David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Jacob Bronowski, William Empson, Wittgenstein, and Ambiguity

Most of human sentences are in fact aimed at getting rid of the ambiguity which one has unfortunately left trailing in the previous sentence. Now I believe this to be absolutely inherent in the relation between the symbolism of language (that is, an exact symbolism) and the brain processes that it stands for. It is not possible to get rid of ambiguity in our statements, because that would press symbolism beyond its capabilities. And it is not possible to get rid of ambiguity because the number of responses that the brain could make never has a sharp edge because the thing is not a digital machine. So we have to work with the ambiguities. And nearly all discussions about Turing’s theorem or about poetry always come back to the central point about ambiguity. One of my fellow mathematicians, William Empson, who did mathematics with me at Cambridge, turned to poetry and at once published a book called Seven Types of Ambiguity–it is still a kind of minor bible, but a bible written by a mathematician, never forget that.

Ambiguity, multivalence, the fact that language simply cannot be regarded as a clear and final exposition of what it says, is central both to science, and, of course, to literature.

Jacob Bronowski, The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination

Bronowski carved out a niche for himself a bit like that of C.P. Snow, but I think he was more sensitive to, well, ambiguity.

The other figure lurking in this passage is that other Cambridge mathematician and logician who turned to the mysteries of language: Ludwig Wittgenstein. F.R. Leavis, who was not a genius, talks about Empson and Wittgenstein (who were geniuses) as near-polar opposites. One was protean, the other was anything but protean.

It may seem ironic that Wittgenstein would be the one to completely reject the system he created, but it’s actually entirely fitting, for it’s the most immutable among us who are sometimes forced into such complete renunciations when they finally change their minds.


  1. There’s a story — somewhere in Haffenden’s intro or notes on the Collected Empson — about Leavis reading an Empson poem, one of the early impenetrable ones, to Wittgenstein; apparently Wittgenstein immediately “got” it, to Leavis’s surprise.

    The fact that Wittgenstein changed his mind much more dramatically than Empson did might be due in part to the fact that one W’s earlier system was both more cohesive and more obviously absurd than Empson’s never-very-systematic way of reading poems.

  2. David Auerbach

    26 August 2011 at 11:17

    I think you mean this story, which I got out of a Leavis collection. It’s probably in the Haffendon volumes too.

    Indeed, W was fairly unyielding in the Tractatus, which makes it all the more absurd that a growing number have argued for an essential Pyrrhonistic continuity between it and the Investigations, despite W’s direct contradiction of such a view.

  3. Yes that’s the story I had in mind, thanks!

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