Definition of Aporia

Aporia is a figure of speech wherein a speaker purports or expresses to be in doubt or in perplexity regarding a question (often feigned) and asks the audience how he/she ought to proceed. The doubts may appear as rhetorical questions often in the beginning of the text.

Aporia is a logical paradox in which the speaker sows seeds of doubts in a subject. This rhetorical strategy can make the audience feel sympathetic about the speaker regarding the dilemma he is in.

Features of Aporia

  • Aporia is used as a rhetorical device in literature.
  • It is also called as dubitation, which means that the uncertainty is always untruthful.
  • It could be a question as well as a statement.
  • It is often used in philosophy. It relates to philosophical questions and subjects which have no obvious answers.
  • Plato and Socrates were well-known for using aporia.

Examples of Aporia from Literature

Example #1

“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;
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.….”

(Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

This is a prominent example of aporia available in English literature. This is an opening soliloquy of Hamlet in the play. Here, the statement “to be or not to be” is such a question that introduces the uncertainty that characterizes the paragraph.

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,or by affirmations and negations invalidated as uttered, or sooner or later? ….There must be other shifts. Otherwise it would be quite hopeless….. I should mention before going any further, ,…..Can one be aphetic otherwise than unawares? I don’t know…… What am I to do, what should I do, in my situation, how proceed? By aporia pure and simple…..It will be I? It will be the silence, where I am? I don’t know, I’ll never know: in the silence you don’t know….. You must go on….I can’t go on….I’ll go on…..”

(The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett)

Beckett’s entire work is characterized by the use of aporia. This passage has a lot of questioning and doubts and deferral of meaning. For Beckett, aporia can never be considered as an invariable condition of unknowing.

Example #3

Don: We have a deal with the man.
Teach: With Fletcher.
Don: Yes.
Teach: We had a deal with Bobby.
Don: What does that mean?
Teach: Nothing.
Don: It don’t?
Teach: No.
Don: What did you mean by that?
Teach: I didn’t mean a thing.
Don: You didn’t.
Teach: No?

(American Buffalo by David Mamet)

The above extract is one of the examples of aporia that does show too much doubt in the speech. There is uncertainty and due questioning but it is expressed in a lighter tone.

Example #4

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

(The Road not Taken by Robert Frost)

In the last two lines in the given poem, the poet uses aporia, which is a self-contradictory deadlock that cannot be resolved in the text. Similarly, in the poem the readers find themselves at an impasse, while the final evidence falls into a paradox.

Function of Aporia

Aporia is an expression of doubt or uncertainty. When uncertainty and doubt is genuine, it can indicate a real impasse and stimulate the audience to consider different options for resolution. It could show the humbleness of a speaker if the doubt he expresses is genuine. However, it functions to provide guidance to the audience as to what the speaker wants to say if the doubt is insincere.

Aporia causes uncertainty and makes the audience to discover the certainty through subsequent statements of the speaker. The main objective is to provide the audience a chance to analyze and judge the situation.

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