The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation
Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca
(Notre Dame: UND, 1969)

Some Reading Notes -- Adam Kissel

This volume treats those explicit and implicit beliefs that are used in persuasion, recognizing the middle ground between absolute proof and arbitrary reason-giving. The good orator both is good at persuasion and persuades towards the good (scientia bene dicendi, 25, from Quintilian). The volume is comprehensive on its general level, and it carries the style and precision of a textbook, using examples copiously in order to analyze the rhetorical strategies of the prose.


Audience - the orator must pay attention to the audience, considering both the audience at hand and the universal audience (30 ff.). All audiences are partly or mostly incommensurate with the universal audience and with each other. One should not assume a perfectly rational audience. Nevertheless one should assume some commonality of values and adherence to common sense among the audiences and with the orator. On the other hand, to promote a new value in certain contexts often is an abuse in which "an educator turns propagandist" (53). Likewise, certain questions are beyond discussion, e.g. whether one should love one's parents, or whether snow is white (following Aristotle, 56). One may either persuade or convince a local audience, but to be valid for the universal audience an argument must be convincing. Also pp. 8, 18, 24, 25, 31, 33, 53, 119. Negative argument shows the audience why it should have reacted in a certain way to the orator (but did not); the orator shows how the audience has been working from its own incorrect arguments or false motives (476).

Dialogue differs from debate in that in dialogue there is a real discussion and an openness to being persuaded by the other party. In a debate, the discussion is between the debaters and the audience (in a courtroom, that is the judge or jury) (37). Diversion is often an attempt to prevent real discussion by calling attention away from the issues at hand (also see presence below) (485).

Ambiguity: we tend to believe more easily those things which we desire to believe (following Pascal, James, et al., 61). Therefore we must be wary of persuasion into a belief which we also find pleasant (473-74). Nevertheless if we limit belief to a knowledge of absolute truth, we become either fanatics or skeptics on every point. Persuasion charts a middle course (62). Even scientific language profitably contains and uses a great deal of vagueness (130). We ought not devalue vague notions such as justice, liberty, wisdom even though the terms are inherently problematic. Ambiguity in fact becomes quite useful in a variety of arenas. We might agree on a concept even though we differ on the specifics of its interpretation (134). Oratorical definition attempts to interpret something in favor of a specific premise or endpoint (173). For example, in an oratorical definition of something that is uncertain, it is better not to say that your point is "ambiguous" but rather "flexible and rich." Your argument is flexible and widely applicable, while your opponent is ambiguous, on the one hand, or rigid and one-sided, on the other (138). We work often in probability and variability (256). In probability, when several separate lines of reasoning lead to the same end, all of them (as well as the end) are mutually reinforcing; this is called convergence (471). In a formal system, several modes of proof of the same fact make for consilience or congruence (472). But when there is too much convergence, the orator can be accused of cooking the data; "a certain measure of incoherence," on the other hand, "is taken as a sign of sincerity" (473).


Premises are essential to an argument--many are implicit; many are made explicit to the audience. Depending on the audience, the orator may have to justify the premises prior to launching the argument proper. This requires choosing which premises to present and then determining how to present them (65-66). Premises are based in some way on conceptions of the real. Facts, so called, may be challenged by an interlocutor, on the basis of incompatibility with other facts or with the real, or because they are shown to be the result of faulty reasoning, and so these may also have to be defended (68). Presumptions of course are even more open to challenge. Common presumptions that are often not challenged include: we tend to trust what we are being told, "as long and insofar as we have no cause for distrust" (cf. Booth, R of Assent); we connect the quality of an act to the quality of the actor; whatever is made present to us is seen as inherently more interesting (at least at first); we presume that people are basically sensible. We presume the normal and the likely (70-71). "Texts of positive law or positive theology" become starting points, too (101). Values are most open to challenge, but argumentation requires them. Values usually come in hierarchies; e.g., qualitative and quantitative (80-81). We value "what appears unique" or what is in danger of being lost (89), i.e. in making decisions about actions, we prefer to avoid an irreparable situation (92; see "waste" below, Part III).

