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date: 17 February 2020

Rhetorical Invention

Summary and Keywords

Rhetorical invention is both a practice and its teaching—the capacity to create effective communication, and the instruction in this capacity. Teachers of rhetoric have provided over time a rich and durable supply of pedagogical resources for crafting communication in speech, writing, and multi-modal composition. These resources come down to us through traditions of teaching and practice, in handbooks, theoretical tracts, exemplary models, and heritable pedagogies. Such materials have sometimes succumbed but often resisted the temptation to standardize and systematize, since the art of rhetoric in its very nature speaks to each particular audience and occasion, a requirement that hinders efforts to give it rule-bound methods. The reasons for this resistance to standardization need to be explored as well as how invention has continued to provide heuristic guidance without prescriptive methodological tools. Lacking method, rhetoric is aided by the cultural support of convention, which in turn is modified for each new situation. Such a dialectic of convention and invention animates the ongoing registration of rhetoric to communicative practices and explains its durability as an unsystematic art.

Keywords: heuristics, discovery, agency, topoi, ingenium, stasis, rhetoric, invention

A Practice Without a System

“Each generation of rhetoricians must examine anew the concept of rhetorical invention,” because, like so many of the key terms in rhetoric's history, invention is “one of the essentially contested concepts through which the tradition manifests itself” (Harrington, 1962, p. 374; Simonson, 2014, p. 299). Now, for rhetorical studies, the English word “invention” is loaded. The Latin invenio still carries the equivocity of the Greek heuresis in meaning both invention and discovery, and it is in the exchange between these two meanings that rhetoric has found its animating disciplinary energy. The term invention will be used throughout this entry, but it should be understood to carry this double meaning, which is essential to its conceptual and pedagogical heft.

Rhetoric is nothing if not a teaching tradition, and the pedagogy of invention evolved in the first place to aid in that amorphous and difficult process every writer or speaker or artist faces, beginning and experienced, of composing in front of a blank page, or responding in the moment before an expectant audience, or crafting an image with unformed materials. Because students can use guidance in this process, instruction is a kind of maieutic. Thus, to say that invention “indexes all the ways that discourse and other materials are generated for rhetorical address” is to speak of it as a pedagogical resource; a reminder that invention, just as rhetoric, is simultaneously the performance and its systematic study (Simonson, 2014).

In recent years there has been a tremendous expansion of the domain of invention as we discover ever-new tools of creative expression, encompassing “information from memory (ideas, facts, specific details, theories), data from research, imaginative creations (metaphors, comparisons, contrasts, analogies)” (Lauer, 2004, p. 3). Its products are equally various: “[T]o lead to judgments, reach new insights, locate arguments to support existing theses, solve problems, achieve identification, reach self-actualization, or locate subject matter for texts” (Lauer, 2004, p. 3). As this exposition unfolds we will see that the nucleus of the idea of invention has an efficacity that has no trouble accommodating this expansive potential.

Many thinkers in far-flung fields have brought useful insights to bear on invention without recognizing their kinship, and this cross-disciplinarity is part of the reason Richard McKeon, with perhaps an overzealous ambition, proposed rhetoric as the architectonic discipline (2005). The reason the field of rhetoric still holds some space in the academy despite its vast cross-disciplinary assimilation is the demand for instructing students in the challenging art of expression.

Although rhetoric provides a mobile army of ready resources for public discourse, it is somewhat anachronistic in an age in which method and technique predominate. Its resources are resolutely not established formulas, settled systems, or predetermined rules. The instability, ambiguity, and controversy around the tools of the rhetorical trade stem from the tension between the desire to provide rules for the art and its insistence on not becoming a subsumptive exercise; rather than applying determinate rules to universal circumstances it constructs each appeal out of the particular situation, without losing sight of its own developing orientation to an emergent truth: “For just as weapons are no use unless you know the target, so Arguments are superfluous unless you have first seen to what they should be applied. This is something that cannot be covered by textbooks” (Quintilian, 2001, p. 423).

Now, this does not mean that rhetorical resources are formless and ungovernable. Rhetorical invention is grounded in practice even as it is insistent on adaptation. This constitutive reciprocity of principle and practice, of “adjusting ideas to people and of people to ideas,” is what gives it both its durability and pliancy (Bryant, 1953, p. 413). This very same reciprocity, born out of its role in practical judgment and action, has also meant that it has been from the beginning a nagging opponent of philosophical absolutism and relativism, and a strong ally in the battles against the perennial inclination to build systems. At the root of the paradigmatic power of rhetorical invention lies its original equivocation—that heuresis relies on the contest or collaboration of convention and invention in what we now might call a dialectic.

What develops in the inventional toolkit over time is an odd miscellany—topos, genre, kairos, stasis, enthymeme, figure, etc.—incongruous as members of a class, and each item itself of uncertain definition and scope. This looseness of category and definition is further exacerbated by the promiscuity of the rhetorical terrain, spreading out as it has across so many disciplinary habitats. But what unites these performative resources is their conscious attention to mediating general principles with situational constraints. And by recognizing this work to take place against the reductive temptations of rule and system, rhetorical invention has served as a perennial resistance to the tyranny of method. The following summary of canonic pedagogical resources, the first half of this article, will demonstrate this defining value of invention. Each of these rhetorical resources will show in its own way the complex negotiation rhetoric has attempted as an unsystematic techne.


No canonic inheritance better illustrates rhetoric’s complex antipathy to rule-bound method than the pedagogy of generic application. Genres are common formal patterns of speech and composition that surface at the level of situation. Generic patterns serve as general guides to approaching a situation, training speakers and writers to know what audiences expect and crave and that their speech must respond to those needs and expectations at the price of disaffection. Ever since Aristotle specified generic categories of discourse in his systematic way, with categories reflecting stable or emergent cultural needs and ideals, there has been a persistent desire to see these forms as having universal force (Thomas, 1982). What rhetoric knows is that the enduring utility of generic form is not that it ever establishes timeless and universal discourse types, but that it teaches us the dialectical tension between convention and invention, between the emergence of types in response to cultural needs and their gradual adaptation, transformation, subversion, obsolescence, or renewal.

