Invention

To discover the available means of persuasion.

Exigence and audience are the primary building blocks of a rhetorical situation, in which a person is compelled to communicate with an audience. The range of possibilities are endless, from hitting one's self in the thumb with a hammer and crying out an expletive to the President taking the Oath of Office and delivering the inaugural address.

While figuring out what to say might be rather easy for the poor fellow who hit his thumb, other rhetorical situations require varying degrees of thought before we communicate. We must figure out what to say to achieve our desired goal. And this is the role of the first canon of rhetoric: invention.

A rhetorical situation demands that we discover:

  1. The audience and their needs/desires/thoughts regarding the situation.
  2. What types of evidence (facts, testimony, statistics, laws, maxims, examples, authority) to employ with the particular audience.
  3. How best to appeal to the audience (logic, emotions, character).
  4. Which topics to employ to examine the situation and generate ideas.
  5. The best timing and proportion for communication (kairos).
Much of this process happens quite naturally as we encounter a range of rhetorical situations every day. For example, suppose you are discussing lunch plans with two friends, and you want to go to a specific restaurant. We handle these types of situations quite naturally based on long experience with our friends, their needs/desires, what appeals work with them, and how best to time and measure our comments or suggestions. You don't have to think about invention. You simply speak your mind based on long experience with similar situations.

Suppose, however, that you're called on to speak at a neighborhood political candidates' forum or write a letter to the editor about a civic issue. While a certain amount of natural rhetorical skill will be present (scholar George Kennedy says rhetoric acts like an instinct), wouldn't it be better for achieving your goal to have on hand a system for generating proper and effective material?

The process of invention, however, is not rigid. There is no set or proper way to employ it. The art of rhetoric requires each rhetor to acknowledge the fluid and contingent nature of human affairs. What works today might not work tomorrow. What works with one audience likely won't work with another.

Stasis Theory

Quite often an exigence involves a disagreement. The invention strategy of stasis theory provides a system for discovering the roots of the disagreement so that they may be addressed.

Don't we always know the source of our disagreements? Sadly, we do not. Much of the punditry and uncivil discourse of our culture is based on misunderstandings (willful and otherwise) of the sources of disagreement. The rhetor who would dig more deeply into issues might consider answering these questions before writing or speaking:

  1. Conjecture: What is the act/thing to be considered? Does it exist? Is it true? Where did it come from? How did it begin? What is the cause? Can it be changed.
  2. Definition: How do we define the act/thing? What kind is it? What are the parts and how are they related. To what class does it belong?
  3. Quality: How serious/important is the act/thing? Is it good or bad (how so)? Is it right or wrong (how so)? Is it honorable or dishonorable (how so)?
  4. Procedure: Should we submit the act/thing to a formal procedure? What actions in regard to the act/thing are possible and desirable (how so).

You might recognize the questions of stasis theory as similar to the basic critical questions we learn in school. The process of critical thinking is a process of invention. To discover what we think is to discover what we (might) have to say.

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