Rhetorical Devices: Aporia

This post is part of a series on rhetoric and rhetorical devices. For other posts in the series, please click this link. For a comprehensive, step-by-step overview of how to write a speech outline, please see this post.

Device: Aporia

Origin: From the Greek ἄπορος (aporos), meaning “impassable”.

In plain English: An expression of uncertainty or doubt.


    • When the doubt or uncertainty is genuine, it can signal a real dilemma and prompts the audience to think about different options for resolution.
    • In the case of sincere doubt, it can show the humility of the speaker.
    • When the doubt is feigned, it is often used to guide the audience to the point that the speaker wishes to make.


    • Aporia is also known as dubitatio, though some contend that in dubitatio, the uncertainty is always feigned or disingenuous.
    • Aporia can be a statement as well as a question.
    • A common example of feigned aporia can be seen when someone has to say a speech about a very close friend or relative; for example, at a wedding or going away party. In such speeches we often hear sentences such as: “What can I say about So-and-So?” There is no question that the speaker has plenty to say.
    • Aporia is also a philosophical term. It pertains to philosophical questions that have no clear answers. Socrates and Plato were famous for such questions.


“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, 330 B.C.


“Whether he took them from his fellows more impudently, gave them to a harlot more lasciviously, removed them from the Roman people more wickedly, or altered them more presumptuously, I cannot well declare.”

— Cicero


We Democrats, we think the country works better with a strong middle class, with real opportunities for poor folks to work their way into it, with a relentless focus on the future, with business and government actually working together to promote growth and broadly shared prosperity. 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? Well, since 1961, for 52 years now, the Republicans have held the White House 28 years, the Democrats 24. In those 52 years, our private economy has produced 66 million private- sector jobs. So what’s the job score? Republicans: 24 million. Democrats: 42 [million].”

“The Republicans call it Obamacare and say it’s a government takeover of health care that they’ll repeal. Are they right? Let’s look at what’s happened so far.”

— Bill Clinton, Democratic National Convention, 5 September 2012


Hey, I don’t have all the answers. In life, to be honest, I’ve failed as much as I’ve succeeded. But I love my wife; I love my life; and I wish you my kind of success.”

— Jared Jussim as Dicky Fox in Jerry Maguire (1996)

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  1. The great Peter Falk developed his career as the much loved Lt. Columbo largely around the concept of aporia.
    “Well, Mrs. Jones, I know there must be a simple explanation, but what I don’t understand is how you said you were home alone and had no visitors all day but the radiator of your car was still hot when I got here at 3 PM today. I’m sure you can explain that and there’s just one more thing, Mrs. Jones . . . .”.
    RIP, Peter!

    1. John, you are absolutely right. I grew up watching Columbo and I always loved the character. In my research for the post, Peter Falk (as Columbo) popped up a lot. I tried to find a good video from YouTube but couldn’t find one to my liking. Perhaps I will have another look and if I find something, I will add it to the post.
      Thanks for the comment.

  2. John,

    I am a big fan of your speeches and your blog. I am talking about suicide and how ultimately our love and strings to our loved ones are the answer to saving people. It is a very serious topic and using a personal story I can perhaps make a gripping talk.

    However, one of my mentors who read the script but did not see me deliver it, wrote: “The narrative was compelling reading. My concern is how it translates to the ear. World champion Randy Harvey talked about the rhythm of a speech. Think of riding a wave. Example: down up down up down up tip top. You have to bring the audience back when you take them down emotionally. You can not hold them down emotionally too long. Down up down up. At the end you bring your audience up then take them a step higher!”

    I was wondering if you have any tips on how one can use humor or do something to bring the mood up in between a seven minute speech which seems too short to me to narrate the whole incident and provide enough details. Any examples you may have seen that is on a serious topic and does this?

    I can send you my speech draft if you so desire, but, I know you are busy and hence any pointers you may have off hand would be very helpful.

    Best Regards, Prasenjit

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Prasenjit.

      Your speech sounds intriguing. Without knowing more about it, I can understand your mentor’s comments. I often discuss what I call the arc of a speech (which is just another way of saying the rhythm). Randy Harvey is right. You do not necessarily have to go up, down, up, down, up down over and over. But if you do go down, you definitely have come back up before you end. You cannot leave the audience down. So, a very simple arc might be to start light, lift the audience a bit, then drop them way down, and finish by bringing them up and giving them hope.

      Now, the topic of suicide is without question one of the most sombre things about which one can speak. If suicide is the main theme, then you have a few challenges: the arc of the speech as discussed above, the need to interject a light moment or two along the way to give your audience a break, and the need to ensure that those light moments are appropriate. One example that popped to mind is the speech that won the Toastmasters World Championship in 2002. It is not about suicide per se, but Dwayne Smith does tell a story about a friend of his who was on the verge of killing himself. At a very serious moment (around 6:00 in the speech) he uses humour to lighten the mood. And it works because he relays something that his friend later told him. I won’t give it away, but have a look.

      The difference, it seems to me, is that whereas suicide is an aspect of Smith’s speech, it is the main theme of yours. Therein lies the challenge. Perhaps you can pare back the text on suicide and also talk about how love can help people in less dramatic situations as well. Something to consider?

      Hope this is helpful and best of luck with the speech!

  3. Hey,
    Thank you for your post. I really appreciate it after looking for information about how aporia relates to classical rhetoric. Do you have any suggestions for textual resources of aporia in classical rhetoric, such as “Plato’s Dialogues?” If so that would be of great help-like a cherry on top of a cherry.

    1. Hello Mahasin. Thank you for the comment. Although I cannot recall any specific examples of aporia in Plato’s writing — it has been some time since I read Plato — I do have a general recollection that when Plato wrote about Socrates, he had the latter use aporia frequently. Socrates was famous for feigning ignorance of a subject when he knew very well what he was talking about. Have a look at “The Allegory of the Cave”. There might be something in there for you to use.
      Good luck with it.

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