Rectangles on a blue background. An excellent demonstration of the shape tool in Photoshop. Yet this painting sells for hundreds of dollars. It may be fine decoration for a Nieman Marcus, but it’s not art.
Indignant Ian: How dare you, man! Who are you to say what is and isn’t art?
A thinking man, that’s who.
It’s a “habit” of mine to use my mind for the purposes of definition and categorization. You may not like my output, and I’m open to hearing your argument, but I’m willing, able, and ready to make a judgement call in this case. Those shapes aren’t art.
One thing I know for sure is that art is something. It’s not everything. (Then it would be nothing.) Art has characteristics, attributes, features. Art has a definition.
Likewise, something I hear all the time when I talk about rhetoric is that “everything is an argument.” ::sigh:: No, it’s not.
Your Wifi key is not an argument. The Florida Keyes are not an argument. Alicia Keyes is not an argument. Arguments, like art, are something. I’ve covered what they are in previous posts, and I’ll continue to do so. But I want to take some time to discuss other kinds of discourse. What you can engage in if you’re not making an argument.
In composition studies, there are traditionally four categories of discourse:
Argument (not covered in this post)
Let’s look at the characteristics and distinguishing features of each:
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…
“What do you want from me?!” The battle cry of an exhausted rhetor. Whether it’s at work, the kitchen table, or in the bedroom, everyone has felt the frustration of not knowing what an argument is about. Is there anything else in the rhetorical world that makes you feel as helpless? (Aside from bad puns?)
Many times you and your opponent are arguing about different things, so it’s necessary, in order to have a successful debate, to identify the “sticking point” of an argument. What are you really arguing about? What should you be debating? How do you reconcile the difference?
The Greek rhetorician Hermagoras of Temnos theorized that all arguments have four possible sticking points (and scholars later added a fifth):
Hermagoras called each point a “stasis.” Cicero later organized the stases into a method for determining the point of dispute, and called the method “stasis theory.”
Knowing the central point of an argument largely depends on your goals and your audience’s context. Regardless it’s essential to uncover the central dispute if you want to successfully persuade. Let’s see how it plays out with an example argument. Suppose a passenger gets in a debate with a cab driver about the merits of Uber or Lyft…