Leonardo invented flying machines. Dyson invented vacuums. YOU, my rhetor friends, are inventors of argument—molding stats into piercing logic, transforming emotion into actionable appeals, forging years of experience into an armor of ethos.
Damn. You’re good.
But inventing an argument is tough work, and it can be difficult to know where to start. Every subject gives you so much raw material to work with! You might ask yourself:
- What is the most important element of what I’m trying to argue?
- What context does my audience need to “get” my argument?
- How can I present the argument in an interesting or insightful manner?
These are big questions not easily answered (and not by any means exhaustive). They’re complex, intricate, delicate. One way to start thinking about argument invention is through one of Aristotle’s favorite tools: topoi, common topics or ways of thinking about arguments that apply to any subject.
I looked at the four most common topics in a previous post, but I wanted to give some screen time to the wider categories. (If Aristotle thought they were important, then who am I to disagree?) Topoi are particularly effective if you’re looking at a broad or abstract topic and trying to narrow your approach. So whittle away!
There are six categories of topoi: Definition, Division, Comparison, Relationship, Circumstance, and Testimony. Let’s look at how they might apply to the broad subject of environmentalism…
I would argue that what we argue about most, though we seldom realize it, is the definition of terms. In fact many debates are reduced to #ArgumentJunk because the rhetors use different definitions for the same concept and simply talk past each other. Actively thinking about definitions of important concepts in your subject can be a great way to invent an argument. Or a great way to avoid one.
- What is “environment”?
- Has the meaning of “pollution” changed in recent years?
- Do people understand the meaning of “energy”?
- What are specific, concrete examples of what energy means to humans?
Great inventors like to tinker. They take things apart and look at the pieces that make up the whole. Rhetors, too, should look at various parts of the subject individually and think about interesting angles for argument. Divide your topic and conquer.
- What are the various elements of “environment”?
- Are there different kinds of “pollution” that need to parsed out in my argument?
- What are the different kinds of energy production?
- Is “environment” itself part of a larger whole that needs to be discussed?
Comparison: Similarity/Difference & Degree
Perhaps the most prevalent topoi on the Internet is that of comparison. That is, looking at the similarities and differences of two or more things. Cats are better than dogs! Paleo is healthier than Veganism! The Millennium Falcon could destroy the Enterprise! Ad infinitum/nauseum.
As I mentioned in my previous post, the most important element of comparison is defining your criteria. If you’re claiming that Canada is better than America, you have to provide the standard of judgement—most maple syrup consumed per capita, for instance.
- Do arguments about the environment compare to arguments about other related issues?
- To what degree is recycling helpful/harmful?
- Is one energy source inferior/superior to another—and by what criteria?
- In what way is “wilderness” different from / similar to “environment”?
Relationship: Cause/Effect, Contraries, & Contradictions
The purpose of the relationship topoi is to think about how two things interact with each other. This is the topic of cause and effect, consequences, purpose, contradictions, etc. When thinking about this topoi, consider not only how parts of the subject relate to each other but also how the audience relates to the subject, if at all.
- Do humans cause catastrophic global warming?
- What do environmentalists want to accomplish?
- What must my audience know before they can understand my conclusion?
- What are the consequences of environmentalism / further industrialization?
Circumstance: Possible/Impossible & Past/Future Fact
While I said earlier that most arguments are implicitly about definitions, most arguments are explicitly about circumstance: facts, possibility, desirability, etc. When dealing with circumstance, you’re almost always dealing with logos, so be prepared to back up your facts with facts. And always have an iPhone ready to research in realtime.
- Is it possible to run our lives on wind and solar energy alone?
- Even if it is possible, is it desirable?
- What is required for the environmentalist argument to succeed?
- Who should be concerned with environmentalist arguments?
Testimony: Authority, Opinion, & Culture
If you’re really stuck or if your knowledge of the he subject is limited, then you might consider the topoi of testimony. That is, what have other people said about the subject? It’s kind of like cheating except that it’s encouraged. Testimony isn’t limited to professional text or expert opinion—though its usually good to start with such sources. Think also about popular opinion, maxims, commercials, culture, laws, etc.
- Who supports/opposes environmentalist policies?
- What’s the latest opinion poll on fracking?
- Are there any maxims, sayings, songs that shed light on industrialization?
- What are the new laws around hydraulic fracturing?
* * * * *
The purpose of topoi is not to provide a rigid set of guidelines for examining a topic, but instead to give you a way to think through possibilities. They’re a starting point to invention. Yes, it can get messy but embrace the creative chaos. It’s good for you.
Maybe looking at definitions will spark an idea about circumstance, or perhaps comparing two elements will make you think of a relationship you hadn’t previously considered. Who knows? Maybe you’ll even end up a better rhetor.