Topics (Aristotle)

Last updated

The Topics (Greek : Τοπικά; Latin : Topica) is the name given to one of Aristotle's six works on logic collectively known as the Organon . The treatise presents the art of dialectic — the invention and discovery of arguments in which the propositions rest upon commonly held opinions or endoxa (ἔνδοξα in Greek). [1] Topoi (τόποι) are "places" from which such arguments can be discovered or invented.


What is a "topic"?

In his treatise Topics, Aristotle does not explicitly define a topos, though it is "at least primarily a strategy for argument not infrequently justified or explained by a principle." [2] He characterises it in the Rhetoric [3] thus: "I call the same thing element and topos; for an element or a topos is a heading under which many enthymemes fall." [4] By element, he means a general form under which enthymemes of the same type can be included. Thus, the topos is a general argument source, from which the individual arguments are instances and is a sort of template from which many individual arguments can be constructed. The word τόπος (tópos, literally "place, location") is also related to the ancient memory method of "loci", by which things to be remembered are recollected by mentally connecting them with successive real or imagined places. [5]

WorkLatin name
1a Categories Categoriae
16a On Interpretation De Interpretatione
24a Prior Analytics Analytica Priora
71a Posterior Analytics Analytica Posteriora
100a Topics Topica
164a On Sophistical Refutations De Sophisticis Elenchis

How topics relate to Aristotle's theory of the syllogism

Though the Topics, as a whole, does not deal directly with the "forms of syllogism", [6] clearly Aristotle contemplates the use of topics as places from which dialectical syllogisms (i.e. arguments from the commonly held ἔνδοξα , éndoxa) may be derived. This is evidenced by the fact that the introduction to the Topics contains and relies upon his definition of reasoning (συλλογισμός, syllogismós): a verbal expression (λόγος, lógos) in which, certain things having been laid down, other things necessarily follow from these.. [7] Dialectical reasoning is thereafter divided by Aristotle into inductive and deductive parts. The endoxa themselves are sometimes, but not always, set out in a propositional form, i.e. an express major or minor proposition, from which the complete syllogism may be constructed. Often, such propositional construction is left as a task to the practitioner of the dialectic art; in these instances Aristotle gives only the general strategy for argument, leaving the "provision of propositions" to the ingenuity of the disputant.

Division of the text

Book I of the Topics is introductory, laying down a number of preliminary principles upon which dialectical argumentation proceeds. After defining dialectical reasoning (syllogism) and distinguishing it from demonstrative, contentious, and (one might say) "pseudo-scientific" [8] syllogism, Aristotle notes the utility of the art of dialectic, then sets out four bases (accident, property, genus, definition) from which invention of such reasoning proceeds. He next elucidates various senses of "sameness", as bearing directly upon the usual character of such arguments. Dialectical propositions and dialectical problems are characterized. Then, the ὄργανα (órgana) or means by which arguments may be obtained are described, in a four-fold summary, as:

  1. the provision of propositions
  2. discovery of the number of senses of a term
  3. the discovery of differences
  4. the investigation of similarities

Methods and rationale for attaining each of these ends are briefly illustrated and explained.

Book II is devoted to an explication of topics relating to arguments where an "accident" (i.e. non-essential attribute, or an attribute that may or may not belong) is predicated of a subject.

Book III concerns commonplaces from which things can be discussed with respect to whether they are "better" or "worse".

Book IV deals with "genus"—how it is discovered and what are the sources of argument for and against attribution of a genus.

Book V discusses the base of "property"that which is attributable only to a particular subject and is not an essential attribute. Property is subdivided into essential [9] and permanent, versus relative and temporary.

Book VI describes "definition" and the numerous means that may be used to attack and defend a definition.

Book VII is a short recapitulation of "definition" and "sameness", and compares the various difficulties involved in forming arguments, both pro and con, about the other bases of dialectical disputation.

Book VIII (the final book) is a lengthy survey containing suggestions, hints, and some tricks about the technique of organizing and delivering one or the other side of verbal disputation. [10]

The Sophistical Refutations is viewed by some [11] as an appendix to the Topics, inasmuch as its final section [12] appears to form an epilogue to both treatises.

