For such reasons, then, it is necessary for us to protect our sensibility against critical dogma, but it is just because of this that the reassurance given by some machinery for analysis has become so necessary in its turn. Thus I suppose that all present-day readers of poetry would agree that some modern poets are charlatans, though different people would attach this floating suspicion to different poets; but they have no positive machinery, such as Dr. Johnson thought he had, to a great extent rightly, by which such a fact could be proved. It is not that such machinery is unknown so much as that it is unpopular; people feel that, because it must always be inadequate, it must always be unfair. The result is a certain lack of positive satisfaction in the reading of any poetry; doubt becomes a permanent background of the mind, both as to whether the things is being interpreted rightly and as to whether, if it is, one ought to allow oneself to feel pleased. Evidently, in the lack of any machinery of analysis, such as can be thought moderately reliable, to decide whether one's attitude is right, this leads to a sterility of emotion such as makes it hardly worth while to read the poetry at all. It is not surprising, then, that this age should need, if not really an explanation of any one sort of poetry, still the general assurance which comes of a belief that all sorts of poetry may be conceived as explicable.How can Empson's well-known book be compared with Quentin Skinner's equally well-known 1969 article, "Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas"? They are, of course, very different works, the products of different times, genres, and disciplinary traditions. Empson's flamboyant flitting from one literary set-text to another is miles away from Skinner's ponderous footnotes and scholarly sneer. Yet both of them raise a common central issue: the possibility of textual criticism and interpretation itself, and the tools we have and do not have for realizing that possibility.
- William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity
That's not much to go on. Hardly any critics manage entirely to avoid this theme, even if they want to do so. But what binds these two particular writers together is a specific kind of approach to criticism. Not only do they deny the ability of any single, well-defined methodology to gain adequate purchase on texts; they also make ambiguity into a fundamental substrate of understanding. Empson, of course, does this explicitly and, perhaps, excessively--but Skinner, too, relies on the possibility that historical utterances may have a inherently undecidable meaning.
The difference between them is the level at which this ambiguity operates. For Empson, it is detectable within the text by any reasonably attentive reader. (Whether it can be appropriately categorized is another question entirely.) As one advances farther and farther down the ladder of ambiguities the meaning of the ambiguous utterance becomes less and less clear to the author himself, or at any rate to the author as reconstructed by the reader; but that does not gainsay the fact that the utterance is deliberately included in, or not omitted from, the text. Empson studies ambiguity as a literary and not a generic textual phenomenon because, well, that's what it is.
For Skinner, on the other hand, the ambiguity takes place at the level of the intersection between text and context, which is why neither pure text nor pure context can provide adequate analytical fodder. The upshot of all the Wittgensteinian meandering is that any given sentence in a written work may turn out to have been written as a joke, or a piece of insincere praise, or any number of other things. Not living in the context, we are unable to appreciate the use-meaning straightforwardly; we must therefore reconstruct the former to gain a sense of the latter.
This leaves us, though, with a curious further possibility--that context may never be reconstructed completely and therefore any sentence could potentially mean anything. The anxiety about this problem is the root of conspiracy theories and radical revisionisms of all sorts, and is of a piece with the perennial historical quandary that the most basic aspects of culture are tacit and thus often inaccessible. And there is also yet another problem, along the lines of Empson's last few ambiguities--that a writer might not know or care, or might know or care very little, about the context of his utterances. (To what extent can we make contextual sense of the cat section from Jubilate Agno?) We must, I think, regard this effect--in which ambiguity explodes beyond even the loose methodological limits set for it by Skinner and Empson--as a sign of a kind of inevitable failure. To define a rigid zone of doubt, or even an unrigid one, is a contradiction in terms. How one can then write history, and in some sense even criticism, becomes a rather complicated question.