Complete Story

LEFF, Michael

Spring 2006, pages 203 - 212

Up from Theory: Or I Fought the Topoi and the Topoi Won

Early in my career I studied the history of topical invention in order to discover the basis for a distinctive, substantive, and coherent theory of rhetorical argumentation. The effort reflected the dominant academic assumptions of the time, and it proved both frustrating and instructive. Eventually, I concluded that my objective was misdirected. When theoretical coherence became the goal of topical invention (as in Boethius), the topics lost connection with rhetorical interests and applications and became part of a self-contained scholastic enterprise. But when treated more loosely as precepts that helped develop a capacity for action and performance in a particular case (as in Quintilian), the topics emerged not only as more useful but as more directly connected to the distinctive characteristics of rhetorical art. This shift in emphasis for "substance" and "theory" to "action" and "performance" corresponds to a general change in attitudes toward rhetoric that has occurred during the last three decades. This change may lead to a revisionism that extends beyond the teaching of individual courses and encourages consideration of rhetoric as a curriculum.

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