[lit-ideas] Re: Conversation Without Implicature

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Fri, 24 Jun 2011 10:04:05 -0700


We haven't discussed this aspect of ambiguity up until now.  To say it is
impossible to avoid all ambiguity doesn't mean that we shouldn't strive to
reduce it as far as we are able.    

I agree with Grice if he meant "avoid ambiguity as much as you are able".
But if he meant "eliminate ambiguity altogether," I disagree with him.  It
is possible (for many of us) to reduce ambiguity but it is not possible (for
any of us) to eliminate it utterly.   

Donal McEvoy and Robert Paul, it seems, understood me in regard to what I
wrote on "or not," but you brought Grice to the discussion (as one of your
important presuppositions) and consequently misunderstood me.   It is quite
right that we should strive to avoid ambiguity in our prose, but it is good
to realize that we shall regularly fail.  Someone will, or at least can,
misunderstand us, as you have misunderstood me in your note below.  And
recognizing that we shall be subject to such failures we can perhaps avoid
outraged indignation at our reader's perverseness.

I don't know whether I have studied and written as much poetry as Geary, but
I have spent a lot of time (from time to time) with it.  Ambiguity is a
poetic tool.  It isn't necessary or even desirable to strive to eliminate
ambiguity in poetry.  What the poet must strive to do instead is to take
responsibility for all the ambiguity anyone might find in his poem.  It is
disastrous to write a serious poem and have a reader point out an ambiguity
(that the poet overlooked) that turns his serious poem into a joke.

Reverend William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930) was Dean and Warden of New
College Chapel, Oxford.  He was no doubt a serious fellow, but he had a
mental problem that caused him to occasionally get his words mixed up.  One
famous case was when he intended to say something like "in every heart is a
half formed wish," but what he actually said was, "in every heart is a half
warmed fish."  Another example was when he dismissed an undergraduate with
these words: "Sir, you have tasted two whole worms; you have hissed all my
mystery lectures and have been caught fighting a liar in the quad; you will
leave Oxford by the town drain."  And no doubt more disastrously at some
Oxford gathering he proposed the following toast to Queen Victoria, "Let us
glase our asses and toast the queer old dean."   Could Grice have looked
Spooner in the eye and said (with no ambiguity in his heart) "avoid

I agree that Ockham never had an ambiguous thought.  I'm not sure I've had
one either.  I don't know what an ambiguous thought would think like.  It is
only when we write our thoughts out that we risk ambiguousness.   Ockham was
misunderstood by a number of people during his lifetime and afterward.  


-----Original Message-----
From: lit-ideas-bounce@xxxxxxxxxxxxx [mailto:lit-ideas-bounce@xxxxxxxxxxxxx]
On Behalf Of Jlsperanza@xxxxxxx
Sent: Friday, June 24, 2011 7:40 AM
To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
Subject: [lit-ideas] Conversation Without Implicature

In a message dated 6/23/2011 4:21:03 A.M.,  lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx 
Did I say that?  I hope not.   What I said or meant to say is that all 
language is potentially ambiguous.   No text can be written in such a way as
avoid the possibility of  misunderstanding.  

On the other hand, if I am right, a maxim such as:
"Avoid ambiguity!"
which Grice lists as comprising the 'cooperative principle' seems otiose  
when it comes to language as self-expression.
As Occam (with his theory of 'sermo interioris') realised, it is impossible 
 to think that when I _think_ "God", I am using the word "ambiguously". No 
such  thing as an ambiguous thought.

Grice realised this much when he noted, as late as 1987:
"We need to take into account a distinction between
solitary and concerted enterprises. It take it as being
obvious that insofar as the presence of implicature rests
on the character of one or another kind of conversational
enterprise, it will rest on the character of concerted
rather than solitary talk production. Genuine monologues
are free from speaker's implication" (Way of Words, p. 369).
---- and mutatis mutandis, a fortiori, ambiguity and misunderstanding  
(_contra_ Helm). ("Contra Helm" sounds rude, but I don't mean it that way;
 Helm" sounds ambiguous). 
And so on.
---- Ref. Bouveresse/Parrett, "Meaning and understanding". 

To change your Lit-Ideas settings (subscribe/unsub, vacation on/off,
digest on/off), visit www.andreas.com/faq-lit-ideas.html

Other related posts: