Published “The Necessary Ambiguity of Communication.” Semiotics 2002.   Semiotic Society of America.  Terry Prewitt and John Deely Eds.  Legas Publishing: New York.  2003.



The Necessary Ambiguity of Communication

Elliot Gaines, Ph.D.

1.  Introduction: The Necessary Ambiguity of Communication

There is a Gary Larson Far Side cartoon that is based on a classic shoot-out in front of a Western saloon.  With mountains in the distance, the town’s folk looked on from the boardwalk in front of the saloon.  In the foreground, a cowboy holds a smoking gun, but his face is covered with a pie that was thrown at him.  Across from the cowboy, a clown lies sprawled on the ground in a ruffled, polka-dotted shirt, with Xs for eyes to signify his death from the gunshot wound.  The caption beneath the image tells the story: “Well, it was over.  But according to the town’s folk, there was no clear winner!” 

               Larson’s meaning is clear even though the outcome of the competition is ambiguous.   A shoot-out between a cowboy and a clown is by its very description a representation of exaggerated difference; the clown with his fluffy shirt, big round nose, and painted smile against the serious, cowboy gun-fighter.  But Larson poses a metaphorical question about power when he suggests that there was “no clear winner.” The ultimate meaning remains ambiguous.  According to the rules of the game, the one who draws first and shoots is the winner.  But, even if the clown drew first and threw the pie before the cowboy shot him, he is irreversibly dead.

Communication is necessarily ambiguous because, through the representational processes of perceiving an expression of objects, events, or ideas, meaning is mediated in the mind of an interpreter.   Peirce states that “…there is a triple connection of sign, thing signified, cognition produced in the mind” (CP 1.372).  An object, in and of itself, has no meaning without a sign being interpreted into a pragmatic context in the mind.  Meaning is not communicated from the precise context of its origination.  Thus communication is ambiguous because it can only represent a perceived “quality” of an immediate object (Peirce: CP 1.343).

Peirce distinguishes that which is true from what he calls real, and he is careful to explain that something can be real and still not exist beyond thought (1955: 419-20). A sign in the mind of an interpreter is real, but as we know from experience, sometimes we can be mistaken and that notion may turn out not to be true. Peirce uses the term “Denotation” to express the “Object of a Sign” and according to his Critical Logic, the object of a sign is true regardless of what anyone or any group believes (1955: 421).  Accordingly, the truth is necessarily limited to the sign/object relationship, yet the meaning of a symbol is by definition determined through shared interpretation.  Therefore, although a symbol may be real, it may not actually be true. 

Truth in human communication is ambiguous at best because the interpretation of a receiver may only approximate the intent of a speaker.  Objects and events in the natural world exist without a necessary intent or meaning.  Language, based upon symbols intended to represent conventional understandings, is necessarily ambiguous.  Peirce describes this condition as “not sufficiently accurate for the purposes of exact logic,” particularly regarding scientific inquiry  (CP  3.621). 

The universe must be well known and mutually known to be known and agreed to exist, in some sense, between speaker and hearer, between the mind as appealing to its own further consideration and the mind as so appealed to, or there can be no communication, or ‘common ground’ at all. The universe is, thus, not a mere concept, but is the most real of experiences. Hence, to put a concept into relation to it, and into the relation of describing it, is to use a most peculiar sort of sign or thought; for such a relation must… exist quite otherwise than a relation between mere concepts… My universe is the momentary experience as a whole (CP  3.621).

Ambiguity is embodied in the nature of individuality.  Meaning is not necessarily shared, but is developed through the semiotic relation between sign, object and interpretant.

As a sign expresses an object or meaning, the interpretant is a sign in the mind of an interpreter.  As one becomes conscious of signs, signs express a meaning.  The communicative act is the continuous cycle between expression, perception, and interpretation—the signifying capacity, and the continuum between human consciousness and the world of intelligible things.

