Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.11.08 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.11.08

George E. Karamanolis, Vasilis Politis (ed.), The Aporetic Tradition in Ancient Philosophy.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2018.  Pp. vii, 319.  ISBN 9781107110151.  £75.00.  

Reviewed by Máté Veres, Université de Genève (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

One might characterise aporetic argumentation in the following terms. An aporetic argument is such that it generates a state of puzzlement (aporia in its subjective sense) by way of the equality of opposite reasonings, that is, by way of a problem or difficulty (aporia in the objective sense) put forward in the course of philosophical investigation. Furthermore, an aporetic argument can play a crucial role in structuring one's investigation. Faced with an intellectual roadblock, an inquirer might find either that the reasons on either side of a contradiction only seemingly balance each other out and thereby come to identify the more promising way forward, or that there is indeed a compelling case for equipollence, in which case the inquiry needs to take a new turn or come to a halt. At any rate, due consideration of the relevant aporiai seems to result in epistemic improvements of one kind or another.

The fourteen papers collected in this volume, all but one deriving from a conference held at Trinity College Dublin in November 2014, deal with the topic of aporetic argumentation in the Greek philosophical tradition from the Presocratics to Damascius. Given the thematic and chronological breadth of their chosen subject, it is a rather impressive achievement of the contributors that, as the editors maintain, they show the above analysis of aporia to be dominant, at the very least, from Aristotle to prominent representatives of Neoplatonic thought (see the introduction, esp. pp. 6-7). The volume does an excellent job of weaving together a more or less continuous narrative of the emergence and persistence of aporetic inquiry, while also displaying a wide variety of philosophical commitments and outlooks with which it can be combined.

I shall give a brief outline of the volume's thematic sections below. In the opening chapter, John Palmer gives a survey of Presocratic uses of aporia. He distinguishes between its positive role in supporting higher-order philosophical theses about the nature of reality (as in Heraclitus and, in a roundabout way, in Protagoras and Gorgias) and its negative application aimed at incapacitating one's opponent (as in Zeno and Melissus). In Chapter 2, Jan Szaif argues that, in some of the so-called Socratic dialogues, Plato opposes the latter, eristic use of aporia by pointing to the comparative merits of Socratic examination: one might reap both cognitive and ethical benefits from the otherwise unpleasant experience of intellectual puzzlement, provided that one draws the right conclusions from one's failure in the definitional quest. This promise receives no credence from Socrates' interlocutors, however, who generally fail to make good use of the opportunity.

According to Vasilis Politis (Chapter 3), Plato occasionally takes the inference from an aporetic argument to a sceptical conclusion to be warranted, while in other cases he revokes his support and suggests that the project of conceptual definition might bring us closer to knowledge or to reasonable belief. The next two chapters take a closer look at individual dialogues organised around a formally aporetic structure, giving further support to the claim that Plato did not see aporia as an acceptable endpoint of investigation. Verity Harte argues in Chapter 4 that the Parmenides recognises the production of aporiai as a formal philosophical technique which one can employ in response to a hypothesis posited by one's interlocutor. Based on a careful presentation of Plato's terminological wavering between the subjective and objective senses of aporetic terminology, Harte convincingly shows that the dialogue consists of three sets of philosophical exchanges, each starting out with an initial hypothesis which is then met by a related formal puzzle. Furthermore, while there are various ways in which one can legitimately deal with an aporia, premature surrender by abandoning one's hypothesis is not a permissible dialectical move.

As for the Theaetetus and the Sophist, Lesley Brown argues in Chapter 5 for an important link between the treatment of aporiai in these works. The famous imagery of Socratic midwifery, as presented in the former dialogue, relies on understanding the interlocutor's puzzlement as a condition of mental pregnancy, where the offspring is to be jointly examined after delivery by both partners in dialogue. Pointing forward to the middle part of the Sophist, Brown argues that it is their approach to such aporiai that distinguishes the sophist from the philosopher, in that only the latter makes a concerted effort to systematically expose the source of the difficulty with an eye to eventually resolving it. Coming at the end of the chapters devoted to Plato, Brown's analysis successfully combines the main threads of analysis raised in the previous papers.

Chapters 6 to 8 turn to Aristotle. Dealing with the Topics, Christof Rapp presents a strong case for characterising aporia as a dialectical problem, or rather as a state of puzzlement resulting from the consideration of reputable but conflicting views on a given question. This exercise allows the inquirer to go through the difficulties and see which option is more promising, a process which Aristotle labels as diaporein. Friedemann Buddensiek extends this analysis to Aristotle's Metaphysics Beta, where going through the relevant difficulties is not just useful but perhaps necessary on the way to the first principles. In realising that the difficulties stem from misjudging the range, the explanatory function, the explanatory power, or the implications of a given principle, one comes closer to a proper grasp of the principles necessary for wisdom. Further support for this analysis comes from a later chapter (Chapter 12) in which Inna Kupreeva shows that Alexander of Aphrodisias understood dialectical methodology as providing second-order justification for indemonstrable first principles. However, Jessica Gelber argues in Chapter 8 that no unified notion of aporia can be discovered in Aristotle's biological works, as the relevant passages display a variety of senses and purposes of aporiai. Gelber's conclusion, together with Rapp's point that aporetic argumentation is not always tracked by aporetic language, brings to light the difficulties facing anyone who would argue for too narrow an understanding of the subject at hand.

