Version: v1, Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 22, 2023, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/ambiguity/v-1
A word, phrase or sentence is ambiguous if it has more than one meaning. The word ‘light’, for example, can mean not very heavy or not very dark. Words like ‘light’, ‘note’, ‘bear’ and ‘over’ are lexically ambiguous. They induce ambiguity in phrases or sentences in which they occur, such as ‘light suit’ and ‘The duchess can’t bear children’. However, phrases and sentences can be ambiguous even if none of their constituents is. The phrase ‘porcelain egg container’ is structurally ambiguous, as is the sentence ‘The police shot the rioters with guns’. Ambiguity can have both a lexical and a structural basis, as with sentences like ‘I left her behind for you’ and ‘He saw her duck’.
The notion of ambiguity has philosophical applications. For example, identifying an ambiguity can aid in solving a philosophical problem. Suppose one wonders how two people can have the same idea, say of a unicorn. This can seem puzzling until one distinguishes ‘idea’ in the sense of a particular psychological occurrence, a mental representation, from ‘idea’ in the sense of an abstract, shareable concept. On the other hand, gratuitous claims of ambiguity can make for overly simple solutions. Accordingly, the question arises of how genuine ambiguities can be distinguished from spurious ones. Part of the answer consists in identifying phenomena with which ambiguity may be confused, such as vagueness, unclarity, inexplicitness and indexicality.
Bach, Kent. Ambiguity, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-U001-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/ambiguity/v-1.
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