Historical Rhetorics/The Big Aristotle/Quandahl, Ellen. “Aristotle’s Rhetoric: Reinterpreting Invention.”

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Quandahl, Ellen. “Aristotle’s Rhetoric: Reinterpreting Invention.” Rhetoric Review 4.2 (1986): 128-137.[edit | edit source]

Quandahl argues that Aristotle's Rhetoric has been being misread by scholars as a philosophy of invention and should be re-understood instead as a philosophy of interpretation, where the importance of a composition can be found through a contextual reading and interpretation rather than its importance existing through its invention. Quandahl arrives at this re-understanding of the text by analyzing Arisostle's content as it would be interpreted by readers of the time, familiar with the texts to which he refers as well as his word choice, which includes popular culture references such as metaphors to the popular practice of the theatre drama. Quandahl points out that though Aristotle's Rhetoric is a description of invention, a documentation of the construction and components of argument, rhetoric, and dialectic, Aristotle's purpose was to theorize and document the traditions and rhetorical constructions of the time, which was novel and desperately needed, since no such theory had yet been documented, rather than to provide a taxonomy of discourse for all time. Quandahl furthers her analysis of Aristotle's Rhetoric to show, through a careful examination of what she finds as the five key terms of the Rhetoric (dialectic, proof, demonstration, enthymeme, and topic) that Aristotle himself saw rhetoric as the "contextual study of language" since his investigations of rhetoric examine how they occur within discourse, which requires, again, not just invention but interpretation within the discourse itself. Quahdahl finds this re-reading of the Rhetoric to be useful for modern pedagogy, which she believes should likewise take a turn away from invention as the focus of composition toward an emphasis on reading and interpretation.

Quandahl argues that understanding Aristotle as a literary/rhetorical critic approaching composition with a theoretical lens aimed at its construction/invention offers richer opportunities for Aristotelian study and for pedagogy. Does understanding Aristotle in this way, as approaching rhetoric through a particular lens rather than systematically documenting means of invention in any way devalue modern use and understanding of his work?

Aristotle makes distinct arguments about the way rhetorical argumentation should be carried out. For example, that appeals to emotion and credibility should not be used to gain rhetorical persuasion. Does this create a difficulty for Quandahl's point of view that Aristotle's Rhetoric is not a theory of invention?


Quandahl calls for a reexamining of Aristotle's On Rhetoric, specifically the topics, and considers them (the topics) as a theory of interpretation rather than a cataloging of specific inventive practices. She notes that modern readings of the topics have generally viewed them as commonsensical and constrained by their historic period. However, she calls for a rereading of On Rhetoric in the context of other works of the time like Plato's Gorgias. When viewed as a response to these texts and common practices in Greek instruction in oratory, Quandahl sees Aristotle's topics as interpreting language and viewing it philosophically, not as a “collection of devices for invention” (128). In this light, Quandahl considers Aristotle's topics as an early example of “meta-discourse” (132), being concerned with how to interpret language and move from “taxonomy to theory” (135), not the other way around.

Modern Readings of the Topics

“But Rhetoric is difficult to read, full of discrepancies, gaps, and repetitions” (128).

“If the text itself is exigent, scholarship makes it more so. We have to read the Rhetoric against a tradition that has interpreted it as a philosophical rhetoric, but often reduced that philosophy to a logic of argument or to taxonomies of discourse, and separated it from questions of language and style” (128).

Viewed in Context

Quandahl views On Rhetoric as a response to other works, specifically Plato's. The cataloging of topics is considered a way of viewing concepts in relation to one another. Furthermore, in typical Aristotelian fashion, they are also viewed in hierarchies and categories.

“Aristotle simply collected and theorized about the linguistic moves that were typical of philosophical discussions, especially those of Plato's dialogues. He wanted not only to reason but to look at how reasoning is represented in language” (130).

Topics as “Interpretation,” Not “Invention

Instead of viewing the topics as a superficial list of subjects, Quandahl sees them as “meta-discourse” on “relational principals” (132).

“Opposition is, for Aristotle, a very powerful topic, resembling reasoning. Given Aristotle's methods, we can assume he had observed uses of opposition in speeches, as well as in philosophical discussions and eristic debates... Following this line of thought, Aristotle began to study language in its own right and saw the importance of relations themselves... it shows that Aristotle saw how one could introduce a relational principle, like opposition, into a context to make useful statements about the context” (132).

“One could say, then, that topics are tropes that Aristotle examined in a new way. He saw that patterns—in the list of arguments Geek boys were memorizing—could be examined philosophically. The topical relations are not in themselves rules of inference. But they are ways of putting sentences together in order to make inferences” (134).