Cogan, Marc. “Rodolphus Agricola and the Semantic Revolutions of the History of Invention.” Rhetorica 2 2 (1984): 163-94. Print. 31

C. claims that Agricola’s de Inventione dialectica was important because it considered invention via commonplaces in the study of logic instead of rhetoric.  So, A.’s work was “seen as an example of rhetorical forms of reasoning replacing rigorously logical forms, and its popularity was an indication of the decadence of logical studies during, and immediately after, the Renaissance” (164).  C. claims this document was important because: 1) the content – not format – of the work was what made it so popular; and 2) the topic of invention – despite its long tradition – is subject to change when it appears in new circumstances and is adapted to new needs (166).

C. considers three epochs in invention: 1) from Cicero to Boethius – this was characterized as a period of the rhetorical commonplaces; 2) from Boethius to Agricola – this period was characterized by a shift away from rhetoric toward logic and dialectic. . . this was a arhetorical period; and 3) from Agricola forward – this period broke with the non-rhetorical medieval period to realign invention with rhetoric.  In this analysis, C. will consider the commonplaces from three perspectives: 1) the nature of the places; 2) the nature of the inventa; and 3) the nature of the systems of invention.

Considering Cicero, C. claims that he made no distinction between invention/topoi for philosophy or rhetoric.  C. claims that this all-encompassing system of invention finds its fullest articulation in Topica rather than de Inventione.  C. considers the commonplaces “the seats of arguments” – a spatial distinction that describes the places where arguments are to be made as empty slots or lists of the sorts of statements that could be made about any subject.  This operates on two assumptions: 1) that there are always two sides of an issue and – therefore – no subject is capable of formal certainty; and 2) the persuasiveness of the concrete topic-based argument is more potent than any reliance on logical structures (173).

Boethius shifts invention away from the Ciceronian commonplaces (though not in name – they are identical) so that instead of an argument working in particularity, it must now “be more universal than its conclusion, and the places, if they are to be the sources of all dialectical arguments, must then necessarily be the most certain, best known, and also therefore most universal of premises” (176).  So, the commonplaces are no longer the “seats” or arguments, but now operate as the foundations of arguments . . . a much more stable, universal, logical set of premises.  This has the effect of shifting invention in dialectic away from persuasive, concrete arguments toward arguments guaranteed by foundations that could be used in syllogistic reasoning and formal logic (179).

Agricola shifts this focus back so that dialectic operates not as a place to find places to improve the results of inquiry rather than secure the validity of a particular argument.  Therefore dialectic goes from being a way to create knowledge based on reasoning and logic to a place to discover the knowledge appropriate to a given question and to marshal it in a way that will create conviction in the hearer (184).  In effect, Agricola shifts dialectical invention away from logical validity and utilization of universals toward the particularity of individual inquiries . . . this new inventive model relied on Agricola’s conviction that most of human knowledge is essentially uncertain – or at least not definitive.

Leave a Reply