Andrew Brown (1999) Figure. Oil pastel and charcoal on paper.
Andrew Brown (1997) Figure. Oil pastel and charcoal on paper.
THE LIMITS OF SYMBOLISM
Our perceptions are constrained by imperfect, coarse-grained sensory apparatus. Our inherent inability to perceive with perfect clarity has condemned us to the relentless task of dealing with ambiguity. Everyday language and all of our attempts at symbolism are, similarly, fraught with ambiguity.
Just as there are no naked perceptions, there can be no naked interpretations. Built-in search mechanisms for points of interest and significance are as fundamental to language comprehension as they are to perception.
Speech comprehension in a familiar language seems instantaneous and is very forgiving. It has a gestalt quality. This is the innate sensory predisposition to fill in the missing piece, finish off the unfinished and to appreciate only one, discrete, meaningful whole at a time.
We are perfectly capable of dealing with all kinds of imperfections or noise. We scan the sounds we hear for linguistic points of interest and basic grammatical order . We fill in the gaps; ignore any hesitations, repetitions, silences or false starts. We forgive fragmented or otherwise eccentric grammar. We are able to decode variations in pronunciation and intonation. We infer the meaning of unfamiliar words by their context. We can presume the intended meaning of an incorrectly used word or an ambiguous word. We can navigate successfully the polysemy of language (the ability of words to convey multiple meanings).
According to Bronowski (1978: 14) the brain must “solve the problem of fine discrimination with a coarse apparatus.” We can say:
about all human problems, whether in science or in literature, whether physical or psychological, that they always center around the same problem: How do you refine the detail with an apparatus which remains at bottom grainy and coarse?
For Bronowski (1978: 106) our inherent inability to perceive with perfect clarity and define absolutely condemns us to “work with” ambiguity:
[I]t is not possible to get rid of ambiguity in our statements, because that would press symbolism beyond its capabilities… [T]he number of responses that the brain could make never has a sharp edge because the thing is not a digital machine.
Bronowski, Jacob (1978) The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination. Yale University Press, Princeton.
Polish born British Physicist and Polymath (1908-1974)