A short long essay on the subject of ‘aporia’ in research…

This long post is an extension of an essay (3500 words) on the subject of ‘aporia’ in research – what it has meant and the ideas it has represented. The essay was written in Feb 2014 during study for the MRes in Social Research and Education studied at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Aporia: The Well-Trodden Nopath 


The meaning of aporia has developed and expanded over time even as most historical meanings have been retained (mainly due to the work of Plato’s Socratic dialogues). The word has however been used in subtly different ways and contexts. Do these different texts use aporia as a term to describe a phenomenological state of being? Is Aporia an objective phenomenon independent of experience? Does aporia pertain only to a particular ontological perspective and how does this phenomenon relate to the practical application of research in a real-world context (if at all)?


The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) itself describes aporia as ‘doubt’ and ‘ambiguity’, a ‘perplexing difficulty’ [1]. Some of the quotes that the OED presents include descriptions of that which can be solved (1902, OED, 2014) – an aporia appears as temporary in nature, it is flimsy and soluble. Other printed historical examples in the OED however, also show more binary, finite applications:

“…never certain in anything” (AD1656); “Essence never appears” (AD1949) (OED, 2014, both examples emphasis not in original)

This malleability in the discursive use of aporia was a common a theme in the following observations.

Plato’s Meno – a Socratic dialogue

In Meno, Socrates withholds knowledge about a task presented to a ‘slave boy’ in order to prompt the boy to solve the task using only the intuitions he already possesses about the world. Socrates provides the path to the solution only through questioning and without imparting any new knowledge. The experience of aporia exists as real only to the boy (created deliberately by Socrates) and in this case describes the inability of the boy at one point to proceed further in a task that Socrate’s has set him (Plato, 380BCE p84a as cited in Worley, n.d. p4).

It does not seem in Plato’s Meno that the idea of a ‘no-path’ or ‘impassability’ occurs but is that of a temporary, moveable or passable quandary closer to the idea of an aporia as a ‘‘perplexity’ or ‘confusion’’ (Worley, n.d.). The impression is given that with skill, time, guidance or knowledge, this aporia can be overcome by the correct application of human intellect. It is in the educator’s interest to further their student’s knowledge but is there an experience of aporia itself (not just the passing of it) that can be of benefit in the expansion of knowledge? This question is considered by Burbules (2000) and discussed here in the following chapter Aporia and The Hermeneutic Cycle.

The Power of Aporia

The power dynamic between Socrates and slave boy can be seen partially from an ethical perspective. Socrates devises the task, the method, the aporia and the solution and is never out of control of the discourse. There is a clear assumption of authority by Socrates in the text which gives an idea of Socrates’ (and Plato’s) assumed intellectual status. Thus is it ethical to devise such artificial situations that may cause temporary doubt or fear (see footnote 1) for the longer-term goal of greater knowledge – a benefit that may not ever be felt by the subject? How long would it be ethical to withhold knowledge in such a way? How far is this a relevant question – when conducting practice in a situation where the ‘subject’ is not aware of the ‘meta’ situation or context which the researcher observes?

The import and value of the state of aporia therefore has ethical implications if it maintains or asserts power over another individual in a dialogue – that dynamic created in an interview for research for example. This could apply to embedded research and ethics and issues of assuming (or attempting to assume) ‘insider’ status with an individual or group. Can you create the conditions of aporia with conscious consent? If we are aware of the aporia – if we can ‘witness’ it or ‘experience’ it – does the nature of what we mean by aporia lose its potency or even disappear/ cease to exist along with its fertile ground?

Expanding the Meaning 

Poria being the ancient Greek for ‘path’ and a-poria therefore meaning ‘without a path’ – the latter more commonly translated as ‘perplexity’ or ‘confusion’ (Worley, n.d. emphasis in original.)

Burbules (2000) expands on the qualities in aporia that are:

“…not simply psychological states,…which is why we use words like discomfort and disorientation to describe them. They affect our senses of identity, of competence and purpose;” (Burbules, 2000, p184)

The use of aporia in Meno also highlights  the problem with the translation and interpretation of historical texts[2] Much of our knowledge about the antecedent definitions of terms in common usage may not have a clear historical record. How can we be sure that the subtle nuances of an ancient spoken language are translatable into our modern lexicon? This is an interesting example of how in the attempt to understand something, we can change and distort its original meaning – but what of this new meaning? From a phenomenological perspective, can the impossibility of accurate translation through medium or time be a fertile and productive aporia?

In a world of fluid meanings, this mistranslation could produce unintended and fertile mutations of meaning that may lead to a movement in thought that removes the need to pass the aporia, removes the need for it to be removed or understood as we discover or design new destinations or directions.

Derrida’s aporetic Aporias

Aporias (1994) by Derrida is an exploration of the nature of the aporetic experience in general terms (pp12-15) as well as an analysis of the language and the contradictions inherent in the aporetic notion.

