Introduction to the Rhetorical Topics


After determining where the differences of opinion in an argument are likely to fall, you need to come up with arguments for your own position and against your opponent's position. Some times, you can rely on testimony or authority for arguments, but you can also create arguments based on logical relationships. The rhetorical topics, or topoi, (in Greek), are "places" to which you can direct your attention to see if arguments emerge. These places can be thought of as mental categories.

In Aristotle's Rhetoric, he talks about the topics in two places. In Book I, chapter 2, he mentions the common topics, or koine, which, he says, are four in number: (1) the possible and impossible (2) past fact (3) future fact (4) the lesser and the greater. The idea is that, for every subject, you consider whether or not there are possibilities or impossibilities associated with it. If everything about it is possible, then you have a strong argument for doing it; if there is some barrier that seems impossible to overcome, then the argument for doing it is weak. If the argument includes something that seems inherently impossible, then you have a strong argument for rebuttal. Secondly, if you can prove that something happened in the past, then you can extrapolate from that fact to other likely occurrences. Similarly, if you can show that something will inevitably happen, then you have leverage to argue for or against other things in conjunction with it. For instance, if something is going to happen, then there are opportunities to do something profitable in its wake. Finally, you can compare alternatives and determine which is greater or lesser. Sometimes, you want things that are greater than others; sometimes lesser. The more profitable or advantageous of two options is to be preferred; the lesser evil or damage is to be preferred.

In Book II, Aristotle says arguments can be constructed from twenty-eight topics (many of which seem to be more precise variations on the four common topics:

  1. opposites
  2. key words
  3. correlative ideas
  4. a fortiori
  5. time
  6. turn accusations against accuser
  7. definition
  8. sense of a word
  9. division
  10. induction
  11. precedent
  12. parts of the subject
  13. consequences
  14. contrast of opposite methods
  15. public versus private opinions
  16. rational correspondence
  17. antecedents
  18. reversal of previous choice
  19. possible versus real motives
  20. motives of people
  21. true because incredible
  22. contradictions in dates
  23. inaccurate facts
  24. cause and effect
  25. the better course
  26. inconsistency with the past
  27. previous mistakes
  28. meanings of names


It's probably not important to try out each of these topics on your subject, or even to figure out what each of them means, but you might try a few, asking yourself questions like:

Try to make questions out of the topics that make the most sense to you and then answer them as you think about your subject. If you do this, you will begin to think of the topics as a guided brainstorming session. Combined with testimony and authoritative commentary, these arguments should help build your case.