“On one side there’s expression, on the other side is perception; then objects get perceived, signs get expressed.  When expression and perception come together as an experience, that’s the interpretant” (Lanigan, 2001).  An interpretant is a context for understanding a sign and what it stands for or represents.  “So communication in the end… is simply the interpretant.  Peirce took this very complex process and reduced it down to an idea, the interpretant; the mechanism that allows me to use and understand communication” (Lanigan, 2001).  The interpretant is a potential or capacity to recognize meaningful distinctions.  This communicative process toward meaning constructs yet another representation or a sign, expressed, perceived and interpreted through the perspectives of an individual or community.   Peirce’s semiotic theory provides for a process of unlimited semiosis that optimistically reaches a consensus of an idea of truth (Nöth, p.247).  However, Nöth cautions that Peirce affirms that,

our image of the other is indeed a construction of our own self.  The frame of reference of this construction is not the ‘real’ other, a presumably existing reality which we only have to reveal, but the immense web of cultural intertextualities which comprises not only our discourse about the others, but also the others’ discourse about their cultural self (pp. 247-8).

Therefore, understanding is based upon a self-referential, socially negotiated process intended to overcome the necessary ambiguity of communication.

Peirce explains that perception of an object is not yet a final interpretation of meaning (CP 4.539).  Meaning is based upon an existing epistemological ground, the knowledge and experience that determine conduct.

Nothing is more indispensable to a sound epistemology than a crystal-clear discrimination between the Object and the Interpretant of knowledge. …The Immediate Object of a Percept is excessively vague, yet natural thought makes up for that… Of course, I must be understood as talking not psychology, but the logic of mental operations.  Subsequent Interpretants furnish new Semes of Universes resulting from various adjunctions to the Perceptual Universe. They are, however, all of them, Interpretants of Percepts (Peirce: CP 4.539).

The mind fills in details lacking in the immediate object with “a Perceptual Universe that is represented in instinctive thought as determining the original Immediate Object” with signs already understood through cultural habit (Peirce: CP 4.539).  Pragmatic interpretations assume connotative meanings as useful or practical applications of the object or meaning of a sign.  Peirce, using the term Semeas the expression of the sign, concludes: “Finally, and in particular, we get a Seme of that highest of all Universes which is regarded as the Object of every true Proposition, and which, if we name it [at] all, we call by the somewhat misleading title of ‘The Truth’” (CP 4.539). 

The intent to convey truth through clear, mutually understood expression is complicated by the embodied nature of the communicative process.   Communication is dependent on a capacity to perceive and interpret signs. Consciousness and perception guide sign-interpreters into cultural groups defined to some extent by the habits, rituals, and processes that facilitate a means of communication. “Since signs enable us to transform objects and events into meanings” (Liszka 83), cultures assume a shared identity and a capacity for sign-interpretation from a similar point-of-view.  Cultures engender habits of interpretation assumed to be valid by groups defined by race, class, gender, age, nationality or ethnicity, or social institutions like jobs and specialized occupations, religions, schools, and governments.  In spite of these generalized categories, the focus of this study is a universal communication problem: everyone has a unique perceptual context from which to view and understand the world.

               Recognizing semiotics as a point of view rather than a specific method of inquiry (Deely 1990: 10-11), the following examples represent a thematic ground for the interpretation of mediated signs as a social form of communication.  My methodology is semiotic phenomenology following Lanigan, who takes up the semiotic perspectives of Peirce and Saussure, and the phenomenology of Foucault and Merleau-Ponty (1992).  Semiotic phenomenology, or “Communicology” recognizes the convergence of expression and perception of meaning with an interpreter’s existential capacity to construct inference from signs (Lanigan, 1992).  Using various narrative illustrations, the following sections explore the necessary ambiguity of communication.


2. Three Divisions Of Semeiotic: Narrative and the Ambiguity of Communication

According to James Carey, “communication is a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained,  repaired and transformed (qtd. in Baran 9).  Communication is generally intended to overcome ambiguity.  We generally do not recognize ambiguity because we are completely immersed in our cultural habits.  As Marshall McLuhan suggested, no one knows who discovered water, but you can bet it wasn’t the fish.  Communication thus functions at different levels of logic, and depends on specific natural, biological, and cultural conditions (Deely 1990: 24-32).

