What are some really confusing paradoxes

The forms of paradox according to Watzlawick. Basics and criticism



1. Paradoxes according to Watzlawick
1.1. Introduction to the concept of paradox
1.2. Forms of paradox
1.2.1. Logical-mathematical paradoxes
1.2.2. Paradoxical definitions
1.2.3. Pragmatic Paradoxes Paradoxical calls to action Double-bind

2. Criticism of Watzlawick's paradoxical concept
2.1 Are there any pragmatic paradoxes?
2.1.1. The barber
2.1.2. The Be Spontaneous Paradox
2.1.3. The double bond
2.2 Personal evaluation




In the following term paper, I have endeavored to clarify Watzlawick's partially difficult to access or confusing ideas and ideas about paradoxes and communication and to subject them to an appropriate, critical evaluation.

I am mainly referring to the well-known works “Human Communication” and “How Real is Reality” by Paul Watzlawick himself as well as the book “The Watzlawick Myth and the Consequences” by Bettina Girgensohn - Marchand.

I. Paradoxes according to Watzlawick

1.1. Introduction to the concept of paradox

The True Foreign Word Dictionary translates the concept of paradox relatively simply as absurdity.

Watzlawick himself provides a much more complex explanation by presenting a paradox than a Contradiction defined by the consequently deduction from consistent premises results.

Too good German, therefore, a contradiction that follows a correct derivation from non-mutually exclusive prerequisites.

In this context, Watzlawick speaks of the theoretical distinguishability of true and false paradoxes.

A true paradox can, in a certain sense, be viewed as the end of formalized logic, whereby it must be assumed that in fact the formation of a logical conclusion is fundamentally impossible.

A false paradox, on the other hand, results from conscious or unconscious fallacies or thinking errors. Put simply, information or options that would have made the logical conclusion at least theoretically possible were ignored.

This quickly results in the very clear problem of clearly differentiating between right and wrong, because this can only be carried out on the basis of current knowledge.

A nice example to illustrate this is the legend of the unfit to fly bumblebee. :

For a long time the flight ability of the Hummel physicists and biologists was considered a small miracle of nature, since according to the known aerodynamic laws an object with 1.7g body weight was impossible to fly due to a wing area of ​​only 1 sq.

Up to this point we have an apparently true paradox in front of us, because on the one hand we are dealing with apparently valid premises (tried and tested aerodynamic laws and a verifiable ratio of body weight to wing area) and on the other hand the flight activity of the bumblebee an event that is also true because it can be observed.

The whole thing only worked until the day on which the idea came up that the applied laws were developed for flying objects with rigid wing surfaces, but this does not apply to insects, as these are known to have neither engines nor propellers but rather the wing beat Use locomotion.

To investigate more closely, a bumblebee was brought into a wind tunnel, whereupon it was possible to prove that on the one hand, other laws of aerodynamics were actually to be applied and, on the other hand, thermodynamic factors (in the sense of lift due to air turbulence) are used by the bumblebee.

This turns the true paradox into an obviously false one. A process that is not a rarity either in science or in everyday social life.

1.2. Forms of paradox

Watzlawick separates the phenomenon of paradox into three classifications relevant to human communication. :

1. Logical-mathematical paradoxes (antinomies)
2. paradoxical definitions (semantic antinomies)
3. Pragmatic paradoxes (paradoxical requests)

In the following, I would like to go into more detail about these very different variants.

1.2.1. Logical-mathematical paradoxes

Logical-mathematical paradoxes (also called antinomies) are according to Watzlawick a logical statement that is both counterinductive and provable.

Put simply, this statement is limited to the fact that a statement cannot be both true and untrue at the same time.

As an example, only the "classic" in the truest sense is listed here, as it is also used by Watzlawick for clarification:

The class of all classes that do not contain themselves as an element.

A class is understood here as a grouping of objects that share a certain property and at the same time is so clearly defined that objects outside of this class are clearly excluded from it.

