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
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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.