A catch-22 is a paradoxical situation from which an individual cannot escape because of contradictory rules. Catch-22s often result from rules, regulations, or procedures that an individual is subject to but has no control over. One connotation of the term is that the creators of the "Catch-22" have created arbitrary rules in order to justify and conceal their own abuse of power.
Origin and meaning
Joseph Heller coined the term in his 1961 novel Catch-22, which describes absurd bureaucratic constraints on soldiers in World War II. The term is introduced by the character Doc Daneeka, an army psychiatrist who invokes "Catch 22" to explain why any pilot requesting mental evaluation for insanity—hoping to be found not sane enough to fly and thereby escape dangerous missions—demonstrates his own sanity in making the request and thus cannot be declared insane.
"You mean there's a catch?"
"Sure there's a catch", Doc Daneeka replied. "Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy."
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
Different formulations of "Catch-22" appear throughout the novel. The term is applied to various loopholes and quirks of the military system, always with the implication that rules are inaccessible to and slanted against those lower in the hierarchy. In chapter 6, Yossarian is told that Catch-22 requires him to do anything his commanding officer tells him to do, regardless of whether these orders contradict orders from the officer's superiors.
"Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Yossarian shouted at her in bewildered, furious protest. "How did you know it was Catch-22? Who the hell told you it was Catch-22?"
"The soldiers with the hard white hats and clubs. The girls were crying. 'Did we do anything wrong?' they said. The men said no and pushed them away out the door with the ends of their clubs. 'Then why are you chasing us out?' the girls said. 'Catch 22,' the men said. All they kept saying was 'Catch-22, Catch-22. What does it mean, Catch 22? What is Catch-22?"
"Didn't they show it to you?" Yossarian demanded, stamping about in anger and distress. "Didn't you even make them read it?"
"They don't have to show us Catch-22," the old woman answered. "The law says they don't have to."
"What law says they don't have to?"
According to literature professor Ian Gregson, the old woman's narrative defines "Catch-22" more directly as the "brutal operation of power", stripping away the "bogus sophistication" of the earlier scenarios.
Other appearances in the novel
Besides referring to an unsolvable logical dilemma, Catch-22 is invoked to explain or justify the military bureaucracy. For example, in the first chapter it requires Yossarian to sign his name to letters that he censors while he is confined to a hospital bed. One clause mentioned in chapter 10 closes a loophole in promotions, which one private had been exploiting to reattain the attractive rank of Private First Class after any promotion. Through courts-martial for going AWOL, he would be busted in rank back to private, but Catch-22 limited the number of times he could do this before being sent to the stockade.
At another point in the book, a prostitute explains to Yossarian that she cannot marry him because he is crazy, and she will never marry a crazy man. She considers any man crazy who would marry a woman who is not a virgin. This closed logic loop clearly illustrated Catch-22 because by her logic, all men who refuse to marry her are sane and thus she would consider marriage; but as soon as a man agrees to marry her, he becomes crazy for wanting to marry a non-virgin, and is instantly rejected.
At one point, Captain Black attempts to pressure Milo into depriving Major Major of food as a consequence of not signing a loyalty oath that Major Major was never given an opportunity to sign in the first place. Captain Black asks Milo, "You're not against Catch-22, are you?"
In chapter 40, Catch-22 forces Colonels Korn and Cathcart to promote Yossarian to Major and ground him rather than simply sending him home. They fear that if they do not, others will refuse to fly, just as Yossarian did.
Significance of the number 22
Heller originally wanted to call the phrase, and hence the book, by other numbers, but he and his publishers eventually settled on 22. The number has no particular significance; it was chosen more or less for euphony. The title was originally Catch-18, but Heller changed it after the popular Mila 18 was published a short time beforehand.
James E. Combs and Dan D. Nimmo suggest that the idea of a "catch-22" has gained popular currency because so many people in modern society are exposed to frustrating bureaucratic logic. They write:
Everyone, then, who deals with organizations understands the bureaucratic logic of Catch-22. In high school or college, for example, students can participate in student government, a form of self-government and democracy that allows them to decide whatever they want, just so long as the principal or dean of students approves. This bogus democracy that can be overruled by arbitrary fiat is perhaps a citizen's first encounter with organizations that may profess 'open' and libertarian values, but in fact are closed and hierarchical systems. Catch-22 is an organizational assumption, an unwritten law of informal power that excepts the organization from responsibility and accountability, and puts the individual in the absurd position of being excepted for the convenience or unknown purposes of the organization. 
The archetypal catch-22, as formulated by Heller, involves the case of John Yossarian, a U.S. Army Air Forces bombardier, who wishes to be grounded from combat flight. This will only happen if he is evaluated by the squadron's flight surgeon and found "unfit to fly". "Unfit" would be any pilot who is willing to fly such dangerous missions, as one would have to be mad to volunteer for possible death. However, to be evaluated, he must request the evaluation, an act that is considered sufficient proof for being declared sane. These conditions make it impossible to be declared "unfit".