For example, the class for “ballpoint pen” has the properties writing instrument and refill with ball. According to the definition, everything that is suitable for writing and has a refill with a ball falls into the “ballpoint pen” class and everything that does not write or has no refill with a ball falls into the automatically created class of “non-ballpoint pens”.

The decisive factor here is that an object is not able to be “ballpoint pen” and “non-ballpoint pen” at the same time.

1.2.2. Paradoxical definitions

Semantic Paradoxes[1] are the result of a contradicting language in which the classification or type theory, as treated under the logical-mathematical paradoxes, fails and ultimately leads to recurring circular conclusions.

For example, if I say: "All Germans lie", the question arises whether I am lying now, because I am of German origin.

1.2.3. Pragmatic Paradoxes

At Watzlawick, the pragmatic paradoxes are by far the largest area, but naturally they also provide the lion's share of controversial ideas and theories, which is why I dedicate myself to them in this paper.

First of all, it should be said that paradoxes affect large parts of Watzlawick's theories in at least two ways. On the one hand, Watzlawick sees paradoxes, in particular the “pragmatic paradoxes”, as triggers of confusion i.S. a “structural weakness” of a communication and, on the other hand, as an important component of the double bond

While Watzlawick regards direct transmission or translation errors in the transmission of messages as sources of confusion, with the paradoxical messages he now also directly includes the properties of a message as a possible cause of confusion. Paradoxical calls to action

The paradoxical property is defined in this context from the fact that a message contains two incompatible messages.

He sees the cause of the incompatibility as the fact that the content of the message is applied to oneself.

The simplest example of this approach is given by Watzlawick with a sign that reads “Ignore this sign!”.

In his view, this inevitably amounts to a state of confusion, since the violation of the invitation occurs simultaneously with the notice of it, which makes "appropriate" behavior impossible.

At this point Watzlawick also lists the so-called Sei-Spontaneous Paradoxes. Here we encounter the problem that the meaning of the request becomes absurd the moment I actually follow it, because spontaneity is primarily defined by the lack of a conscious and intentional directionality, which involves a process of the type "I should be spontaneous, so I behave like that too “can no longer be realized.

A particularly controversial example from the group of paradoxical calls to action is Watzlawick's story of the village barber, which in his opinion is particularly suitable for explaining the concept:

The barber of a village shaves all men who do not shave themselves, which leads to the exhaustive division of the villagers into self-shavers and non-self-shavers.

In his opinion, the attempt to assign the barber himself to a group (self-razor or non-self-razor) leads straight into a paradox with the statement that the barber cannot exist from a logical point of view.

To make the representation a little more opaque, Watzlawick turns the barber into a soldier who receives the order from his superior to shave all soldiers who do not shave themselves and no other.

He defines the essential components of the situation as:

1. A binding complementary relationship between officer and recipient of orders.
2. A command that must be obeyed but only if it is not obeyed. (The command defines the barber as a self-razor if and only if he does not shave himself, and vice versa.)
3. The recipient of the order can neither leave the situation nor comment critically (meta-communicate), as this would amount to insubordination. (Watzlawick 1969; p. 179)

In Watzlawick's opinion, the soldier is in an untenable situation here, since the Babier cannot logically exist and the command is devoid of any meaning.

Since this example is logically difficult to understand and should still raise one or the other question, I dealt with it in more detail in the second chapter. Double-bind

The double bond is of particular importance not least because of the fact that von Watzlawick is the cause of behavior that is equally schizophrenic[2] Disease pictures are seen and thus at least partially contradicts the previously valid opinion, which primarily viewed thought disorders, ego weaknesses, etc. as their triggers and only secondarily included influences on and through the social environment.

In this context, Watzlawick quotes Bateson:

"The schizophrenic must live in a world in which the course of events is such that his unusual communication behavior is appropriate in a certain sense." (Watzlawick 1969; p. 195)

In other words, this statement contains the assertion that a, in a certain sense schizophrenic, environment is to be assumed that at least partially corresponds to the unconventional communication style of the “patient”.

