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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Apophasis (Late Latin, from Greek ἀπόφασις from ἀποφάναι - apophanai, "to say no") refers, in general, to "mention by not mentioning". Apophasis covers a wide variety of figures of speech.



Apophasis was originally and more broadly a method of logical reasoning or argument by denial - a way of describing what something is by explaining what it is not, or a process-of-elimination way of talking about something by talking about what it is not.

A useful inductive technique when given a limited universe of possibilities, the exclusion of all but the one remaining is affirmation through negation. The familiar guessing-game of Twenty Questions is an example of apophatic inquiry.

This sense has generally fallen into disuse and is frequently overlooked, although it is still current in certain contexts, such as mysticism and negative theology.

In Christianity

An apophatic theology sees God as ineffable and attempts to describe God in terms of what God is not. Apophatic statements refer to transcendence in this context, as opposed to cataphasis referring to immanence.


Paralipsis (παράλειψις) also spelled paraleipsis, or paralepsis and known also as praeteritio, preterition, cataphasis, antiphrasis, or parasiopesis, is a rhetorical figure of speech wherein the speaker or writer invokes a subject by denying that it should be invoked. As such, it can be seen as a rhetorical relative of irony. Paralipsis is usually employed to make a subversive ad hominem attack.

The device is typically used to distance the speaker from unfair claims, while still bringing them up. For instance, a politician might say, "I don't even want to talk about the allegations that my opponent is a drunk."

Proslepsis is an extreme kind of paralipsis that gives the full details of the acts one is claiming to pass over; for example, "I will not stoop to mentioning the occasion last winter when our esteemed opponent was found asleep in an alleyway with an empty bottle of vodka still pressed to his lips."

Paralipsis was often used by Cicero in his orations, such as "I will not even mention the fact that you betrayed us in the Roman people by aiding Catiline."


"It would be superfluous in me to point out to your lordship that this is war."
Charles Francis Adams, U.S. Ambassador to Britain: dispatch to Earl Russell, 5 September 1863, concerning Britain's relations with the Confederacy.

A more positive usage of paralipsis/paralepsis embodies the narrative style of Adso of Melk in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, where the character fills in details of early fourteenth-century history for the reader by stating it is unnecessary to speak of them.


In logic, proslepsis (πρόσληψις), as described briefly by Aristotle and in detail by Theophrastus, is a type of proposition in which the middle term of a syllogism is implied. Such a syllogism is then described as a prosleptic syllogism, of which Theophrastus defined three kinds or figures.


Occultatio, although sometimes used as a synonym for paralipsis, is more often a literary figure most often seen in plays, where a character describes a scene or object by not describing it. For example, in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, act 4, scene 1, the character Grumio describes the eventful coming of his master and new wife to a young servant by saying,

Hadst thou not crossed me, thou shouldst have heard how her horse fell and she under her horse; thou shouldst have heard in how miry a place, how she was bemoiled,[...]with many things of worthy memory, which now shall die in oblivion and thou return unexperienced to thy grave.

In this speech, Grumio, angry at the servant's interruptions, "refuses" to describe what happened, and in so doing, describes it fully.

H. P. Lovecraft frequently used occultatio to add an element of mystery to his stories, as his unfortunate protagonists met things too horrible or too alien to describe.

See also

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