See also


  1. These "commonly held opinions" are not merely popular notions held by the man-on-the-street about any and all subjects; rather, the dialectical ενδοξα are commonplaces of reason upon which those who conscientiously dispute (all men, most men, the wise, most of the wise, or the best known among the wise) agree in principle -- i.e. that which is "enshrined" (to borrow a cognate religious term) in opinion or belief among those who engage in disputation.
  2. "Dialectic and Aristotle's Topics". Stump, Eleonore. Boethius's De topicis differentiis. Cornell University Press. Ithaca and London, 1978. p. 170.
  3. Aristotle refers to rhetoric as "the counterpart to dialectic" in the introduction to his Rhetoric (1354a et seq), noting that both alike are arts of persuasion. Both deal, not with a specific genus or subject, but with the broadly applicable principles of things that come within the ken of all people. Rhetoric is distinguished from dialectic in that the former employs not only syllogism (i.e. enthymeme), but additionally makes use of the character of the speaker and the emotions of the audience to perform its persuasive task.
  4. Rhet. 1403a18-19
  5. E.g. as houses along a street one knows by heart
  6. These are discussed elsewhere, as in the Prior Analytics .
  7. Topics 100a25-27
  8. For Aristotle, "demonstrative" arguments (ἀποδείξεις, apodeíxeis) are those that comprise science, and analyze a particular genus or subject matter by means of propositions or axioms that admit of no further syllogistic proof. "Contentious" arguments are those that proceed from propositions that only seem to be ἔνδοξαéndoxa, or that only seem to reason from such propositions. "Pseudo-scientific" arguments are those based upon faulty models—such as a geometer's argument from a falsely drawn diagram.
  9. This does not mean that it expresses an attribute comprising an essential element of the subject, but rather that it is a characteristic that is predicated solely of that subject and that it is an effect of the essential nature of the subject
  10. The Topics contemplates an adversarial system of question and answer, in which one party attempts to elicit from another, through yes-or-no questions, the conclusion he wishes to prove.
  11. E.g. Forster, E. S. in Aristotle. Topica. Loeb Classical Library Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989. p. 265.
  12. 183a38-184b9

Further reading

Critical editions and translations

Critical studies

Related Research Articles

Begging the question Type of fallacy, where a proposition is assumed as a premise, which itself needs proof and directly entails the conclusion

In classical rhetoric and logic, begging the question or assuming the conclusion is an informal fallacy that occurs when an argument's premises assume the truth of the conclusion, instead of supporting it.

A syllogism is a kind of logical argument that applies deductive reasoning to arrive at a conclusion based on two or more propositions that are asserted or assumed to be true.

Dialectic or dialectics, also known as the dialectical method, is at base a discourse between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject but wishing to establish the truth through reasoned methods of argumentation. Dialectic resembles debate, but the concept excludes subjective elements such as emotional appeal and the modern pejorative sense of rhetoric. Dialectic may thus be contrasted with both the eristic, which refers to argument that aims to successfully dispute another's argument, and the didactic method, wherein one side of the conversation teaches the other. Dialectic is alternatively known as minor logic, as opposed to major logic or critique.

History of logic

The history of logic deals with the study of the development of the science of valid inference (logic). Formal logics developed in ancient times in India, China, and Greece. Greek methods, particularly Aristotelian logic as found in the Organon, found wide application and acceptance in Western science and mathematics for millennia. The Stoics, especially Chrysippus, began the development of predicate logic.

Boethius Roman senator, magister officiorum and philosopher of the early 6th century

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius, commonly called Boethius, was a Roman senator, consul, magister officiorum, and philosopher of the early 6th century. He was born about a year after Odoacer deposed the last Western Roman Emperor and declared himself King of Italy. Boethius entered public service under Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great, who later imprisoned and executed him in 524 on charges of conspiracy to overthrow him. While jailed, Boethius composed his Consolation of Philosophy, a philosophical treatise on fortune, death, and other issues, which became one of the most popular and influential works of the Middle Ages. As the author of numerous handbooks and translator of Plato and Aristotle, he became the main intermediary between Classical antiquity and following centuries.

In philosophy, term logic, also known as traditional logic, syllogistic logic or Aristotelian logic, is a loose name for an approach to logic that began with Aristotle and was developed further in ancient times mostly by his followers, the peripatetics, but largely fell into decline by the third century CE. Term logic revived in medieval times, first in Islamic logic by Alpharabius in the tenth century, and later in Christian Europe in the twelfth century with the advent of new logic, and remained dominant until the advent of modern predicate logic in the late nineteenth century. This entry is an introduction to the term logic needed to understand philosophy texts written before it was replaced as a formal logic system by predicate logic. Readers lacking a grasp of the basic terminology and ideas of term logic can have difficulty understanding such texts, because their authors typically assumed an acquaintance with term logic.