Watzlawick defines the double bond as follows:

1. Two or more people are in a close relationship with one another, which for one or all of them has a high degree of physical and / or psychological vitality.
2. In this context, a message is given that a) says something, b) says something about its own statement and c) is composed in such a way that these two statements negate one another or are incompatible. So if a message is a call to action, it is disregarded by being followed and followed by being disregarded; if it is a definition of me or you, then the person defined by it is only if it is not, and it is not if it is. The meaning of the message is undecidable.
3. The recipient of this communication cannot escape the relationship structure it has established by either metacommunicating about it (commenting on it) or by withdrawing from the relationship ... This situation can often be made even further for the recipient by the more or less pronounced Prohibition, it may be difficult to become aware of the contradiction or the actual context. So a person trapped in a double bond runs the risk of being punished for correct perceptions and furthermore being labeled malicious or insane if they dare to claim that there is an essential difference between their actual perceptions and what they should be perceiving . (Watzlawick 1969; p. 195/196)

In Watzlawick's view, illogical, double-binding situations and relationship constellations belong to a certain extent to human reality, but usually only have a short-term character, even if this does not rule out traumatic effects.

However, he fears a real danger “... when double bonds become a chronic phenomenon and thus slowly become a habitual expectation. Of course, this is particularly true of childhood, as children tend to conclude that their own experiences must also be those of others and must therefore have universal validity. " (Watzlawick 1969; p. 197)

The double bond can thus become an important part of a relationship structure and, in the long term, destroy the linearity of interpersonal communication processes and the manageability of cause-effect relationships, which ultimately makes it almost impossible to derive the causes of pathological relationship systems due to the effects on both sides of the double bond.

Watzlawick lists three behaviors as possible reactions to a double bond.

1. The person concerned assumes that he has either overlooked important, clarifying clues, or necessary or helpful information has been withheld from him, which can ultimately lead to an extension of the attempted explanations to unlikely and obviously wrong solutions.
2. The person concerned takes refuge in an exact observance of the rules, which are absurd for him, and takes refuge in their at least outwardly unrestricted acceptance.
3. The person concerned withdraws from interpersonal contacts as far as possible.

As already noted, according to Watzlawick, these reactions to the undecidability of a double bond correspond to the clinical pictures of schizophrenia, especially paranoia[3], hebephrenia[4] and catatonia[5].

II. Criticism of Watzlawick's paradoxical concept

2.1 Are there any pragmatic paradoxes?

For the treatment of this section I mainly dealt with the chapter "Paradoxe Communication" from Bettina Girgensohn - Marchand's book "Mythos Watzlawick", which seems very informative to me and is therefore ideally suited to better understanding Watzlawick's ideas of paradoxes on the one hand, but on the other also clearly and comprehensibly helps to discover and understand the abundant weak points.

2.1.1. The barber

One of Watzlawick's main problems seems to be his occasional inability to follow his own definitions clearly. As I already mentioned under 1.1. wrote, Watzlawick himself defines a paradox as ... a contradiction that results from the consequent deduction from non-contradicting premises.

Seemingly without being aware of it, he is simultaneously undermining his example of the barber, who is ordered to shave all soldiers who do not shave themselves and only those.

According to Watzlawick, the unfortunate barber now finds himself in an “untenable” position because he cannot be sure what applies to him and is excluded from the possibility of reassurance due to the risk of insubordination.

As he himself says, this paradox actually only works through the assumption of a position that excludes this possibility of reassurance or direct withdrawal from the situation.

From a purely logical point of view, this command is really nonsensical, but the question of the actual closeness to reality arises because in everyday life the barber would hardly get the idea that this command can also be applied directly to his own beard.

Girgensohn - Marchands:

If you say to a geriatric nurse: "bathe everyone who does not bathe themselves", it will not occur to her that she herself is the object of this invitation.

Apart from that, I can hardly imagine that even the request for clarification would be interpreted as insubordination.

