Thursday, February 28, 2008


Is it paradoxical that I start this post with the concept of paradox even as I confess that I have given up on Roy Sorenson's A Brief History of the Paradox? I always feel a little guilty when I abandon a book mid-read, but alas this sweet little tour of the history of Western logical theory began to feel a little too theological and not quite as paradoxical as I had hoped ... by theological I mean that theology is bunk but the history of religion is fascinating, and that is true of philosophy too in my particular view ... philosophy is oh such a yawn, but the history of ideas has no bottom to its depth. Sorenson's review tends to lard a thick layer of philosophical musing on a thin skeleton of known philosophical history, and it left me in its dust. This raises both the sidebar question of whether lard and dust should ever be used in the same sentence, and the more central question of whether there is any utility to philosophy.

The answers would be no and yes, and it is paradoxical that while I answer no and yes, my practice in the event was yes and no. To whit, I did use lard and dust in one sentence, but I did not find any utility in this case for philosophy.

Sorenson argues that paradox is a question that has too many answers. I think of paradox as the poor sister of dialectic ... poor by reason of its having been stripped of context and content. Take the engaging paradox of the heap ... if you have a heap of sand, and you take away one grain, is it still a heap? Repeat this process. What is the line between heap and not-heap? In real life, people answer that I know a heap when I see one. And this suffices for everyday purposes, but it does not give us a grasp of deeper or inner reality. In that sense, every paradox points to the paradox of gawd and the stone. If gawd is all powerful, then he can create a stone that is too heavy for him to lift. But is he cannot lift it, he is not all-powerful. Is the everyday answer to that conundrum this: I know a gawd when I see one? Well, not quite. (I remind the irregular reader that I figure, as a die hard atheist, that the name of gawd is irrelevant given his omnipotence so I spell him however strikes my fancy, no matter how puerile such a conceit might appear to the religious.)

I prefer the notion of dialectic ... as simply put as I can try, dialectic is the notion that counterposed forces in history through their engagement with each other create new oppositions related to but not identical to those which spawned them. That such forces are incompatible does not prevent them from engaging, and it does not prevent a synthesis which contains the evolution of both even as it spins a new contradiction composed of but not identical to the opposition which generated it. It's not that paradox isn't fun and profitable especially during the latter stages of drinking parties ... no, it is that dialectic is the fascination that keeps on fascinating.

So I reluctantly left Sorenson's book in the dust (well, actually, I am still carrying it around in my man purse in case I change my mind and give it a reprieve), and I turned to Tom Reiss' The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, the story of a Jew born in Azerbaijan who masqueraded as a Muslim prince in the gathering gloom of Nazi Germany. A great read, recommended. It interests me here because it draws attention to the difference between paradox and dialectic. Lev Nussenbaum, the hero of the tale, is certainly paradoxical in the sense that he cannot be all or each of what he claims. But more to the point, his career draws its potency from its involvement in the most compelling contradictions of the period in which he lived, 1905-1942, or the first Russian Revolution through the middle of the worst war of all.

It reminds me of the paradox of the set of sets which do not contain themselves. Imagine a set of all things red ... I derive this from an interview with Sorenson on NPR ... because a set has no color, the set of all things red does not contain itself. So the set of all things red is a member of the set of sets that do not contain themselves. But is the set of all sets that do not contain themselves a part of itself? If yes, then no; if no, then yes. In other words, if the set of sets that do not contain themselves does contain itself, then it does not contain itself. But if it does not contain itself, then it does contain itself.

The impostor, the rake, the poseur, all are like the set that does not contain itself, for if they are who they are, then they are not, and if they are not who they are, then they are. The poseur's life in itself is only passing interesting, but the era which is his playground and which is the force behind his fraud, that is what we can view through the lens of the indissoluble contradiction that is his life. Reiss does a good job of revealing all of that, and so the dialectic that he explicates keeps me much more spellbound than the equally estimable efforts of Dr. Sorenson.

Photos by Arod of street art in downtown San Francisco, sometime last summer.

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