of my favourites
just to get the discussion rolling.

In Ovid's Met. book 6, in the story of Philomela, her father Pandion holds a
royal banquet for the Thracian king Tereus, his wife Procne (Pandion's
daughter), and her sister Philomela, at which,

[a] royal feast on the tables and bacchus in [a] gold [cup]
is placed... (6.488-9)

This is usually translated (as in the Loeb), "A royal feast was spread, wine
in cups of gold". The question is, if this were being marked up for persons,
how would we treat BACCHUS? The simple evasion is to say that here BACCHUS
is a fossilized term meaning only "wine" (as in the second translation),
hence there are no persons to catch. End of story. But I think that if we
pay close attention to the poetry we can see that, as it were, Bacchus
lurking in the cup is just right given Tereus' obsession with Pandion's
daughter Philomela and, especially, Procne's and Philomela's later
behaviour. All hell is waiting to break loose. (Apologies to those who do
not know the story; it is worth bothering to read if you haven't.) Obviously
to signify this BACCHUS as Bacchus is wrong, and to ignore BACCHUS by
considering it simply as "wine" is also wrong. The best I can do is to
consider BACCHUS an attribute of Bacchus -- defining "attribute" to be a
characteristic quality or object associated with the person -- which isn't
entirely right either, but it comes close.

Here the vagueness is precise and very effective. The translation into
markup loses much -- AND it draws our attention to what is missed.

Does that help? make sense?

Willard McCarty

Date: Tue, 07 Nov 95 10:24
From: PRFIJK@puknet.puk.ac.za
Subject: 9.266 vagueness


As to the suitability of philosophy for the poetic perspective, just some
questions. I don't claim to be a philosopher, but aren't we asking the
wrong question? Shouldn't we be asking if poetry is suited to the
philosophical perspective?

Irma Kroeze

Ms IJ Kroeze
Internal mailbox 175
Department of Public Law and Jurisprudence
Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education
Private bag X6001
Republic of South Africa

Tel: (0148) 2991958 (office)
Tel: (0148) 2971673 (home)
Fax: (0148) 2991955

Date: Tue, 7 Nov 1995 07:43:09 -0400
From: "Galen K. Pletcher" <pletchgk@potsdam.edu>
Subject: Re: 9.268 vagueness

Willard, I am a philosopher and hence I venture into this
discussion with some trepidation. Two of the recent responses confuse
vagueness and ambiguity. A word is ambiguous when it admits of more than
one meaning. "Bank" is ambiguous, because it can apply to both the limit
of a river and a financial institution. A word is vague when it has a wide
range of applications, on a more or less sliding scale. "Inexpensive" is
vague, being dependent upon the context or outright explanation for

Words can be both ambiguous and vague, but when they are, they are
exhibiting two different properties. "Cheap" is both ambiguous and vague.
It can apply to a watch or a remark, and in each case (once disambiguated)
it admits of vagueness of application.

Vagueness is useful just when lack of clarity is a virtue.
Statespersonship thrives on vagueness. "If Lower Slobbovia does not
immediately terminate its incursion, the United States will have no choice
but to execute a definitive response." (Vague both about what will count
as termination and what will count as response.)

Ambiguity is rarely useful in this way. It can be the source of
allegory, pun, joke, or insight, of course. But it is not employed for its
own sake as vagueness is. When its use is intentional, it is employed to
illuminate or expose an unexpected connection, whether for humor or for
other intent.

You can't disambiguate vagueness, of course, and you can't
eliminate vagueness in a way that even parallels disambiguation. To make
the above stately monstrosity less vague, you can't say simply "I meant it
as X, rather than Y." You have to use different terms. "I was referring
to their attack upon their Mid-Bohemian neighbors that began on December
7." Or "I meant we would move the 7th fleet into the Mediterranean."

I once had a colleague, now deceased, who would seize upon every
possible ambiguity in everything you said. He refused to be guided by
context. I: "I say we give all the students the same test." He: "You
mean all the GRADUATE students." We had been talking about graduate
students for the last 45 minutes, for cat's sake. It would have been
positively perverse of me to utter the sentence meaning anything else
BESIDES graduate students! Just as it was perverse of him to suggest by
his needless clarifications, as he did to his dying day, that speakers are
somehow at fault for relying on the natural guidance of human context.

Where does this leave us? I'm not sure. But thanks for keeping
the Humanist going! It's great fun.

- Galen

Galen K. Pletcher, Dean
School of Arts and Sciences
SUNY Potsdam
44 Pierrepont Avenue
Potsdam, NY 13676-2294
FAX (315)267-3140
E-mail: pletchgk@potsdam.edu