Formal Topics are strategies for argument. Aristotle listed a bunch of them; we’ll focus on a condensed list.
1. Definition: invoking a definition in order to place a thing being discussed within the defined category.
- Genus. A type of definition in which the predicate of a proposition puts the subject into a general class of things: “America is a nation of laws,” “Human beings are mortal,” “Weed is still a Schedule 1 drug”—the subject is being defined by fixing its limits. The rhetorical principle here is that what’s true of a genus must be true of the species. If all humans are mortal, then—despite her gravity defying capabilities, even Simone Biles is mortal. Simply predicating a genus can constitute proof, so long as your audience doesn’t contest it. Booker defined the right to marry as a civil rights issue. Someone else might argue that marriage is “a union between a man and a woman to encourage procreation and a stable home for raising children.” Both are arguments by definition.
- Division. A type of definition in which something is defined by enumerating the parts that make it up, designating the species of a genus. “There are two kinds of marriage: a religious marriage, which encourages procreation and a stable home for raising children, and civil marriage, which grants legal rights and privileges.” Or “We currently have two classes of citizens in this country: first class citizens who enjoy all the privileges of citizenship, and second class citizens who don’t.” Division can also set up an argument by offering alternatives, one or the other of which could not be true: “Health care is either a right or a privilege. If it’s a right, it must be universalized.”
2. Comparison: Bringing two or more things together to study them for similarities, differences, superiority, or inferiority.
- Similarity. All inductive argument and analogy is grounded in similarity. Induction notes similarity among a number of instances to draw conclusions about something similar. Analogy argues that if two things are alike in one or two characteristics, they are probably alike in another one. (Booker: “Thank God the question of whether Jackie Robinson could play pro baseball wasn’t put up for a popular vote.” The analogy is between discrimination on the basis of race and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.) A rhetorical form of induction is the example, invoking specific instances (historical, personal, hypothetical, or fictional) to illustrate a general pattern. (Wahls uses himself as an extended example to illustrate a truth about kids with gay parents.) Whereas analogy argues from the similarity of dissimilar things, example argues from the similarities of similar things. MLK (“Letter”): “[Y]ou assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed ma because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery?” This is an analogy that argues for the similarity of two comparable situations.
- Difference. Comparing two or more things to articulate their differences, often to counter analogical arguments based on an assumed equivalence. “This war is not really like Vietnam because we are not fighting a nationalist insurgency, nor is our enemy receiving military support from a superpower.”Degree (Greater/Lesser) compares similar things of different magnitude to show that what is true for one is even more true for the other (or the other way around). “If legalizing medicinal marijuana in certain states was beneficial to people in those states, legalizing it in every state will be beneficial to even more people.”
- Cause and Effect. Making inferences about probable causes of an effect, or the probable effects of a cause. “Mel Gibson was driving erratically; he probably was intoxicated” (effect = erratic driving; cause: intoxication). Or “If an educated citizenry strengthens democracy, then let us seek to make Americans the best-educated people on earth” (cause = educated citizenry; effect = strong democracy).
- Antecedent and Consequence. Very close to cause-effect, but looser. Given this situation (the antecedent), what follows (consequence) from it? “Because Joe Schmoe was not the legal spouse of Jane Schmoe when she died, it follows that he is not entitled to her possessions.” “If this person is a natural born citizen, it follows that she has the right to vote.”
- Contraries. Contrasting opposites. Whereas difference involves comparing dissimilar things, contraries involve contrasting opposites. Contrary terms are terms opposed to one another in the same order or genus (cold and loud are different but not opposites because one concerns the order of temperature, while the other concerns the order of sound. Cold would be the contrary of hot; loud the contrary of quiet.) So if one proposition is true (“it’s cold in here”), the contrary cannot also be true (“it’s hot in here”). Other examples: “if an ignorant citizenry is harmful to democracy, then an educated citizenry will strengthen it.” Or: “If he’s dating that skank, he’s never going to be interested in someone like you: beautiful, smart, compassionate…”
- Contradictories: Making arguments based on the assumption that two things are mutually exclusive—a thing cannot at the same time and in the same way be and not be. If one medical expert says smoking causes lung cancer and another medical expert says that smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer, we know ahead of time that if one is right then the other is not right. Very close to argument by contraries but concerns mutual exclusion. So: “If Judah was with me all night, he cannot have also been robbing the 7-11 on 5th” Or: “My opponent claims that he is a fervent advocate of democracy. But has he not made it abundantly clear that he would deny the vote to certain citizens solely on the basis of religion?” To show that the two positions are incompatible here is to offer proof that one’s opponent is not a fervent advocate of democracy.