The "Catch-22" is that "anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy". Hence, pilots who request a mental fitness evaluation are sane, and therefore must fly in combat. At the same time, if an evaluation is not requested by the pilot, he will never receive one and thus can never be found insane, meaning he must also fly in combat.
Therefore, Catch-22 ensures that no pilot can ever be grounded for being insane even if he is.
A logical formulation of this situation is:
- (Premise: If a person is excused from flying (E) because of mental illness, that must be because he is both insane (I), and requests an evaluation (R));
- (Premise: If a person is insane (I), he should not realize that he is, and would have no reason to request an evaluation)
- (2, Definition of implication: since an insane person would not request an evaluation, it follows that all people must either not be insane, or not request an evaluation)
- (3, De Morgan: since all people must either not be insane, or not request an evaluation, it follows that no person is both insane and requests an evaluation)
- (4, 1, Modus Tollens: since a person may be excused from flying only if he is both insane and requests an evaluation, but no person can be both insane and request an evaluation, it follows that no person can be excused from flying for reasons of insanity)
Philosophy professor Laurence Goldstein argues that the 'airman's dilemma' is logically not even a condition that is true under no circumstances; it is a "vacuous biconditional" that is ultimately meaningless. Goldstein writes:
The catch is this: what looks like a statement of the conditions under which an airman can be excused flying dangerous missions reduces not to the statement
- (i) `An airman can be excused flying dangerous missions if and only if Cont’ (where `Cont’ is a contradiction)
(which could be a mean way of disguising an unpleasant truth), but to the worthlessly empty announcement
- (ii) `An airman can be excused flying dangerous missions if and only if it is not the case that an airman can be excused flying dangerous missions’
If the catch were (i), that would not be so bad – an airman would at least be able to discover that under no circumstances could he avoid combat duty. But Catch-22 is worse – a welter of words that amounts to nothing; it is without content, it conveys no information at all.
- Begging the question
- Cornelian dilemma
- Double bind
- False dilemma
- Ironic process theory
- No-win situation
- List of paradoxes
- Pyrrhic victory
- Social trap
- Vicious circle
Related stories and logic problems
- Hobson's choice – Choice between taking what is offered and taking nothing; named after James Hobson, owner of a livery stable who required his customers to take the horse nearest the door
- Kobayashi Maru – A scenario involving a choice presented to a cadet in Star Trek where they either violate military regulations concerning the rendering of aid to a freighter crippled by a mine and in imminent threat of destruction, or violate the terms of a peace treaty by crossing into enemy territory (where the freighter lies in distress), risking one's company and crew to attempt to save the crippled freighter, and committing an act of war in the process of violating that treaty
- The Lady, or the Tiger? – A short story involving a princess who must make a decision in a no-win situation
- Morton's Fork
- "Catch-22". Random House Dictionary (Random House). 2012.
- "Catch 22", Oxford Advanced Learners' Dictionary, accessed 16 August 2013.
- Scriptures for a Generation: What We Were Reading in the '60s - Page 162 Philip D. Beidler - 1995 "It is Catch-22: Doc Daneeka explains how anybody who is crazy has a right to ask to be removed from combat status but how anybody who asks is"
- Margot A. Henriksen, Dr. Strangelove's America: Society and Culture in the Atomic Age; University of California Press, 1997; ISBN 0-520-08310-5; p. 250.
- "Joseph Heller", Gale Encyclopedia of Biography, accessed via Answers.com, 16 August 2013.
- James E. Combs & Dan D. Nimmo, The Comedy of Democracy; Westport, CT: Praeger (Greenwood Publishing Group), 1996; ISBN 0-275-94979-6; p. 152.
- Ian Gregson, Character and Satire in Post War Fiction; London: Continuum, 2006; ISBN 9781441130006; p. 38.
- Aldridge, John W. (1986-10-26). "The Loony Horror of it All – 'Catch-22' Turns 25". The New York Times. p. Section 7, Page 3, Column 1. Retrieved 2011-01-09.
- "A classic by any other name", The Telegraph, 18 November 2007.
- Richard King, "22 Going on 50: Half a century later, the world is full of Catch-22s"; The Smart Set, 20 July 2011.
- Heller, Joseph (1999). Catch-22: A Novel. Simon and Schuster. p. 52. ISBN 978-0-684-86513-3. Retrieved 2011-01-09.
- Laurence Goldstein, "The Barber, Russell's paradox, catch-22, God, contradiction and more: A defence of a Wittgensteinian conception of contradiction"; in The law of non-contradiction: new philosophical essays, ed. Graham Priest, Jc Beall & Bradley Armour-Garb; Oxford University Press, 2004.