What is more important in my opinion, however, is the fact that, strictly speaking, it is not a paradox but merely a contradicting order under threat of punishment. The command defines the barber as a self-razor if and only if he does not shave himself, and vice versa. "(Watzlawick 1969; p. 179)

This is in direct contradiction to Watzlawick's definition of paradox, which is fundamentally from consistent premises goes out.

2.1.2. The Be Spontaneous Paradox

As with the story of the barber, Watzlawick seems to have difficulties with the be-spontaneous paradoxes to include realistic contexts and thus creates paradoxes that actually aren't.

The inconsistency of an invitation to spontaneity only arises if I completely ignore all surrounding variables such as context or expression and break this sentence down to a purely technical-logical level in an almost pea-counting way, which should hardly ever occur in everyday life.

Another quote from Girgensohn - Marchands:

One can imagine that they (the request for spontaneity) are a hint (“here you can behave more freely”), a wish (“if you weren't always so careful”), a request (“break away from the given role “) Means, and one will react to this in different ways.

2.1.3. The double bond

Girgensohn-Marchand expressly points out that the double bond is a phenomenon that can hardly be empirically grasped, that the hair is often more or less pulled and that a clear identification, including Watzlawick, is practically completely elusive.

As a demonstration for double bindings, Watzlawick (1969; p. 199) uses the example of a mother whose schizophrenic son demolished the furniture with a small bore rifle. When asked how she dealt with this situation, she replied: "I told him for the hundredth time not to play in the apartment."

Of course, this is a rather vague statement that does not provide the son with any information about whether the use of firearms is strictly forbidden or should only take place outside the home, which would be an appropriate behavior that is acceptable to the mother.

On the other hand, however, the question arises as to where there is a double bond here. It is true that there is a close dependency relationship between mother and child, especially if the child is not viable on its own, but neither the statement and the statement about the statement are in a paradoxical relationship, nor do I see an impossibility of metacommunication. The latter, however, with reservation, as it is of course possible that the son is unable to metacommunicate due to his illness.

According to Girgensohn-Marchand, in families of schizophrenics, paradoxical calls for action are generally less likely than a rather unclear and imprecise manner of communication at all levels (also in the sense of incongruities), which leads to a multitude of hidden and difficult-to-understand contradictions from which it is difficult meaningful courses of action or behavior are to be derived.

She points out that there can certainly be family structures that help mental illnesses break out (in the sense of escape behavior), but it should also be taken into account that in general it is hardly possible to speak of a real Watzlawick double bond and furthermore no verifiable relationship between them Double bond and schizophrenia could be established.

In short, the double bond in the sense of Watzlawick is a rather obscure, barely comprehensible concept that he also presents so unspecifically that an empirical comprehensibility, let alone a medically usable, uniform definition seems impossible.

2.2. Personal evaluation

I am firmly convinced that a theory, or in this case a theory building, receives its full value as far as possible through meaningful and accessible examples that relate to reality.

Girgensohn-Marchand's book at the latest made it clear to me that Watzlawick regularly ignores his own statements in order to construct supporting examples that appear more or less clear at first glance, but which on closer inspection tend to range from absolutely incomprehensible to clearly flawed.

What particularly annoyed me and what I didn't even need Girgensohn-Marchand for was the frequent neglect of contextual and personal assignments of meaning by the communication partners.

Ultimately, this leads to the fact that Watzlawick apparently starts from a person who basically concentrates in a machine-like manner on a kind of "technical or mathematical logic" of statements and behavior and only uses a universal program for evaluating messages, but only reduced to the formal logic has available that regardless of the dynamic variables of the surrounding situation and the individual personality decides about paradox or clarity.

Sometimes it seems to me that Watzlawick has used a concept to substantiate his theories that is based on all the information that could lead to that one situation just would be described as "contradicting" or "unclear" to create artificially inextricable paradoxes.

In light of this, such a procedure is not simply a departure from important scientific principles, but almost a reversal of them. In other words, when I'm looking for an answer, I usually do this by looking for all the impossible answers and proving that they don't apply. The truth must then inevitably be in what remains. Watzlawick crosses out the possible answers and says that the question cannot be solved ergo there must be a paradox.

