The Problem and the Paradox

Chapter from the book On Dialogue by David Bohm

Thinking and feeling is dominated, through and through, by a set of self-contradictory demands. As long as a paradox is treated as a problem, it can never be dissolved. Wherever one turns today, one finds people talking about a vast range of problems of every kind, social, political, economic, personal, psychological, etc. Most of these problems not only seem to be insoluble, but also tend to give rise to further problems. These go on proliferating indefinitely, eventually leading on toward disorders of world-wide scope, such as pollution, over-population, danger of destruction of the planetary balance of nature as well as, of course, danger of destruction of civilization in a nuclear war. On contemplating this general situation, one may even sometimes have a sense of being confronted by difficulties beyond the possibility of resolution by human intelligence and co-operative endeavour.

In this mass of contradiction and confusion, one finds a very curious common denominator; i.e. that everyone appears to agree that what is actually confronting us is a set of problems. Generally speaking, one does not find that people have considered the question of whether the word ‘problem’, with all that it signifies, provides an adequate description of what is going wrong in human affairs. Yet, if one goes into the meaning of the word, one can see good reason to raise such a question, and to suspect that the attempt to treat our current difficulties as ‘problems’ may be one of the more important factors preventing these difficulties from being properly brought to an end.

The root of ‘problem’ is a Greek word whose meaning is ‘to put forward’. Indeed, this is the essential significance of the word, i.e. to put forward for discussion or questioning an idea that is suggested toward the resolution of certain difficulties or inadequacies. Thus, if one needs to reach a certain destination, one may suggest taking a train, and one can discuss the problem of meeting the train on time, paying for the ticket, etc. Similarly, sailing ships were seen to be a slow and unreliable means of transport, and so men put forth the idea of driving ships by steam, thus giving rise to the problem of how to realise this idea technically and to carry it out practically. More generally, it is clear that a large part of our practical and technical activities are centred on work aimed at solving a wide range of such problems. However, when one puts forth an idea in the form of a problem, there are certain largely tacit and implicit presuppositions which must be satisfied if the activity is to make sense. Among these is, of course, the assumption that the questions raised are rational and free of contradiction. Sometimes, without our noticing it, we accept absurd problems with false or selfcontradictory presuppositions. In the practical and technical realm, however, we can usually sooner or later detect that our question is absurd, and we then drop the ‘problem’ as meaningless. Thus, for a long time, people sought to invent a machine capable of perpetual motion, but with the development of scientific understanding it became clear that this would be in contradiction of the basic laws of physics, and so the search for such a machine has ceased.

All of this is fairly clear in the practical and technical domain. But now, what is to be done when one goes on to consider psychological problems and problems of human relationship? Does it make sense to formulate problems of such a kind? Or is this domain not one in which the presuppositions behind the questions put forth for discussion are false, self-contradictory, and absurd?

Consider, for example, a man who suddenly realised that he was very susceptible to flattery. He might well put forth the idea that he ought to be immune to flattery, and then he would of course have the problem of overcoming his tendency to ‘fall’ for anyone who told him how wonderful a person he was. It takes only a little consideration, however, to see that this ‘problem’ is based on absurd presuppositions. For example, the origin of the wish to be flattered is often a deep sense of being inadequate, which is so painful that awareness of its very existence is largely suppressed, except for certain moments in which criticisms or some other indications of a similar nature momentarily call attention to this very unpleasant feeling. As soon as someone comes along and tells such a person that, after all, he is good, capable, wise, beautiful, etc., then the deadening sense of suppressed pain disappears, to be replaced by a buoyant feeling of pleasure and well-being. Along with this goes a tendency to believe that he is being told the truth: for otherwise, of course, there would be no such release. In order to ‘defend’ himself from the ‘danger’ of discovering that it is not the truth, such a person is then ready to believe all that he is told by the other person, and thus, as is well known, he opens himself to the possibility of being taken advantage of in countless ways.

In essence, what goes wrong in flattery is a subtle kind of self-deception. If such a person were then to put forth ‘the problem’ of how he can stop deceiving himself, the absurdity of this procedure would become self evident. For it is clear that even if he tries hard and makes an effort to overcome his tendency to self-deception, this very effort will be infected with the wish for a pleasurable release from pain that is at the origin of the whole tendency, in the first place. So he will almost certainly deceive himself about the question of whether he has overcome self-deception or not.