But, as the 16th-century humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam famously illustrated in his polemical text the Ciceronianus, generic application is no rote repetition of templates or recipes. A generative interplay of convention and invention lives in the mediation of the generic across its situational particulars. The pedagogical theory of imitatio, as Michael Leff explained, “circulates influence between past and present” through what he called “stable innovation” (1997, p. 203). In antiquity the standardized schoolbook tradition sometimes reduced imitatio to stale imitation, but in its best practice it was based on the idea, immortalized by Erasmus in the Ciceronianus, that the creative adaptation of conventional patterns flows out of the very purpose of imitation:

for he who follows walks in the steps of another and becomes a slave to rules. True indeed is the saying that he cannot walk well who always puts his foot in the track of another, nor swim well who does not dare to throw away the cork. To amplify—an imitator does not desire to say the same things so much as he does to say similar things, nay sometimes not even similar but even equal; an emulator strives even to speak better if he can, and no one was ever so finished an artist that you could not find in his work something which could be done better. But I should not want this imitation to be sought too anxiously and too religiously; for this very thing hinders us from accomplishing our desire.

(Erasmus, 1908, p. 127)

Somehow human beings are able to make the leap from familiar patterns to applications in new situations that are unique in their particularity. Erasmus demonstrated this double movement when he defined eloquence of speaking or writing as a movement of judgment that draws on a fertile supply of discursive resources but tailors itself to the demands of the situation. Eloquence is not empty imitation, verbosity, profligate and unoriginal repetition; it requires judgment “to comprehend the essence of a matter” in fitting the fullness of language to the audience and the occasion (Erasmus, 2007, p. 15). The ability to find just the right word is a negotiation of past and present: “[W]e cannot affect the highest virtues of the orator but must get them from ourselves” (Erasmus, 1908, p. 53). What rhetoricians since Quintilian called ingenium is an ability to innovate out of the materials of tradition, a capacity that is both revealing and transforming: “Revealing, in the sense that it brings features to light that were concealed and yet already sketched out at the heart of our experience, our praxis. Transforming in the sense that a life examined in this way is a changed life, another life. Here we reach the point where discovering and inventing are indistinguishable” (Ricoeur, 1988, p. 158).

The tension between the conventional function of inventional resources and their specific adaptations explains their generative instability. But there is a problem of definition. What gets placed in the inventional toolkit is an odd miscellany—topic, stasis, enthymeme, figure, etc.—fairly incongruous as members of a class, and each of these tools themselves of uncertain definition and scope. This problem of containment is further exacerbated by the promiscuity of the rhetorical terrain, spreading out as it has across so many disciplinary habitats, which then define inventional parameters by their own exigencies. So by examining several of the most resilient resources, we can see if some coherence is even warrantable.


The ancient rhetorical teaching of stasis is in its best moments a kind of anti-method, a procedure that relies on insight (ingenium) and deliberative process (controversia) to locate the point at issue in a complex argument. Stasis relies on the rhetorical sense of appropriateness (decorum or prepon) to locate this balancing point. Cicero’s classic formulation of stasis outlines this praxis of deliberation that yields insight into the knot of a controversy:

It’s my own practice to take care that every client personally instructs me on his affairs, and that no one else is present, so that he may speak the more freely; and to argue his opponent's case to him, so that he may argue his own and openly declare whatever he has thought of his position. Then, when he’s left, in my own person and with perfect impartiality I play three characters, myself, my opponent and the arbitrator [or judge]. Whatever consideration is likely to prove more helpful than embarrassing I decide to discuss; wherever I find more harm than good I entirely reject. … When I’ve thoroughly mastered the circumstances of a case the issue in doubt [the stasis] comes instantly to my mind.

(Cicero, 1942, p. 105)

The method outlined here sets the free play of issues into motion before the eye of the rhetor, whose sense for the appropriate is then empowered to see. Neither formula nor intuitive genius determines the crux. The issues themselves are given sway and activate perspicuous judgment.

The word stasis itself has the wonderful ambiguity of meaning both state-of-stability (e.g., a static concept) and state-of-movement (e.g., static electricity), so that finding the stasis in rhetoric means finding that precise point at which the two states are in contest or balance. Locating the nub of a discursive dilemma is sometimes itself the clarifying or transformative moment of the rhetorical process, as Alan Gross argued by identifying the stasis of jurisdiction with Kuhn’s paradigm shift (2004, p. 105).

To be sure, through its history rhetoricians have tried to circumscribe stasis to a formulaic method, enumerating its categorical levels in ever-expanding number (13 levels in one version)—but its classifications have suffered from the weakness of every systematic effort. Quintilian gave the classic rhetorical rebuke to such efforts:

But let us leave this pedantic terminological subtlety to its pretentious labours! … it is quite unnecessary, if one is giving more modest instruction, to destroy the coherence of one's teaching with such minutiae. Many teachers have suffered from this, especially Hermagoras. … For the student who has seen what it is that comes into the case, what the other side wants to effect in it and by what means, and (first of all) what his own side needs cannot fail to understand all the points I have been discussing.

(Quintilian, 2001, p. 167)

The “changing conceptions of the fundamentals of stasis-theory” are probably a result of this unrhetorical ambition, and attempts to develop stasis systems outside of the original genre of trial courts have shown themselves to be “strikingly inconsistent” (Heath, 1994, pp. 114–115). The art of stasis is precisely the gathering and weighing of the multiple, contingent variables of the circumstance in order to locate the precise point of controversy. Locating the stasis of a controversy will always be a balance between judicious insight (ingenium) and the generic demands of the situation.

