AskDefine | Define dilemma

Dictionary Definition

dilemma n : state of uncertainty or perplexity especially as requiring a choice between equally unfavorable options [syn: quandary]

User Contributed Dictionary

see Dilemma



First attested 1523, from dilemma, from Ancient δίλήμμα (dilémma), "double proposition", from δι (di) + (lémma), premise, proposition


  • , /daɪˈlɛmə/ or /dɪˈlɛmə/, /daI"lEm@/ or /dI"lEm@/
  • Rhymes: -ɛmə


  1. A circumstance in which a choice must be made between two alternatives that seem equally undesirable.
  2. (disputed) A difficult circumstance or problem.
  3. A type of syllogism of the form "if A is true then B is true; if C is true then D is true; either A or C is true; therefore either B or D is true".

Usage notes

  • The original meaning of this term is a choice between two alternatives only, by dint of its etymology. While some speakers and writers use the term as a synonym for "problem", this usage is considered nonstandard, and is avoided by careful users.


  • (circumstance in which a choice must be made between two alternatives):
  • (difficult circumstance): bind, fix, pickle, problem, quandary
  • (in logic):

Related terms


circumstance in which a choice must be made between two alternatives
difficult circumstance
in logic



  1. dilemma (between two alternatives)



  1. dilemma (between two alternatives)

Related terms

Extensive Definition

A dilemma (Greek δί-λημμα "double proposition") is a problem offering at least two solutions or possibilities, of which none are practically acceptable; one in this position has been traditionally described as being impaled on the horns of a dilemma, neither horn being comfortable.
The dilemma is sometimes used as a rhetorical device, in the form "you must accept either A, or B"; here A and B would be propositions each leading to some further conclusion. Applied in this way, it may be a fallacy, a false dichotomy.
In formal logic, the definition of a dilemma differs markedly from everyday usage. Two options are still present, but choosing between them is immaterial because they both imply the same conclusion. Symbolically expressed thus:
A \vee B, A \Rightarrow C, B \Rightarrow C \vdash C
Which can be translated informally as "one (or both) of A or B is known to be true, but they both imply C, so regardless of the truth values of A and B we can conclude C."
Horned dilemmas can present more than two choices. The number of choices of Horned dilemmas can be used in their alternative names, such as two-pronged (two-horned) or dilemma proper , or three-pronged (three-horned) or trilemma, and so on.
Constructive dilemmas--
1. (If X, then Y) and (If W, then Z).
2. X or W.
3. Therefore, Y or Z.
Destructive dilemmas--
1. (If X, then Y) and (If W, then Z).
2. Not Y or not Z.
3. Therefore, not X or not W.

Responses to a Dilemma

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Robert Pirsig outlines possible responses to a dilemma. The classical responses are to either choose one of the two horns and refute the other or alternatively to refute both horns by showing that there are additional choices. Pirsig then mentions three illogical or rhetorical responses. One can "throw sand in the bull's eyes" by, for example, questioning the competence of the questioner. One can "sing the bull to sleep" by, for example, stating that the answer to the question is beyond one's own humble powers and asking the questioner for help. Finally one can "refuse to enter the arena" by, for example, stating that the question is unanswerable.
dilemma in German: Dilemma
dilemma in Spanish: Dilema
dilemma in French: Dilemme
dilemma in Hebrew: דילמה
dilemma in Dutch: Dilemma
dilemma in Japanese: ジレンマ
dilemma in Portuguese: Dilema
dilemma in Slovak: Dilema
dilemma in Finnish: Dilemma
dilemma in Swedish: Dilemma

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Aristotelian sorites, Goclenian sorites, Gordian knot, Scylla and Charybdis, baffle, bafflement, bewilderment, bind, bother, box, catch-22, categorical syllogism, choice of Hercules, confoundment, confusion, corner, crux, deadlock, difficulty, discomposure, disconcert, disconcertedness, disconcertion, disconcertment, disturbance, embarrassment, enigma, enthymeme, figure, fix, hole, impasse, jam, knot, knotty point, mode, modus tollens, mood, mystery, mystification, no choice, node, nodus, nonplus, only choice, oxymoron, paradox, paralogism, perplexity, perturbation, pickle, plight, pons asinorum, poser, pother, predicament, problem, prosyllogism, pseudosyllogism, puzzle, puzzlement, quandary, riddle, rule, rule of deduction, scrape, snooker, sorites, spot, squeeze, stalemate, stew, stymie, syllogism, teaser, trouble, unassuredness, upset, vexed question
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