Aristotle domesticated rhetoric by enclosing it in a reassuring system of rules and procedures. And like ethics, metaphysics, and poetics, rhetoric maintained a formulation close to Aristotle's for a good long time (1964:17).
The topoi. Aristotle's system of invention,
outlined in Book II of the Rhetoric, focuses on deductive reasoning involving
three types of proof: appeals to the will (ethos) and emotion (pathos) -- these
are the so-called nonlogical arguments -- and a more deliberate appeal to the
intellect (logos) -- this is the conventional concern of English-language
academic writing. Proofs are advanced by the topoi, the places or sources of
argument, which are either specified by a particular academic domain or
non-specified as general topics "suitable for application to diverse inquiry"
(Barilli 1989:14). Aristotle's strategies for diverse inquiry comprise 28
general topoi, commonplace lines of argument like "opposites," "analytic
division," "definition," "synthesis," "cause and effect."
The general topoi are strategies for advancing a thesis. Here, for example, is how Edward P. J. Corbett elaborates one of the more elementary of the topoi.
Definition is a way of unfolding what is wrapped up in a subject being examined. One of the rhetorical uses of this topic is to ascertain the specific issue to be discussed. Opponents in a dispute may be arguing at cross-purposes if they do not clearly establish just what the point at issue is. Therefore, after we have formulated our thesis, we may find it necessary to define the key terms in our thematic proposition so that our audience will clearly understand what we are talking about (1971:110-111).
Paradoxically, the topics of invention are both parts and the whole of this system. At no stage in the composing process can division into parts be separated from classification or classification from comparison. Probably all of the topics operate together as a single entity in the process of composing although for theoretical purposes we distinguish them. All are manifestations of the same underlying thought processes (1975:53).
While D'Angelo sheds no new light on how the
topoi function as thought processes ("Probably all of the topics operate together
as a single entity..."), he revitalizes the topoi by situating them in a
psychological framework where they are viewed as a rational mode of consciousness
operating simultaneously with intuition.
Criticisms of current applications. C. H. Knoblauch and Lil Brannon (1984) argue against the view that the topoi are cognitive manifestations. "We only suggest the philosophical inadequacy of subdividing imaginative activity in the artificial ways that the classical rhetoricians did, as though the whole were equivalent to the sum of its topos-parts" (50). Referring to writing teachers' need for a "system" of procedures, such as is evidenced by the commonplace topics addressed to a given question or central thesis, Bartholomae and Petrosky (1986) argue that
failure to recognize the metaphorical nature of such descriptions has haunted research and pedagogy in language learning. Because writers, for instance, can be said to proceed systematically, teachers have offered as holy writ that writers begin with a "controlling idea" (10).
Knoblauch and Brannon are especially critical of the topoi as heuristic panaceas.
trouble lies mainly in what students infer about the nature and value and purpose
of writing when teachers isolate heuristic "strategies" outside the context of
writers' primary concerns -- which are to make significant meanings and
communicate them to others... It is conceptually wrong, we suggest, to regard
inventiveness as a collection of skills and strategies, and pedagogically
inappropriate to make them a focus of attention (1984:37).
Knoblauch and Brannon contend that invention skills and strategies separated from "primary concerns" should not become centers of interest in the writing classroom. They assert, in addition, that writers "in action look to their purposes, not to their tools," and so focusing on strategies is not useful "particularly when writers already 'know' them in the sense of knowing their use" (ibid.).
This seems a sweeping judgment, as constraining in its advocacy of invention as a tool for a predetermined purpose as it is incisive in its criticism of the view of invention as merely a set of strategies. In response to Knoblauch and Brannon, I would suggest that college writers, both native speakers and EFL students, frequently discover their purposes in the process of writing, that is, in the process of inventing. And if students know the use of some invention strategies, it does not necessarily follow that writers know strategies pertinent to tasks at hand, or that EFL writers, for example, are well practiced in applying what they know. Surely there are occasions when college writers can profit from experimenting with comparisons or extended definitions (to name just two strategies), if only to discover how far their imaginations might take them, and to what ends. I find, for instance, that some of my students here in Japan come up with new angles or recover old ideas about a topic when they temporarily suspend their "primary concerns" about significant meaning and audience, and undertake such experiments. Peter Elbow, another practitioner who stresses experimentation, claims that ignoring audience can sometimes lead to better writing (1987:53).