Now, whereas Quintilian’s harsh estimate of the systematizers was justified, his singling out of Hermagoras was probably unfair. Hermagoras’s On Invention (Peri Heuresis) in fact provides plenty of evidence for the pliant relation of audience, occasion, and argument. His practical advice proceeds by topical relevance with remarkable patience, carefully adjusting the resources of logical, ethotic, and pathetic appeals to the particular circumstances of this or that genre of case, this or that type of judge, this or that variation in mood. The purpose is not to be exhaustive but to model the specificity of adaptations, the range of possible adjustments, and the variety of available tools. The lesson is clear. There is no one-size-fits-all template for practical eloquence; the skill is exactly the opposite. Invention is a mutual adjustment of the goal of the speaker with the materials to hand.

The Topics

The topoi (Gr.) or loci (L.), another of the most enduring pedagogical conceptions of the inventional resources that emerge from and circulate in discourse communities, are also notable for their resistance to systemic method. One of the most well-known 20th-century essays on classical rhetoric, Michael Leff’s “How I Fought the Topoi and the Topoi Won” (2006), is a concession to just this point. Beyond this delimitation, however, definition stumbles, because the idea of the topics does not maintain much consistency in rhetoric over its long history. So we will have to spend a little time untangling that history. At the broadest level of difference the topoi are, on the one hand, types or tools of public argument but, on the other hand, thematic resources of poetic invention. We see the latter purpose, at one end of Western history, in early epic poetry, then in the long tradition of commonplace books, and at the other end in the idea of the “literary topos” as exemplified by Ernst Robert Curtius. Greek poets such as Homer and Hesiod drew from a stock of formulaic epithets, recipe knowledge, aphorisms, and parables in what Ong (1967, p. 25) described as “a vocabulary of metrical phrases, fragments of verse, a huge store of verbal equipment” adapted to extemporaneous performance (see also Havelock, 1963). The Medieval and Renaissance commonplace books were loose assemblages of ready discursive resources culled from the stock of cultural lore, sometimes gathered in the style of a scrapbook, or catalogued by subject. The modern researcher’s study of literary commonplaces became a way to track and analyze literary culture and cultural meaning historically.

That is on the side of poetics. Havelock thought even these topical resources served as a kind of incipient or proto-logic. Aristotle appropriated the topoi as tools of logical argument. He taught that reasoning “is a discussion in which, certain things having been laid down, something other than these things necessarily results through them” (Aristotle, 1956, p. 273). To distinguish public argument from the philosopher’s pure syllogistic logic, Aristotle exchanged axiomatic premises with the topoi to explain how rhetoricians and dialecticians argue in actual practice. Topical reasoning involves “generally accepted opinions” rather than “scientific first principles” and utilizes a fairly complex and not entirely consistent system of reasoning, for “the bases of arguments are equal in number and identical with the subjects of reasonings” (Aristotle, 1956, p. 279). When topoi serve as the starting points for argument, they stop the infinite regress of claims demanding proof in the syllogism:

They must be primary and indemonstrable, because otherwise we shall not know them unless we have proof of them; for to know (otherwise than accidentally) that which is capable of proof implies that one has proof of it.

(Aristotle, 1956, p. 3)

The topoi serve as premises when it is necessary “to reason from generally accepted opinions,” which he characterized as “those which commend themselves to all or to the majority or to the wise” (Aristotle, 1956, p. 273). Structurally, then, the topoi function in an argument just as indubitable premises, except that they are grounded in the values, beliefs, and opinions of a community, providing a floor from which an audience can make the leap to new knowledge, or, as Gage puts it, to answer “what shared grounds exist for choosing some unshared thing” (1983, p. 39). Where the looser standard of premises for public argument were a concession to practicality for Aristotle, they have assumed in our time greater importance to the degree that the realm of indubitable, universal, and indemonstrable has shrunk.

Cicero simplified this system by insisting on the universal presence of underlying inferential patterns “ad genus et ad naturam universum” (1942, p. 294). A seasoned orator learned to detect in any given situation the underlying topical logic at work—from definition, categorical division, antecedent or consequence, greater, equal or lesser, etc. Leff initially saw a major conceptual break between Aristotelian topoi and Latin loci, but the variations in the Latin systems, even in the variations within a single author’s works, doomed this effort of categorization. Cicero’s De Inventione and Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria had much looser and more capacious catalogues of the loci as culturally located material for argument. In addition to the aforementioned examples of categorical inference, the loci included motives, places, and time. Thus argument from the person (a persona) include the subtopics of birth, nationality, sex, age, upbringing, fortune, status, cast of mind, occupation, and past actions (Quintilian, 2001, p. 376). Arguments from place could include questions of ownership and title, venue and custom, purchase or theft.

A second incompatible variance of topical reasoning that became particularly acute in medieval theory was the application of topics indiscriminately as starting points, or as warrants, or as complete arguments. Marc Cogan noted the tendency of the topoi in the scholastic tradition to colonize the whole terrain of argument and argued that when it did this it left its rhetorical identity and ventured into dialectic: “The second epoch, from Boethius to Agricola, was deeply unrhetorical. Invention and the commonplaces found their primary usage and their proper model in logic or dialectic” (1984, p. 167). For him, Agricola’s De Inventione Dialectica marked the return of the rhetorical topoi to the proper modesty of their competence in public argument. Carolyn Miller (2000) likewise argued that the topoi do not bend so far as to become warranted proposition, and for this she cites the authority of Aristotle:

Aristotle's original metaphor, however, seems to require us to conceive of topoi not as propositions but as sources from which propositions (or terms, in dialectic) may be obtained. The Physics suggests that such sources can be thought of as containers, perhaps of not completely determinate shape with not completely determined contents. Within such a container, productive and not completely predictable or predetermined combinations of concepts may occur; within it, new (or old) connections between audiences, terms, and propositions may (or may not) be found (or created). The topos is like a cauldron in which form and substance are brought together where hylê and eidos interact to create material shaped for argument and persuasion.