- The Possible and the Impossible. Arguments designed to encourage some proposed course of action by showing that it’s possible or to discourage it by showing that it’s not possible. “It might be nice if the U.S.A. could offer its citizens a free college education, but let me demonstrate why it’s not possible or feasible to do so…” Or “It may seem as if there is no way to provide every American with Medicare-style healthcare, but let me show you how we could do it.” Sometimes there is an appeal to experience or to historical example to show that if something has been done, it can be done again. For example, when Bernie Sanders points to Denmark as proof that his brand of democratic socialism is possible and beneficial.
- Past Fact and Future Fact. Argument about whether something has or has not happened or whether or not it will or won’t happen. When it cannot be absolutely proven that something has taken place, we try to offer inductive or deductive evidence of its probability. For example, “if this guy has already been found guilty of stealing from his father, it seems very likely that he’s also capable of embezzling money from his employer.” Or “given that this guy has never demonstrated any tendency toward theft—in fact, quite the opposite—it seems very unlikely that he’d be capable of embezzling money from his employer.” When making arguments about what will likely happen in the future, one makes inferences about general tendencies. For example, wherever there is the power and desire to do something—say, cloning a human—that something is likely to be done, whatever the laws against it. This is the line of reasoning used by many advocates of nuclear disarmament. As long as we have the capacity and the temptation to use a nuclear bomb against an enemy, the chances that it will actually happen are high, maybe inevitable.
5. Testimony. The use of “inartistic” or external proofs to make a case.
- Authority. Appeals to expert testimony to establish the grounds of an argument. Takes the form of citation: “As nuclear physicist Donna A. Johnson explains, blah blah.” This works to the extent that we tend to believe experts more than non-experts. A congressional committee investigating the potential danger of nuclear fall-out will pay more attention to the renowned physicist than to the ordinary citizen. (Or so we would hope.) But the experts can be wrong, and when enough people believe that, this appeal to expert testimony stops working. Trump, for example, is running on the message that all the establishment politicians, scientists, economists, etc., have been wrong, and he has crafted a team of economic advisors (mostly named Steve) made up of only one actual economist. Sometimes experts offer conflicting opinions, as well, and when that happens one has to rely on still other criteria to determine which opinion to accept. Roughly 99% of the world’s scientists agree that human beings, collectively as a species, has become a global geological force that has effected climate change. Roughly 1% of the world’s scientists disagree. Most of the legislators in one of our two political parties believes the 1%. Why? Because they argue that the 99% are motivated politically or have bought into a giant politically-motivated hoax.
- Testimonial. Appeals to testimonial evidence can take the form of letters of recommendation, book blurbs, character witness appraisals, best seller lists, audience ratings, opinion polls, buyer reviews, etc. This sort of appeal doesn’t have to be impartial or involve any particular expertise to be persuasive. When you check buyer reviews on Amazon or seller reviews on ebay, you’re making decisions based on testimonial evidence. When I cite this testimonial evidence as part of my argument, I’m making use of it as an inartistic proof.
- Statistics. Citing statistical evidence to help make an argument. “Seventy percent of experienced cyclists bought bikes with hydraulic disc breaks last year.” The suggestion is that everyone’s doing it, so it must be good! Statistics, however, can be used in all kinds of ways, so it’s important to scrutinize. For example, that a book has been on the best-seller list for many months doesn’t in itself justify a further claim that it’s the best novel published last year. Statistics are often used uncritically, so a rhetorician needs to be attuned to the source of the statistics as well as what sorts of inferences are being made from them.
- Maxims. Arguments drawn from precepts, proverbs, famous sayings, self-evident truths, etc. Maxims are general statements about universal matters rather than particular matters, and they concern human actions: what human should or should not do. Maxims are generally cited in order to make a case about a particular instance. So the maxim “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again,” might be used to argue for trying again to accomplish something that didn’t work the first time. (Say, your friend asked someone out who turned him or her down. Your argument that your friend should try again could be drawn from this universal maxim that it’s a good idea always to try again for something worthwhile.)
- Law. Drawing on statutes, contracts, testaments, records, documents, and other recorded evidence to substantiate or refute a claim. An argument over a person’s birth, for example, can typically be settled by a birth certificate. As we all now know, however, sometimes the document isn’t enough (c.f., birther movement).
