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A paradox is defined, according to Paul-Claude Racamier, as a "mental formation that indissolubly binds two propositions or directives that are irreconcilable and yet not contradictory."

This character of non-contradiction is essential. According to transactionalists, it is associated with the fact that irreconcilable prohibitions are not part of the same logical class, or, more simply, are not part of the same class (gesture and verb or affect and speech, for example). However, these irreconcilable directives can sometimes belong to the same class. In all cases the paradox results in infinite oscillations between two utterances of opposite meaning that are not contradictory but antagonisticwhich is what accounts for its remarkable indeterminacy. The implicit conclusion of a paradox is that A = not-A. In 1952 Gregory Bateson and his colleagues began investigating the paradoxes of communication in men and animals.

We distinguish two kinds of paradox: logical paradox and pragmatic paradox. The most famous example of logical paradox, first formulated in antiquity by the Greek sophists, is attributed to Epimenides: "Epimenides the Cretan claims that all Cretans are liars. But Epimenides is a Cretan. Therefore he is lying when he says that Cretans are liars. But if Cretans are not liars, Epimenides is telling the truth." Pragmatic paradoxes are practical paradoxes. We distinguish paradoxical forecasts from paradoxical prohibitions. The "double bind" is a sophisticated version of the paradoxical prohibition.

The introduction of the concept of paradox into psychoanalytic theory and clinical practice occurred during the 1970s, from several different sources simultaneously. In France it is largely the result of Didier Anzieu's article "Transfert paradoxal" (Paradoxical transference; 1975) and Paul-Claude Racamier's "Humour et la folie" (Humor and insanity; 1973) and "Paradoxes des schizophrènes" (Paradoxes of schizophrenics); 1976, 1978, 1980). Anzieu insisted on the fact that paradoxical transference assumes, in individual or group psychotherapy, two forms: the paradoxical prohibition and disqualification, both of which are uttered by an individual or group in order to force psychoanalysts to contradict themselves and prevent the work of psychoanalysis from being accomplished. Paradoxical transference is thus one of the manifestations of the work of the negative. Paradoxical transference is accompanied by paradoxical resistance and paradoxical counter-transference.

Racamier extended the class of paradox to a type of mental and rational defensive organization"paradoxicality"which is found in schizophrenics, in whom it is both generalized and eroticized in particular ways. René Rousillon has investigated the formal nature of the paradox while contrasting it with the transitional class. Jean-Pierre Caillot used the concept of paradoxicality, applying it to interactive behavior and the psychoanalytic treatment of families engaged in psychotic transactions (1982). He described the paradoxical narcissistic position, where defense, through the oscillation of narcissistic and anti-narcissistic cathexes (Francis Pasche), against catastrophic, claustrophobic, and agoraphobic sensations or anxieties, characterizes the paradoxical narcissistic object relation. This position is comprised by the paranoid-schizoid position elaborated by Melanie Klein, where defense entails splitting and idealization. Caillot has defined paradoxical transference, whether individual, group, or familial, as a transference act or fantasy that indissolubly binds, self-referentially, two aspects of transference with opposite meanings, irreconcilable and yet non-contradictory. For example, Didier Anzieu has described the transference dream of a patient, in which he is simultaneously forced to remain at home and enjoined not to do so. This patient cannot remain in the analyst's office, nor can he leave it. Caillot and Gérard Decherf (1982) have described a paradoxical family transference where "living together kills and living apart is fatal."

According to Racamier, paradoxical behavior is obviously part of the general possibilities of the ego and the avatars of human relations. But its prevalence as a clinically close-knit system is associated with an overwhelming defensive organization designed to fend off intrapsychic and group conflict, the risks of individuation and separation, the internal or collective movements of fantasies of desire and death, as well as dream images and feelings of mourning or disillusionment. It is used to foster feelings of omnipotence and is active in the denial of desire, of mourning, and of the difference between the sexes and generations.

Jean-Pierre Caillot

See also: Breakdown; Double bind; Psychoanalytic epistemology; Numinous (analytical psychology); Philosophy and psychoanalysis; Screen memory; System/systemic; Tenderness; " 'Uncanny,' The"; Transference (analytical psychology); Transitional object.