(p. 136)

Thus, topoi as seats (sedes), regions, haunts, veins, places (loci), storehouses, etc. are the conventional discursive nodes that surface at the level of argument as useful starting points for discussion. If stasis is the point of rest and struggle where argument leads, the topoi are the field upon which this stasis is discovered. Burke’s comment about the topoi says as much: “The so-called ‘commonplace’ or ‘topics’ in Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric … are a quick survey of opinion” (1969, p. 185). We go to these mines of discovery and invention to gather, sort, and choose.

The history of topical pedagogy not only vacillated between these definitional variations but also moved between the excesses of extreme standardization or promiscuous indeterminacy. As repositories for argument types, the topoi (L. loci) by their very nature encouraged a certain kind of standardizing mentality:

And I shall gladly follow your good counsel, Crassus, ignoring the lines of defense proper to particular types of cases … while I open up the sources from which the whole argument for every case and speech is derived. For just as, whenever we have some word to write, we need not search out its component letters by hard thinking, so, whenever we have some case to argue, our right course is … to have in readiness sundry commonplaces which will instantly present themselves for setting forth the case, as the letters do for writing the word.

(Cicero, 1942, p. 291)

Whether of Aristotle’s 28 common topics (the more and the less, cause and effect, etc.) or Hermagoras’s generic subjects of discourse (who? what? where? when? why?), itemizations of the topics encouraged the tendency toward standardized and formal definitions, feeding the compulsion for system, method, and technique (Leff, 1983, p. 25). This impulse is still present in topical system-building. For example, W. Ross Winterowd announced in 1973 that “for the first time, we now have the means actually to help students systematically attain syntactic fluency,” by which he meant “putting meanings into structures” (p. 701). His summary of current research findings concluded that “all topics falls into one of four categories,” and with this “technical breakthrough” he was optimistic that rhetoric training could “now be more effective than it ever was in the past” (Winterowd, 1973, p. 708).

The urge to system, however, has been countered by an equally creative impulse to break the categorical boundaries that settle the function of the topics. Leff’s confession in the aforementioned “How I Fought the Topoi and the Topoi Won” documented his growing perplexity at the promiscuity of topical reasoning, which he noted “sometimes referred to modes of inference, sometimes to aspects of the subject under consideration, sometimes to the attitudes of an audience, sometimes to types of issues, sometimes to the generic headings for rhetorical material, and sometimes to several of these alternatives” (Leff, 2006, p. 205). Karl Wallace expressed a similar concern:

The first problem: Is it possible to state precisely what is meant by inventive activity and what is not meant? Are we not dealing with what is said in discourse, with the content or subject matter of discourse, with ideas and meanings that enter into discourse, when people respond to communicative situations and must therefore be concerned with commonalities of belief and action? More precisely, are we not also referring to a certain kind of mental activity, the kind that prompt the recovery of meanings that have become symbolized in the language of speaker, writer, and audience? And if we are concerned with a promptuary scheme or system, how are the topoi expected to function? Are they to function as instruments of recall and recollection? Are they also to stimulate inquiry by revealing sources of ignorance and pointing in the direction of new information? Can they serve both purposes equally well? If topoi are to yield the content of discourse, how far do rhetorical analysis extend their notion of content? Does it extend to images and to figures of speech?

(1972, pp. 390–391)

Entering this debate, Carolyn Miller described the topoi as both the material of argument and the mechanisms for inferential warrants (2000, pp. 136–137). By contrast, David Smigelskis argued that they are rather what he called “considerations,” i.e., “problems in need of solutions, rather than simply as possible 'material' to be used, however flexibly” (2004, p. 192). To complicate this even further, Wendy Olmsted showed that topos have even been characterized as ethotic disposition. Quoting Kahn, she reinterpreted the topos of virtù not as a general rule for application but “rather, like prudence, a faculty of deliberation about particulars” (Olmsted, 2004, p. 183). A topic has sometimes even been associated with tropes, insofar as it can serve as a settled criterion; for example, a legal dictum that gains normative force and becomes a touchstone for judgment (e.g., “clear and present danger”) (Fleming, 2003, p. 95).

Edward Corbett argued for the historical and cultural constitutiveness of topical systems demonstrated the elasticity of the topoi by cataloguing the variants of topical systems—sometimes ready-made arguments (set pieces), sometimes labels, sometimes guiding principles or common themes for composition, sometimes a technique of questions (Quis, Quid, Quando, Quomodo, Quare), or a narrative schema (the Pentad), or as equipment for living, or as the discursive engine of a habitus (Corbett, 1986, p. 47; Ivie, 2015).

Are we condemned to the shapeless profligacy of the topics? Perhaps there is a stabilizing force to be discerned in their history. The tendency for the topics to develop toward extremes, either universal system or boundless indeterminacy, happens whenever invention moves too far away from its anchorage in the relation of discourse to the concrete audience and occasion, as Cogan demonstrated. This prudential relation is what often stabilizes their unsettled and protean variation. Leff ultimately concluded rhetorical education was simply “the cultivation of an ability to encounter cases as circumstances demand” (2006, p. 208). This realization comports with what Quintilian had asserted: “Proofs are discovered in the actual complexities of Causes, and so have nothing in common with any other dispute!” (2001, p. 419). As a rather undisciplined bevy of inventional aids, they model rather than prescribe. Their diversity forces us to come to terms with the standard of the appropriate.

