Paradoxology is

  1. “the use of paradoxes” in reasoning, in other words, speaking in paradoxes, or, as Gomperz defines it,
  2. “the study of what the ancients termed the ‘paradoxes of nature,’ i.e., of unusual and irregular phenomena” (Heinrich Gomperz, Philosophical Studies, ed. D. S. Robinson [Boston: The Christopher Publishing House, 1953] 74).

In “Postmodernism and ‘the Other Side'” (Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, ed. David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen [London: Routledge, 1996] 191), Dick Hebdige’s argument that Jean-François Lyotard “dissolv[es] dialectics into paradoxology, and language games” suggests that paradoxology is more than a rhetorical game (see The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge [Manchester: MUP, 1984] 3-4).

As a word, it originates from Thomas Browne (1605-82) in his book Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Enquries into Very Many Received Tenets and Commonly Presumed Truths, a.k.a. Vulgar Errors (1646; online at Sir Thomas Browne: Pseudodoxia, or Vulgar Errors), a “scientific” enquiry in the Baconian spirit into what he saw as the common errors, fallacies and superstitions of his age.

(For the other side of Browne’s philosophical coin, see his wonderful hermetic phantasmagoria, The Garden of CYRUS [1658, in full The Garden of CYRUS, or, The Quincuncial-Lozenge, or Net-work Plantations of the Ancients; Artificially, Naturally, and Mystically Considered; online at Penelope at the University of Chicago], a vision of the interconnection of art, nature and the Universe via the symbols of the number five, the quincunx, the lozenge, the figure X and the reticulated network.)

Browne’s three determinants of truth are as follows:

  1. the authority of past authors,
  2. the action of reason, and lastly,
  3. empirical experience.

Of course, he often talks, despite his skeptical wit and love of the mystic, as if he knows into which of the “two circles” of knowledge—truth and falsity—any fact falls.

Sir Thomas Browne

Sir Thomas Browne

Sir Thomas Browne [a sophisticated possum by the looks], detail from Lady Dorothy Browne (née Mileham); Sir Thomas Browne, attr. Joan Carlile (1641-50).

This dichotomy suggests a parallel with the Gates of Horn and Ivory from Homer’s Odyssey 19: 560-69 (see Virgil, Aeneid 6.893-98). There Penelope, having just recounted a dream that seems to signify that her husband Odysseus is about to return, expresses her belief that the dream is false. She says:

Stranger, dreams verily are baffling and unclear of meaning, and in no wise do they find fulfilment in all things for men. For two are the gates of shadowy dreams, and one is fashioned of horn and one of ivory. Those dreams that pass through the gate of sawn ivory deceive men, bringing words that find no fulfilment. But those that come forth through the gate of polished horn bring true issues to pass, when any mortal sees them. But in my case it was not from thence, methinks, that my strange dream came. (Homer, The Odyssey II, The Loeb Classical Library [1919; Oxford: OUP, 1980] 269)


Browne, then (to read him more sketchily than he might intend), contends that we live according to truths that are more or less true according to the way in which they are determined.

And Homer renders in black and white the greyscale premise of Plato’s idealism that the world as we perceive it is but a waking sleep in which the dreams are more or less true. The image is a play upon the words κέρας, “horn,” and κραίνω, “fulfill”—thus, from the Gate of Horn issue true dreams (i.e. true appearances)—and upon ἐλέφας, “ivory,” and ἐλεφαίρομαι, “deceive”—thus, from the Gate of Ivory issue false dreams (i.e. false appearances).

“La vida es sueño”—and a more or less true lie.


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