More generally, one can say that when something goes wrong psychologically, it is confusing to describe the resulting situation as a ‘problem’. Rather, it would be better to say that one was confronted by a paradox. In the case of the man who is susceptible to flattery, the paradox is that he apparently knows and understands the absolute need to be honest with oneself and yet he feels an even stronger ‘need’ to deceive himself when this helps to release him from an unbearable sense of inadequacy and to substitute instead a sense of inward rightness and well-being. What is called for in such a case is not some procedure that ‘solves his problem’. Rather, it is to pause and to give attention to the fact that his thinking and feeling is dominated, through and through, by a set of selfcontradictory demands or ‘needs’ so that as long as such thinking and feeling prevail, there is no way to put things right. It takes a great deal of energy and seriousness to ‘stay with’ an awareness of this fact, rather than to ‘escape’ by allowing the mind to dart into some other subject, or otherwise lose awareness of the actual state of affairs. Such attention, going immensely beyond what is merely verbal or intellectual, can actually bring the root of the paradox into awareness, and thus the paradox dissolves when its nullity and absurdity are clearly seen, felt and understood.

It has to be emphasised, however, that as long as a paradox is treated as a problem, it can never be dissolved. On the contrary, the ‘problem’ can do nothing but grow and proliferate in ever increasing confusion. For it is an essential feature of thought that once the mind accepts a problem, then it is appropriate for the brain to keep on working until it finds a solution. This feature is indeed necessary for proper rational thinking. Thus, if a person were confronted by a real problem (e.g, the need to obtain food) and dropped it before it was adequately solved, the result could be disastrous. In any case, such a mode of operation would indicate an unhealthy flightiness or lack of seriousness. On the other hand, if the mind treats a paradox as if it were a real problem, then, since the paradox has no ‘solution’, the mind is caught in the paradox forever. Each apparent solution is found to be inadequate, and only leads on to new questions of a yet more muddled nature. Thus, a paradox which has taken root early in life (e.g., that arising out of a situation in which a child is made to feel a sense of inadequacy) may continue for the whole of a person’s life, always changing in detail, growing more and more confused, but remaining the same in essence. And when the person becomes aware of the disorder in his mind, but describes this disorder as a problem, then this very step makes the activity around the paradox both more intense and more confused. Clearly, then, it is important to see the difference between a problem and a paradox, and to respond to each of these in a way that is appropriate to it.

This distinction is important, not only psychologically for the individual, but also for human relationships, and ultimately for establishing a proper order of society. Thus, one can see that it is wrong to describe a breakdown in human relationships as a problem. For example, it is now widely found that parents and children cannot communicate freely and easily. The paradox is that all concerned seem to understand their common humanity and mutual dependence, which imply the need to be open to each other, while nevertheless each person feels that his own particular ‘needs’ are being ignored or rejected by the other, so that he is ‘hurt’ and reacts with a ‘defence mechanism’ preventing him from really listening to what the other person means to say.

A similar paradox operates broadly throughout the whole of society, between different age groups, races, social classes, nations, etc. Thus, consider the prevailing tendency toward nationalism. People in each nation apparently understand the need for common human feeling and truthfulness in communications. Yet, when the nation is in danger, so strong is the reaction of fear and aggression that everyone is immediately ready to cease to treat the enemy as human (eg each side is ready to use bombs, killing children on the other side, when individually they would be horrified at the notion of child murder.) And at home, they accept censorship, which implies that they agree to take what is false as true, because they believe such self-deception to be necessary for the survival of the nation.

Nationalism is thus seen to be rooted in a tremendous paradox. The absurdity of such a procedure becomes evident if one puts forth the question of how one can be ready to annihilate children of another nationality and yet love children of one’s own nationality. Such a question has no anser, and indeed the attempt to find an answer can only lead to further confusion. What isn needed is that people be ready to give serious and sustained attention to a paradoxical pattern that thas come to dominate their thinking and feeling.

Such paradoxical patterns go far beyond even questions of society and human relationships, and are indeed present in the whole of human thought and language. Since all that we do is shaped and formed by our modes of thinking and communication, these patterns based on paradoxes tend to bring about confusion in every phase of life.

Ultimately, this very pervasive set of patterns may be seen to grow out of a certain ‘root’ paradox. To help bring out what this root paradox is, one may first consider the fact that ordinarily, thought has some external object or state of affairs for its content. For example, one may think of a chair, a house, a tree, a storm, the earth in its orbit, etc. All of these share the characteristic that they are essentially independent of the content (ie our thoughts are free to take this content or to leave it, and instead to range over some other content, which observation may indicate to relevant.)