Hierarchy: common ones, both quantitative and qualitative, are those of degree and order. Degrees are different parts of the same order; orders name different classes of existence (the distinctions can be devalued if they are seen merely as part of a larger order). Order may be challenged as arbitrary, or defended as reasonable. We tend to be interested in the phenomena that mark the breaks between orders or the passing from one order to another. Exceptions such as superlatives call for special treatment (347). The orator can order arguments in terms of a hierarchy (e.g. from weakest to strongest or v.v.), but it is often best to hide the weaker points in the middle (504).

Loci (like Aristotle's topoi): these are the common places from which arguments can be said to arise--out of shared premises regarding abstract categories. Loci provide the bases for understanding facts, presumptions, values, hierarchies (83-84). One set of competing loci has to do with existence vs. essence--which is superior, the object or its type? the thing in itself or the fullest potential of the thing? (94-95) The choices of loci help dictate the kinds of actions that will be called for (96). Another example: the Classicist virtues of truth and justice, often fit into quantitative loci, are set against the Romanticist virtues of love, charity, and loyalty, often fit into qualitative loci (98).

Normal, norm, normative: the normal is what everybody does; the norm is what everybody should do; usually there is a quick normative transfer from the perceived normal to the perceived norm, and it takes some good persuasion to dissociate the two (88; see dissociative pairs below). One usually must appeal to the qualitative over the quantitative in order to push the norm over the normal (89). But custom is a widely accepted value, already shared by most of the audience, so it is a risk to challenge custom (93)--how can we judge our own age? We experience inertia in feeling that things should basically keep going as they are in order to remain consistent (107). Convincing has more to do with norms and the universal audience; persuading has more to do with the normal as perceived by a particular audience (463). The orator must be aware of popularization and vulgarization processes, in which more complex reasoning and methods are simplified for the nonspecialist. In the reverse, nonspecialists, or orators in front of a nonspecialist audience, may try to argue with specialists in mind (100, 104).

Change: since we presume the normal to be the norm, strategies for change must be considered carefully. One may say that a new effort is not really a big change, or that it is a refining of the old, or that the object and end of the effort is the same as before. At the same time evidence of a change that has been successful will be seen as strong evidence for continuing or extending the change (106-07).

Repartee - pouncing on an admission by your opponent of something favorable to you (108): "A speech is not exclusively built up by developing the original premises; it consists also of establishing premises and of making agreements unambiguous and stable" (110).

Petitio principii = begging the question, i.e., pretending the opponent already agrees with something that is required for the point being made, though this point is supposed to be evidence for the first thing = like reasoning in a circle (112). "Every assertion of value," because it presupposes beliefs, would seem like petitio principii even within its own system--but it is more useful to save the term for when those assertions of value are utilized in discussion with an opponent. In other words petitio principii only occurs in an ad hominem discussion (i.e., in trying to persuade an opponent or audience), p. 114.

Presence: what evidence should be presented, and how? Anything presented automatically gains presence. Things that we see tend to gain priority and importance merely because they are in front of us. The same is true for ideas presented to our consciousness. Thus concrete objects may be presented profitably in a discussion (115 ff.). Repetition (e.g. anaphora, repeating the first words of sentence in a succeeding sentence; also conduplicatio and adjectio) is useful for reinforcing the adherence of the audience, and keeping the argument present in the minds of the audience (50, 174-75). Onomatopoeia creates a link of presence between the word and the referent (174). Interpretatio, a kind of repetition by explaining one term using another, is another kind of repetition (176). Better than repetition is amplification, "the oratorical development of a theme" (175), e.g. in the device of stages (see below, Part III).

Preterition - the orator shows reticence about using a particular argument because of its unsavory nature. In announcing that he will not be speaking about a particular issue in a certain way, he gives a presence to that argument by the back door (487).

Interpretation is not merely about the choice of meanings (see ambiguity above), but also about a choice of the kinds and levels of meaning. For example, is something to be considered as a collection of its parts, as one part making a larger whole, or as something in itself? An interpretation gives presence both to itself and to the level of meaning on which it rests. One must beware, in choosing interpretations, to give a sense that one is "coloring" the facts to come out a certain way. A sign is something that evokes something else by pre-arrangement; an index is a more objective evocation; but both signs and indices must be interpreted. Though signs are by nature arbitrary, they become so ingrained in the consciousness that they seem like indices, pp. 120 ff. "Every writer has to be able to rely on the interpreter's goodwill" (124, drawing on Richards), at least to the point that the interpreter will want to find out what is really being suggested. When this goodwill is lost, a person or text becomes merely a tool for a selfish interpreter, and thus no communication occurs [AK].

