Aporia: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Dealing with the concept of 'aporia' might throw you for a loop, but you can always make a detour to this lesson. Here, you'll discover more about how this dubious device works and get to see it put to use in a few examples!

Roadblock: Defining Aporia

Have you ever tried to pick out a movie with friends and had one say, 'I don't know. What do you think?' Chances are she may not have known which movie to choose and really wanted your opinion. However, another friend may have just been playing coy - knowing all the while what movie he wanted to watch, but wanting you to suggest it. This expression of genuine or feigned uncertainty is a rhetorical device known as aporia.

When Greek philosophers like Socrates and Plato began using the term, it identified a 'state of impassibility' or a 'roadblock.' When used rhetorically, 'aporia' came to signify an impasse of knowledge, a subject about which the speaker appears to be doubtful or uncertain. If the doubt is genuine, aporia can express a speaker's humility, making the audience sympathetic and much more receptive to the process of discovery. On the other hand, when speakers only pretend to be uncertain, they can use aporia to catch listeners' attention and engage them in eliminating the doubt on their own (with a little leading, of course). Either way, the purpose of aporia is to get the audience involved in the thought processes the speaker intends to address.

As an 'expression,' aporia can appear as either a statement or a question. The example of your friends above actually contains both: 'I don't know. What do you think?' Let's take a look at some other examples to see how aporia is used in the wider world.

Examples of Aporia

Plato's Meno

From the writings of his student Plato, we can tell that Socrates was quite fond of employing aporia in is philosophical pursuits. While engaged in the dialogues that Plato supposedly recorded, Socrates often steers the conversation by asking a multitude of leading questions, thereby continually expressing (most often feigned) uncertainty. In this instance of Socratic aporia from the Meno, though, the philosopher uses both a question and a statement: 'And I myself, Meno, living as I do in this region of poverty, am as poor as the rest of the world; and I confess with shame that I know literally nothing about virtue; and when I do not know the 'what' of anything how can I know the 'what kind'?'

In order to get Meno involved in the discovery of what virtue is and how humans attain it, Socrates played dumb. That way he could lead Meno to his own discovery of the nature of virtue with a little bit of coaching.

Named for the Greek philosopher (above), the Socratic Method of using aporia to teach students is still employed in classrooms today!
Bust of Socrates

Hamlet's Soliloquy

Many of us know that there can be a great deal of uncertainty in some of Shakespeare's plays, particularly in Hamlet. Heavily influenced by his Greek and Roman predecessors, Shakespeare frequently employed many devices devised in antiquity. This includes aporia, which he uses when Hamlet asks '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.'

We're quite familiar with the titular prince's famous soliloquy, but it might just sound like a bunch of nonsensical gibberish to you. That's because this particular instance of aporia is an expression of genuine mortal doubt. The addled Hamlet is uncertain as to whether or not suicide is the best option in his case - a determination the audience will be able to make by the tragedy's conclusion.

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