<i>Prior Analytics</i>

The Prior Analytics is a work by Aristotle on deductive reasoning, known as his syllogistic, composed around 350 BCE. Being one of the six extant Aristotelian writings on logic and scientific method, it is part of what later Peripatetics called the Organon. Modern work on Aristotle's logic builds on the tradition started in 1951 with the establishment by Jan Łukasiewicz of a revolutionary paradigm. His approach was replaced in the early 1970s in a series of papers by John Corcoran and Timothy Smiley—which inform modern translations of Prior Analytics by Robin Smith in 1989 and Gisela Striker in 2009.

The Organon is the standard collection of Aristotle's six works on logic. The name Organon was given by Aristotle's followers, the Peripatetics. They are as follows:

An enthymeme is a rhetorical syllogism used in oratorical practice. Originally theorized by Aristotle, there are four types of enthymeme, at least two of which are described in Aristotle's work.

<i>Posterior Analytics</i>

The Posterior Analytics is a text from Aristotle's Organon that deals with demonstration, definition, and scientific knowledge. The demonstration is distinguished as a syllogism productive of scientific knowledge, while the definition marked as the statement of a thing's nature, ... a statement of the meaning of the name, or of an equivalent nominal formula.

<i>Rhetoric</i> (Aristotle)

Aristotle's Rhetoric is an ancient Greek treatise on the art of persuasion, dating from the 4th century BCE. The English title varies: typically it is titled Rhetoric, the Art of Rhetoric, On Rhetoric, or a Treatise on Rhetoric.

Early Islamic law placed importance on formulating standards of argument, which gave rise to a "novel approach to logic" in Kalam . However, with the rise of the Mu'tazili philosophers, who highly valued Aristotle's Organon, this approach was displaced by the older ideas from Hellenistic philosophy. The works of al-Farabi, Avicenna, al-Ghazali and other Persian Muslim logicians who often criticized and corrected Aristotelian logic and introduced their own forms of logic, also played a central role in the subsequent development of European logic during the Renaissance. The use of Aristotelian logic in Islamic theology again began to decline from the 10th century, with the rise of Ashʿari theology to the intellectual mainstream, which rejects causal reasoning in favour of clerical authority.

Endoxa is the plural of endoxon, deriving from the word doxa. Plato referred to doxa as the level of apprehension attained when a mind's activity is directed to ta onta or "things" and that the process is independent of perception. Whereas Plato condemned doxa as a starting point from which to attain truth, Aristotle used the term endoxa – in the sense of "commonplace", "everyday", "consensus" – to identify a group or population's beliefs that had previously withstood debate and argument.

In logic, a categorical proposition, or categorical statement, is a proposition that asserts or denies that all or some of the members of one category are included in another. The study of arguments using categorical statements forms an important branch of deductive reasoning that began with the Ancient Greeks.

Owing to its origin in ancient Greece and Rome, English rhetorical theory frequently employs Greek and Latin words as terms of art. This page explains commonly used rhetorical terms in alphabetical order. The brief definitions here are intended to serve as a quick reference rather than an in-depth discussion. For more information, click the terms.

Logic is the formal science of using reason and is considered a branch of both philosophy and mathematics and to a lesser extent computer science. Logic investigates and classifies the structure of statements and arguments, both through the study of formal systems of inference and the study of arguments in natural language. The scope of logic can therefore be very large, ranging from core topics such as the study of fallacies and paradoxes, to specialized analyses of reasoning such as probability, correct reasoning, and arguments involving causality. One of the aims of logic is to identify the correct and incorrect inferences. Logicians study the criteria for the evaluation of arguments.

A premise or premiss is a statement that an argument claims will induce or justify a conclusion. It is an assumption that something is true.

Topical logic is the logic of topical argument, a branch of rhetoric developed in the Late Antique period from earlier works, such as Aristotle's Topics and Cicero's Topica. It consists of heuristics for developing arguments, which are in the first place plausible rather than rigorous, from commonplaces. In other words, therefore, it consists of standardized ways of thinking up debating techniques from existing, thought-through positions. The actual practice of topical argument was much developed by Roman lawyers. Cicero took the theory of Aristotle to be an aspect of rhetoric. As such it belongs to inventio in the classic fivefold division of rhetoric.

Logic The study of inference and truth

Logic is the systematic study of valid rules of inference, i.e. the relations that lead to the acceptance of one proposition on the basis of a set of other propositions (premises). More broadly, logic is the analysis and appraisal of arguments.