We could pay better attention to qualifiers--adjectives and adverbs etc.--as concise, carefully chosen vehicles of interpretation. Qualification by putting something in a class often is accomplished by associating and dissociating concepts with and or or (126 ff.). The order of statements also serves to qualify them--there are implied norms and categories, etc. (156-57).

Prolepsis or anticipation - knowing that a certain word would have been inappropriate, you explain that you have chosen a different word. Reprehensio shows that you have chosen a word that, while appropriate, is a kind of "awful truth." Correctio, fixing your diction as you go, shows that you are carefully considering what you are saying, even while you say it (this is like synonymy). All these strategies help to justify your qualifiers (174).

Obscurity - announcing that something is difficult to understand, gives it presence (145).

Cliché - shorthand that helps build adherence and communion with the audience. But if the audience recognizes cliché as such a device, there is a break and the power of the cliché is lost (165).

Periphrasis, synecdoche, metonymy, allusion - some words that stand for a known concept. Periphrasis is a kind of paraphrase of a term (my mother's husband = my father); synecdoche and metonymy emphasize a particular characteristic (mortals = men, claws = crab); allusion refers to something known outside the presentation at hand (173-74, 177).

There are plenty more "figures of choice" that yield presence and communion (Section 42), e.g. enallage in which a strange replacement of tense or person intensifies the thought (177-78).

Another strategy is "to present as a fact of experience what is really only the conclusion of an argumentation," as though anyone who has a certain experience will--obviously--have a given interpretation of it. There is often an implicit appeal to authority (see below, Part III). Values can be recast as facts, and vice versa (180-82).


Rhetorical Analysis--Dangers: "the meaning and scope of an isolated argument can rarely be understood without ambiguity: the analysis of one link of an argument out of its context and independently of the situation to which it belongs involves undeniable dangers. These are due not only to the equivocal character of language, but also to the fact that the springs supporting the argumentation are almost never entirely explicitly described. In establishing the structure of an argument, we must interpret the words of the speaker, supply the missing links, which is always very risky. Indeed it is nothing more than a plausible hypothesis to assert that the real thought of the speaker and of his hearers coincides with the structure which we have just isolated. In most cases, moreover, we are simultaneously aware of more than just one way of conceiving the structure of an argument" (187). "It is possible, moreover, that [rhetorical] schemes are effective without being clearly perceived [even by the speaker] and that only an attempt at clarification, which is rarely performed, would enable the speaker, and especially his hearers, to become aware of the mental schemes which they are using or which are acting upon them" (188).


Logic and quasi-logical arguments: your position is fortified when you can claim that your logic and reasoning is better than your opponent's. You can show that your opponent is being inconsistent or is putting forth incompatible premises or conclusions, or is contradicting himself. The response is that one's accuser is trying to make the discussion into a formal system, which makes him either a fanatic or a skeptic about the discussion at hand (see above on ambiguity); the discussion at hand admits incompatibility but only in a limited way; quasi-logical arguments are acceptable (194-96). Pragmatic arguments would assert that producing results of success or happiness is a more important criterion of validity than quasi-logical arguments (268).

Strategies for avoiding incompatibility (Section 47) include various kinds of compromises in which part of what is incompatible is devalued; logical analyses, as in science; practical analyses, or the tentative acceptance of incompatibility until there is a difference in outcome based on a choice of the competing elements; and diplomatic approaches, in which the incompatibility is shoved under the table (197-98). "Fiction, falsehood, and silence help avoid an incompatibility on the level of action so that it will not have to be solved on the theoretical level" (199). Retort is used to accuse someone of enacting the very prohibition asserted, or of extenuating the problem by addressing it in a certain way (204).

Tautology - At the other extreme, a charge of tautology is like a charge of petitio principii (see above) in which it is charged that nothing new is being said at all. The response is that "original insights" and a deepening of understanding can come from the various versions of the assertion. Discovery becomes tautology, especially when widely accepted, but the discovery is not diminished thereby; you now have identity (216).