Three papers examine later representatives of the Platonist tradition. In Chapter 10, John Dillon takes a cursory look at various treatises by Plutarch, showcasing various examples that betray his understanding of aporia along Socratic, Aristotelian, and New Academic lines. In Chapter 13, George Karamanolis provides an informative and novel analysis of Plotinus' philosophical methodology on the basis of his use of aporiai in the Enneads. To begin with, Plotinus employs aporetic arguments directly in service of his own investigation, either by placing genuine dilemmas in the forefront of one or several treatises (zetetic aporia), or by inquiring into Plato's view at a critical juncture (exegetical aporia). Furthermore, he raises difficulties about rival Peripatetic and Stoic views (critical aporia). Finally, he comes to see certain aporiai as such that reason cannot ever overcome them: with regard to the One, all that reason can reveal is that it cannot be grasped by rational means. Damian Caluori picks up on this last sense in Chapter 14, showing that Damascius made use of aporiai in arguing that they reveal a reality beyond the grasp of language and reason.

Notwithstanding the merits of the chapters mentioned thus far, one might arguably resist the suggestion that aporetic argumentation is the ideal point of entry to their respective subjects. This is much less clearly the case, however, when it comes to sceptical philosophers of the Academic and Pyrrhonean persuasion. The relevant chapters of the present volume take aim at the common charge that sceptics misunderstood philosophical inquiry by presenting the state of puzzlement as its legitimate endpoint. In Chapter 9, James Allen looks at the New Academic practice of arguing on either side as a method both for teaching and for truth-oriented inquiry. Allen discussed not only the Socratic and Aristotelian provenance of this practice, but also its compatibility with holding specifically sceptical tenets, decreta or placita, such as the tenet that 'Nothing can be apprehended' or that 'One should suspend judgement'. This raises the further question of the philosophical affinity between Academics and Pyrrhoneans, an issue to which Allen's chapter – perhaps understandably – gives a rather short shrift.

As for Sextus Empiricus, Chapter 11 by Luca Castagnoli makes a quite convincing case that he operates with the same understanding of aporia as his mainstream dogmatic colleagues. Just as Plato and Aristotle, Sextus takes philosophical inquiry to arise from, and to be structured by, the experience of puzzlement and resourcelessness, a condition that philosophical investigation promises to overcome. In sharp contrast to his dogmatic colleagues, however, Sextus alleges that the only benefit of inquiry presently available is the avoidance of relapsing into dogmatism: insofar as one comes to recognise the equipollence of available arguments, one will suspend judgement and continue the inquiry. Castagnoli complements his case by the careful analysis of particular aspects of Sextan aporia, including suggestions as to the other alleged benefit of suspending one's judgement, namely, the achievement of a tranquil state of mind.

In sum, The Aporetic Tradition tells the story of ancient philosophical inquiry from an angle which is by all accounts novel. It is also an outstanding example of a collaborative project, since the individual contributions build upon each other's results and maintain, on average, a high level of argumentation from beginning to end. Some episodes are presented more convincingly than others, just as the contributors lend support to the editors' thesis with varying levels of conviction. There is no doubt, however, that the aporetic angle might contribute to a better understanding of thinkers who are not usually associated with such an approach, and that future research on the protagonists and topics discussed can benefit from consulting the tightly argued and innovative discussions contained in this volume.

The book is produced almost without typos (I have counted only five, none of which impedes understanding), and comes with excellent indices and a useful bibliography. One might nevertheless add two brief remarks. First, word processing seems to have played a small trick on the numbering of the index locorum: for example, Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians (M) I.6 is followed by I.68 and only then by I.7 (and so on). Secondly, Meinwald 1991 (quoted on 68 n. 4), Brittain 2012 (184 n. 22) and d'Ancona 2006 (258 n. 24) are missing from the bibliography, while McDowell 1973 is referred to as 1974 (96 n. 11), Reid 1885 as Reid 2007 (185 n. 25), Barnes 1991 as 1991/2011 (232 n. 24), and Ahbel-Rappe 2010 is to be found as Rappe 2010 (269 n. 2). It goes without saying that these small trifles take nothing away from the book's numerous merits.1

Table of Contents

Palmer, Contradiction and Aporia in Early Greek Philosophy, 9-28.
Szaif, Socrates and the Benefits of Puzzlement, 29-47.
Politis, Aporia and Sceptical Argument in Plato's Early Dialogues, 48-66.
Harte, Aporia in Plato's Parmenides, 67-90.
Brown, Aporia in Plato's Theaetetus and Sophist, 91-111.
Rapp, Aporia and Dialectical Method in Aristotle, 112-136.
Buddensiek, Aporia in Aristotle's Metaphysics Beta, 137-154.
Gelber, Uses of Aporiai in Aristotle's Generation of Animals, 155-171.
Allen, Aporia and the New Academy, 172-191.
Dillon, Aporetic Elements in Plutarch's Philosophy, 192-204.
Castagnoli, Aporia and Enquiry in Ancient Pyrrhonism, 205-227.
Kupreeva, Aporia and Exegesis: Alexander of Aphrodisias, 228-247.
Karamanolis, The Aporetic Character of Plotinus' Philosophy, 248-268.
Caluori, Aporia and the Limits of Reason and Language in Damascius, 269-284.


1.   The reviewer is grateful to Anders Sydskjør (Universität Bern) for discussion, who should not be thereby assumed to share responsibility for the final version.

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