Anzieu, Didier. (1975). Le transfert paradoxal. Nouvelle Revue de Psychanalyse, 12, 49-72.

Caillot, Jean-Pierre, and Decherf, Gérard. (1982). Paradoxalité et thérapie familiale psychanalytique. Paris: Clancier-Guénaud.

Racamier, Paul-Claude. (1980). Les schizophrènes. Paris: Payot.

. (1998). Paradoxalité et ambiguïté. In S. Decobert, J.-P. Caillot, C. Pigott (Eds.), Vocabulaire de psychanalyse groupale et familiale, v. 1. Paris:Éditions du Collège de Psychanalyse Groupale et Familiale.

Watzlawick, Paul; Beavin, Janet Helmick; and Jackson, Don D. (1967). Pragmatics of human communication. New York: W.W. Norton.

Further Reading

Pizer, Stuart A. (1992). The negotiation of paradox in the analytic process. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 2, 215-240.

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PARADOX. A term in RHETORIC for a situation or statement that is or seems self-contradictory and even absurd, but may contain an insight into life, such as The child is father of the man. Rationally, a child cannot be a father, but one can propose in this figurative way that the nature of one's early life affects later ideas and attitudes. A series of paradoxical statements that involve ANTITHESIS, climax, metaphor, and repetition, opens Charles DICKENS'S A Tale of Two Cities (1859):
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

Some writers, such as Oscar Wilde, have made an art of the paradoxical and epigrammatic: ‘Nowadays people know the price of everything, and the value of nothing’ (The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891). Compare IRONY.

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par·a·dox / ˈparəˌdäks/ • n. a statement or proposition that, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory: a potentially serious conflict between quantum mechanics and the general theory of relativity known as the information paradox. ∎  a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true: in a paradox, he has discovered that stepping back from his job has increased the rewards he gleans from it. ∎  a situation, person, or thing that combines contradictory features or qualities: an Arizona canyon where the mingling of deciduous trees with desertic elements of flora forms a fascinating ecological paradox.

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Paradox appears in any context of explanation where two fundamental but contradictory (or contrary) propositions, both well-attested to be true, must be claimed simultaneously to provide a full and adequate account of the phenomenon in question. The nature of light as fully wave and fully particle according to the Copenhagen epistemology of complementarity, or the nature of the person of Jesus Christ as fully God and fully human according to Nicene theology, are both examples of irreducible paradox designed to explain the nature of a given phenomenon.

See also Christology; Copenhagen Interpretation; Self-reference; Wave-particle Duality


loder, james e. and neidhardt, w. jim. the knight's move: the relational logic of the spirit in theology and science. colorado springs, co: helmers and howard, 1992.

james e. loder

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paradox a statement or proposition which, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory; a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition which when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true.

Recorded from the mid 16th century (originally denoting a statement contrary to accepted opinion), the word comes via late Latin from Greek paradoxon ‘contrary (opinion)’.

See also liar paradox, Tristram Shandy paradox.

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par·a·dox·i·cal / ˌparəˈdäksikəl/ • adj. seemingly absurd or self-contradictory: by glorifying the acts of violence they achieve the paradoxical effect of making them trivial. DERIVATIVES: par·a·dox·i·cal·ly adv. paradoxically, the more fuel a star starts off with, the sooner it runs out.

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A statement that seems at first to defy ordinary understanding, even to the point of self-contradiction, but that may, on closer examination, prove to be well founded. The term has been applied to certain religious teachings, e.g., God at one time took on the identity of a particular man, and to antithetical sayings found in Scripture, such as St. Paul's description of the ministers of God, "As sorrowful yet always rejoicing; as poor yet enriching many; as having nothing yet possessing all things" (2 Cor 6.10). For paradoxical constructions arising in sciences such as metaphysics, logic, and mathematics, see antinomy.

[h. a. nielsen]

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485. Paradox

  1. Catch-22 claim of insanity to be relieved of military duty proves sanity. [Am. Lit.: Joseph Heller Catch-22 ]
  2. Zenos paradoxes four philosophical arguments purporting to show the impossibility of motion. [Gk. Phil.: NCE, 3043]