               Consciousness and perception occur in relation to practical consequences whether considering a sign in nature or in a cultural form.   Language, for example, is a culturally specific form of communication based on shared meanings only understood by those who recognize the linguistic codes used to represent ideas.  Perception is also “culturally specific”: i.e. a physician belongs to a culture that is trained to see and interpret signs at levels beyond the perception or understanding of others.  As Peirce stated, “The Immediate Object of all knowledge and all thought is, in the last analysis, the Percept. This doctrine in no wise conflicts with Pragmaticism, which holds that the Immediate Interpretant of all thought proper is Conduct.” (CP 4 .539).  Interpretation is based upon perception, experience, and knowledge of the practical meanings of things.

Peirce articulated three divisions of semiotics revealing different levels of cultural meanings that will be applied to the analyses that follow.  The divisions of semeiotic (Liszka 9-11) are:

1.  Pure Grammar: The formal conditions for a sign to exit as an expression of communication, to stand for or represent something.   Pure Grammar “… has for its task to ascertain what must be true of the representamen used by every scientific intelligence in order that they may embody any meaning” Peirce: CP 2.229).

2. Critical Logic: the necessary conditions for a sign, an expression of communication such as a word, sound, or image, to represent an object or idea.  Critical Logic, is the theory of the general conditions of the reference of Symbols and other Signs to their professed Objects, that is, it is the theory of the conditions of truth” (Peirce: CP 2.93).

3.  Speculative Rhetoric: the formal conditions for one idea to generate another, and to convey meaning from one mind to another mind.  “Speculative Rhetoric is substantially what goes by the name of methodology...  It is the doctrine of the general conditions of the reference of Symbols and other Signs to the Interpretants which they aim to determine. . . .”(Peirce CP 2.93).  Speculative rhetoric raises ontological issues concerned with describing the conditions of the world of sense perception and the process of ideas growing into other ideas.

The significance of these three semeiotic divisions is that if any of them are mistaken, there is a risk of missing the truth.  Much of human truth is communicated through stories.  According to Gerbner, “Stories socialize us into roles of gender, age, class, vocation and lifestyle, and offer modes of conformity or targets for rebellion” (10).  Stories give context to events and human behaviors, and stories from cultures other than our own communicate alternative worldviews and illuminate differences.  The first two examples are from a collection of Zen stories reputed to have their origins in India, China, and Japan between 500 B.C. and the year 1004 (Reps xiii-xv).

“The Moon Cannot Be Stolen”

An old man lived very simply in hut at the foot of a mountain.  One night he arrived home to find an intruder.  Since the would-be thief found nothing to steal, the man offered his clothes as a gift.  The thief was surprised and sheepishly went away as the old man stood naked in the moonlight.  The old man sat watching the moon, and he thought, “if only I could have given him this beautiful moon (Reps 12).

In this story, the moon does not function as a sign to the thief (Pure Grammar).  Finding “nothing to steal” expresses the absence of a sign relating to the object/meaning of his behavior that identifies him as a thief. The old man’s gesture of offering his clothes as a gift contradicts expectations of a victim of a robbery, thus violating the sign/object relation of the thief’s Critical Logic.  Finally, the meaning of the “beautiful moon” demonstrates a failure (of Speculative Rhetoric) to communicate an idea from one mind to another.

“Muddy Road” 

Two monks were traveling together down a muddy road.  It was still raining when they came upon a lovely young woman in a silk kimono who was unable to cross an intersection because of the mud.  The first monk offered her help and picked her up and carried her over the mud.  The second monk didn’t speak for several hours, but finally he could no longer restrain himself.  He said, “you know we monks are not supposed to have contact with women, especially young and lovely ones.  How could you do that?”  The first monk replied, “I left the girl there.  Are you still carrying her?  (Reps 18).