Evidently, such relative independence of the mode of activity of thought from its content is appropriate when one is engaged in thinking about practical and technical subjects. However, when one begins to think about himself, and especially about his own thoughts and feelings, then if one observes carefully, the will find that this approach leads to a paradoxical pattern of activity. The paradox is that whereas one is treating his own thinking and feeling as something separate from and independent of the thought that is thinking about them, it is evident that in fact there is, and can be, no such separation and independence.

Take, for example, the case of the man who is susceptible to flattery, because of suppressed memory of a painful feeling of inadequacy. This memory is itself part of his thinking, and vice versa, all his subsequent thinking is conditioned by the memory, in such a way that it will accept what is false as true, if to do this seems to relieve the remembered sense of pain even momentarily. So the thinking process is not separate from or independent of its content. Therefore, when such a person puts forth the problem of trying to control of overcome his tendency to deceive himself, then he is caught in the ‘root paradox’, ie that the activity of his thought is controlled by the very thing that it appears to be trying to control.

For ages, men have generally realized that thinking and feeling are commonly infected with greed, violence, self-deception, fear, aggressiveness, and other forms of reaction that lead to corruption and confusion. For the most part, however, all of this has been regarded as a problem, and thus men have sought to overcome or control the disorder in their own nature in countless ways. For example, all societies have instituted a set of punishments, aimed at frightening people into the right behavior, along with a set of rewards aimed at enticing them toward the same end. Because this has proved to be inadequate, men have further set up systems of morals and ethics, along with various religious notions, with the hope that these would enable people, of their own accord, to control their ‘wrong’ or ‘evil’ thoughts and feelings. But this, too, has not really produced the desired result.

And indeed since the disorder in man’s nature is the outcome of a paradox, no attempt to treat it as a problem can bring this disorder to an end. On the contrary, such attempts will generally add to the confusion and thus, in the long run, they may even produce more harm than good.

At present, mankind is faced with an almost explosive rate of increase of the sort of difficulties that arise out of the attempt to treat the disorder in his own thinking and feeling as if this were a problem. Thus, it is now more urgent than ever that we give attention not only to this outward state of affairs, but also to the inward dullness and non-perceptiveness which allows us to go on failing to notice the paradox in thinking and feeling in which the outward confusion has its deep origin. Each human being has to see that the very feelings and ideas which his inclined to identify with his ‘innermost self’ are involved in paradox, through and through.

A mind caught in such paradox will inevitably fall into self-deception, aimed at the creation of illusions that appear to relieve the pain resulting from the attempt to go on with self-contradiction. Such a mind cannot possibly see the relationships of the individual and of society as they really are. And thus, the attempt to ‘solve one’s own problems’ and ‘to solve the problems of society’ will in fact be found to propagate the existing confusion, rather than to help bring it to an end.

Of course, this does not mean that all working toward the establishment of order in the life of the individual and of society should now be dropped, in favor of concentration on the disorder in the mind that prevents the ending of our general difficulties. Rather, the inward work and the outward work go hand in hand. But it has to be kept in mind that through centuries of habit and conditioning, our prevailing tendency is now to suppose that ‘basically we ourselves are all right’ and that our difficulties generally have outward caused, which can be treated as problems. And even when we do see that we are not in order inwardly, our habit is to suppose that we can point fairly definitely to what is wrong or lacking in ourselves, as if this were something different from or independent of the activity of thinking in which we formulate the ‘problem’ of correcting what is in error.

As has been seen, however, the very process of thought with which we consider our personal and social ‘problems’ is conditioned and controlled by the content which it seems to be considering so that, generally speaking, this thought can neither be free nor even really honest. What is called for, then, is a deep and intense awareness, going beyond the imagery and intellectual analysis of our confused process of thought, and capable of penetrating to the contradictory presuppositions and states of feeling in which the confusion originates.

Such awareness implies that we be ready to apprehend the many paradoxes that reveal themselves in our daily lives, in our larger-scale social relationships, and ultimately in the thinking and feeling that appear to constitute the ‘innermost self’ in each one of us.

In essence, therefore, what is needed is to go on with life in its wholeness and entirely, but with sustained, serious, careful attention to the fact that the mind, through centuries of conditioning, tends, for the most part, to be caught in paradoxes, and to mistake the resulting difficulties for problems.


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