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Generally speaking, there is no charm in certainty. Riddles amuse because they take some dull, every day word and, by shrouding it in mystery, transform it into a stimulating challenge. Paradoxes do something similar: they defy our notion of logic and show us conundrums where we only had rock-solid truths. A paradox enriches our reality by undermining it. Roy Sorensen, Professor of Philosophy at Dartmouth, has written a dazzling book that traces the evolution of some of this conundrums throughout (western) history. As the topic itself, this book can be frustrating at times, but it always remains strangely compelling.
Starting with the Presocratics and ending with W.V. Quine, the chapters are ordered chronologically and they tend to focus on a specific author, a paradox he may have discovered or worked on, and several possible solutions to it by an array of philosophers from different ages and schools of thought. The historical context provided usually takes a life of its own, though, and Sorensen is likely to spend more time gossiping about, say, Aristotle possibly being a Macedonian spy or Kant's ailing mental faculties than delving into the paradox at hand.
Since the book is mainly aimed at armchair philosophers, I suppose some academicians may only see lack of depth in Sorensen's jovial writing style. And, to be honest, he does sometimes seem to be overly interested in retelling memorable anecdotes and witticisms rather than in meticulously analyzing arguments and pinpointing logical fallacies. But I do not think this makes his work any less worthwhile. He is not trying to be the Copleston of paradox, a go-to historian. Sorensen is just offering his readers a delightful look on a few great men, a few great questions. As himself admits in his preface: "I am interested in the developmental and antiquarian aspects of paradoxes. Consequently, my approach is more leisurely. Although I have my own theory of paradoxes, my general intent is to have paradoxes enter at their own initiative (...) The deepest paradoxes are extroverts, naturally good at introducing themselves."
However, I will not deny that the pace gets too "leisurely" at times. Mischievously dragging the Lewinski scandal into Parmenides' Theory of the One and Bette Middler into Pascal's vacuum experiments may be fun for a while, but when one thinks about the number of things Sorensen left out, one starts wondering if he could have used his space more wisely. For example, Eastern philosophy - so rich in riddles and devilish contradictions - has been almost completely neglected; and so has Quantum mechanics, with the million bewildering and hotly controversial paradoxes it has lead to. It should also be noted that while Sorensen dedicates whole pages to talk about the already well-known lives of Socrates and Hume, for example, he rushes the explanation of certain paradoxes and solutions (e.g. Carter's Doomsday argument and Cantor's answer to Zeno) that should be explained in more detail.
Nevertheless, all in all, this small book is rich in revelations, in thought-provoking fun; it is, in a way, also a brief history of philosophy looked through the lenses of doubt. Its charms are more hedonistic than academic; yet Sorensen's vast knowledge is always commanding and most chapters (specially the ones on Thomas Reid, Russell, Wittgenstein and Quine) do more than just entertain: they shed some kind light on an intrinsically obscure topic. Personally, I have read and re-read this book, underlined several passages, and admonished some of its pages with grumpy handwritten notes. I know of no better compliment to pay a book.