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What Is an Apophasis?

By T. Carrier
Updated May 23, 2024
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Apophasis literally means “to say no.” The word has a number of literary contexts. In terms of rhetorical techniques, it refers to an effort to allude to an idea, person, or object without directly mentioning said concept. It may also refer to a method of explanation in which an individual uses nullifying statements to describe something. Other uses for this technique include its place as an inference tool or as a means of highlighting a particular idea.

When the term originally came into fruition, apophasis primarily encompassed descriptive passages where a solid and direct definition was lacking for something. Therefore, the speaker or writer would negatively contrast the object of description to other objects. For example, a car would not be described as a motorized, mobile carriage with four wheels, rather it would might be described as “not manually powered,” “not static,” and “not possessing two wheels.” In a way, this approach to apophasis resembles some riddle-guessing approaches.

A more modern understanding of apophasis views the approach as a rhetorical device to make a strong point. This approach is ironic in a sense, because the speaker’s or writer’s intent is different from the literal statement. Politics is a common area for this type of apophasis use, such as when a politician references an opponent’s voting record or personal life by claiming the subject will not be talked about: “I am not here to talk about the fact that Mr. Smith voted against this policy.” Any statement that leads with the caveats “I will not ...” or “I cannot ...” or similar phrasing is likely a case of apophasis if it is directly followed by an allusion to the allegedly refuted subject. This type may also be known as a paraleipsis.

Another context for understanding apophasis occurs when an individual builds up to a main point or premise by rejecting other, similar points or premises. Theologians sometimes use this approach in referencing a spiritual deity by rejecting other spiritual claims and then validating the deity itself and its surrounding belief system. This approach may also serve as a means of conveying how the deity, or the topic in question, cannot be adequately described in mere words.

In yet another approach, apophasis is understood as a form of logic. When used in this manner, the term is specifically a form of inferential reasoning. Statements known as syllogisms are one primary method, as they present a logical train of thought with a beginning, a middle, and conclusive parts. For example, a syllogism might consist of the following statements: All fish can swim; The trout is a fish; The trout can swim. The apophasic version of this argument would leave the middle statement out, leaving it as an implication rather than a direct statement.

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