- Precedent (Example). Bringing to bear on a present case what has been done in a similar case in the past. So one cites examples of past actions or decisions to make a case about how to proceed in this present case.
Note: Yes, there is overlap. Therefore, when you analyze an artifact, you’ll have to make your case for why one of the above is what’s operating.
Stasis Theory. A stasis the place where opposing forces agree on what is at issue in an argument, they agree about what it is that they’re disagreeing about. A stasis, then, is the crucial question at issue or the main point of dispute in a debate: it is the stragetic point on which a rhetor takes his or her stand. A stasis, put another way, is the point of disagreement in a standoff. There are 5 basic stases in stasis theory, and they go pretty much in order:
- Conjecture. The first thing to ascertain is whether something exists (past, present, or future) or whether something has happened. If there’s disagreement about whether something exists (aliens!) or whether something really happened (was that a spaceship?!), the argument takes place at the level of conjecture. The questions one asks in a conjecture argument are questions of fact or existence (questions of the real, as your book puts it), and they go something like this:
- What has happened (or what is happening or what has happened)? Or did something happen? Is something happening? Did X really happen?
- Does X exist? Did X exist? Will X exist? Is X true?
- What caused X? Where did it come from? How did it begin?
- Definition. If we agree that something does or did or will in fact exist or is happening (or will or did happen), we may disagree about how to classify or name it. Booker classifies marriage equality as a civil rights issue, which sets the stage for the rest of his argument. The questions one asks in a definition argument are typically questions of classification and partition, and they go something like this:
- What kind of event or object or idea is this?
- How should we classify it? What larger class of things or events does this belong to?
- What are its parts? How are they related?
- Quality/Value. If we agree that something does/did/will exist or happen and about how to classify it, we may still disagree about whether it’s a good or bad thing, whether it’s just or ethical or beneficial or dangerous or expensive, and so on. Or, from another angle, we may disagree about exactly how damaging or how beneficial it is (question of degree). Okay, so marriage inequality does exist. We all agree on that. And we agree that it’s a civil rights issue. So now we ask: is it a bad thing (or a really bad thing) that this specific inequality in civil rights exists? Is it as bad as the alternative? (Would it be worse, for example, if society accepted gay marriage?) The questions one asks in a quality argument are typically questions of value or worth, or the degree of value or worth, and they go something like this:
- Is it a good or bad thing? Is it right or wrong, honorable or dishonorable, ethical or unethical?
- Should it be avoided or sought after?
- Is it better or worse than something else, more or less right/wrong/honorable/ dishonorable (etc.) than something else?
- Is it more or less desirable than any alternatives we can think of?
- Policy. If we agree that something is true or does/did/will exist or happen, about how to classify it, and that it’s a good or bad thing, we may then disagree about what we should do about it, whether this thing should be submitted to some formal procedure, what sort of policy should be established to respond to it. We might argue: Okay, so the economy has taken a nosedive, economic recessions are one kind of national crisis, and they are a very bad thing. So: What kind of policy do we need to respond to this economic situation? Or we might argue: Okay, so marriage inequality exists, is a civil rights issue, and is a bad thing. But we should not try to legislate morality—if the majority of the people vote against it, we should listen to them. Or, like Booker, we could argue that because marriage inequality is a civil rights issue, we must not put it to a popular vote but must instead legislate in a way that secures marriage as a right for all citizens. The questions one asks in a policy argument are typically deliberative, and they go something like this:
- What should we do about this? Should some action be taken?
- What actions are possible and desirable?
- How will the proposed actions change the current state of affairs?
- How will the proposed actions make things better? Worse?
- Objection. If we agree that something does exist or is happening, that it can be classified in a certain way, and that it’s a good or bad thing, we may still disagree about whether a particular debate or policy deliberation about it is legal, fair, or properly constituted. We may, that is, argue that the debate itself is fundamentally off track for specific reasons, and therefore that the whole thing should be dismissed. The questions one asks in an objection argument are typically procedural, as in a courtroom when one side moves that the case be dismissed for this or that reason, which typically involves a botched legal procedure, tampered-with evidence, new evidence, or a mistaken interpretation of the “facts.” The stasis of objection a kind of “escape hatch” when the rhetor feels he or she cannot get a fair hearing, or that there is something fundamentally wrong with the debate’s setup.