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A Brief History of the Paradox: Philosophy and the Labyrinths of the Mind [Paperback]

Roy Sorensen

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Book Description

10 Feb 2005
Can God create a stone too heavy for him to lift? Can time have a beginning? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Riddles, paradoxes, conundrums—for millennia the human mind has found such knotty logical problems both perplexing and irresistible.
Now Roy Sorensen offers the first narrative history of paradoxes, a fascinating and eye-opening account that extends from the ancient Greeks, through the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment, and into the twentieth century. When Augustine asked what God was doing before He made the world, he was told: "Preparing hell for people who ask questions like that." A Brief History of the Paradox takes a close look at "questions like that" and the philosophers who have asked them, beginning with the folk riddles that inspired Anaximander to erect the first metaphysical system and ending with such thinkers as Lewis Carroll, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and W.V. Quine. Organized chronologically, the book is divided into twenty-four chapters, each of which pairs a philosopher with a major paradox, allowing for extended consideration and putting a human face on the strategies that have been taken toward these puzzles. Readers get to follow the minds of Zeno, Socrates, Aquinas, Ockham, Pascal, Kant, Hegel, and many other major philosophers deep inside the tangles of paradox, looking for, and sometimes finding, a way out.
Filled with illuminating anecdotes and vividly written, A Brief History of the Paradox will appeal to anyone who finds trying to answer unanswerable questions a paradoxically pleasant endeavor.

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...one might perhaps think of Sorensen's book as a philosophical entertainment ... a raconteur (W.D. Hart, Mind)

About the Author

Roy Sorensen is Professor of Philosophy at Dartmouth College.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  5 reviews
26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Most paradoxes aren't 26 Jun 2005
By Jesse Steven Hargrave - Published on Amazon.com
This survey by a Dartmouth Professor of Philosophy promises "a narrative history of paradoxes [extending] from the ancient Greeks ... and into the twentieth century." Although a small-format book, it's a bulky one, using its 370 pages to comprise 24 chronologically-ordered chapters. Each chapter pivots around one philosopher and a paradox associated with that thinker. Examples are: "Aristotle on Fatalism", "Aquinas: Can God Have a Biography", and "The Common Sense of Thomas Reid". Author Roy Sorenson writes with a smooth but playful authority, conveying an encyclopedic grasp of the somewhat cloudy subject matter.

The book begins with "Anaximander and the Riddle of Origin". Author Sorenson states therein that "I take paradoxes to be a species of riddle." Here and elsewhere he hints that he is developing for us a taxonomy of paradoxes, but he never fulfills this promise in any explicit fashion. (Only in the final chapter, when the author quotes W. V. O. Quine as defining a paradox as "just any conclusion that sounds absurd but that has an argument to sustain it", do we have a definition most of us could identify and work with.) The same holds true for explanation or resolution of most of the paradoxes he covers. Seldom does the author present a clear explication of how to resolve out the paradox under discussion.

At the same time, he treats almost all with a significance they may -- but too often do not -- deserve. In presenting Parmenides' belief that "there is only one thing", Sorenson discusses the origins, implications, and stubborn persistence of this contention with erudition but also with some subtle lack of clarity. Later when the author (finally) enlists the rejoinder that the truth of Parmenides' contention depends on the inherent ambiguity in a cognate of the verb "to be", the reader may feel that too much has been wasted before admitting the superficiality of this non-paradox.

In fact, after following the author through a number of these paradoxes easily resolved by revealing their semantic underpinnings, the reader may feel that this book's primary goal is to convince us that Wittengenstein was right in warning that "Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language."

Despite the rigor of the book's organizational structure, the discussions themselves are elusive and elliptical, but usually entertaining and sometimes thought-provoking. For this reader, most of "A Brief History of the Paradox" disappointed as a solid treatment of its subject matter. It gained strength though as it left behind the semantic games only posing as paradoxes, and took up thinkers like Russell, Wittengenstein, and Quine who strove to find the true "depth" in such questions. But perhaps we should keep in mind another Wittengenstein quote (cited by Sorenson): "A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes."
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More than just paradoxes 25 July 2006
By Franz Kiekeben - Published on Amazon.com
As the title states, this is a HISTORY of paradoxes. The focus is on the development of thinking about these problems from ancient Greek times to the present. But to a great extent Sorensen's book is also a history of philosophy (which shows just how important paradoxes have been in philosophy). The topics covered include such things as the nature of God and of time, fatalism, Hume's skepticism, and many other things.

Sorensen makes it all relatively easy to follow and includes many interesting asides (e.g., when Pascal tried to convince Descartes that vacuums exist, Descartes quipped that Pascal had too much vacuum in his head).

There are other books out there that concentrate more on the resolutions, or attempted resolutions, to paradoxes. But what this book offers is just as valuable.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Vast perplexities 6 April 2007
By Bati - Published on Amazon.com
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.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Primarily historical 9 Jan 2006
By Barry Rucker - Published on Amazon.com
On the cover of this book, "history" is in small print, and "paradox" is in large print. When I obtained this book, I hoped it would focus almost exclusively upon presenting and resolving paradoxes, but, instead, much of the book is devoted to the history of philosophy. The author frequently attacks others' definitions of "paradox," without, however, developing a clear definition of his own. The book is often interesting when it concentrates on paradoxes. I wish it had demonstrated in detail its contention that Zeno's paradoxes have been solved. This book contains, to its credit, the most concise and clear explanation of McTaggart's philosophy of time (and its refutation) that I have ever found.
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A reistic ontology 6 Oct 2011
By Lee Gun-Won - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The status of the regulations in our rational speculations and hence the definitions of the 1st-order logic was one of the most interesting topics for the logicians working now a days. The author stated that human beings achieve equality by monitoring the quantities and then PERIODICALLY adding or substracting. And furthermore the author extended this observation in the history of China as YIN and YANG and the attention to KARMA in India in addition to that in Anaximander of early Greece. And also in Politeia of Plato, the recommendation of KUKLUS was following this tradition in order to support the theory of IDEA. This can be read as the reistic ontology of those axiomatic approaches, we think.
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