What Is a Paradox?
On the experiential difference between “apparent contradictions” and actual negations, and the consequences of seeking “authentic selves” versus “paradoxical harmony.”
Looking up the definition of “paradox” isn’t very helpful. Take what Merriam-Webster offers us:
1: A tenet contrary to received opinion
2a: A statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true.
b: A self-contradictory statement that at first seems true
c: An argument that apparently derives self-contradictory conclusions by valid deduction from acceptable premises
3: One (such as a person, situation, or action) having seemingly contradictory qualities or phases
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this, but 2A, 2B, and 2C are incredibly confusing. Is a paradox something that seems false but ultimately isn’t, or is it something that “at first seems true” that then turns out to be false? Why is 2B not just a “logical fallacy?” Is a “paradox” just a “logical fallacy?” And definition 1 just sounds like “a false belief” — what’s going on?
“Paradox” and “contradiction” are often used like similes, but paradoxes are different. Contradictions are combinations of inconsistencies that negate, which means they can only exist in thought and cannot be experienced.¹ A paradox, however, is a combination of inconsistencies that don’t negate, and this is because though paradoxes may logically negate, they don’t experientially negate. Where there isn’t a strong distinction between “thinking” and “perceiving” or “ideas” and “experiences,” it is only natural for the terms “paradox” and “contradiction” to practically become similes, which I think is what has generally happened in the West. This has cost us the category of “paradox,” and where we lose a category of language, we also lose a category of experience (our world shrinks).²
A paradox is something that has an appearance of contradiction but isn’t actually such, but the truth of a paradox’s non-negating consistency is something that can only be experienced. Experience, not thinking, is how “paradox” and “contradiction” can be identified apart (which would suggest that a world that “overthinks” will struggle to meaningfully tell the difference, which will likely prove consequential). All this might sound strange, but it’s pretty common: take if I say, “Dan is nice and mean.” That’s a contradiction — or is it? If we followed Dan around for a day, we would see that he was very mean at home but very nice at work (or vice-versa): Dan was nice in one setting and not another, which would mean the phrase “Dan is nice and mean” is true even though the phrase “on the surface” seems to negate. Once we follow Dan around and experience how he lives his life, something that “appears a contradiction” turns out not to be mysterious at all. In fact, the phrase is an acknowledgement of the reality we all know well enough: there is a difference between our private and public lives.
“To think about a cat is to see something that’s not around” — this is a paradoxical phrase, but we easily understand what the phrase is suggesting and know it’s not a “negating” contradiction. We’ve all experienced the strange reality of seeing something in our heads that’s not actually in front of us: though it “seems like” a contradiction to say, “I can see something that’s not there,” the experience of thinking can unveil how it is possible. Feeling both sad and happy when our friend moves away to start the job she always wanted, both wanting and not wanting for a vacation to end, both trying to be open to new possibilities while at the same time working hard at our current task — all of these notions sound like nonsense logically, but they are all more than possible and sensible experientially. We all know what it’s like to both want and not want something, to contain tensions and conflicts. It means we’re alive, that we’re human.³
Why don’t paradoxes negate? Well, many reasons: the conflicting elements of a paradox could be separated in time; the elements could differ ontologically (say between “the idea of a cat” and “a biological cat”); the elements could be situational and never simultaneous; and so on. Unlike a paradox, a “contradiction” would be if “Dan was on the top floor and bottom floor at the same time.” This is literally impossible, but is the phrase “Dan was on the top floor and bottom floor” similarly negative? Not necessarily, for the second phrase leaves open-ended the role of time: it’s not completely clear if the phrase means “Dan was on the top floor and bottom floor” at the same time or at different times. If the phrase means “simultaneously,” then the phrase is a contradiction, but if the phrase means “at different times,” it’s only an “apparent contradiction,” which means it’s a paradox.
The phrase “Dan was on the top floor and bottom floor” may help point out why it’s so easy to confuse “paradox” and “contradiction,” for the phrase could be either (depending on its use). If I use the phrase to mean “right now,” it’s a contradiction, for it’s a logical inconsistency that cannot be experienced, whereas if I mean “at different points of the day,” the phrase is still a logical inconsistency (in itself), but the phrase can be sorted out in experience, for it’s possible for Dan to move between rooms throughout a day. Experience is the key to distinguishing “paradox” and “contradiction” (which also means phenomenology is important), and so it’s not surprising that societies obsessed with thinking struggle to tell the difference.
If there is something about paradox that is critical to understand in order for us to fully understand the world, then the conflation of “paradox” and “contradiction” could be costing us in ways we hardly understand. For example, if humans are fundamentally paradoxical, the idea that we need to be “authentic selves” could prove problematic. A paradox is a collection of opposing possibilities that unfold through tension and time, which means that we will change or else be dysfunctional. But the “authentic self” can train us to think that “change is bad,” and though generally nobody would say this explicitly, the thought lurks in the back of our subconscious minds. We become confused about how much we should “change” and how much we should “stay the same,” and in the midst of that confusion, neurosis can develop and mental health suffer.
The “authentic self” is not a complex that’s all bad, and I myself have certainly used the language of “authenticity,” but it is important that “the authentic self” is used to refer to “the genuine self” and not used to refer to something ontological like a “consistent self.” “Authenticity” as “ontological consistency” is deeply problematic, even though there can be virtue in “being faithful” to “trying one’s best,” “trying to do what’s right,” and the like. But “remaining the same person” forever is not necessarily a virtue at all (it depends on what we mean), and in fact if humans are paradoxes and need to “unfold through time,” “remaining the same” is arguably a vice and even deadly to the heart. No, we don’t want to say, “All change is necessarily good and/or all consistency is necessarily bad,” but we also want to be sure not to think that change is necessarily a threat to “our true self.” Truth can be found where there is growth.