It is a challenge to isolate Derrida’s ideas on aporia from the continuum of thoughts that are connected to it in which Derrida heavily references Heidegger but there are large sections of text not directly relevant to my exploration of how the term aporia is applied as such. What can be said is that the nature of Derrida’s aporia is not immune to his meta-physical deconstructionist analysis of phenomena and language. For Derrida, aporia is a matter of the approach towards and up to the border limits of experience (and the impossibility of what lays on the other side) and in some ways the separation between self and other:

“…the experience of the nonpassage, the experience of what happens and is fascinating in this nonpassage,…that is not necessarily negative: before a door, a threshold, a border, a line or simply the edge or the approach of the other as such. It should be a matter of what, in sum, appears to block our way or to separate us in the very place where it would no longer be possible to constitute a problem,…delivered to the other, incapable even of sheltering ourselves behind what could still protect the interiority of a secret. There, in sum, in this place of aporia, there is no longer any problem.” (Derrida, Aporias, 1994, p12; emphasis in original)

Deconstructionism[4] is the tool with which Derrida conducted complex, meta-physical and radical explorations of meaning and understanding of the ontology of phenomenological experience but also as a critical literary tool. In this case, I believe the previous quote from Aporias exposes or at least suggests Derrida’s phenomenological standpoint which acknowledges an objective reality in ‘the other’ outside the ‘self’ but focuses entirely on the importance of the subjective experience.

Derrida goes on to question the possibility and therefore the impossibility of an experience of the aporia:

“Can one speak–and if so, in what sense-of an experience of the aporia? An experience of the aporia as such? Or vice versa: Is an experience possible that would not be an experience of the aporia?” (Derrida, 1993, p15; emphasis in original)

As much as I can describe a taste or flavour of the idea; Derrida seems to question our ability to even experience that which is aporetic. Derrida unravels the idea of the aporia to the point that the impossibility of a path prevents space even for an aporetic notion; the nature of the aporia itself is thus aporetic. The aporia’s conditions of existence (possibility) are also its conditions of non-existence (impossibility) and so the ‘im-possible’ (Derrida, 1994, pp13-21) within the possible is realised that is neither ‘one’ (could we say ‘self’?) nor ‘the other’.

Michel Foucault (2004) describes (and archives) the process of western culture’s formation of ideas that have marked out our enduring perception of similitudes ever since the 16th  Century. Using these ideas we can say that antipathy is linked to sympathy and each describes something the other is not but both are also reliant on each other for the definition of their existence (or the existence of their definitions…) as you notice a phenomena that requires a sympathetic definition, therein you create (or reveal) the existence of its antipathy. These paradoxes create a kind of unresolvable cycle of association that reveals to us a dynamically stable but unsettled standpoint.

The dynamic equilibrium of association within – and representation of – the world is one that is linked by the difference in the similarities which are recognisable only in how they differ in their similar nature. If things are truly are the same and not different in some subtle but actual way, they are invisible and indistinguishable from the original article in that to be same they have to be the article.Aporia is given form and form denied in the same utterance: the very contradiction/ nature of the aporetic problem that creates the impossibility of existence is also essential to its possibility.

Nayak (n.d.) describes the aporetic experience of uncertainty or doubt (of intersectionality – see footnote 3) as having ‘productive potential’ (p47). For Nayak the lack of certainty that aporia describes creates an egalitarian space for an ‘ethical engagement with others’ (p46). In this way we see the abstract, meta-physical concept become a practical methodology for the discussion of ethics whilst denying the formation of artificial, imposed borders between states of being. This more complex but useful and positive view of the aporetic state is also adopted by Nicolas Burbles (2000) in an educational context.

Aporia and the hermeneutic cycle

The hermeneutic[5] cycle of processing new information then returning to an original site of consternation in order to re-process an experience with the benefit of new knowledge is used by Nicolas Burbules as a presentational tool in an article entitled ‘Aporias, Webs, and Passages’ (Burbules, 2000).

In ‘Aporias, Webs, and Passages’, Burbules identifies different qualities and layers of involvement in the aporetic notion and identifies an experience of aporia as a complex and paradigm-affecting experience:

“…a deeper kind of aporia: a doubt that never goes entirely away.” (Burbules, 2000, p182)

I believe Burbules also presents original and useful depiction of the mutually constitutive relationship (not binary) between poros and aporia:

“…every path is a passage away from some possibilities as it is toward others; that a poros [path] is always both a way and a barrier, an opening and a closure.” (ibid, p180)

In working towards a practical educational use for an exploratory, cyclical, hermeneutic and generative process (of new ideas), Burbules necessarily refrains from adopting and observing the depths of aporia to which Derrida dives. Burbules’ conclusion is an appreciation and acceptance of uncertainty and its useful, practical applications can be explicitly read:

“The teaching dialectic here is…an ongoing engagement with difficulty—and, in this, to embark on a path with an unknown, unknowable destination.” (Burbules, 2000, p184)

“Aporia in this sense is not a brief interstitial moment, but an ongoing condition that generates the questions and problems that move us to seek new understandings.” (ibid p185)

Here the aporia is a much more substantial phenomenon intrinsic to the understanding of deeper insights. In this way, with the introduction of hermeneutics, aporia appears to pertain to a more qualitative research focus[6]. The phenomenological perspective echoes Derrida in its attention to the subjectivity of human experience and therefore the evidence presented here is beginning to show that aporia belongs to a very particular ontological perspective.

“…we recognize that the most important distinction among aporias is between those of which we are aware, and those not. (Burbules, p181, 2000)”

This is an interesting and for me contradictory statement. I see it as a particularly phenomenological contention as it brings into question the idea of and the nature of the idea of the ‘ego’ i.e: Is it possible to be unaware of an aporia if it is a subjective phenomenon? Can an aporia exist independent of the experience of it? Is it necessary therefore to appreciate a psychoanalytical view of the experience of the ego, the ‘I’, the ‘self’? In this way as mentioned early on, the aporia appears to be taking on the form of an ‘other’ – an object in itself.

This is one clear point where Burbules’ analysis can be seen to disagree with certain Derridean assumptions and – interestingly – is the point of a similar contention in another article by Alsup entitled ‘Grateful Gifts: Towards and Ethic of Donativity’ (2010) which more directly challenges the necessity of certain elements of Derrida’s perspectives and rational deconstructions.

“Derrida’s presentation of the aporia of the gift does not match up with our own experiences of how we give gifts…Derrida’s aporia will be shown to have been correct but misguided, as the gift event works differently than he originally supposed.” (Alsup, 2010: pp1-2)

“…the presence of the ego is what is most problematic for the gift in Derrida’s account.” (ibid)

The critical point with which Alsup is questioning the aporia in Derrida’s idea of the ‘gift event’ [7] is the idea of the ‘Ego’ as inseparable and unequivocally of the ‘self’ and not the ‘other’. Derrida acknowledges the Ego as a phenomena which constitutes and necessitates a consciousness that does not allow the ability to be unaware – on some level – of the state of one’s own experience. Alsup argues the possibility of removing the ‘I’ (ego) from ‘self’ – that ‘I’ is a gift received when encountering an ‘other’ and therefore possible to separate the  ‘self’ from the ‘gift event’[8].

It is apparent that the significance of ‘Ego’ is important to the phenomenological standpoint that Derrida uses (Derrida has used Freud as a frequent source[9]) about the nature of aporia itself; of the gift event and of the aporia surrounding the possibility of death.

The nature of these ontological arguments highlights the complexities of the phenomenological perspective. The researcher risks the consequence of damaging the validity of one’s own observations when not carefully considering the researcher’s own position and the counter arguments that exist that may destabilise fundamental assumptions.

Observations and Conclusions

Aporia is described as:

“[an] ongoing condition that generates the questions and problems that move us to seek new understandings.” (Burbules, 2000)

The points raised in the arguments discussed highlight the link between ideas that lay within and those which are supported by certain ontological (ways of being) and epistemological (way of knowing) standpoints.

The analysis of the experience and use of aporia as a term brings us to these methodological and ethical questions in a way that challenges us to ignore, surpass or to accept the doubt or ambiguity that is a necessary part of our experience and observation of certain phenomena. These questions pertain particularly to a phenomenological view of experience that lends itself predominantly to qualitative research (see footnote 6).

These complex ideas whilst not easy to explore in a research context nevertheless hold the potential to challenge the researcher to consider the uncertain and the abstract in order to further our un(self)restricted understanding about the nature of the world and the people (we perceive) in it: even if the stones we turn hide unsettling, unstabilising concepts.