The Enthymeme

The desire to contain rhetorical invention in a method is nowhere better illustrated than in the long history of attempts to make the rhetorical enthymeme a variant of syllogistic logic. Aristotle refers to the enthymeme as a general category of rhetorical proof in distinction from the syllogistic logic he developed in the Prior Analytics (Aristotle, 1938, p. 201). The force of an enthymematic argument derives from the capacities and needs of its public audience (Aristotle, 1926, p. 289). It condenses argument because public audiences require brevity, and it uses topics as starting points. The looseness of Aristotle’s understanding of enthymemes gave way to more structured definitions, many of which derived from the original association of enthymeme with syllogism. But as Conley notes, “there is a complex and venerable (though not often venerated) tradition in which the ‘syllogistic’ nature of the enthymeme is not taken for granted” (1984, p. 168). Between enthymeme as unexpressed premise, and enthymeme as pathetic, ethotic, or figurative proof there is not much common ground. A creative example of the former is John Gage’s argument that the enthymeme is a way to bridge the gap between invention and arrangement when, on the scale of a complex argument, it leads “to the control of structural choices” of a dissenting audience (1983, p. 39). Instead of regarding enthymemes at the level of the proposition, it “can stand for the rhetorical conditions underlying all compositional decisions” (p. 39). Its location is unusual in this case, because the “process of enthymematic invention begins when students discuss ideas on which they can take stances and be confronted by questions that, to them, need answers” (p. 40). Thus the enthymematic leap is something that the writer rather than the reader must do. It is what the writer fills in in order to earn his or her own claim “on the basis of understandings which are shared by the reader” (p. 41).

The historical instability and range of meaning of the enthymeme would be disconcerting if it did not have, like topical and generic invention, a generative consistency, which is what Lloyd Bitzer asserted to be its animating logic: “Its successful construction is accomplished through the joint efforts of speaker and audience, and this is its essential character” (1959, p. 408). In all cases the enthymeme serves as warrant for an audience to make a leap between what is familiar or trustworthy to what is less so. Such a leap can be accomplished by a missing premise, by the authority of a trusted speaker, the truth of an emotion, the illumination of a just figure or a compelling image. The logic of the rhetorical proposition, at any rate, does not do this on its own.


Despite its conventional reputation as ornament, figuration as a species of invention straddles the spheres of argumentation and poetics, presenting another affront to the rationalist dream of a pure logic. In the Rhetoric Aristotle respected the figure’s epistemic power (“it creates knowledge in us”), and in the Poetics he identified it with the creative imagination: “[G]ood metaphor implies an intuitive perception” of analogic relationships (Aristotle, 1932, p. 91). He insisted that figuration, quite beyond its ornamental utility, is central to the public and social function of rhetoric, because it helps a public audience see a complex thing “at a glance” (Aristotle, 1926, p. 399). Hugh Blair in the 19th-century belletristic rhetorical tradition made this case explicit. A strong argument, on its face, will appear “to have considerable weight,” but to carry it home, it must “be dwelt upon, and brought out into full light” (Blair, 1968, p. 121). So it is the responsibility of rhetoric to draw “a just and striking picture” in order “to give us a clear and full impression of it” (Blair, 1968, p. 59). Here the tie between style and argument is cinched: “By a well-chosen figure, even conviction is assisted, and the impression of a truth upon the mind made more lively and forcible than it would otherwise be” (Blair, 1968, p. 80). The inventional process of argument, not just poetics, continues to articulate thought through “arrangement, styling and delivering” (Lyon, 2002, p. 45). In our time both Mary Hesse and Sean Driscoll have extended this claim about the inventional function of the figure to the spheres of scientific explanation and logical reasoning. Lawrence Prelli likewise encourages the sciences to understand “the creative processes and imaginative practices of figurative language in” invention (2013, p. 1).

Promiscuous Agency

The question that emerges from the above synopsis of this sundry collection of inventional resources is whether and how they can cohere at all under something that calls itself an art. Do they exist as incidental fragments of an incoherent system, or are they bound under some logic? We have to remember what Aristotle said about this enterprise at its earliest moment of existential crisis: “The duty of rhetoric is to deal with such matters as we deliberate upon without arts or systems to guide us.” The story of the shifting locus of invention through its pedagogical histories does show a sense of direction, guided by the function it was always intended to serve, because, if the stubborn resistance to system constrains invention’s paradigmatic ambitions, its orienting foothold in situated action gives it a significance beyond the instrumental management of meaning. But its commitment to the productive function of audience and occasion disperses the agency of meaning-making and makes its relationality constitutive in ways that depreciators of rhetoric have failed to recognize. Unsystematic invention only makes sense in this larger context, so we need to follow the path of its promiscuous agency in one last pass through its Western history.

Invention’s History in Western Education

The uses of rhetoric’s adaptable and non-methodological techniques of invention have been tied to the fate of rhetoric instruction. What is remarkable about the history of this ancient art is not the long periods of its obsolescence, but rather the extent to which, even up through the current day, it has continued to resurface as a useable practice. A brief historical scan of invention’s place in Western education will yield some insight into this vitality. Because the first section has described the curriculum of the classical period, we begin with the post-classical era.

By the early 6th century the schools of Athens were closed by Justinian, “formal education languished for three centuries,” and training in the rhetorical arts suffered greatly (Kennedy, 1999, p. 187). The classical Roman rhetoric texts remained extant and in circulation through the monasteries, and the curriculum was kept alive mainly in the monastic schools. For obvious reasons, grammar had precedence over rhetoric, and in the later cathedral schools, under the influence of Boethius’s De topicis differentiis, dialectic overtook rhetoric as the standard approach to argument. In a severe judgment, Brian Vickers concluded that the “complex unity of classical rhetoric shrank to a series of rules divorced from a political, social, or cultural context” (1993, p. 28).

But the reality was undoubtedly more complex. Rhetorical instruction varied considerably by region and scholar, and several varieties of Ciceronian oratory continued to be taught in different schools. In 8th- and 9th-century France, for instance, the study of rhetorical invention came to high prominence in what has been called the Carolingian Renaissance (Carmargo, 1983, p. 105). Cicero’s De Inventione was a standard textbook in some schools and regions right through High Scholasticism (Murphy, 1974). Despite this variety, Cicero’s De Oratorio and Quintilian’s Institutio were not regularly taught, and the more programmatic recipe knowledge of the earlier works became the standard paradigm (pp. 109, 123).

