A New Universal Theory of Ambiguity
MLAG Research Seminar, Department of Philosophy, University of Porto, 27 February 2019 | Porto, Portugal
The standard account of ambiguity – a term is ambiguous if it has more than one meaning – doesn’t explain what's the common feature of different types of ambiguity, e.g. syntactic ambiguity, pictorial ambiguity or systematic ambiguity. There is no general definition which is valid for all types of ambiguity and it’s not easy to formally distinguish ambiguity from similar phenomena like vagueness or indeterminacy. My starting point for a New Universal Theory of Ambiguity (NUTA) are single utterance-tokens (speech acts). In a well defined context of communication with a concrete speaker and a concrete hearer my account suggests that an item is ambiguous if a hearer can interpret it in more than one way, i.e., if the item has more than one interpretation or reading. An item is actually ambiguous (in contrast to potentially ambiguous) if it’s not disambiguated. Hereafter, I am able to distinguish ambiguity from vagueness, generality or indeterminacy by means of a criterion of rational assertability. And it’s possible to give a characterization of any individual type of ambiguity: homonymy, polysemy, structural ambiguity and much more – including linguistic and non-linguistic types. Finally, I am going to define ambiguity (in general) as a phenomenon of bifurcation in the process of interpreting utterance-tokens.