Radical contradiction

Some definitions of aporia:

An irresolvable internal contradiction or logical disjunction in a text, argument, or theory.

An expression of real or pretended doubt or uncertainty especially for rhetorical effect.

A logical impasse or contradiction; especially : a radical contradiction in the import of a text or theory that is seen in deconstruction as inevitable.

I keep returning to this fascinating word.

I think it true to say I invariably experience aporia as soon as I’ve posted something on this blog. As I tend to be preoccupied with matters philosophical, political and religious, an experience of irresolvable internal contradiction or logical disjunction is inevitable.

Just thinking about my country leads to a kind of aporia, a A logical impasse or contradiction, a radical contradiction in my own thoughts.

Why am I so uncomfortable with the certainty of others, and with my own for that matter? With respect to distrust, I have often quoted the artist Marlene Dumas (from her essay “Do the Right thing” (Grey Areas, Chalkham Hill Press, 1999):

“I distrust myself and all others, involved as we are with all our multi-motivational defenses and references. Every time I try, I shift my perspective and doubt my own sincerity… I can’t stand all the tedious theoretical terminology (that is used in the art world). We use it like clever lawyers, in order to prove ourselves not guilty, while knowing that words are useless when one happens to be at the wrong (or right place) at the wrong time.”

And I value the words of Bertrand Russell who had little time for dogmatists – political, religious, philosophical or otherwise. He wrote,

“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” 


The ancient Greek Pyrrhonists ‘doubted even their doubts’. They believed one should “withhold any assent with regard to non-evident propositions and remain in a state of perpetual inquiry.” They disputed the possibility of attaining “…truth by sensory apprehension, reason, or the two combined, and thence inferred the need for total suspension of judgment (epoché) on non-evident matters.” For any non-evident matter, a Pyrrhonist tries to make the arguments for and against such that the matter cannot be concluded, thus suspending belief. According to Pyrrhonism, even the statement that nothing can be known is dogmatic.” (Wiki)

An odd thing, to argue the position of your opponent with the same conviction as your own, only to suspend judgement. It’s this broadmindedness which allowed the ancient Greeks to allow the apostle Paul to present his case for the Unknown God and His resurrected Son, where a few centuries later the so-called pagan nations would be persecuted for not accepting the Pauline doctrine. Yes, certainty can easily lead to bloodshed.

What is useful in the Pyrrhonean approach is that it encourages a non-partisan, thorough exploration of different points of view. It challenges the tyranny of orthodoxy. of political correctness. Of absolute certainty.

It questions the arrogance of the perpetrators and the tyranny of those who presume to own the narratives of victimhood and power, or who use their experience of victimhood to justify a dismal perpetuation of the Old Testament law of an eye for an eye. A sense of being a victim has been the motivation for untold evil.  Where each lays claim to the absolute legitimacy of his cause and the absolute certitude of his convictions, we must expect the devil to appear.

Rather than the “shut up, I’m right!” sort of argument, Pyrrhonism encourages robust debate. It remains open to doubt, to the possibility that I am mistaken.

But does it not leave us, finally, in the position of a fence-sitter? What then of conviction? Wars are not fought nor causes served through ambivalence.

Surely it’s better to commit to something rather than to suspend judgement?

I’m reminded of the passage in the Old Testament where Joshua says, “… choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD”.

Now there’s a voice of conviction!

But in a postmodern world, where all meta-narratives seem deficient, where all authority seems duplicitous and suspect, where the good guy turns out time and again to be the bad guy and the supposedly bad guy in time appears to be not quite the devil he was believed to be, and the whole good guy bad guy thing is sullied by the lies of those in power, how do we move beyond a wary ambivalence?

Radical contradiction seems at the heart of reality.

Tell me your truth, political, religious or otherwise, but don’t expect me to sign on the dotted line of your convictions.


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