The Literal Meaning is Ambiguous


Duck or Rabbit?

Young_Lady_Old_Woman_IllusionYoung Lady or Old Woman?

Ambiguous VaseFaces or Vase?

All of the above pictures are ambiguous, and I stared at all of them for a long time until I saw both of the images. I read an essay recently by Stanley Fish that heavily discussed what literal meanings were and how ambiguity comes into play. Sure, he talks about text and not pictures, but I feel like the pictures can do a similar thing.

Fish talked about how everybody is constantly in a situation, and your situation interprets text for you, so that when you read something, you can only see one meaning, and that is it’s “literal meaning.” However, what he emphasized was that the literal meaning changes. It changes based on the situation you are in and what has been predisposed to you to be literal.

Now the role of ambiguity and literal meaning is interesting. His article states that if a text is said to be ambiguous, the texts literal meaning is that is is ambiguous. For example, let me tell you that the following statement is ambiguous:

The lady hit the man with a stick.

Now, did the lady hit the man who was holding a stick, or did the lady hit the man using a stick?

By being told that the statement was ambiguous, your mind instantly began thinking of the different ways that sentence could be interpreted. However, the fact that is does have two meanings, or even more if you can think of them, is the text’s literal meaning.

This essay really spurred thought in my life, as to how much I assume is the only way to interpret something, when really, there are a thousand other ways to understand it. I figure that most things I face are the only way they can be, and don’t always think about other possibilities. I become focused on what is expected, and not other things I am missing. Now, you might have already seen this, but I think that this video explains my point well.

“It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for.”

Beautifully said. So, while our situation does predispose us to understand and look for certain things, sometimes we should take a moment and think about what else something could mean, perhaps so this time we don’t miss the moonwalking bear.


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