Aporia as a Figure of Speech

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Aporia is a figure of speech in which the speaker expresses real or simulated doubt or perplexity. The adjective is aporetic.

In classical rhetoric, aporia means placing a claim in doubt by developing arguments on both sides of an issue. In the terminology of deconstruction, aporia is a final impasse or paradox--the site at which the text most obviously undermines its own rhetorical structure, dismantles, or deconstructs itself.

From the Greek, "without passage"

Examples and Observations:

  • "Scholars have described as aporetic early Socratic dialogues like the Protagoras (ca. 380 BCE), which end in puzzlement rather than resolution, and which fail to supply convincing definitions of sought-after concepts like truth and virtue. At the end of the Protagoras, wrote the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, Socrates and Protagoras resemble 'two bald men searching for a comb.'"
    (David Mikics, A New Handbook of Literary Terms. Yale University Press, 2007)
  • "I don't think it's proving anything, Doc. As a matter of fact, I don't even know what it means. It's just one of those things that gets in my head and keeps rolling around in there like a marble."
    (Peter Falk as Lieutenant Columbo in the episode "Double Exposure." Columbo, 1973)
  • "If living sympathy be theirs
    And leaves and airs,
    The piping breeze and dancing tree
    Are all alive and glad as we:
    Whether this be truth or no
    I cannot tell, I do not know;
    Nay--whether now I reason well,
    I do not know, I cannot tell."
    ("The Barberry-Tree," attributed to William Wordsworth)
  • "Am I no better than a eunuch or is the proper man--the man with the right to existence--a raging stallion forever neighing after his neighbor’s womankind? Or are we meant to act on impulse alone? It is all a darkness."
    (Ford Maddox Ford, The Good Soldier, 1915)
  • "A particularly striking example of the experience of the aporetic appears in Karl Marx's consideration of the commodity fetish, where he finds it logically impossible to explain, within the limits of his discourse, what transforms material into its mystified form as desired commodity, and what invests the commodity object with its commodified mystique."
    (Julian Wolfreys, Critical Keywords in Literary and Cultural Theory. Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)
  • "Robin wrote the word with a coloured felt-tip marker on the whiteboard screwed to the wall of her office. 'Aporia. In classical rhetoric it means real or pretended uncertainty about the subject under discussion. Deconstructionists today use it to refer to more radical kinds of contradiction or subversion of logic or defeat of the reader's expectation in a text. You could say that it's deconstruction's favourite trope. Hillis Miller compares it to following a mountain path and then finding that it gives out, leaving you stranded on a ledge, unable to go back or forwards. It actually derives from a Greek word meaning 'a pathless path.'"
    (David Lodge, Nice Work. Viking, 1988)
  • The Lighter Side of Aporia
    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?
    (David Mamet, American Buffalo, 1975)

Pronunciation: eh-POR-ee-eh

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