June 15, 2010

Dear Colleague:  

     To have a human mind is to live in a world of paradoxes. Put another way, it is  to live in a world of fantasy in which elementary logic counts for naught. How can we see ourselves as rational beings when we routinely accept nonsense? “Bitterly cold,” isn’t that nonsense? How can a taste qualify a temperature? Metaphors are full of such unlikely juxtapositions, few of which ever raise an eyebrow. Certain words reveal the way a feeling may shift so that it becomes something quite different. Thus “gloom,” which means “darkness,” is derived from its opposite “glow,” and “swoon” is derived from “swogon,” which means “sound, resound, make a noise.” “Black” is “white”! Sounds like Alice-in-Wonderland logic until we realize that “white” is “blanc” (white) in French. Examples in other languages? The Latin “altus” means both “high” and “deep.” The Chinese word “ch’u” (going out) also means “chin” (coming in), and the word “luan” (disorder) embraces the opposite sense of “chih” (order).

     Strange, isn’t it? But what about an example of psychological reversal that does not draw on the double-meaning of  words? Take “want” and “have.” If you want, it means you do not have, right? Right. Yet, the wanting of something can be so intense and so vividly imagined that when you actually have it, it seems pallid–less real--by comparison. Here is another example. “Strongly spent is synonymous with kept,” says Robert Frost. A poet’s fancy paradox? Yet, when we know that everything in life is transitory and nothing can really be preserved, may we not occasionally feel that the only way to keep it is to strongly spend?

     Moral teaching, other than simple commandments, is replete with paradoxes. “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:25). “Many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first” (Matthew 19:30). These may be read as commonsense, temporal processes: we know in real life that the successful may end up failures, and vice versa. But I believe, as do most biblical exegetes, that the meaning of these two sayings is intended to be more paradoxical and shocking. Their deeper message is: Worldly success is spiritual failure. The moral isn’t that those who stand at the end of the line can eventually work their way to the head; rather it is that those at the end of the line are already, in some sense, at the head in God’s kingdom  St. Francis absorbed this teaching. A famous prayer of his ends in a series of paradoxes: “For it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

     What about the works of pure reason–philosophy and natural science? Philosophy is not free of paradox. Indeed, it is famed for one named after Zeno of Elea, who argued against the possibility of a runner ever completing his course. As for physics, the most astonishing to the layperson is Einstein’s notion that light can be treated as both wave and particle. And then there is Niels Bohr, who argued that the paradoxes and ambiguities of common experience find support in science: that is to say, concepts firmly grounded in facts divide into mutually exclusive groups all of which are needed for stating what we know, though the use of any particular group rules out the use of the rest (A. Pais, Niels Bohr’s Times in Physics).

     No wonder Bohr has invited this story about him. Physicists visiting Bohr were surprised to find the hex sign over his barn. “Surely, you don’t believe in the hex, Professor?” Bohr: “Of course not, but I am told that it works even if I don’t believe in it.” Paradox: having it both ways!

Best wishes,



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