Justice: in the middle, there is "a partial reduction which allows [two elements which are compared] to be regarded as interchangeable from [only] a limited point of view." Events that are seen to be similar or of the same kind (and this point often must be argued) deserve equal or equitable attention and treatment. This idea comes out of the principle of inertia (see above); it makes for principles of reciprocity and symmetric reduction. Transitivity uses a sense of justice. Conversely, asymmetry, on the principle of justice, can show that two things ought to be treated differently--for example, a claim for the superlative (see hierarchy above) as being in a special case (218-19, 224, 226-27, 246). Of course one can also challenge that too much or too little reduction is occurring in an argument. One must also recognize that too much reduction, any reduction to a formal scheme (e.g. in order to use transitivity), limits the kind of supporting arguments that can be applied (228).

Dilemma - a dilemma presents incompatible situations, and either asks for a choice between them or says that a choice is impossible. It is false when there are really more than two possibilities; when the two are not really incompatible; when they are compared on a false scale; or in the special case where each choice seems to have consequences favorable to the other. "That two contradictory possibilities lead to the same conclusion seems to result more from a preconceived idea in favor of that conclusion than from the argument that is offered. That is why such a dilemma is often attributed to the opponent as a proof of his bad faith" (236-37).

Causal Links

In interpretation of a causal link, it makes a big difference if you emphasize a means-end relation or an act-consequence relation, because each model gives a different weight to each of the terms. A consequence is less important than an end; an act is more important than a means (271). Again, arguments serve to decide which model to use, whether something is really a consequence, whether the act is really a consequence of some other act, whether the end produces other results which are the "real end," etc. When an act is redefined as a means, it becomes devalued as a mere device (272-73). This goes for rhetorical strategies in general, all of which can be challenged as devices.

"Since technical discussion about the best means depends on agreement as to the end, the speaker will sometimes ask ... for specific agreement on the end, while at other times he will attribute to his interlocutor an end which the latter would not dare to repudiate, and the means will be discussed in terms of it. Then again, if a means is recognized as ineffective for producing the proclaimed end, a person insisting on and using this means will always be suspected and accused of seeking an unavowed end. Thus, assertion of the ineffectiveness of a means often influences much more the discussion of the ends than the technical problem of the best means" (278).

If means or an act normally result in an end or a consequence, there is a desire to see these things through to their natural conclusions, else there is "waste" (279; see "loss" above, Part I).

Device of Stages - when we see "a detailed account of the successive stages of a phenomenon, setting out the way" in which the knowledge was gotten, we are more likely to believe in the conclusion (145). Some stages may be clearer than others, but if we are brought to agree to the first stage, we more readily agree to the later stages. But since we are aware of this process in general, we are wary of it. The slippery-slope argument, or argument of direction, aims to prevent even a first step, defining an action as though it is part of a series with ultimate negative consequences (282). The argument of unlimited direction is used for those things where any progress toward an ideal is valued; such an argument might even accept a negative step as a minor but required setback on the way toward the ideal. The argument against unlimited development would say that the ideal is already achieved as much as it can be, under the circumstances, or that a realization of the ideal would require giving up on another ideal--in the latter case one would argue instead for an ideal harmonization of values (289).


Appeal to authority, though it is disparaged in the name of truth, is perfectly acceptable any time there is any ambiguity in which reason alone cannot find an answer, which is true of any decision except those in a closed formal system (306). The place of argument really rests on who is chosen as authority, and how (307). Even so, authorities ought not gain a power of interpretation outside their field of expertise (309). The appeal to authority is qualitative, while the appeal to the "authority" of popular opinion is quantitative. The orator can set himself up either as an authority or as one qualified to choose authorities (ethos becomes important here, along with attitude and personal presentation). The orator can win points by showing esteem for the audience as qualified in this regard (321).

When the recognized authority can be shown to be incompetent, the field is opened to universal doubt (309-10).


Act-Essence - this is just one more way of talking about the difference between the concrete and the abstract, between the qualities of an object and the referents that prove or demonstrate the qualities. The act is the empirical part; the essence is the metaphysical part. Arguments can concern and involve either or both parts, as well as the interaction between the two (327 ff.).

Other "relations of coexistence" (Section 74, 330-31) include allusion, irony, and personification (including apostrophe, talking to the object, and prosopopoeia, the object having agency).

