Russell's paradox

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Russell in 1907

In the foundations of mathematics, Russell's paradox (also known as Russell's antinomy), discovered by Bertrand Russell in 1901, showed that the naive set theory of Richard Dedekind and Frege leads to a contradiction. The same paradox had been discovered a year before by Ernst Zermelo but he did not publish the idea, which remained known only to Hilbert, Husserl and other members of the University of Göttingen.

Let R be the set of all sets that are not members of themselves. If R qualifies as a member of itself, it would contradict its own definition as a set containing sets that are not members of themselves. On the other hand, if such a set is not a member of itself, it would qualify as a member of itself by the same definition. This contradiction is Russell's paradox. Symbolically:

In 1908, two ways of avoiding the paradox were proposed, Russell's type theory and the Zermelo set theory, the first constructed axiomatic set theory. Zermelo's axioms went well beyond Frege's axioms of extensionality and unlimited set abstraction, and evolved into the now-canonical Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory (ZF).


Informal presentation

Let us call a set "abnormal" if it is a member of itself, and "normal" otherwise. For example, take the set of all squares. That set is not itself a square, and therefore is not a member of the set of all squares. So it is "normal". On the other hand, if we take the complementary set that contains all non-squares, that set is itself not a square and so should be one of its own members. It is "abnormal".

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