Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Aristotle's Classical Enthymeme and the Visual, Argumentation of the Twenty-First Century

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Aristotle's Classical Enthymeme and the Visual, Argumentation of the Twenty-First Century

Article excerpt

Contemporary society is filled with a variety of complex visual images. In paintings and sculptures, movies, magazines, television programs, commercial and political advertisements, and World Wide Web sites, visual communication is "pervasive in everyday discourse" (Groarke, 1996, p. 105). Although few would disagree with Blair's (1996) claim that "images ... are enormously powerful influences on attitudes and beliefs" (p. 23), the mechanism of this influence is less understood.

For the past three decades, communication scholars have grappled with this question. "Since the publication of Tompkins' 1969 essay 'The Rhetorical Criticism of Non-Oratorical Works,'" Medhurst and Desousa (1981) point out, "scholars in the speech communication field have turned their critical lenses on various sorts of persuasive artifacts" (p. 197). More recently, argumentation scholars--who study persuasion expressed as claims--have developed theories and case studies exploring the many ways in which visual images participate in argumentation. Argumentation and Advocacy deemed visual argumentation so important that in 1996 it devoted special issues to discussing the "visual components of argumentation and persuasion" (Birdsell & Groarke, 1996, p. 1) and, 10 years later, has dedicated this special issue to the subject.

Understanding if and how "argument can partake of visual expression" is particularly relevant at this moment in history, "when technological and cultural developments are increasingly enhancing visual communication" (Blair, 1996, p. 23). Yet, some contend, "the study of argument since Aristotle has assumed it to be paradigmatically verbal, if not essentially and exclusively so" (Blair, 1996, p. 23). Can Aristotelian rhetoric accommodate visual arguments? Can the enthymeme explain how images argue? Finnegan (2001) has explored these possibilities in a case study of "photographic representation of the 'skull controversy'" (p. 133). Several other scholars of visual rhetoric also mention the enthymeme (Barbatsis, 1996; Birdsell & Groarke, 1996; Blair, 1996; Medhurst & DeSousa, 1981). However, none has elaborated the connections between Aristotle's original conception of the enthymeme and visual argumentation.

In this essay, I will show how popular interpretations of the enthymeme differ remarkably from Aristotle's original conception. I will review visual argumentation studies to demonstrate how elements of Aristotle's classical enthymeme also are implicit in current theories of visual argumentation. Then I will explain how Aristotle's conception both explains how visual arguments are possible and helps us understand how they work.


As "the substance of rhetorical persuasion" (Rhetoric, 1354a, 14-15), the enthymeme has remained central to Aristotle's rhetorical theory. The "consistent definition of the enthymeme" found in logic textbooks and borrowed by rhetoricians, however, "falsely suggests a uniformity in views among philosophers" (Madden, 1952, p. 368). In fact, Sir William Hamilton distinguished 17 different meanings of the term enthymeme (cited in Madden, 1952, p. 368). According to Madden (1952), of this "remarkably large number," two views are "historically most influential": "the enthymeme conceived as a syllogism with an unexpressed proposition, the rendition given in textbooks"; and "the enthymeme considered as a syllogism whose propositions are 'signs' or 'likelihoods,' Aristotle's special doctrine" (p. 368). In the former, and most common, view, several significant attributes are missed by reducing the enthymeme to a procedural matter. This section overviews the first view and elaborates Aristotle's original conception of the enthymeme through consideration of the second view.

The Popular Conception of the Enthymeme

McBurney (1936) reports an "almost universal tendency among recent writers to define the enthymeme" as a truncated or elided syllogism (p. …

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