The metaphor that comes to mind with the “authentic self” is a statue, which makes consistency and “weathering the storm” everything. But if we are more like paradoxes, then we are more like “seeds” than “statues,” and this means “change” is “part of our very being”: we are a thing which grows. Is a seed “consistently” itself even though it grows into a tree? Absolutely, for that potential was always part of the seed and meant to be realized, and the change is “fitting.” Furthermore, if the seed doesn’t change, then the seed “isn’t being itself”: far from change being a threat, change is necessary, for growth is impossible without change. “Authenticity” is found in growth.⁴
How does a seed “weather the storm” and “stay true to itself?” By growing into a tree. To suggest humans are paradoxes isn’t to say we are justified to avoid commitment, should never “stand firm,” or the like, but rather to say that “commitment” and “unchanging” aren’t similes and can differ depending on what’s “fitting.” A seed that stays a seed doesn’t “persevere” or “stay itself”; rather, it dies (I can’t “be myself” if I cease to be). All of us know that a seed that stays a seed is dysfunctional, but since we use the wrong metaphoric complex to understand ourselves, we can often think that “there’s something wrong” with us if we change through time, between situations, and the like. If indeed we are paradoxes, that means we will “unfold through time,” and if we think that means we’re being “inauthentic,” it’s practically inevitable that we will mentally suffer. Ideas have consequences.
A paradox is an entity that realizes itself through time and gradually integrates into itself conflicting values and abilities, not because it is inconsistent, but because a paradox needs multitudes to be its full self, and also because a paradox learns that what is good in one situation can be bad in another. Talking about big ideas in one situation could alienate people, while doing such in another situation could prove wonderful (countless examples could be offered). The “authentic self” is in the business of “maintaining consistency,” but the “paradoxical self” is in the business of maintaining “harmony” between itself at the world. This suggests why a conflation of “paradox” and “chaos” (or “postmodern relativism”) is erroneous, for the “paradoxical person” indeed looks for harmony (and “what’s fitting”): to say “I am a paradox” is not an excuse to justify being chaotic, ingenuine, or contradictory (people think “being paradoxical” justifies “being contradictory” because they conflate “paradox” and “contradiction,” as mentioned before — a significant error — we should never be a contradiction and/or “negative”). If in fact there isn’t a “stable self,” then trying to be consistent with it is impossible: far from “embracing chaos,” the paradoxical person is the only one who has a chance at finding harmony. Better yet, the paradoxical person has a better chance of not overly-focusing on the ego — humility comes naturally.
“Paradoxical people” pay attention to if they are doing what is “fitting” relative to the world and present situation, while “authentic people” tend to pay more attention to “if they are being their true selves” (which risks and even moralizes being “ego-focused”). But if indeed humans are paradoxical, then there is no “stable self” relative to which we can be “consistent,” and thus “authentic people” make their standard of “doing what’s right” the same as “doing what’s impossible” — and their mental health suffers accordingly. If a seed focused on “being its true self” and associated that with “not changing,” the seed would either have to fall into neurosis or die by stopping its growth. For a seed with the wrong values, there are only dead ends.
Critically, paradox transforms differences into something to learn from versus something to avoid. If I have a “true self” I’m always trying to remain consistent with, when I encounter difference and change, I can view them as threats (which risk inauthenticity), versus see them as what I need to engage in if I am to be a “full self” (for paradoxes need opposing and conflicting dimensions in order to be themselves). Additionally, if I don’t take in all the “conflicting and varying dimensions” of myself and the world, I won’t learn how to live in “harmony” with the world (for it consists of “conflicting and varying dimensions”). As “difference” is a threat to the person trying to remain “certain,” yet “difference” is an opportunity for the person trying to be “confident” (and in fact tests are needed if a confident person is to in fact have reason to “be confident), so seeing ourselves as paradoxical transforms difference and change from threats into goals (in our Pluralistic world, preaching “authenticity” is exactly the wrong strategy). In this way, “authenticity” is very fragile, while “paradox” is “antifragile.”
Perhaps we have avoided thinking of ourselves as “paradoxes” precisely in hopes of achieving for ourselves mental clarity and health, and if indeed “paradox” and “contradiction” were similes, this would be a wise move. But tragically, it is precisely in avoiding accepting our paradoxical nature that we end up in contradiction and negation, precisely because we are paradoxical. Because we have the wrong ideas and values, we end up where we want to escape. What we fear is what has come unto us, but it’s not too late to change course. We can always start viewing ourselves as seeds.
¹For more, please see “Hegel and the Ontological Implications of ‘Pure Thought’ About What’s Not There” by O.G. Rose.
²For more, please see “The Limits of My Language Can Move” by O.G. Rose
³This might be a truth which literature has remembered better than philosophy, suggesting why philosophy suffers whenever its connection to literature weakens.
⁴This hints at the reality that “truth organizes values” (as discussed in The Conflict of Mind by O.G. Rose), for if it is “true” that “humans are paradoxes,” that radically transforms what we “ought” to do. This suggests why it is important for us to determine “what is true,” which hints at the necessity of “On A is A” and other such works.