Gnomicon 126

If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.

Gnomicon  126
Wednesday 12 September 2012

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I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life.
J. D. Salinger (1 Jan 1919 -27 Jan 2010)

Who doesn’t remember reading about Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye (1951)?  To me it is a quintessential American novel of mid-twentieth century, right up there with [invidiosum absit omen!] Jack Kerouac’s Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty in On the Road (1957) and Joseph Heller’s John Yossarian in Catch-22 (1961). You could do worse to gain some sense of what that era – its Zeitgeist — was all about from these three novels alone.

But here I want to focus on Salinger’s self-contradictory paraprosdokian in the statement above.  The underlying idea is familiar enough to us from the so-called ‘Epimenides Paradox’ – this murky Epimenides (~600 BCE) is said to have been a philosopher from Crete who made that (in)famous statement, “All Cretans are liars”. St. Paul, in his Epistle to St.Titus, long after the fact so reports (Titus 1:12), adducing an utterance made by a certain Cretan: Κρῆτες ἀεὶ ψεῦσται Krētes aei pseustai ‘Cretans always lie’, or, if you will, “All Cretans are liars”.

If you think about that one for a sec, you might well wonder what to make of it.  If a Cretan says all Cretans are liars, then he, himself a Cretan, is lying when he says that all Cretans are liars.  Therefore his statement that all Cretans are liars must itself be a lie.  But if it is a lie to claim that all Cretans are liars, then all Cretans are not liars, he being a Cretan himself.

Now, Salinger did have a wicked sense of humor and irony, and although I never asked the man, I have no doubt that he knew exactly what he was saying, and the innately infuriating (to me!) paradox of the statement surely did not escape him. So … is Salinger a liar (we take his assertion at face value, that “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life”) and therefore his statement that he is a liar is itself a lie — and therefore he is, like that Cretan of yore, in fact not a liar?  You could go crazy massaging the logic of that one in your head: a positive assertion ends up stating its own negative!

This “Epimenides Paradox” is essentially a problem in linguistic logic – and that is a field I know very little about in any formal sense.  But if (unlike me!) you are of that philosophical bent, and since I personally have no resolution to the paradox that seems even remotely reasonable, I invite you to consider this philosophically formal discussion at your leisure and length.

But don’t blame me for your dogged (and, I would imagine, dead-end) quest for a solution.

Blame Salinger!

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