By the 12th century, dialectical argument had almost completely displaced the prudential orientation of rhetorical invention (p. 129). Medieval dialectics was a pedagogy and practice more in the nature of a method or technique heavily dictated by prescribed formulas and procedures. It allowed for a kind of invention, as Aquinas demonstrated with supreme skill, but it relied heavily on a rationalized metaphysics and sense of the cosmos and was constrained by a strictly corseted methodology well suited to the abstractions of doctrinal disputes. The prudential practice of casuistry, much closer to the classical idea of invention, was a much later development. It came with the Church’s increasing responsibilities for judicial administration in the 13th and 14th centuries and with the flowering of the Jesuitical orders in the 16th and 17th centuries (Jonsen & Toulmin, 1988).

In the expansion of the secular realm with the Renaissance, the classical texts of inventional theory and practice served as the basis for an art of public deliberation. Humanist teachers found a non-systematic frame of reference in Quintilian’s concept of ingenium and elevated it to a central place in the curriculum (Grassi, 1988). Quintilian himself had a somewhat conflicted relation to ingenium as the natural talent for speech, because for him eloquence was the product of long training, and it was only with the most assiduous preparation that improvisation becomes inventive. It was in the Renaissance schools that ingenium was conceived as the mid-point of an orator’s talent guiding heuristic, the developed faculty or capacity to grasp the link between the exigence, interests, and motives around a social issue that must be addressed (Holcomb, 2001). Juan Luis Vives (1493–1540) described ingenium as the capacity to spot the slender golden thread of potential consensus within the confused mass of variables and incommensurate demands in a contentious situation. The genius of invention is to move gracefully and discerningly through the social complexity of exigent circumstance (ornatius dicendi, et acutius inveniendi, ex necessitate fluxit) (Hidalog-Serna, 1983, p. 236). Here ingenium stretches the initial moment of compositional creation to the final moment of deliberative judgment. To be sure, Vives conceived this capacity as a faculty belonging to the individual speaker (Vives, 1979). For him ingenium was a certain and acute perception that saw, across the complexities of practical difference, the communio rerum, “sharpness of judgment in bringing things together” (Hidalgo-Serna, 1983, p. 223; Vives, 1979, p. 35). Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) placed the agency of ingenium more equitably between the skill of the speaker and the needs and demands of the audience and the occasion. Argument topics “are derived from the customs of the orator, of the defendant, of the adversaries, of the listeners, and from the structure of the state itself, and from the situations themselves” (Vico, 1996, p. 44).

The epochal and revolutionary progress of the natural and theoretical sciences brought to a close the great period of rhetorical humanism and its educational dominance. Although it is impossible to summarize the many diverse and conflicting strands of rhetoric’s pedagogical paths in the subsequent periods, it is fair to say that with the so-called Age of Reason, rhetoric shifted from the general framework of liberal education to more narrow disciplinary corners (Fumaroli, 2002). Whether through Jesuit or Ramist or juridical instruction, its subject matter moved from the capacious and civic-minded teaching of ingenium and controversia into persuasion as “a unilateral process of influence,” whether managerial or dialectical, and often with an eye to affective and motivational effect (Conley, 1990, p. 176).

In the 18th century the educational focus shifted from rhetorical invention to rhetorical judgment, as rhetoric instruction became increasingly absorbed in matters of taste, literary appreciation, and manners (Warnick, 1993). To the extent that rhetoric instruction kept a hand in public oratory, it focused on delivery, gesture, and comportment and at its most reductive became “techniques for managing appearances, not for coming to reasonable decisions on complex matters” (p. 224).

Now, these are overbroad generalizations. Vico provides one of the most famous exceptions. For him the divisions of argument topics and genres were wedded with painstaking care to the variable interrelation of audience, occasion, and purpose. Vico modeled rhetoric as an art of the particular by refusing to frame the loci as recipe knowledge: “Because it is not my province to give precepts, I think it shall be sufficient to offer examples of loci” (1996, p. 31). So although he offered a loose taxonomy of topical headings, they present themselves as the incomplete armature of a particular, embodied argument: (1) from definitions, “If friendship is relationship among good people, and this man is a very evil person, then how can it be that he is a friend of a good man?” (p. 310); (2) from purpose, “The Cassian question, ‘Who stood to gain?’ (cui bono), may be brought against you, the second in line, into whose impoverished and foolhardy hands the very rich inheritance of the child killed by poison has fallen” (p. 32).

Vico’s students therefore never saw the bare list of topics and only ever understood them as the skeleton of situated discourse. Each of the loci were particular kinds of adjustments between the parts of the rhetorical situation; thus, the logic of arguments for conciliating “are derived from the customs of the orator, of the defendant, of the adversaries, of the listeners, and form the structure of the state itself, and from the situations themselves,” and each of these elements are specified; thus “[f]rom the customs of nations (natio)—so that the English are proud, the Spanish are haughty, the French are impetuous, the Germans delight in arms, and the Italians are perspicacious” (Vico, 1996, p. 43).

Vico also returned to ingenium as an organizing principal of discursive reason, and located the agency of invention in between speaker and audience. The task of the orator is to present the subject matter “in such a way that the listener … may explore what is to be done” (1996, p. 9). This explicit recognition of the collaborative locus of inventional agency would disappear after Vico and return with vigor only in our time (Olson & Goodnight, 2004). The contemporary moment has aggressively tested the preeminence of personal agency as the generative seat of meaning production, extending this quieter strain of the tradition into brave new worlds of invention.

