I. What is Aporia?
In literature, aporia (pronounced a-PORE-ree-uh) is an expression of insincere doubt. It’s when the writer or speaker pretends, briefly, not to know a key piece of information or not to understand a key connection. After raising this doubt, the author will either respond to the doubt, or leave it open in a suggestive or “hinting” manner.
When an aporia is phrased in the form of a question, it’s called a rhetorical question, i.e. one that the speaker doesn’t literally want answered. A rhetorical question, like any aporia, will either be swiftly answered by the speaker, or it will be left open in a manner that suggests its own answer (or suggests that the question is unanswerable).
II. Examples of Aporia
You see, we believe that ‘We’re all in this together’ is a far better philosophy than ‘You’re on your own.’ So who’s right? (Bill Clinton, 2012 DNC Speech)
In this speech from 2012, Clinton compares what he sees as the competing philosophies of the Democratic and Republican parties. At the beginning of the speech, he expresses doubt about which philosophy is correct, but we all know that he believes the Democratic philosophy is better, and he goes on to make his argument for that position. The aporia is a way of setting up the argument.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. (William Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet)
In Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, the two young lovers cannot be together because their families are fighting – in other words, they’re being kept apart by their surnames. This seems foolish to Juliet, who raises the rhetorical question of “what’s in a name?” The obvious answer, suggested by her statement about the rose, is that there is nothing of importance in a name.
III. Types of Aporia
There are two types of aporia, which we will call argumentative and tonal. They’re both features of arguments, but one is all about advancing the argument, while the other is about managing its tone.
a. Argumentative Aporia
Arguments function by responding to doubt. An argument proceeds by making statements that respond to the reader’s doubts, and then responding to any further doubts that may be raised by those statements in their turn. The ideal argument would be structured in such a way that, at the end, the reader has no doubts left and must accept that the writer’s main point is correct.
Aporia identifies and marks which doubts the writer or speaker is responding to. It shows the reader that you’re aware of what questions they may have, and that you intend to address them in due course. This shows readers that your argument is thorough and thoughtful, and makes them more likely to keep reading rather than dismissing your argument out of hand.
b. Tonal Aporia
In other cases, you may want to “soften the blow” of your main point. This is especially true in fields like religion, philosophy, politics, and ethics, which can evoke strong feelings in readers. By phrasing your point as a doubt or a question, you can soften its impact on readers.
In general, it’s best to avoid the temptation to use tonal aporia. Most people, when they write arguments, are overly tentative and provisional, and need to practice writing with a stronger, more confident tone. However, if you’re one of the few who have the opposite problem – e.g. if people have described your writing as “strident” or “pushy” – then it might be worthwhile to practice including some tonal aporia in your arguments.
IV. Examples of Aporia in Literature
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious? When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept. Ambition should be made of sterner stuff. Yet Brutus says he was ambitious. (William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar)
In his funeral oration for Caesar, the character Marc Antony defends Caesar’s actions against the accusations of the assassin, Brutus. In the first part of the line, Marc Antony raises the rhetorical question of whether or not Caesar was ambitious, and quickly answers it in the negative – Caesar was compassionate and soft-hearted, not at all ambitious. This is an example of what we’ve called the “argumentative” use of aporia.
We must ask ourselves whether we have not often been deceiving ourselves with our confession of sin to God; whether we have not rather been confessing our sins to ourselves and also granting ourselves absolution. (Dietriech Bonhoeffer, Life Together)
Bonhoeffer was a highly influential Christian theologian who believed that many people’s conception of God is simply a projection of their own psychological needs. In this quote, he is suggesting (through tonal aporia) that perhaps Christians should learn to look outside themselves for God and seek a divinity that is more transcendent. Notice how much gentler this quote is than it would be had Bonhoeffer stated it in a more direct, declarative manner.
What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing and that resistance is overcome. (Friedrich Nietzsche)
Nietzsche poses the question of what happiness means and then immediately answers it in a confident manner. In addition to the aporia, which sets up the question so that Nietzsche can answer it, there is also a juxtaposition here – between the uncertainty of the first sentence and the extremely certain second sentence.
V. Examples of Aporia in Popular Culture
How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man? (Bob Dylan, Blowing in the Wind)
Dylan’s song is about the eternal social questions of peace and justice. This line is responding to the practice of calling African American men “boys” regardless of their age or experience, which was common in parts of North American in the 1960s. The question, of course, is rhetorical – it is meant to have no answer.
Ah, yes – Zorro! And where is he now, padre? Your masked friend? He hasn’t shown himself in 20 years! (Don Rafael, The Mask of Zorro)
In this scene, Don Rafael is trying to persuade the townspeople that Zorro will no longer protect them, and that they should submit to the power of the Don. Rafael’s question is rhetorical – the apparently obvious answer is that Zorro is gone.
VI. Related Terms
One special kind of rhetorical question is an Aphorismus, which is a question about a specific term.
How can you call yourself a man after an action like that?
Tigers hunt for food; men hunt for sport: who is the true animal?
Is it a crime to feed one’s family?
In each of these examples, the speaker is using aporia to raise a question about a specific term, and the way the question is phrased suggests its answer:
No, you cannot call yourself a man after behaving that way.
Man is the true animal.
No, feeding one’s family is not a crime.
Although the words are very similar, aphorismus has nothing to do with aphorism.
On the older definition, “aporia” means the same thing as “paradox.” Although this definition is unusual in today’s world, the two concepts are sometimes still discussed together.
A paradox is a statement or argument that contradicts itself, but still seems, on the surface, to make sense. The classic example is:
This statement is a lie.
Right at first, it might seem like there’s nothing wrong with this sentence. But if you work out its logical implications, there is a clear contradiction: if the statement is true, then it’s a lie, which would make it true, and therefore a lie.