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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Inventio is the system or method used for the discovery of arguments in Western rhetoric and comes from the Latin word, meaning "invention" or "discovery". Inventio is the central, indispensable canon of rhetoric, and traditionally means a systematic search for arguments (Glenn and Goldthwaite 151).

Inventio comes from the Latin invenire, meaning "to find" or "to come upon". The same Latin root later gave us the English word inventor. Invenire is derived from the Greek heuriskein, also meaning "to find out" or "discover" (cf. eureka, "I have found it").



Invention is the division of rhetoric that investigates the possible means by which proofs can be discovered; supplies speaker and writers with sets of instructions that help them to find and compose arguments that are appropriate for a given rhetorical situation (Crowley and Hawhee 20).

For personal and lyric essays, narratives, and descriptive writing, invention techniques help writers draw from their memory and observation for the kinds of details that will add depth to their essays (Glenn and Goldthwaite 151).

The first direction of invention aims toward deriving heuristic procedures or systematic strategies that will aid students in discovering and generating ideas about which they might write; the second direction of invention is characterized by how writers establish "voice" in writing and realize individual selves in discourse (Glenn and Goldthwaite 153).

It is the first of five canons of classical rhetoric (the others being dispositio, elocutio, memoria, and pronuntiatio) that concern the crafting and delivery of speeches and writing.

One of the oldest criticisms of rhetoric is that as an art it has no proper subject matter. In other words, an orator might speak on any topic, with his success being measured purely on the brilliance of his rhetorical skills. This aspect of rhetoric is one reason why Plato attacked what he saw as empty rhetoric on the part of sophist philosophers, such as Gorgias.

Aristotle, in his works on rhetoric, answered Plato's charges by arguing that reason and rhetoric are intertwined ("Rhetoric is the counterpart of Dialectic" is the first sentence of his Rhetoric). In Aristotle's view, dialectic reasoning is the mechanism for discovering universal truths; rhetoric is the method for clarifying and communicating these principles to others. And in order to communicate effectively, an orator must be able to assemble proper arguments that support his thesis.

Inventio, therefore, is the systematic discovery of rhetorical practices. In the Greek and Roman traditions, rhetorical practices are often but not always arguments. Aristotle, as well as later writers on rhetoric, such as Cicero and Quintilian, devoted considerable attention to developing and formalizing the discipline of rhetorical invention. Two important concepts within invention were topoi and stasis. Other rhetorical cultures seem to have additional means of locating "available means." Historian of Celtic poetics Robert Graves credited analepsis as a method of inventing his historical arguments in The White Goddess, and Mazatec medicine woman Maria Sabina credited the hallucinogenic psilocybe mushroom with the flow of her discourse. Philosopher Jacques Derrida described inventio as the "invention of the other."


In classical rhetoric, arguments are obtained from various sources of information, or topoi (Greek 'places'; i.e. "places to find something"), also called by the Latin name loci (cf. Literary topoi). Topoi are categories that help delineate the relationships among ideas; Aristotle divided these into "common" and "special" groups.

In the common group could be found such categories as laws, witnesses, contracts, oaths, comparisons of similarity, difference, or degree, definitions of things, division of things (whole/parts, for instance), cause and effect, and other items that could be analyzed, researched or documented.

Modern writers and students use these topics, as well, when discovering arguments, although today more emphasis is placed on such things as scientific facts, statistics, and other "hard" evidence. Classical rhetoricians saw many areas of inquiry that today's writer might view as being purely in the province of "logic" — developing syllogisms, finding contradictions, and so on — as being of equal or greater importance.

Special topoi included such concepts as justice or injustice, virtue, good, and worthiness. Again, these are areas of inquiry seen by many today as belonging to other arts, but from Greek times through the Renaissance, these were considered integral to the study and practice of rhetoric.


The procedure known as stasis was another important part of the invention process. This involved the practice of posing and exploring questions relevant to clarifying the main issues in the debate. There were four types of stasis: definitional, conjectural, translative, and qualitative. For instance, a lawyer defending someone accused of damaging property might pose the following questions:

  • Question of fact: did the person damage the item? (conjectural)
  • Question of definition: was the damage minor or major? (definitional)
  • Question of quality: was he justified in damaging the item? (qualitative)
  • Question of jurisdiction: should this be a civil or criminal trial? (translative)

Through the application of this process, as well as using the relevant topoi, the orator would be able to construct not just elegant arguments, but ones that were well-reasoned and well-researched. For example, to answer the second question, the attorney would need to ascertain additional things: how should the degree of damage be measured? Does the law specify distinctions between degrees of damage? Was there some remedy to the damage that could easily set things right? And so on.