Reassessing the topoi. I concur with the major point of Knoblauch's and Brannon's critique. Isolating heuristic devices like the topoi from the making of real meaning is a formula for stunted growth. The fault, though, derives not so much from the topoi's inadequacy even when devoid of a writer's purpose, as from our pedagogical inattention to the topoi's primary potential for making meaning. William Grimaldi laments that the topoi have been passed down to us in truncated form. He suggests that
there has been lost along the way the far richer method of discourse on the human problems they provide. Seen as mere static, stock "commonplaces," stylized sources for discussion on all kinds of subject matter, they have lost the vital, dynamic character given to them by Aristotle, a character extremely fruitful for intelligent, mature discussion of the innumerable significant problems which face man (1958:1).
The contrast between rhetoric and dialectic is struck in the first lines of the dialogue. Gorgias, the renowned orator, is prepared to appear in a set speech. But Socrates asks, will he also be willing to engage in a dialectical conversation? Will he be prepared to let himself too be examined, or will he insist on sticking to his rehearsed "demonstrations"? (1988:31).
dialectic is a process of examination organized in a three-part structure: (1)
definition of particular terms; (2) analysis, the division of subject matter
into particulars, and particulars into the smallest units possible; (3)
synthesis, moving upward from concrete to abstract, and combining particulars to
reach a unified conclusion (Golden 1984:30-32).
In contrast with Aristotle's invention scheme which presupposes the topoi be applied to a given premise or thesis question, Plato's invention-as-discovery is flexible, though implicitly inductive. It is flexible in that participants can move "up" or "down" the ladder bridging the abstract and concrete. It is also implicitly inductive in that the subject of conversation is divided into its discrete components and reconstituted -- making room for the possibility of novel premises and limitless variation. For instance, to converse on "love," one might divide the term into its various types ranging from mere affection to unbridled passion. One could attempt to divide the types further, determining the constituents, say, of "mild" versus "warm" affection. (See Plato's Phaedurs for a classic application of dialectic on love.)
If some of these strategies seem familiar, this is because many of Aristotle's topoi derive from Plato's dialectical invention. In reconstructing Plato's conception of dialogue we recover the practical and original methodology and context for confronting the implicit controversies posed by the topoi.
Plato's influence on the aims of discourse. It seems
instructive to consider the transformative potential of Platonic dialogue on the
practical aims of discourse, since learning regimens using dialogic
communication, like those outlined above, foster discovery. One who
participates in dialogic activity is placed at the center of one's limited
understanding, and this is epistemologically appealing because the aims of
discourse then become a function of meeting the challenge of alternative voices,
and accounting for one's understanding in the face of choice. For example, the
language learner will need to supply an answer to a peer who questions, "What
Practice in new discourse forms. Finally, when college writers communicate with one another about each other's writing, they are practicing new dimensions of English-language invention. This sort of practice makes sense in light of the central role some topoi, for example, play in influencing the structure of academic discourse and formal writing in English.
Moreover, the notion of vibrant conversation is an analog for the communicative style and tone of well-formed prose in English, psycholinguistic and rhetorical characteristics that stand in sharp contrast with Japanese prose. Fister-Stoga (1993) identifies English-language rhetorical style as "variable" and "lively" and its tone as "animated" and "controversial"; Japanese prose style, on the other hand, is more "ambiguous" and its tone more "unexcited." It follows, then, by engaging in conversation and dialogic debate, Japanese learners could benefit from experiencing the essential (and for them, the additive) psycholinguistic element of controversy that engineers academic argument in English-language prose. Fister-Stoga adds that the audience for Japanese prose is typically "subordinate," receptive and passive; whereas the audience for English-language prose is "cooperative," that is, it participates in the controversy. Here, too, Japanese writers might profit from rehearsing this participatory role of their audience by helping to bring the debate to life, if you will, talking over components of a formal argument with other students.
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