The concluding question of this story demonstrates the essence of Critical Logic; the sign of the girl is ambiguous.  To the second monk, she represents a violation of a code that identifies the two as monks.  Applying Speculative Rhetoric, the first monk addresses the sign of the code violation as a sign (of the girl) in the mind of the second monk.  In both stories, the ambiguity of communication is not in the sign, nor the object, but in the interpretant.

               The next example is taken from American television.  Despite Gitlin’s observations that television scripts are written in simplistic language in order to “go down easier,” and “make fewer demands” (57), media narratives have power to negotiate the meanings everyday practices and understandings of appropriate situational behavior.   As Gerbner suggests, media tend to replace traditional face-to-face communication with mass produced programs that serve the traditional functions of stories, and “weave the seamless web of the cultural environment that cultivates most of what we think, what we do, and how we conduct our affairs”(10).  For example, consider one of the story lines from a Seinfeld rerun (Fox, 4/26/01).  This story addresses the ambiguity of a formal definition of dating.

               The story begins with Elaine meeting a guy that bets her a dinner that Dustin Hoffman was in “Star Wars.”  The guy loses the bet and takes Elaine out to dinner.  When she relates the incident to Jerry, Seinfeld comments that this guy found a dating “loophole,” and managed to take her on a date without actually asking.  Thus he avoids a possible rejection, and any implied obligations and commitment associated with dating. 

               The emerging question is, what constitutes a “date?”  At first Elaine maintains the idea that it was just a bet, but then the guy sets up several subsequent situations to arrange to go out with Elaine without actually asking her out for a “date.”  The word date is an ambiguous sign because symbols and other signs depend on their “professed Objects,” to establish  “conditions of truth” (Peirce: CP 2.93).

               One Saturday night, the guy’s parents show up to join he and Elaine for dinner.  When she confronts him about the implications of “meeting the parents,” he feigns that he just thought she would like to meet them, still denying the event was a “date.” 

               Simultaneously, Jerry was dating a beautiful young woman.  The story line surrounding her revolved around the idea that she was so pretty that a man could not say no to her.  Jerry recognized this and used her ability to do things like getting tickets to a sold-out film, and to talk a traffic cop out of giving him a speeding ticket after he was caught going over 90 mph. 

               Elaine’s “date” had arranged to get Jerry Cuban cigars as one of his “non-dates” with Elaine.  The cigars turned out to actually be a poor quality product from Peru, so Jerry sent his irresistible girl friend to get his money back.  Elaine spots the two of them together, and Jerry’s girl friend asks Elaine what the “M” in “Richard M. Nixon” represents.  When Elaine says it stands for “Millhouse,” we realize that her boy friend has lost a bet for a “date” with Jerry’s collection agent.  In the end, Elaine and Jerry lose their respective boy friend and girlfriend.

               Seinfeld ‘s observation regarding the dating “loophole” addresses the complex ambiguity of a common ritual practice.  Based on Speculative Rhetoric, calling the situation “dating,” implies certain meanings and responsibilities. The program depends on the ambiguity of cultural conventions and Critical Logic as a source of humor.


3.  Semiotic Truth Regardless of What You or I May Think

The topic of this paper is a work-in-progress.  The study of the necessary ambiguity of communication needs further development.  The story analyses were intended to serve as simple examples of ambiguity and demonstrate an applied semiotic analysis.  Considering Peirce’s assertion that truth can only be located in the relationship between the sign and it’s object, communication can only describe “the quality of what we are immediately conscious of” (Peirce: CP 1.343).  Further study needs to be applied to cultural studies, political discourse, and conflict resolution to overcome false assertions.   The relationship between a sign and its object is too easily distorted through advanced electronic media.   The contribution of semiotics will be too minimize the effectiveness of the misuse of this great power.  The clear logic that is semiotic is capable of locating truth concealed beneath the veil of speculative rhetoric, and it remains true “regardless of what you or I may think about it” (Peirce: CP 5.432).



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2001.  The Jerry Seinfeld Show.  rerun on Fox 45,  Dayton, OH,  25 April, 2001.