Definition of Aporia

Aporia is a figure of speech wherein a speaker poses a question as an expression of doubt, usually about how to proceed in a certain situation. Thus, aporia is a rhetorical question in which doubt is usually feigned so as to provoke thought in the listener or reader about how the speaker or narrator will act. The statement also allows the speaker to examine different possibilities and weigh the pros and cons aloud.

The word aporia comes from the Ancient Greek word ἀπορία (aporia), in which it means “without passage.” The definition of aporia has changed over time to include meanings such as “an impasse,” “to be at a loss,” and “puzzlement.” It now has definitions in both rhetoric and philosophy; in rhetoric, this technique is also known as dubitatio. In philosophy, aporia can be any puzzle that arises from plausible yet inconsistent premises.

Common Examples of Aporia

Aporia is a common rhetorical technique for orators to use in their speeches. Here are some examples of aporia from famous speakers:

I am at no loss for information about you and your family; but I am at a loss where to begin. Shall I relate how your father Tromes was a slave in the house of Elpias, who kept an elementary school near the Temple of Theseus, and how he wore shackles on his legs and a timber collar round his neck? Or how your mother practiced daylight nuptials in an outhouse next door to Heros the bone-setter, and so brought you up to act in tableaux vivants and to excel in minor parts on the stage?

—Demosthenes, “On the Crown” speech

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.

—Martin Luther King, Jr. “I have a dream” speech

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal?

—John F. Kennedy, “We choose to go to the moon” speech

From the day I took office, I’ve been told that addressing our larger challenges is too ambitious. Such an effort would be too contentious. I’ve been told that our political system is too gridlocked, and that we should just put things on hold for awhile. For those who make these claims, I have one simple question: How long should we wait? How long should America put its future on hold?

—Barack Obama, State of the Union 2010

Significance of Aporia in Literature

Numerous aporia examples can be found in the works of Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, as well as in the post-structuralist texts of Jacques Derrida and Luce Irigaray. Derrida considered aporia in philosophy to pose important paradoxes of the human condition. In literature, some aporia examples do consider similar paradoxes. However, there are many rhetorical examples of aporia in which the character speaking may want to explore different possibilities in a given situation.

Examples of Aporia in Literature

Example #1

HAMLET: To be or not to be-that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep-
No more-and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to-’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep-
To sleep, perchance to dream. Aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.

(Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

Perhaps the most famous example of aporia in all of literature comes from Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy from William Shakespeare’s tragedy. Hamlet begins his speech considering which of two options to follow—to continue existing, or to take his own life. He poses this question to himself—and to the audience—in order to scrutinize the benefits and drawbacks of each possibility.

Example #2

Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, say I. Unbelieving. Questions, hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on. Can it be that one day, off it goes on, that one day I simply stayed in, in where, instead of going out, in the old way, out to spend day and night as far away as possible, it wasn’t far. Perhaps that is how it began. You think you are simply resting, the better to act when the time comes, or for no reason, and you soon find yourself powerless ever to do anything again. No matter how it happened. It, say it, not knowing what. Perhaps I simply assented at last to an old thing. But I did nothing. I seem to speak, it is not I, about me, it is not about me. These few general remarks to begin with. What am I to do, what shall I do, what should I do, in my situation, how proceed? By aporia pure and simple? Or by affirmations and negations invalidated as uttered, or sooner or later? Generally speaking. There must be other shifts. Otherwise it would be quite hopeless. But it is quite hopeless. I should mention before going any further, any further on, that I say aporia without knowing what it means. Can one be ephetic otherwise than unawares? I don’t know.

(The Unnameable by Samuel Beckett)

Samuel Beckett’s opening paragraph of his novel The Unnameable is such a good example of aporia that Beckett even acknowledges this by name. The protagonist directly asks the reader how to proceed and wonders if aporia, by itself, is enough to help him with his dilemma.

Example #3

And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?

Monsters are variations from the accepted normal to a greater or a less degree. As a child may be born without an arm, so one may be born without kindness or the potential of conscience.

(East of Eden by John Steinbeck)

The example of aporia above is interesting in that it’s posed not by a character in the story, but by the narrator (who has some extensive opinions on the goings-on in the book that he becomes a character as well). Many scholars consider the unnamed narrator in East of Eden to be the author John Steinbeck himself. In this excerpt he looks into the nature of monsters and wonders aloud if monsters need be limited to the physically deformed, or if moral deformations can also qualify. The narrator poses these questions to then posit that the character of Cathy is a monster if one accepts the idea that monsters can be “mental or psychic.”

Test Your Knowledge of Aporia

1. Which of the following statements is the best aporia definition?
A. A riddle which has more than one answer.
B. A figure of speech meant to prove the speaker’s superior intellect.
C. A rhetorical question used to feign doubt about how to proceed.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following statements is true?
A. Aporia is found in both philosophy and rhetoric.
B. Aporia is no longer used by authors.
C. Aporia is only functional when the audience can’t think of a solution to a problem.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Is the following quote from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 an example of aporia?

Yossarian attended the education sessions because he wanted to find out why so many people were working so hard to kill him. A handful of other men were also interested, and the questions were many and good when Clevinger and the subversive corporal finished and made the mistake of asking if there were any.
“Who is Spain?”
“Why is Hitler?”
“When is right?”

A. Yes; all three questions are rhetorical questions, and thus they are aporia examples.
B. No; all of the questions are absurd and have no answer.
C. No; the speakers are asking the questions in earnest and are not feigning their doubt.

Answer to Question #3 Show

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