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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Five Metaphysical Paradoxes by Howard P. Kainz (Aquinas Lecture: Marquette University Press) Excerpt: In the Oxford English Dictionary, the first meaning of "paradox" is given as "a statement or tenet contrary to received opinion or belief:' But this is paradox in the widest possible sense—similar to the way we use and overuse the word, "oxymoron," to indicate things or states of affairs that we simply consider contradictory. For example, a Democrat might say that compassionate conservative" is an oxymoron, a Republican might say the same thing about a "pro-life liberal"—in both cases with the meaning that such phrases are obviously self-contradictory. But strictly speaking, an oxymoron is something that sounds contradictory but is true—as, for example, the familiar literary expressions,"a deafening silence: "living death", "lonely crowd," or the descriptions by Shakespeare's Romeo of romantic passion as "cold fire," "feather of lead" and "sick health."

Similar ambiguities of meaning take place with the word, "paradox": David Shaw points out that the word, "paradox," is itself paradoxical, since it can mean either something that sounds false, but is really true, or something that sounds true, but is really false.' Personally, I find it hard to think of examples of the second type that Shaw mentions—statements that seem true but are really false. I did some research in the World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, and found a statement by Oliver Wendell Holmes that might fit that definition: Holmes speaks of the "glorious epicurean paradox...: give us the luxuries of life, and we will dispense with its necessaries:' I think you will admit that that has to be false, although it may sound true. Or maybe the statement by Luis Bunel: "I'm still an atheist, thank God!"

In any case, I am not speaking here of paradoxes in that sense, but in the first sense—statements that seem false, but are true. And I will focus specifically on the sphere of metaphysics, where some important and insufficiently noted paradoxes have lingered for some time… 

Descartes' complaint about the continual disarray on the part of philosophers disagreeing on philosophical issues is still valid, although there is also considerable disagreement that Descartes himself was able to rise above this. Yes, philosophers disagree on just about everything. And yes, we might ask, why can't they come to a consensus on basic principles, as do, for example, the physicists and chemists, who at least agree on things like gravity and the periodic table—or as do the mathematicians, whom Descartes praised as the paragons of certainty and unanimity? The reason for the endemic philosophic disagreements may be the fact that philosophers, possibly unconsciously envious of the scientists and mathematicians, try to imitate them. They would like very much to come out with final and straightforward conclusions to philosophical problems, saying definitively, for example, "the mind is connected to the body through x," or "the precise difference between humans and the other animals is x," or "the ultimate cause of the universe is x:' But perhaps it would be worth their while to search out the paradoxes which may be at the roots of some continuing impasses.

The paradoxical conclusion I arrive at is this: Paradox itself, in literature, religion, and even in philosophy, may be the clearest, and even the simplest, way to express concepts which would have diminished force, and even diminished validity, if expressed in normal assertoric speech modes. In other words, complexities and oppositions in reality and human life are perhaps best captured by paradoxical language, which, by definition, incorporates the complexities and the oppositions dynamically.

This has been my defense of paradox. The Defense rests, awaiting the Prosecution's cross-examination.


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