Miller, Carolyn.  “The Aristotelian Topos: Hunting for Novelty.” Rereading Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Ed. Alan G. Gross and Arthur E. Walzer. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000. 130–146

In this essay Miller extends the work of Richard McKeon on the Aristotelian topoi.  Her main contention is that the topoi could have a generative function instead of a merely “managerial” role in the creation of argument.  To make this point, Miller examines the conceptual contexts from which Aristotle drew his use of the term; furthermore, she also considers pre-philosophical Greek thought (venatic paradigm) to argue that the topoi are actually context-bound (or in Miller’s words, “invention in which novelty is situated, relative, and accommodative – understood in dynamic tension with decorum” 130).

Miller begins by noting that the “generative powers of rhetoric” have long been concerned with what is discovered (coming upon something that already exists) and invention (the creation of something that never existed before).  This sounds a lot (identical) like the argument that Lauer engages in her work over the heuristic/hermeneutic.  M. notes that invention/discovery was managerialized by the likes of Bacon, who noted that “The invention of speech or argument is not properly an invention: for to invent is to discover that [which] we know not, and not to recover or resummon that which we already know” (131).  In other words, the process of rhetorical invention came to rely on the commonplaces (topoi) dictated by decorum (audience and situation).  To dispute this position, Miller intends to draw attention to how spatial metaphors are still useful for conceptualizing invention as generative.  She will then suggest some other dimensions of the term (topoi) that are implicated in Aristotle’s use of it.  Finally, she broaden the discussion of topoi to consider other aspects of Aristotle’s thought to highlight where invention can be understood (133).

What follows is an interesting etymological genealogy of the idea of space in the ancient Greek psyche.  Miller traces out place through the venatic worldview to demonstrate how it has long served as a space for invention & discovery (discovery in the sense that a hunter may know what they track or may unexpectedly discover new game; however, they do not invent their quarry. This is where the notion of invention differs from Plato as that worldview understands novelty of invention as unique, singular and revolutionary.   So, for Miller, the topos are not merely a heuristic for invention, but also a position from which the rhetor must dwell (in relation to the situation/context – a dwelling space/perspective that is rooted in language [SOPHISTS!]).

Interesting Quotes:

1.     Grimaldi also cites uses similar to Aristotle’s in both Isocrates and Demosthenes, noting in addition some evidence that what Aristotle called special topics were sometimes called kairous rather than topous, a connection suggesting that heuristic discovery can become opportunity. (134).

2.     In dialectic, the topics must provide a way to relate the terms of the propositions (that is, they must supply middle terms), while in rhetoric, the topics must provide relations between propositions and between propositions and audiences. (135 – from Leff 1983, 25)

3.     The venatic, or conjectural, worldview concerns the individual case rather than universal knowledge, probability rather than certainty, qualitative rather than cumulative or quantifiable information, and inferential rather than deductive thought, since it depends upon the reading of signs. (138)

4.     He [Consigny] suggests that in an inventional art of rhetoric the topos must serve both as an instrument with its own capacities that apply in any situation and as a realm, a specific place where the rhetor thinks and acts. (141)

5.     Inventiveness is often associated with a rich store of prior knowledge.  The utility and generativity of a topos as a source of patterns and relationships depends upon the richness and connectedness of the knowledge available for recombination.  (142)

6.     By de-radicalizing novelty, a revived topical theory may also help remove the wedge that modernism drove between discovery and invention, even as it rejected the topoi


1.     What importance/role does the “venatic” or conjectural worldview have on Tindale’s work in Reason’s Dark Champions?  Chapter VIII of his work relies on Walton and Robin Smith to make the sign+topos=tekmeria (argument from sign) equation.

2 Responses to “Miller – The Aristotelian Topos: Hunting for Novelty”

  1. Aristotle – On Rhetoric | epiphonema

    […] to the discovery of existing knowledge for argumentative purposes.  To phrase it differently, Carolyn Miller provides this definition of the topoi: “a hunter may know what they track or may unexpectedly […]

  2. Erich Werner

    Hello! Love your site & your observations on the Miller piece.

    I too have been doing some reading/thinking about topoi lately. I had neglected the Miller, which if I’m following your notes properly seems to extend Leff’s argument in interesting ways. In particular, I’m interested in how Miller seems to open the door to thinking about topoi not as magic tricks–for pulling rabbits/arguments out of hats–but as bridges between the rhetor and the values & beliefs & ideas of the audience addressed.

    I’ve been thinking about topoi in relation to my dissertation (on the digital Twilight fandom) and how they might provide an analytical framework for studying the “collective intelligence” or rationality of the fandom–or any given discourse community, really. What I’m hoping to argue is that, when Twilight fans were dissatisfied with the last book in the series, they voiced their dissent using the lexicon and topoi they had collectively deployed in their reviews of fanfiction (thus, Breaking Dawn itself was analyzed in terms of “canon” and Bella Swan was labeled a “Mary Sue”).

    I think the Miller will definitely help get me there–thanks for sharing your perceptive & thorough notes! If you have a minute, I’d love to hear if you have any other suggestions on topoi.

    ~Erich Werner
    Rhetoric & Composition, UNC Chapel Hill

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