Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Vagueness & Ambiguity in Continental Philosophy

Julian Baggini offers some defences of what he calls "vagueness and ambiguity". He says that they could be "actually great virtues in writing because they open up possibilities" (59).

Can’t you ‘open up possibilities’ without ‘vagueness and ambiguity’?

Take the first quantum physicists.

Were they vague and ambiguous in their writings? Was Einstein? Was Gödel? In philosophy, were the radical ideas of Quine expressed vaguely or ambiguously? Of course not. I’m not even sure how vagueness and ambiguity actually ‘open up possibilities’ anyway. What does Baggini mean by this? The other point is this. Are we talking about intentional or unintentional vagueness and ambiguity? I suspect that Alan Sokal’s arguments are against the intentional ambiguities and vaguenesses of writers like Irigaray, Lacan and Delueze. That’s the point! It probably is intentionally vague and ambiguous. Of course vagueness and ambiguity may be a result of the complexity and difficulties of the subject-matter, say, in quantum mechanics again. This may not be the case with the writings Sokal is arguing against. That is, these writers go out of their way to make their writings seem complex and difficult precisely through their vague and ambiguous prose-styles. What about poetry then? –

"Well in poetry it’s a great virtue, in novels it might be a great virtue. But I do think that in analytical writing, whether it’s about physics or biology or history or sociology, the goal should be to remove ambiguity when possible. Of course, natural language is unavoidably ambiguous, but we should do our best." (59)

Perhaps Irigaray, Lacan and Delueze think that their writings are poetry. Or perhaps they think they are poetry and science or poetry and philosophy or poetry and philosophy and science. I don’t think that they do think that their writings are poetry or examples of literature; though Jacques Derrida, for one, might have thought this.

The question is: Is the ‘ambiguity’ an ‘unavoidable’ result of what it is they are writing about or it is the result of the author’s pretentiousness and gimmickry?

As Sokal concedes, "natural language is unavoidably ambiguous" (59) and so too is writing about complex and difficult issues in science, philosophy or wherever. However, do Irigaray, Lacan and Delueze "remove ambiguity when possible" or do they not even attempt to do this? More to the point, do they go out of their way to fabricate ambiguity and vagueness in order to make their writings seem complex, difficult and deep?

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