Understanding Aporia: A Rhetorical Device

Aporia is a rhetorical figure of speech where a speaker feigns doubt or perplexity about a question and seeks guidance from the audience on how to proceed. This uncertainty is often presented through rhetorical questions, typically found at the beginning of a text.

Features of Aporia

Aporia, as a rhetorical device:

  • Is used in literature and discourse.
  • Is also known as "dubitation," where the uncertainty expressed is insincere.
  • Can take the form of questions or statements.
  • Often relates to philosophical questions and topics with no clear answers.
  • Has been notably employed by philosophers like Plato and Socrates.

Examples of Aporia in Literature

Example #1: Hamlet (By William Shakespeare)

"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? To die: to sleep; Than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all…”

In this famous soliloquy from Shakespeare's "Hamlet," Hamlet expresses uncertainty with the statement "To be, or not to be," setting the tone for doubt throughout the passage.

Example #2: The Unnamable (By Samuel Beckett)

"Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, say I. Unbelieving. Questions, hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on.”

“…or by affirmations and negations invalidated as uttered, or sooner or later?”

“…There must be other shifts. Otherwise, it would be quite hopeless. I should mention before going any further…”

“Can one be aphetic otherwise than unawares? I don’t know.”

“What am I to do, what shall I do, what should I do, in my situation, how proceed? By aporia pure and simple…”

“It will be I? It will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

Samuel Beckett's work is replete with aporia, featuring numerous questions and doubts that create an atmosphere of uncertainty and deferral of meaning.

Example #3: American Buffalo (By David Mamet)

Don: "We have a deal with the man."
Teach: "With Fletcher."
Don: "Yes."
Teach: "We had a deal with Bobby."
Don: "What does that mean?"
Teach: "Nothing."
Don: "It don’t?"
Teach: "No."
Don: "What did you mean by that?"
Teach: "I didn’t mean a thing."
Don: "You didn’t."
Teach: "No?"

This excerpt from David Mamet's "American Buffalo" illustrates aporia with its characters expressing uncertainty and questioning, albeit in a lighter tone.

Example #4: The Road not Taken (By Robert Frost)

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth; Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference."

Robert Frost's poem "The Road not Taken" employs aporia in its final two lines, creating a self-contradictory impasse that challenges the reader's understanding.

Function of Aporia

Aporia serves as a tool for expressing doubt or uncertainty. When genuine, it can indicate a real impasse and invite the audience to consider various solutions. If the doubt is insincere, it can guide the audience toward the speaker's intended message.

Aporia introduces uncertainty and encourages the audience to seek clarity through the speaker's subsequent statements. Its main purpose is to prompt the audience to analyze and evaluate the situation or topic at hand.

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