Vico was an anomaly, and 19th-century rhetoric only solidified trends toward either strategic or aestheticized practice. As Sharon Crowley’s (1990) history of post-Enlightenment rhetorical education showed, the remarkable appreciation for the strong ties of invention to political community alive during the Renaissance suffered a long sleep that has lasted right up through the modern educational era. Enlightenment-influenced models of private and instrumentalized reason burrowed into the pedagogies of 19th- and 20th-century rhetorical training and have only within the last two or three decades found competition in social and public models of invention, recapturing the more pliant understanding of rhetoric’s earlier pedagogies.

From the earliest German pietist and counter-Enlightenment movements, rationalist and individualist views of deliberation and judgment were subject to philosophical and religious skepticism, but such skepticism remained sequestered in small pockets until the mid-20th century, when a groundswell of change in intellectual culture brought prudential rhetoric and inventional judgment once more to prominence. Heidegger used Aristotle’s Rhetoric as the basis for an early version of his ontology, and later continental theorists embraced rhetoric’s grounding in contingent circumstance and borrowed heavily from the classical rhetorical repertoire of tropes and genres for their linguistics, philosophy, and narrative theory.

Although rhetoric pedagogy in the schools remained largely insulated from these trends, by the late 1950s and 1960s modern rhetorical theory and criticism per se began slowly to feed off of the sympathetic continental vibrations. “All but abandoned by the end of the nineteenth century,” what is often called the New Rhetoric constitutes a renewed appreciation for invention as a way of knowing and rhetoric as a way of being (Bender & Wellbery, 1990; Enos & Brown, 1994). Enos and Brown point to Ferdinand De Saussure, I. A. Richards, Kenneth Burke, Mikhail Bakhtin, Richard Weaver, Ernesto Grassi, Stephen Toulmin, Richard McKeon, Chaim Perelman, Michel Foucault, Michael Polanyi, Jürgen Habermas, Roland Barthes, and Wayne Booth as groundbreaking figures of this renaissance (1994, p. xi).

This expansion of the rhetorical franchise goes on apace, but in a chastening retrospective assessment of this evolution in 1990, Dilip Gaonkar cautioned that rhetoric’s modern significance did not come out of rhetoric programs per se, and that indeed the influence of the academic discipline of rhetoric has been slight (pp. 361–362). That assertion of the institutional-cultural asymmetry of rhetoric has been controversial, but there is no question that the interaction of disciplinary discourse, pedagogies, and broader cultural movements has been uneven. The dynamics of academic cultures have complex and multiple histories at the regional, national, and global levels and across the different institutional strata, so any statement about the contemporary fate of invention has to be viewed through these complexities.

If trends are uneven and complicated, they are nevertheless discernible over the last half-century as a kind of central tendency, and we can spot certain dominant themes that follow academic rhetoric tenaciously. Vico’s conception of invention as the interanimation of speech, audience, and occasion was given a particularly influential modern expression—within the discipline—in Lloyd Bitzer’s formulation of what he called dubbed “the rhetorical situation,” a situation that carries its own agency in calling forth utterance to engage an audience in exigent judgment. Invention, by this way of thinking, is given its coordinates by the situation itself, and the speaker stands more in the position of interpreter and mediator between an urgent problem and the power of a community to remedy its imperfection. Bitzer’s formulation was too fully deterministic, and subsequent corrections offered more complex accounts of rhetorical agency. In Consigny’s adaptation, for instance, the rhetor deploys “a repertoire of options” (topoi) for responding “to the particularities of novel contexts” so that “fruitful issues ‘emerge’ ” for audiences to work on the situational exigence.

Sharon Crowley in writing composition studies continued this line of thinking by casting invention as a form of social reasoning, reanimating an idea implicit in the dialogic or controversialist forms of classical rhetoric. In place of the ideology of the isolated mind and the passive audience, invention is a cooperative activity in which audiences actively shape meaning in an ongoing process of dialogic discovery. Gregory Clark (1990, p. 64) noted that rhetoricians “have been increasingly influenced by the dialogical/dialectical paradigms for the social function of discourse,” which, echoing Burke, requires speakers and writers to understand the modesty of their role in an ongoing intertextual conversation. Likewise, against the speaker-audience model of public address, Karen Burke LeFevre drew on “synectic” theory to promote the efficacy of small group problem-solving, since groups, as opposed to individuals, “will understand the same problem differently and will concentrate on different parts of the same problem.” She extended this facilitating function of the social out to the larger cultural patterns whose constraints aid invention “by providing structures for thinking and for creating and evaluating new ideas” (p. 89). Public discourse acts as a tagmemic process in which “one field's particle is another particle’s field” (p. 42).

This new social emphasis has had an epistemic implication, and subsequent corrections had to adjust its too simplistic notions of agency. Robert Scott asserted in a groundbreaking statement “that truth can arise only from cooperative critical inquiry,” so that rhetoric is epistemically, culturally and ontologically constitutive (1999, p. 135). At the furthest end of this view, Michael Calvin McGee asserted that “text construction is now something done more by the consumers than by the producers of discourse” (1990, p. 288). Barbara Biesecker expressed this relationship in the language of discourse theory: “[T]he rhetorical event may be seen as an incident that produces and reproduces the identities of subjects and constructs and reconstructs linkages between them” (Biesecker, 1989). The theory of subject as discursive effect, as the product of invention and discovery, has continued to resonate in this Vichean work of redistributing agency across speaker, audience, and occasion (Gaonkar, 1997).

In recent decades the New Rhetoric has also taken up a more dialogic understanding of invention, particularly as the influence of feminism and cultural studies has flowed into the discipline. Rhetoricians “have been increasingly influenced by the dialogical/dialectical paradigms for the social function of discourse” which, echoing Burke, require speakers and writers to understand the modesty of their role in an ongoing intertextual conversation (Clark, 1990, p. 64). But this influence has also had uneven progress into basic pedagogies at the undergraduate textbook level. The lag of these more general trends in general education is partly attributable to institutional inertia, the commercialized textbook industry, entrenched educational bureaucracies, and significant divides between teaching and research cultures (Crowley, 1990, pp. 140–147).

