Paradox, Nonsense, and California

Any sentence can be phrased a thousand ways. Any paragraph can be phrased a million; it depends on your intention. Scientists use different rhetoric than politicians. Businessmen write differently to colleagues than to family. A rhetorical flourish might be appropriate on the campaign trail, but probably not at the dinner table.

In the world of ideas, writers and speakers want to be taken seriously. So, they choose their rhetoric accordingly. One popular method is the use of paradox. It’s become quite fashionable. Paradoxes are used to convey intellectual depth and mystery, highlighting the contradictions and murkiness in the world. Indeed, if you want to sound “deep”, contradict yourself as brazenly as possible:

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” – Walt Whitman

Sounds mysterious and bold doesn’t it? Paradox and contradiction is especially popular amongst Westerners who draw from Eastern ideas – e.g. Buddhism or Hinduism. Or at least, they think they are referencing Eastern ideas. Problem is, they entirely miss the beauty and insights of paradoxical rhetoric. They make a catastrophic error: not understanding the difference between apparent paradox and actual paradox.

I call this mistake the “Californiazation” of paradox. Instead of being a subtle, precise tool for understanding the world, it’s been bastardized into a cheap attempt to sound profound. You can imagine bleach-haired surfers saying to each other, “Chill out – I contain multitudes, man.”

You can use this rhetoric two ways: to illuminate, or to obscure – as a philosophical tool, or a philosophical escape-route. I am preferential to the former. Allow me to demonstrate what I see as the proper use of paradoxes.

Take Walt Whitman’s sentence:

“Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

You can read it crudely: that he is simply accepting contradictions in his philosophy, or you can read it as a commentary on the “self”. Whitman was a transcendentalist; he believed our conceptions of “self” were too limited. He might have argued that the entire universe was ultimately contained in the “self”. Or, that any distinction between “Walt Whitman” and the universe was artificial.

Treat this as a possibility. If what you define as “Walt Whitman” is meaningless, your conceptual framework is fundamentally flawed. If the “self” of Walter Whitman is actually the entire universe, then it’s rather pointless to say he contradicted himself. The universe does not have to play by your linguistic conventions, so why obsess over “contradictions” in our little language?

Now, regardless your beliefs about transcendentalism, Whitman’s paradox doesn’t have to be read as mindless obscurantism. It can illuminate. And this is true of all paradoxes. The key is to understand them as apparent paradoxes, meant to be resolved, rather than actual paradoxes, that claim to be true in real life.

The distinction is critical and can not be overstated. Actual paradoxes do not exist, anywhere. They can’t exist, by their nature. An actual paradox is something which contradicts itself in the same sense. Take for example, the following sentence:

“I am tall.”

It is true; I am 6’4. But, among centers in the NBA, I am not tall. So, does that mean the sentence “I am tall” is both true and false at the same time? No. We’ve simply revealed my language to be imprecise. We resolve the paradox by better articulating our sentence:

“I am tall compared to the general population.”

Now, we can’t claim the opposite is true. It would be false to say I am not tall in comparison to the general population. No more paradox. What we’re really saying is, “I am tall in some circumstances and I am not tall in other circumstances.” No contradiction necessary, just clarification.

This is precisely how paradoxes are meant to be understood, albeit with a few exceptions. They are meant to only appear contradictory. So we might say, “X is true in some way, and X is false in another.” Even some of the more cryptic Eastern paradoxes like, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” can be resolved without any logical contradiction.

Take one more example, attributed to the King of Paradox, Georg Hegel:

“We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”

Again, we can read it two ways. We might throw our arms up and declare, “Aha! We can’t ever know history, because we know from history that we do not learn history. Embrace the contradiction!”

Or, we might try to resolve the paradox – in an obvious way, in this case. Hegel means that upon studying history ourselves, we find that most people neither studied nor learnt the lessons of history. Simple. We needn’t throw our minds in the waste-bin and embrace the idea of true paradoxes.

There’s a deeper philosophical principle here: the relationship between language, logic, and the universe. I will address this topic frequently in the future. It’s tempting to say the universe isn’t bound by our human rules – that logic is merely imposed on the universe by our minds. Therefore, we should keep open the possibility for logical contradiction and true paradox. But this way of thinking misunderstands logic and runs into trouble very quickly.

All propositions presuppose logical rules, whether realized or not. It is impossible to create a meaningful, illogical proposition. So, to say “I am tall and not tall, in the same sense” is to say nothing intelligible at all. It isn’t just nonsense; it’s quite literally nonsense. In the same way, a true paradox isn’t simply implausible, it’s nonsensical – it’s not actually saying anything coherent.

And then it becomes painfully ironic. Those individuals which seek the appearance of profundity by speaking in paradox – they are literally speaking non-sense; gibberish. Instead of intellectual depth, they’ve made as much sense as a dog frothing at the mouth. I don’t mean that hyperbolically.

They use contradictory, vague, and imprecise language, and therefore conclude reality is contradictory, vague, and imprecise. They believe gibberish accurately depicts the world. By arguing for actual paradoxes, they’ve only revealed the cloudiness of their worldview, not of reality.

All paradoxes can be resolved. It’s just a matter of effort. This is not an empirical, hypothetical claim; it is a logical necessity. Nothing in existence contradicts itself. It can not, by definition of what we mean by “contradict”. This understanding is fundamental for developing an accurate worldview.

I do not know why Californian paradoxes appear profound. Perhaps people think “Well, if someone says something which appears so obviously wrong, they must have a very deep reason which I don’t understand. I’d better save face and act like there’s something profound which didn’t go over my head.”

Lest you think I’m too harsh, I’ll leave you with a quote from the immensely popular Frenchman Michel Foucault, who was criticized for obscure writing:

“In France, you gotta have ten percent incomprehensible, otherwise people won’t think it’s deep–they won’t think you’re a profound thinker.”

Yes, incomprehensibility is profound – and not profound, in the same way.