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The Puzzle Instinct

The Meaning of Puzzles in Human Life

Marcel Danesi

Publication Year: 2002

One of the most famous anagrams of all time was constructed in the Middle Ages. The unknown author contrived it as a Latin dialogue between Pilate and Jesus. Jesus' answer to Pilate's question "What is truth" is phrased as an ingenious anagram of the letters of that very question: Pilate: Quid est veritas? ("What is truth?") Jesus: Est virqui adest. ("It is the man before you.")

The origin of anagrams is shrouded in mystery. One thing is clear, however -- in the ancient world, they were thought to contain hidden messages from the gods. Legend has it that even Alexander the Great (356--323 b.c.) believed in their prophetic power.
-- from Chapter Two

The most obvious explanation for the popularity of puzzles is that they provide a form of constructive entertainment. But in The Puzzle Instinct Marcel Danesi contends that the fascination with puzzles throughout the ages suggests something much more profound. Puzzles serve a deeply embedded need in people to make sense of things. Emerging at the same time in human history as myth, magic, and the occult arts, the puzzle instinct, he claims, led to discoveries in mathematics and science, as well as revolutions in philosophical thought.

Puzzles fill an existential void by providing "small-scale experiences of the large-scale questions that Life poses. The puzzle instinct is, arguably, as intrinsic to human nature as is humor, language, art, music, and all the other creative faculties that distinguish humanity from all other species."

Published by: Indiana University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

Why does everyone love a good puzzle, as the expression goes? Why do puzzle magazines, brain-challenging puzzle sections in newspapers, and game tournaments appeal to hordes of ordinary people from every walk of life? Is this widespread penchant for puzzles no more than a passing fad foisted by our market culture on a gullible, bored populace spoiled ...

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1 Why Puzzles?

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pp. 1-36

The great American author Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) once remarked that, for some enigmatic reason, human beings require that things be mysterious. Supporting Thoreau’s perceptive observation is the worldwide popularity of suspense thrillers, horror stories, and detective novels. But the penchant for mystery is not merely modern. Literary ...

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2 Puzzling Language

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pp. 37-70

As the oldest puzzle known, the Riddle of the Sphinx (chapter 1) is a perfect example of how puzzles tell a fascinating story about human affairs. The inability to solve the riddle had, as we saw, dire consequences for would-be heroes. While the repercussions of not being able to solve riddles today are not as catastrophic, it is nonetheless true that ...

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3 Puzzling Pictures

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pp. 71-111

To the naked eye, the opposite angles formed when two straight lines intersect appear to be equal. But this appearance, as obvious as it may seem, does not establish the angles as necessarily or always equal. In his great textbook of mathematical theory and method, known as Elements, the Greek mathematician Euclid (who lived around 300 B.C.) went beyond the evidence of eyesight and proved, beyond any iota of ...

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4 Puzzling Logic

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pp. 112-142

In the fifth century B.C. heated debates broke out frequently in Greece over one of the greatest philosophical puzzles of all time—how human beings think. Prominent in the debates were the philosopher Parmenides (born c. 515 B.C.) and his disciple Zeno of Elea (c. 489–c. 435 B.C.). In Zeno’s time, leading scholars had based mathematics on ...

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5 Puzzling Numbers

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pp. 143-177

As we saw in the opening chapter, some puzzles have played a significant role in the development of mathematics. Among the first works dealing with the basics of mathematical science one finds anthologies of puzzles. The Rhind Papyrus, as we saw, was most likely designed as an educational tool for teaching problem-solving, as a reference manual in practical mathematical theory, and as a source of brain-puzzling ...

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6 Puzzling Games

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pp. 178-207

These are, more than likely, game boards that the masons who were working on the temple scratched into the stone to provide entertainment for themselves as they toiled away (Olivastro 1993: 123). The game shown in figure A was left unfinished, and its rules have not as yet been deciphered. Game B is thought to be a predecessor of pentalpha, a board game that is still played in Greece and other parts of the world. Markers are moved from place to place around the board. The goal is to line the markers up in a certain order or in a certain configuration, or else to remove ...

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7 The Puzzle of Life

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pp. 208-235

Above all else, the purpose of this excursion into Puzzleland has been to argue, primarily by illustration, how creative and engaging the puzzle instinct is. Originating at the dawn of civilization, puzzles are among the oldest products of human ingenuity. The great American writer Henry Miller (1891–1980) once proclaimed that many of the seemingly ...


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pp. 236-253


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pp. 254-263


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pp. 265-269

E-ISBN-13: 9780253109194
E-ISBN-10: 0253109191
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253340948

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 176 figures
Publication Year: 2002