Janice Lauer proposes the following techniques for invention: 1. applicable to a wide variety of writing situations so that they will transcend a particular topic and can be internalized by the student 2. flexible in their direction allowing a thinker to return to a previous step or skip to an inviting one as the evolving idea suggest 3. highly generative by involving the writer in various operations-such as visualizing, classifying, defining, rearranging, and dividing- that are known to stimulate insights (Glenn and Goldthwaite 155).

One of the most prolific techniques of arrangement is the use of topics. Topics can be used to invent arguments and also to conceptualize and formulate the single-sentence declarative thesis. Edward P.J. Corbett, Robert Connors, Richard P. Hughes, and P. Albert Duhamel define topics as "ways of probing one's subject in order to find the means to develop that subject" (Glenn and Goldthwaite 153). They issued four common topics that are most useful to students: definition, analogy, consequence, and testimony. Definition involves the creation of a thesis by taking a fact or an idea and explaining it by precisely identifying its nature; it always ask the question "What is/was it?" Analogy is concerned with discovering resemblances or differences between two or more things proceeding from known to unknown; it is a useful tool for investigating comparisons and contrasts because it always ask the question "What is it like or unlike?" Consequence investigates phenomena costs to effect-to-cause pattern, best established through probabilities from patterns that have previously occurred. It always answers the question "What caused/causes/will cause it?" Testimony relies on appeals to an authority, (such as an expert opinion, statistics, or the law), and it always answers the question "What does an authority say about it?" "Ultimately a thesis or an argument must say something about the real world. Teaching the topics requires using examples and good examples are to be had by applying each topic to a definite subject and coming up with several thesis statements" (Glenn and Goldthwaite 156).

Inventio also involves the techniques of ethos, pathos, and logos:

Ethos is the appeal that deals with credibility. This appeal or approach is also known as the ethical appeal. Ethics of course means the considering of a particular person background or character. Therefore when one considers ethos they are taking into consideration the background or character or the debater or person who is presenting them with an argument to be used as persuasion. When a debater relies on ethos, they are using their “trustworthiness or credibility” to persuade their audience into believing their specific argument on a particular topic (Ramage 81). Many times when a debater is relying on ethos to present and make an argument for their particular standpoint, they “often convey (ethos) through tone and style of the message and through the way (they) refer to differing views” of those in opposition with them (Ramage 81). Regardless of the information presented in their argument a debater simply has to convey the message that they can be trusted in their argument when using ethos. As far as ethos is concerned, a debater’s argument or ability to persuade his or her audience “can also be affected by the (debater’s) reputation as it exists independently from the message—his or her expertise in the field, his or her previous record or integrity, and so forth” (Ramage 81). All these different aspects play a major part on the effectiveness of a debater’s argument when the debater relies on the ethical appeal or ethos proof.

Pathos involves much more than simply making the audience laugh, cry, or become enraged. Pathos is a proof that “is an appeal to an audience’s sense of identity, their self-interest, their emotions” and because pathos appeals to the deepest parts of the audience’s being “many rhetoricians over the centuries have considered pathos the strongest of the appeals” because the pathos proof involves “the power of emotion to sway the mind” (Fahnestock 14). If a debater were to try to use the pathos appeal in order to persuade his or her audience, they would have to know their audience extremely well in order to know exactly how to approach and persuade their audience’s emotions. If the pathos proof is not used properly, the debater could easily appeal to the wrong emotions of their audience and their argument could fall on deaf ears. Even more detrimental for the debater, they could exactly involuntarily persuade their audience to side with their opponent on a given matter.

The logical appeal can either consist of “inductive logic by giving your (audience) a bunch of similar examples and then drawing form them a general proposition” or “the deductive enthymeme by giving your (audience) a few general propositions and then drawing from them a specific truth” (Henning 61). Either type of the logos proof, inductive or deductive, make a sound argument for debater to use when persuading an audience. The logical appeal presents the audience with facts that can not be denied or ignored.

See also

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