What Is a Paradox? | Definition & Examples

A paradox is a statement or situation that seems absurd initially but can be true or make sense upon further reflection. Because a paradox invites deeper contemplation, it can be used to challenge conventional thinking.

Paradox example
A well-known paradox is the phrase “The only constant in life is change.” This may sound illogical because change and consistency are opposite concepts. However, this phrase encapsulates a deeper truth: that life is characterized by continual change.

Paradoxes are often used in literature, philosophy, and logic.

What Is a Paradox?

What is a paradox?

A paradox is a literary device in which a deeper truth is masked as a seemingly illogical proposition, like “less is more.” Writers use paradoxical statements because they invite the reader to think about the deeper meaning of a phrase and highlight the complexities of life.

Key elements of paradoxes include the following:

  • They contain a contradiction. Paradoxes contain seemingly conflicting elements or statements. They defy common sense or logical reasoning.
  • They prompt deep thinking. Despite the initial contradiction, a paradox prompts deeper reflection. This usually reconciles the apparent conflict and reveals a deeper truth in the end.
  • They challenge preconceived notions. Paradoxes encourage individuals to question assumptions and explore the complexities of a given concept.

Logical paradox vs literary paradox

Logical and literary paradoxes are both based on self-contradictory propositions; however, there is a difference between the two:

Logical paradox

Logical paradoxes are rooted in formal logic or philosophical reasoning. They highlight inherent problems or limitations in a logical system (i.e., a set of guidelines for thinking logically, such as mathematical logic).

For example, they may reveal errors in definitions or mathematical axioms. They challenge the principles and assumptions underlying logical systems with the aim of refining and improving them.

Logical paradox example
The Liar paradox is a form of logical paradox in which a statement declares itself as false, creating a logical contradiction.

Consider for example the phrase “This statement is false.”

If the sentence is true, then it’s false because it says it’s not true. But if it’s false, then it’s true because it accurately says it’s not true. This creates a confusing situation where the sentence seems both true and false at the same time. It’s a paradox that challenges the rules of logical thinking.

Literary paradox

Literary paradoxes are statements or situations that may seem contradictory at first but, upon further analysis, may reveal a deeper meaning or make sense. A literary paradox is often related to a story’s overall theme or message and emphasizes the story’s deeper meaning.

Literary paradox example
In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the phrase “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” is a literary paradox.

Equality means that everyone is on the same level. Someone can’t be “more equal” than someone else, because this goes against the very notion of equality. The statement doesn’t make logical sense, but it satirically points out the false egalitarianism in the Animal Farm society. It invites the reader to think about the discrepancy between theory and practice or how governments proclaim one thing but do another.

In short, logical paradoxes are about how we think and reason in a structured way, like in math, whereas literary paradoxes are about using words creatively in a story or poem to make people feel or think something.

Other types of paradoxes

There are several ways to classify paradoxes. One way is to classify them based on the nature of the contradiction or the field of study to which they belong. Here are some broad categories of paradoxes:

Time paradoxes

Time paradoxes are logical paradoxes related to the hypothetical idea of time travel and causality. One variation is the so-called bootstrap paradox in which an object or information is sent back in time and becomes the cause of its own existence.

Time paradox example
For example, in the Terminator movies, Skynet (the artificial intelligence system that produced the T-800 Terminator cyborgs) sends a T-800 cyborg back in time to prevent the birth of the resistance leader opposing them. The remains of the T-800 falls into the hands of the company that would become Skynet, which leads to the development of Skynet and the invention of cyborgs through reverse engineering, blurring the lines between cause and effect.

Set theory paradoxes

Set theory paradoxes arise in the field of set theory, a branch of mathematical logic that studies sets or collections of objects. Russel’s paradox (or the barber’s paradox), for example, points out the contradictions involving sets that contain themselves as elements.

To illustrate this problem, Russel used the following proposition: a barber states that he only shaves all those who do not shave themselves. Who shaves the barber? Any answer to this question results in a contradiction.

Philosophical paradoxes

Philosophical paradoxes involve contradictions that arise in fundamental questions like our existence or the nature of reality.

One such example is the Fermi paradox, which refers to the apparent contradiction between the high probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for or contact with such civilizations.

However, keep in mind that some do not consider this as a paradox, but rather a question, since it does not involve a logical inconsistency.

Frequently asked questions about paradox

What is an example of paradox in literature?

An example of paradox in literature is the phrase “I must be cruel only to be kind,” which can be found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act 3, Scene 4).

In this scene, Hamlet is explaining to his mother, Gertrude, that he is being very harsh, but he intends to bring about a positive outcome rather than simply harm others. This line captures Hamlet’s inner struggle as he navigates the political and personal struggles in the story.

What is the purpose of a paradox?

A paradox can serve several purposes depending on the context in which it’s used. In general, a paradox:

  • Grabs attention and prompts readers to contemplate a statement more deeply rather than take it at face value.
  • Reveals the complexities of various concepts and phenomena.
  • Highlights the limitations of human understanding and reasoning.
  • Contributes to the depth and richness of writing by creating layers of meaning that go beyond surface interpretations.
What is the difference between a paradox and oxymoron?

A paradox and an oxymoron are similar in that they both involve a contradiction; however, there is a difference between them.

  • A paradox refers to a statement or situation that seems logically inconsistent and yet makes sense, like “fight fire with fire.”
  • An oxymoron, on the other hand, consists of two words that contradict each other in terms of meaning, ultimately producing a new meaning, such as “deafening silence.”

In short, a paradox is based on a seemingly absurd or illogical idea, whereas an oxymoron involves two opposing meanings.

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Kassiani Nikolopoulou, MSc

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex information into easily accessible articles to help others.