Symbolic relations also partake of coexistence. "The establishment of ... immaterial bonds, of these invisible harmonies and solidarities, is characteristic of a poetic or religious or, we may simply say, a romantic conception of the universe. The romantic authors were fond, as we know, of describing events in such a way that human emotions and physical setting seemed intertwined" (332). Speech itself can carry symbolic connections: "the verbal sign may be regarded as having a magical connection with what it signifies: speech acts on what it states" (335)--in other words, people say that "words are power" and appeal to this magical, mystical relation, which I find quite problematic. This also is why people are so bent on proving connections, and part of the reason why the creationists and evolutionists fight so bitterly over scientific truth, as though all religion and society hangs in the balance [AK].

Double hierarchies use either symbolic relations or quasi-logical relations such as act-consequence to show a parallelism of scales. This is common in scientific work that relates fields together, or in scientific work to show specific relationships, e.g. between increasing height and increasing weight. One hierarchy can be used to justify the introduction of a second hierarchy. The two hierarchies can match quality and quantity, and be directly or indirectly proportional, or be either directly or inversely related (341). [Multiple related hierarchies are hard to keep track of unless they are all similar and go in the same direction.] Acceptance of a double hierarchy requires acceptance of the relationship made between the two hierarchies, in addition to acceptance of each hierarchy. When there is non-acceptance of a result (e.g. an ethical result) of putting two hierarchies together, this will weaken or dissolve the link (342). The connection between the hierarchies is an assertion about the structure of reality. Another way to challenge a double hierarchy is to show that a different one "counters the effects of the first one" or is even a better replacement for it (342).

Argument by Example

"Argumentation by example ... implies disagreement over the particular rule the example is invoked to establish, but assumes earlier agreement on the possibility of arriving at a generalization from particular cases" (350). Examples can also be used as invalidating cases (355). Yet it can be argued that the case is not invalidating of the principle, but rather is an exception because of some other competing cause (355).

We might distinguish an example, which goes to prove a rule, from an illustration, which helps determine the scope of a rule that is already granted (358).


A:B as C:D--the word as gives a sense of resemblance; in math, it is often one of proportion. The authors call A:B the theme and C:D the phoros. Sometimes the goal is only to connect A and B by using the phoros; other times it is to connect a given A:B with a given C:D; other times it is to define several of A,B,C,D at once. Whenever there is a sense of "separate spheres" or incommensurate arenas or different orders of existence, reasoning by analogy becomes particularly useful. This is especially true for relating the infinite to the finite, as in religion (Section 82, 371 ff.).

An analogy is often arbitrary, but it serves a good use to its limited extent. A challenge of false analogy occurs when the accuser extends the analogy beyond its usefulness. A response can be to show how the phoros is merely one out of many possible phoroi, each of which illuminates only part of the theme. But the analogy itself can also be challenged as weak in the first place, and the terms can be appropriated into a new analogy suggesting a different relationship (387-93).

Dissociative Philosophical Pairs (pp. 411 fff.)

Pairs such as means-end, appearance-reality, name-thing, letter-spirit, opinion-truth, and so on, establish two dissociated modes in which the first is devalued and judged inferior to the second. The first is the pseudo-truth, while the second is the Real Truth (436-37). Rhetoric itself gets judged by pairs such as artificial-natural, form-substance, verbal-real, in which any persuasion is labeled pejoratively as "device." In certain arenas, the extemporaneous speech gets to be valued over the premeditated one (e.g. sermons in certain churches). To avoid the dissociation against his whole project, the orator often can profit from claiming sincerity, clumsiness on minor points, hesitation, confession, and license to say a potentially damaging thing. "Since any technique which seems contrary to the end ... makes a big impression, one will not scruple to use such a technique as the ultimate device" (451, 456-57).


Corax - foreseeing consequences; often, used for behavior that is not in itself sincere--the behavior is a device which brings about a desired result among those who take the behavior seriously. You show that the accused would never have committed a crime, foreseeing that he would get caught. Corax can be carried to extremes, in which all the back-and-forth consequences can be said to have been foreseen. While some anticipations may be presumed, most of them are constructed post hoc and cannot be trusted (458-59). "An argument can lose its force ... if it can be shown, by labeling it with a technical term, that it belongs to the category of arguments that the theoreticians have picked out and classified as overbold." The challenger demonstrates competence by seeing through the device, and the audience will reassess the argument (469).

Epitrope - to show exceeding fairness, the orator concedes a point to the opponent even though the opponent is being unfair or wrong (488).