Historical Rhetorics/The Big Aristotle/Miller, Carolyn R. "Aristotle's 'Special Topics' in Rhetorical Practice and Pedagogy."

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Miller, Carolyn R. "Aristotle's 'Special Topics' in Rhetorical Practice and Pedagogy." Rhetoric Society Quarterly 17 (1987): 61-70.

Miller's would like to see a rivial of the special topics of Aristotle because she believes they can integrate rhetorical pedagogy and rhetorical practice. She seeks to show that by the time of Cicero and the Hellenistic rhetoricians, Aristotle's special topics had lost favor, so that that rhetoric became merely academic exercises or entertainments. Knowledge of the subject was dismissed in favor of rhetorical invention. By bringing back the special topics to pedagogy, rhetoric will become useful once more.

Because of a revival of the concept of the topic, or topos, and thus a contemporary re-examination of Aristotle's discussion of topics and their subsequent treatment in rhetorical history, Miller argues that special topics are not useful or manageable in “rhetoric conceived of as an academic subject,” but instead should serve as “conceptual connections between human reasoning and the particularities of practical situations,” which “lead our attention outside the academy to rhetoric as it occurs naturally in human societies” (61). Miller begins by tracing what little the history of rhetoric can tell us about the special topics; she argues that until recently, topical theory as a whole had been in decline since late antiquity because the concept of “special topics” within rhetoric (defined by Aristotle as different from common topics) was largely abandoned with the onset of the liberal education championed by both Cicero and Quintilian, in which “the materials of argument specific to different areas of knowledge and forums of discussion are placed outside the province of rhetoric and within the other subjects the orator must know – politics, history, literature, and so forth” (62), and as recently as the 19th century, special topics remained “outside rhetoric, as method, inquiry, and prerequisite knowledge of one's subject” (63). Miller then turns her attention to topical theory, explaining the tension between two perspectives on rhetoric: “the inferential perspective treats rhetoric as a distinct art of persuasion, separate from the substantive issues it addresses; the materialist perspective treats rhetoric as an art enmeshed in varying particular circumstances and issues that determine the nature of persuasion” (63); according to Miller, rhetorical practice can be linked to the materialist perspective, while rhetorical pedagogy can be linked to the inferential perspective; Miller, referencing George Kennedy, argues that the special topics are Aristotle's attempt to breach the disconnect between these two perspectives, “squeezed between the common topics and disciplinary principles” (65). Miller goes on to argue that academic rhetoric relies too heavily on techniques that cannot be applied to situations outside of the classroom; she calls on academics and rhetoricians to give more room to the materialist perspective, concentrating less on producing discourse and more on “observation and interpretation of primary rhetoric, the discourse by which society creates itself,” which should help students better understand the functions and effects of the discourse they create, read, and hear; Miller believes that the special topics are keys to such an understanding, because they “help explain the dependence of argumentative force upon subject, audience, and circumstance” (68).

Miller, Carolyn. ““Special Topics” in Rhetorical Practice and Pedagogy.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 17.1 (1986): 61-70. Print.

In this essay, Carolyn Miller reexamines Aristotle’s concept of topos, suggesting that although the concept of specialized topics is not useful in academic rhetoric, it is a useful concept when examining “rhetoric as it occurs naturally in human societies” because specialized topics can serve as “conceptual connections between human reasoning and the particularities of practical situations” (61). Miller notes that Aristotle’s special topics are located between common topics and disciplinary knowledge, arguing that a reconception of the special topics may help to establish an “art of invention based closely on contemporary rhetorical practice and involving explicitly the substance of discourse” (67). This is necessary because, as Miller notes, pedagogical models tend to focus on contrived scenarios that are unrelated to situations that the student may encounter outside of the classroom. In an effort to move toward a more useful pedagogical model, Miller suggests an adaptation of Aristotle’s special topics as a way to move rhetorical pedagogy from a focus on the techniques necessary to produce discourse toward a focus on “observation and interpretation of primary rhetoric, the discourse by which society creates itself” (68). This type of rhetorical criticism should allow students to gain an understanding of “the functions and effects” of discourse through the application of special topics, which allow the student to uncover and understand “the dependence of argumentative force upon subject, audience, and circumstance” (68).