[1]              doubt, n: Uncertainty or undecidedness. See OED, 2014 at http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/57076?rskey=jxXrs9&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid . Interestingly, doubt is also listed as a synonym for ‘fear’ linking doubt as a fear of the unknown or the undefined suggesting that qualities inherent in aporia are something that are abhorrent or antithesis to the comfortable existence of human experience.
[2] ‘…error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue. Particularly when translating from a language very remote from his own he must go back to the primal elements of language itself and penetrate to the point where work, image, and tone converge…’ (Benjamin, 1968, p81 as cited in Burbules, 2000,  p178)
[3] (removed in online edit)
[4]              For more detailed information on deconstructionism, see Chapter 2: ‘Key Ideas’ in Nicolas Royle’s Jaque Derrida (Royle, 2003:Ch2, 13-20).  A concise definition of deconstructionism by Nicolas Royle: ‘…exposing unquestioned metaphysical assumptions and internal contradictions in philosophical and literary language.’ (Royle, 2003:24).
For OED definitions see ‘deconstructionism, n’ (OED, 2014) at http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/48375?redirectedFrom=deconstructionism+#eid7349700
[5]              ‘Hermenuetics might be understood simply as the process of interpretation’ (Brown, Heggs, 2005). For more detailed definitions for hermeneutics, see Chapter 35 from Research Methods in the Social Sciences (Somekh, Lewin, 2005):  ‘From Hermeneutics to Poststructuralism to psychoanalysis’ BY Tony Brown and Daniel Heggs.
[6]              ‘Broadly based mainstream qualitative approach with affinities to phenomenology and hermeneutic approaches.’ (Colin Robson, Real World Research, 2011, p24)
[7]              ‘For there to be a gift, it is necessary that the donee not give back, amortize, reimburse, acquit himself, enter into a contract, and that he never have contracted a debt…It is thus necessary, at the limit, that he not recognize the gift as gift. If he recognizes it as gift…this simple recognition suffices to annul the gift. Why? Because it gives back, in the place…of the thing itself, a symbolic equivalent…The symbolic opens and constitutes the order of exchange and of debt, the law or the order of circulation in which the gift gets annulled. It suffices therefore for the other to perceive the gift…in order for this simple recognition of the gift as gift, as such, to annul the gift as gift even before recognition becomes gratitude.’ (Jaque Derrida, Given Time I: Counterfeit Money, pp13-4)
[8]              ‘we are moved to place the significance of the experience in the other itself.’, ‘[Derrida] overlooks the fact that the notions of gift and gratitude are inseparable.’ (Alsup, p22), ‘…there is a profound sense in which I am the other (ibid, p29)
[9]              ‘…crucial importance of psychoanalysis, and especially the writings of Freud, to an understanding of Derrida’s work.’ (Royle, 2003, p73)


Alsup, Clayton James Monck., (2010). Grateful Gifts: Towards and Ethic of Donativity. MA Thesis. Louisiana State University. Available at: <http://etd.lsu.edu/docs/available/etd-04292010-204404/> [Accessed 28/12/13]
Burbules, Nicolas C., (2000). ‘Aporias, Webs, and Passages: Doubt as an Opportunity to Learn’, Curriculum Inquiry, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Summer, 2000), pp. 171-187. Published by: Wiley. Available at:  http://www.henigman.com/webquest/images/Burbules_aporia.pdf [Accessed 03/01/14]
Benjamin, W., (1968) p81, The task of the translator, Illuminations, (trans by Harry Zohn), New York: Harcourt Brace and World. (cited in Burbules)
Certeau, Michel de., (1984), The Practice of Everyday Life, (trans Steven Rendall), Berkeley: University of California Press, 97, 99. (cited in Burbules)
Derrida, Jacques. (1992) Given Time I: Counterfeit Money. (Trans Peggy Kamuf). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Derrida, J., (1994). Aporias. Stanford, Ca: Standford University Press. Available at: <http://www.scribd.com/doc/29006748/Jacques-DERRIDA-Aporias#I-%2F578785877%2F1> [Accessed 02//1/14]
Foucault, M., (2004). The Order of Things (first published 1966). London: Routledge
Nayak, S., (n.d.). Border Crossings and Philosophical Mashups: The Aporetics of Intersectionality. Phd Thesis, Salford University. [Available on Request].
Oxford English Dictionary (2014) [online],. Available at: <http://www.oed.com> [Accessed 20/12/13].
Plato, (380BCE). Meno. (trans. by Benjamin Jowett). [online]. Available at: <http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/meno.html> [Accessed: 28/12/13]
Robson, C., (2011). Real World Research, p24, (3rd ed). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Royle, N. (2003) Jaques Derrida. London: Routledge.
Somekh, B., Lewin, C., (2005) (ed). Research Methods in the Social Sciences. London: Sage.
Thiongo, N.W. (1996) Borders and Bridges: Seeking Connections Between Things. Cited in Nayak (n.d.).
Worley, P., (n.d.). Does the demonstration with the slave boy in the Meno prove anything? Unpublished essay. [Available on request].
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2 Responses to A short long essay on the subject of ‘aporia’ in research…

  1. Chris Dolan says:

    Is there any chance of getting a copy of Nayak’s PhD Thesis ‘Border Crossings and Philosophical Mashups: The Aporetics of Intersectionality’? I am a PhD student myself and looking to apply the concept of aporia to school leadership.

    • dannyemills says:

      Hi sorry for late reply – have been finishing my masters. If you still need it I can try to get you a copy. It was given as part of a lecture and only in paper form but might be on the academic sharing sites, I’ll try to check for you.

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