The Aristotelian Topoi (Topics)

Though all arguments require a claim on a controversial issue and evidence to back up the claim, not all arguments work in the same way.  Aristotle realized this when he discussed the concept of the topics or topoi (Greek for "places"), which accounts for the different ways an argument may be advanced.  (In the ancient Greek sense, they are “places” to go to find and present arguments.)  This page doesn't attempt to list all of Aristotle’s topics; we will be better served by concentrating on a handful of them.  The topics are not a set of arbitrarily drawn methods of arguing issues; they are based on the way people think--on the nature of a thing, the value of something, what causes things to happen, what course of action to take in alleviating a problem, and so on.  The topics are a mirror of the human mind, human reason.  Keep in mind that whereas one issue may be better stated as a definition argument, another might work better as a cause and effect one.  Note, too, that some arguments employ more than one topic: for example, an argument that is essentially definitional may also employ cause and effect in one section.  Most arguments are in some way proposal arguments; the answers they address may be seen as a proposed solutions to problems.  Knowing something about the different topoi helps good writers--and good citizens--understand how to present and interpret arguments well.  The best way to understand the way academic arguments--the Aristotelian topoi--occur is to practice reading and writing them. 

The four links below contain fairly brief descriptions of what are probably the most commonly used Aristotelian topics today: definition, evaluation, cause/effect, and proposal.  The descriptions are based on Aristotle’s Rhetoric and are informed in part by Ramage and Bean’s book Writing Arguments

Note: In the near future, we hope to post student essays as examples of all four types of argument.   

cause and effect