Aporia (Ancient Greek: ἀπορία: "impasse, difficulty of passing, lack of resources, puzzlement") denotes in philosophy a philosophical puzzle or state of puzzlement and in rhetoric a rhetorically useful expression of doubt.
Definitions of the term aporia have varied throughout history. The Oxford English Dictionary includes two forms of the word: the adjective, “aporetic” which it defines as “to be at a loss,” “impassable,” and “inclined to doubt, or to raise objections”; and the noun form “aporia,” which it defines as the “state of the aporetic” and “a perplexity or difficulty.” The dictionary entry also includes two early textual uses, which both refer to the term’s rhetorical (rather than philosophical) usage.
In George Puttenham’s The Arte of English Poesie (1589) aporia is “the Doubtful, [so] called...because often we will seem to caste perils, and make doubts of things when by a plaine manner of speech we might affirm or deny [them].” In another reference from 1657, J. Smith’s Mystical Rhetoric, the term becomes “a figure whereby the speaker sheweth that he doubteth, either where to begin for the multitude of matters, or what to do or say in some strange or ambiguous thing” (OED). Herbert Weir Smyth's Greek Grammar (1956) also focuses on the rhetorical usage by defining aporia as “an artifice by which a speaker feigns doubts as to where he shall begin or end or what he shall do or say” (674).
More modern sources, perhaps because they come after the advent of post-structuralism, have chosen to omit the rhetorical usage of the term. In William Harmon’s A Handbook to Literature, for example, aporia is identified as “a difficulty, impasse, or point of doubt and indecision” while also noting that critics such as Derrida have employed the term to “indicate a point of undecidability, which locates the site at which the text most obviously undermines its own rhetorical structure, dismantles, or deconstructs itself” (39).
The separation of aporia into its two morphemes a- and poros (‘without’ and ‘passage’) reveals the word’s rich etymological background as well as its connection to Platonic mythology. Sarah Kofman asserts that these two components are crucial to a fuller understanding of the word, which has been historically translated and understood somewhat reductively: “translators, who usually escape their perplexity by translating poros as ‘expediency’ and aporia as ‘difficulty’...leave the reader in the dark as to all the semantic richness of poros and aporia and give no hint as to their links with other words belonging to the same ‘family’” (9). Such links inevitably demonstrate that the terms are part of a “tradition” that Plato borrows from, a tradition which “breaks with a philosophical conception of translation, and with the logic of identity that it implies” (10). To demonstrate such a break, Kofman reviews multiple instances of the term throughout Plato’s work. Her discussion of the myth of Poros, Penia, and Eros in Plato’s Symposium especially reveals the concept’s untranslatability. Penia, the “child of poverty,” decides to forcefully impregnate herself with the inebriated Poros, the personification of plenty, who is always in opposition with aporia and thus defining aporia. The result of this union is Eros, who inherits the disparate characteristics of his parents (25). The perplexing aspect of the myth is revealed as one realizes that Penia is acting out of resourcefulness, a quality normally attributed to Poros, and Poros’ inaction reveals his own passivity, a poverty of agency or poros. Such a relationship intensely affects not only the context of aporia but its meaning as well:
Penia is no more the opposite of Poros than is the aporia; the true, philosophical aporia, or Penia, is always fertile; in her all opposites are placed under erasure; she is neither masculine nor feminine, neither rich nor poor…neither resourceful nor without resources. This is why Aporia, which breaks with the logic of identity, and which pertains to the logic of the intermediary, is an untranslatable term. (27)
Ultimately, aporia cannot be separated from this etymological and cultural history. Such history provides insight into aporia’s perplexing semantic qualities as well as into the historical context in which the word functions as an indicator of the limits of language in constructing knowledge.
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 post-structuralist philosophy, as in the writings of Derrida and Irigaray, and it has also served as an instrument of investigation in analytic philosophy.
Plato's early dialogues are often called his 'aporetic' (Greek: ἀπορητικός) 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 interlocutor 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, he begins the Metaphysics by surveying the various aporiai that exist, drawing in particular on what puzzled his predecessors: "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.
Contemporary academic studies of the term further characterize its usage in philosophical discourses. In "Aporetics: Rational Deliberation in the Face of Inconsistency" (2009), Nicholas Rescher is concerned with the methods in which an aporia, or “apory,” is intellectually processed and resolved. In the Preface, Rescher identifies the work as an attempt to “synthesize and systematize an aporetic procedure for dealing with information overload (of ‘cognitive dissonance,’ as it is sometimes called)” (ix). The text is also useful in that it provides a more precise (although specialized) definition of the concept: “any cognitive situation in which the threat of inconsistency confronts us” (1). Rescher further introduces his specific study of the apory by qualifying the term as “a group of individually plausible but collectively incompatible theses,” a designation he illustrates with the following syllogism or “cluster of contentions”:
1. What the sight of our eyes tells us is to be believed.
2. Sight tells us the stick is bent.
3. What the touch of our hand tells us is to be believed.
4. Touch tells us the stick is straight. (2)
The aporia, or “apory” of this syllogism lies in the fact that, while each of these assertions is individually conceivable, together, they are inconsistent or impossible. Rescher’s study is indicative of the continuing presence of scholarly examinations of the concept of aporia and, furthermore, of the continuing attempts of scholars to translate the word, to describe its modern meaning.
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?
- "Aporia". The Oxford English Dictionary (2 ed.). 1989.
- Harmon, William (2009). A Handbook to Literature. Upper Saddle River NJ: Pearson. ISBN 978-0-205-02401-8.
- Kofman, Sarah (1983). "Beyond Aporia?". In Benjamin, Andrew. Post-Structuralist Classics. London: Routledge. pp. 7–44.
- Vasilis Politis (2006). "Aporia and Searching in the Early Plato" in L. Judson and V. Karasmanis eds. Remembering Socrates. Oxford University Press.
- Rescher, Nicholas (2009). Aporetics. Pittsburgh PA: University of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN 978-0-8229-6057-7.
- Smyth, Herbert Weir (1920). Greek Grammar. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. p. 674. ISBN 0-674-36250-0.