Idea Criticism (Topics)

In the various systems of classical rhetoric, the topics were set ways of reasoning useful in constructing persuasive discourse. The Greek topoi means place--the metaphor Aristotle used to explain the topics as set places to go looking for arguments. The topics were once central to rhetorical invention because their use fit the deductive reasoning of ancient Greece, in which one bases arguments upon set cultural norms and truths. So, to invent an argument, one takes the cultural truth and then searches the topics for a proper way to apply the truth to a particular situation.

While deduction remains an important method of reasoning, it does not have the same cultural power today as the inductive method, in which one reasons by examples to reach truth. Since the Enlightenment, the topics have become the "modes of discourse"--ways to arrange arguments. Notice the movement from the canon of invention to the canon of arrangement. The topics were once the a way of discovering argument. Today, the modes are ways to arrange argument. I think we lost a powerful method of discovery when we began thinking of the topics as modes of discourse.

The topical approach to idea criticism attempts to identify the controlling topics of discourse. This helps the critic reduce the message to its thematic and rhetorical character. The topical approach makes an excellent rubric for comparative analysis.

Common Topics

  1. Definition: The topic of definition includes the subtopics of 1) existence, 2) classification, 3) degree, 4) form, 5) substance, and 6) capacity. All of these topics are concerned with defining what something is. Does it exist? How do we classify it? To what degree is it ______? What is its form? What is its substance? What can it do? Arguments based on the topic of definition attempt to prove that something exists in a certain context with certain attributes. Politicians especially rely on this topic because political victory is often a matter of winning the battle of definitions.
  2. Comparison: The topic of comparison includes the subtopics of 1) similarity, 2) difference, and 3) degree. These topics are concerned with demonstrating the relationship, or non-relationship, among people, things, situations, or ideas. Comparison is an especially important topic because it is the foundation of metaphor. Our human conceptual system is essentially metaphoric (see Lakoff & Johnson "Metaphors We Live By"). We understand the form and substance of existence by comparing the things of this world to other things.
  3. Cause and Effect: The topic of cause and effect includes the subtopics of  1) correlation, 2) causality, and 3) contradiction. Because we perceive time as linear, and events as happening in sequence along a time line, we believe that when something happens something else must have caused it. Never mind that this is a philosophically troublesome notion. This is how we experience the world. Our practice of journalism and politics demonstrates this.
  4. Circumstance: The topic of circumstance includes the subtopics of 1) the possible, 2) the impossible, 3) fact, and 4) future probability. The topic of circumstance considers the context of a situation or action. It is possible or impossible? What are the facts (and how do we know them or agree on them)? What might be the facts in the future? Much of political argument revolves around the circumstances of past situations and what those situations mean for present and future actions.

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