Socrates’ “Aporia”

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In a definitional dialogue, the Greek Philosopher Socrates was engaging another person in a discourse that would eventually bring the other other party from an initial state of confidence and certainty to a state of “aporia”, being at a loss.

Aporia is a noun derived from aporos “άπορος”, which in turn is composed of “α” which means without “άνευ” and “πόρος” which is a means of passage, a way, an opening, a means to an end.

Therefore aporia is a difficulty in passage, impasse, difficulty, lack of resources, need, poverty, doubt, uncertainty. In modern usage it has also come to mean something you do not understand. The teacher asks the students “do you have any aporia-es?” (apories is the plural form).

There is also the verb aporo “απορώ”, which today basically means I do not understand.

By bringing the other party to a state of “aporia”, Socrates dealt an intentional blow to the other party, one might even say a destructive blow. In one of the platonic dialogues, Euthyphro, a person who thought knew what “piety” is, ends up seriously doubting himself and hastily leaves the conversation claiming he has an urgent meeting to attend.

Here is an extremely simplified interpretation of the relevant problem, objective and approach.

Statement of the Problem: a person thinks he knows what something means. In Euthyphro, the over-confident person thought that he knew what “piety” is, because on this basis he was prosecuting his own father in court.

Objective: Destroy the person’s confidence by bringing him to a state of “aporia”, where he is not sure any more about what he knows. A state where he doubts himself.

Approach:

  1. Zoom in on the crucial definition. In Euthyphro, this is “piety”.
  2. Start drilling holes to this definition. This is the “core” of the approach. You have to be on top of your game to be able to do it, unless the case is trivial. This is why not everyone is able to do it. If you are interested in more, read Euthyphro.
  3. Arrive at a state where the original definition given by the party is withdrawn.

Conclusion: Following this approach one may temporarily bring a person to a state of doubt and lack of confidence. It may show what you do not know, but not what you know. In this sense it is a “negative” approach, but it works.