What seems particularly important to me is that I personally believe that paradox is fundamentally a term that is almost inevitably of a temporary nature.

If I take my example of the "flight unfit bumblebee" again, it becomes clear that the consistency of the premises can only really be ascertained as long as I lack information or I am wrongly merging the existing information.

This or something similar should also be the case in everyday social life. A situation or relationship can only take on a contradicting or confusing, unclear character up to the point in time, as long as I lack “data” or I am not able to bring them together correctly.

However, like Girgensohn-Marchand, I believe that paradoxes regularly arise from these contradictions in view of the additional information transmitted in a communicative process, the contextual references and, last but not least, the high level of dynamism and adaptability of people.

It is also noteworthy that Watzlawick manages to use quite unreal relationship constellations that exclude metacommunication in one way or another and thus actually creates an environment in which, in a certain way, the mathematical paradox takes hold and the concept of pragmatic paradoxes from behind leads to absurdity.

Incidentally, I believe that the main problem is not the actual paradox, but the states of no answers or alternatives that some people create for themselves when they strive to fathom everything down to the last and get so bogged down, the forest for the trees no longer see. And that is more a question of the ability or the courage to make decisions than of the actual impossibility of solving a problem.


I have already said the essentials of my position on the subject of “paradoxes”. In retrospect, I am quite surprised to find that this topic is far more interesting and accessible than it appeared to me when I first worked on it in the context of the last presentation, but this should not mean that I now perceive it as particularly easy.

In particular, the sure differentiation between contradiction and paradox has given me difficulties with somewhat more complex issues. To mention my Hummel example again, at the end of the housework I wavered whether the premises are really free of contradictions or not. Because on the one hand I can derive a result (inability to fly) from them that is in contrast to reality (ability to fly), but on the other hand I can also use the flight activity and the physical inability to fly as premises ... and these would be contradicting what would stand in the way of a paradox.

So I also ask myself whether it is not also a question of perspective as to what can and cannot be described as paradox.

So the whole thing remains a confusing and difficult to structure topic for me, probably not least because I asked myself whether “paradoxes” actually exist.

Actually, I tend to believe that there has to be a logical answer to everything and that I am simply unable to find it due to a lack of information.

From this point of view, it then depends on whether I approach the whole thing with the necessary calm and patience and not stiffen up on finding these answers but also accept ambiguities.

As already indicated in my personal evaluation, I think that the tendency to want to know everything down to the smallest detail is the real problem and that is what makes a person, especially in the sense of the word. schizophrenia, can make you sick.

If I was born into an “unclear” social structure, as is the case with the families mentioned, I may be more desperate for answers and thus steer myself more and more into apparently paradoxical situations.


True dictionary of foreign words - online edition 2003 / www.wissen.de

Waldow, Michael (2003) / Communication Disorders; Concept and system

Watzlawick, Paul (1998) / How Real is Reality? / Munich: Piper

Watzlawick, Paul; Beavin, Janet H.; Don D. Jackson (1996) / Human Communication / Bern: Hans Huber

Arnold; Eysenck; Miles (1997) / Lexicon of Psychology / Augsburg: Bechtermünz Verlag

Rahn; Mahnkopf (2000) / Textbook Psychiatrie / Bonn: Psychiatrie Verlag

Girgensohn-Marchand / The Watzlawick Myth and the Consequences / Weinheim: Deutscher Studien Verlag


[1] Semantics: study of the meaning of words and their changes

[2] The term schizophrenia encompasses a larger group of serious psychoses that manifest themselves in a number of distinct psychological symptoms and pathological behaviors. These include, for example, manic-depressive illnesses, delusions (e.g. paranoia / paranoia / paraphrenia).

[3] Paranoia: e.g. paranoia or megalomania.

[4] Hebephrenia: cf. Dementia praecox; Confusion, dementia, affective lability.

[5] Catatonia: form of schizophrenia in which motor symptoms are in the foreground.