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Aporia

August 12, 2008

Aporia (Ancient Greek: ἀπορία: impasse; lack of resources; puzzlement; embarrassment )

Aporia denotes, in philosophy, a philosophical puzzle or state of puzzlement, and, in rhetoric, a rhetorically useful expression of doubt.

Philosophy

In philosophy, an aporia is a philosophical puzzle or a seemingly insoluble impasse in an inquiry, often arising as a result of equally plausible yet inconsistent premises. It can also denote the state of being perplexed, or at a loss, at such a puzzle or impasse. The notion of an aporia is principally found in Greek philosophy, but it also plays a role in Derrida’s philosophy.

Plato’s early dialogues are often called his ‘aporetic’ dialogues because they typically end in aporia. In such a dialogue, Socrates questions his interlocutor about the nature or definition of a concept, for example virtue or courage. Socrates then, through elenctic testing, shows his interlocutor that his answer is unsatisfactory. After a number of such failed attempts, the intelocutor admits he is in aporia about the examined concept, concluding that he does not know what it is. In Plato’s Meno (84a-c), Socrates describes the purgative effect of reducing someone to aporia: it shows someone who merely thought he knew something that he does not in fact know it and instills in him a desire to investigate it.

In Aristotle’s Metaphysics aporia plays a role in his method of inquiry. In contrast to a rationalist inquiry that begins from a priori principles, or an empiricist inquiry that begins from a tabula rasa, Aristotle begins his inquiry in the Metaphysics by surveying the various aporiai that exist, drawing in particular on what puzzled his predecessors. Aristotle claims that ‘with a view to the science we are seeking (i.e. metaphysics), it is necessary that we should first review the things about which we need, from the outset, to be puzzled’ (995a24). Book Beta of the Metaphysics is a list of the aporiai that preoccupy the rest of the work.

Rhetoric

Aporia is also a rhetorical device whereby the speaker expresses a doubt – often feigned – about his position or asks the audience rhetorically how he or she should proceed. It is also called dubitatio. For example (Demosthenes On The Crown, 129):

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?
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