What is Aporia?

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Aporia (also known as diaporesis, etymologically derives from the Greek word “aporos”), is a figure which denotes a pathless path or an impassable passage, suggesting difficulty and perplexity. In rhetoric, it is an indication of real or feigned doubt. The latin term for this device is dubitatioOpens in new window.

Aporia as a rhetorical device also involves the expression of incompetence, humility (often feigned and sometimes genuine), lack of expertise to expertize on the matter at hand. It is a child of the irony family.

Aporia is also used literally to pose a rhetorical question as in:

“What am I to do?”

“What shall I do?”

“What should I do in my situation?”

“How should I proceed?”

The device is usually incorporated into the beginning of a discourse by the speaker, or a passage by an author; as when for example, Frederick DouglassOpens in new window in his preamble to, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July” Speech, stated:

“I so not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker before any assembly more shrinkingly, nor with a greater distrust of my ability, than I do this day. A feeling has crept over me quite unfavourable to the exercise of my limited powers of speech. The task before me is one which requires much previous thought and study for its proper performance.”

Likewise, a speaker who notes “My talents do not match the task before me today …”, is employing aporia. When a person claims that he or she cannot put thoughts into words, but then does so at great length, he or she is employing the rhetorical device ‘aporia,’ to feign humility.

Notable Examples of Aporia

    An Except from Marc Antony's speech in 'Julius Caesar,' (2.3.9):

  1. “I come not, friends, to steal away your hearts:
    I am no orator, as Brutus is;
    But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man,
    That love my friend; and that they know full well
    That gave me public leave to speak of him:
    For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
    Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,
    To stir men's blood: I only speak right on.”

    — (Julius Caesar, Act III, scene 2)

  2. “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 practised 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, pg. 129)

  3. Where shall I begin to describe her wisdom? In her knowledge of facts? In her ability to synthesize diverse matters? In her capacity to articulate complex ideas simply?
Important Hint! 

Aporia typically consists in the speaker's deceptive attempt to strengthen the incredulity of his own point of view by means of a feigned oratorical helplessness, which expresses itself in the appeal to the audience, made in the form of a rhetorical question, for advice concerning the efficient and relevant intellectual development of the speech.” The ultimate end of employing aporia is to feigned ignorance: if the doubt were genuine, it would not be a rhetorical figure.

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  • References
    • Silver Rhetoricae, AporiaOpens in new window
    • James Jasinski, Sourcebook on Rhetoric. Aporia (pg 545)Opens in new window
    • Sherry (“aporia,” “dubitatio,” “dubitacion” [1550] pg.54);
    • Putt. (“aporia,” “the doubtfull” [1589] pg. 234);
    • Day (“aporia,” “dubitatio” [1599] pg. 89);
    • Ad Herennium (“dubitatio” [4.29.] pg.40);
    • Quintilian (“dubitation” [9.2.19]).

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