By the 1990s, this inertia, at least on the composition side of rhetoric, began to break up. LeFevre (1987), in writing composition studies, for example, cast invention as a form of social reasoning, reanimating an idea implicit in the dialogic or controversialist forms of classical rhetoric. In place of the ideology of the isolated mind and the passive audience, she treats invention as a cooperative activity in which audiences actively shape meaning in an ongoing process of dialogic discovery. In her “synectic” approach to small group problem-solving, groups as distinct from individuals “will understand the same problem differently and will concentrate on different parts of the same problem” (LeFreve, 1987, p. 71).

A final cultural influence relevant to invention is the proliferation and expansion of new media, which has ramified significantly the boundaries of inventional agency. This has certainly registered across the board of rhetorical studies. Jeff Rice’s (2007) integration of composition pedagogy with the digital revolution challenges, for instance, challenged approaches to creativity that have been constrained by the paradigm of the integrated text. The fragmentation and diversification of discourse communities through new media technologies and practices are creating either isolated communities of self-reinforcing ideology or articulating pools of interest, both of which are generative of new topoi (Pfister, 2011). Likewise, forms of invention modeled on the practices of mix tapes, digital sampling, hypertext, etc. are shaking up the formal parameters of composition, and the emergence of multimodal media is richly complicating invention in the blending of image, voice, and text in forms of composition that act more like musical orchestration (Hocks, 2003). Communication technology is throwing up challenges for pedagogy that bear on what has always been central to rhetorical instruction, the mechanics of production, literally transforming our understanding of the meaning of composition mechanics (Rice, 2008). The fragmentary nature of new media is not merely being castigated as a testament to the increasing incoherence of postmodern life, but is suggesting alternative models of human understanding and creativity (Leatherbarrow, 2015). The emergence of new and powerful capabilities for crowd sourcing, micro-communities, search engines, and database archives are helping problematize the dichotomy between expert and layperson in the invention of public knowledge and participation in complex civic spaces (Simmons & Grabill, 2007). The dispersion of heuristic sites of agency enabled by social media also has the potential of reconfiguring the balance of power in the articulation hegemony, disrupting the propensity for monologic communication with the concentration of economic power (Hall, Kice, & Choi, 2012). Depew and Lyne enlist Bruno Latour in a conception of inventional exuberance that is “enfranchising non-humans in a great parliament of deliberation” (2013, p. 7). This post-human invention sees “things as well as persons … in the wrangling of a great parliament” (p. 2) of rhetorical articulation.


This brief historical overview has yielded three points about the evolving status of the anti-methodological techne of rhetorical invention. First, the perceived need for prudential resources of speech, writing, and deliberative judgment is continually indexed to larger cultural dynamics. Over the extent of Western history this adaptive process has had a rhythm. With the ascendance of methodological and scientific standards of discovery and judgment, invention scuttles into the shadows, and when regimes of method are in crisis it resurfaces. Its classical profile is not its essential attribute because, like a dormant virus, it never really goes away, it just goes into hiding.

This sensitivity to cultural context leads to the second point. What has markedly changed about the function of rhetorical invention in its most recent incarnation is the place in the cultural landscape where it has returned. If it is only slowly finding a modest place back in the general education where it initially flourished, its most marked impact was with the crisis of metaphysics in the last century, where it came to have an epistemic and ontological significance out of all proportion to its educational origins (Crosswhite, 2013). More and more it has broken out beyond its original remit to be “scattered across an array of activities, moods, and spatio-temporal openings that feed all manners of knowing, making, doing, and being in the world,” a more capacious and heterodox understanding of heuresis operating along multiple modalities and from multiple origins (Simonson, 2014, p. 300).

The third point is that there is now a recognition that the locus of invention—its agency—is more radically heterogeneous than had been presupposed in its earlier incarnations. Neither the sole product of the individual mind nor even of the conscious reasoning of a social group, invention occurs at the nexus of strategic purposes, social forces, unconscious desires, and constellations of practice. Rhetorical education is beginning to appreciate and teach this radical heterogeneity.

Despite these differences, these cultural adaptations are still grounded in invention’s original appearance as a pragmatic response to concrete, situated communal needs. Against the periodic attempt to discipline rhetorical invention and rationalize its parts into a harmonious whole, against the hopeless “attempt at a reintegration of a disintegrating system of special methods” (Gadamer, 1991, p. 236) it is still guided by the practical imperative that gathers its resources as a guiding measure. This mutable standard, what Aristotle called “the Lesbian rule,” is the standard of appropriateness, appropriateness to the audience and the occasion, appropriateness to the interanimating relationship of context, community, exigence, and discourse (Müller, 2011). Repulsing any perfect logic, it serves as a flexible articulatory structure that continues to adapt to the needs and pressures of its circumstance. It can hardly do otherwise. It has survived, and defined its survival, by responding to the wide variations of practical circumstance of new periods, cultures, traditions, and communities. Its evolutionary resilience has emerged out of this formative friction.

The resilience of the teaching of rhetorical invention is the result of an initial commitment to its own utility as a social process oriented by its historical and cultural location. Invention is never invention out of whole cloth; it emerges always in terms of the audience to whom it is addressed. Its utility is this insistence on the organic, inherent, and organizing relation of speaker to audience and occasion. This inextricable bond explains why it has continued to be relevant as a theoretical resource long after the quarrel between the ancients and moderns receded into obscurity, long after humanism lost its status privilege, and despite centuries of relentless attacks on its legitimacy. It survives as a mobile repertoire of resources for linguistic performance, and its genius is its penchant for judicious adaptation to the circumstance. Because of this adaptability, what we now call invention is likely to keep its generative motility as the guiding term for the inexhaustible power of the discursive imagination to find or make connections, to multiply or discriminate meaning, to name our discursive being.

Further Reading

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