KNOwtEs on Ambiguity
mbiguity describes a certain uncertainty due to the plausibility of multiple meanings gleaned from a number of different interpretations of an event or thing. Ambiguity is a part of everyday life, yet there has been an attempt to cull or domesticate it. There has been a move to sterilize everything that surrounds the process of learning and discovery and to divert epistemic curiosity in favor for the mechanical and systematic regurgitation of didactically implanted facts; unfortunately, learning just doesn’t happen in such sterile environments, and; furthermore, learning doesn’t happen without ambiguity.
Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity.
every ambiguity represents a potential opportunity to open our understanding of the universe. If we are unable to tolerate ambiguity, we are unable to cope with our existence within that liminal space between the knowable and unknowable. This space is the space of everyday life.
The ‘meaning’ of life is not to be found in anything other than that life itself.It is within it, and there is nothing beyond that. ‘Meaning’ cannot spill over from being; it is the direction, the movement of being, and nothing more.
ine is an attempt to understand the world as I gift meaning to it, not as it dictates or impresses its own meaning onto me. Without my being-in-this-world, it would be meaningless to me. But as I move through it, I sprinkle bits of my knowledge and doubt here and there and build myself a windowless greenhouse in which I grow reason and nonsense, I harvest with a fallible certainty everything I know and have come to understand or misunderstand.
The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.
rue wisdom, according to Socrates, is in knowing that you know nothing. Or, at least it is being uncertain in those times that one feels certainty. Surely you are unsure about what you are sure about, no? Never be too sure of what you see, for once I saw the moon with a telescope … it was a strange and wonderous thing … where did it get that telescope from? But then again, there are some things eye should never trust.
The notion of ambiguity must not be confused with that of absurdity. To declare that existence is absurd is to deny that it can ever be given a meaning; to say that it is ambiguous is to assert that its meaning is never fixed, that it must be constantly won … it is because man’s condition is ambiguous that he seeks, through failure and outrageousness, to save his existence … art and science do not establish themselves despite failure but through it; which does not prevent there being truths and errors, masterpieces and lemons, depending upon whether the discovery or the painting has or has not known how to win the adherence of human consciousnesses; this amounts to saying that failure, always ineluctable, is in certain cases spared and in others not.
Simone de Beauvoir
ithout ambiguity we have definiteness and in the lucidity of our choices we shall never choose to fail and without failure, we shall cease to learn and excel. In our uncertainty, we find the freedom to define and shape the world around us. Our interpretations differ, even if on the facts, and so we might dance apart but always together.
Then it seemed that a cloud formed itself into an enormous bumble bee as big as a sheep. She wore a tall iron crown studded with rock crystals, the stars of the underworld.
All this may have been a collective hallucination although nobody has yet explained to me what a collective hallucination actually means.
eality is earned by sifting through the messiness of life and asserting one’s own idea of what it is upon it. All knowledge may be based on a massive pareidolian (mis)interpretation of something we thought was God although nobody has yet explained to me what a pareidolian (mis)interpretation actually means except for that moment of apophenia when one meets Jesus on a piece of toast. But what does it all mean?
To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are. Modern environments and experiences cut across all boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology: in this sense, modernity can be said to unite all mankind. But it is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity: it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish. To be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, ‘all that is solid melts into air.’
et us return to de Beauvoir’s attempt to separate ambiguity from absurdity. These two concepts are intertwined. Ambiguity can be the result of the absurd and the absurd can result from our ambiguous interpretations. Declaring existence as absurd is not the negation of meaning. Instead, it urges us to take responsibility for the meanings that we glean, interpret, and abstract from the ambiguous and absurd universe.
A nihilist is a person who does not take any principle for granted, however much that principle may be revered.
We base our conduct on what we recognize as useful,” Bazarov went on. “In these days the most useful thing we can do is to repudiate – and so we repudiate.
I look at heaven only when I feel like sneezing.
ven the most nihilistic viewpoints, those most likely to accept life or existence as absurd, find meaning in the universe. But meaning and truth are contingent and don’t always align.
Signification does not establish the truth without also establishing the possibility of error. For this reason, the condition of truth is not opposed to the false, but to the absurd: that which is without signification or that which may be neither true nor false.
mbiguity allows for us to accept the absurdity of existence. Instead of negating meaning, absurdity allows us to give order to in an infinite universe of possibility. As both the scientist and the artist labour to find and give meaning to the universe, the universe opens itself up like a blossoming flower spreading its pollen into the infinite void; it is here, between the void and ourselves that we carve out a meaning, it is here, in the autogamous and geitonogamous nature of knowledge we can witness the birth of something novel. yet forever ambigious.
there is a species of controversy, which, from the very nature of language and of human ideas, is involved in perpetual ambiguity, and can never, by any precaution or any definitions, be able to reach a reasonable certainty or precision. These are the controversies concerning the degrees of any quality or circumstance.
he disciplinary separation of the arts, sciences and maths is a false one. Core to each of these is ambiguity; whether it is about resolving ambiguities, making things less ambigious, or exploring them. Ambiguity is the point at which we feel the universe brushing up against us. We become excited by it.
Dawn was breaking, like the light from another world.
All true feeling is in reality untranslatabe. To express it is to betray it. But to translate it is to dissimulate it. True expression hides what it makes manifest. It sets the mind in opposition to the rel void of nature by creating in reaction a kind of fullness in thought. Or, in other terms, in relation to the manifestation-illusion of nature it creates void in thought. All powerful feeling produces in us the idea of the void. And the lucid language which obstructs the appearance of this void also obstructs the appearance of poetry in thought. That is why an image, an allegory, a figure that masks what it would reveal have more signifigance for the spirit than the lucidities of speech and its analytics.
This is why true beauty never strikes us directly. The setting sun is beautiful because of all it makes us lose.
I don’t know how poetry knows … Poetry is one among many forms of knowing, and maybe it is knowing in the purest form we know … knowing freed from the agenda of possession and control—knowing in the sense of stepping in tune with being, hearing and echoing the music and heartbeat of being—is what we mean by poetry … What poetry knows, or what it strives to know, is the dancing at the heart of being.
ithout ambiguity we only have sureness, not knowledge. Without ambiguity we lack poetry, we do not have science, math, or art. We cease to exist.
If I say “Of course I know that’s a towel” I am making an utterance I have no thought of a verification. For me it is an immediate utterance. I don’t think of past or future. It is just like directly taking hold of something, as I take hold of my towel without having doubts … And yet this direct taking-hold corresponds to a sureness not to a knowing. But I don’t take hold of a things name like that, too?
A towel, [The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy] says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-boggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.
f course, the poetry of the towel is not in its name but in its plethora of imagined uses. Much like anything, language and knowledge have many limits, but also infinite potential. It is in our dance with ambiguity these potentials can be explored and utilized.
A monk once asked Ummon, “What is the Dharma Kaya?” Ummon answered: “The Six Ungraspables.” The Graspables being the five senses and the mind.
A Zen Koan by Yunmen Wenyan
* All Drop caps via Jessica Hische’s Daily Drop Cap project.