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Plato's Communicative Utility in Japan
Jack Kimball


This analysis reviews Aristotelian and Platonic rhetoric with respect to communicating effectively in English prose. It argues that Aristotle's system of invention is influential in teaching writing, but Plato's dialectical invention is also important because it affords a communicative context for writers to rehearse and practice their thinking relative to the composing process. The utility of Aristotle and especially Plato is examined within the context of Japanese college writers becoming more familiar with dominant rhetorical and psycholinguistic characteristics of written discourse in English.


I'll start with a bald assumption. College writers in Japan, and elsewhere, benefit from a deliberate examination of their processes of writing. In my practice as a foreign language instructor and teacher of writing, I require my students to examine their writing processes by first involving them in a flux of experiments for creating and recollecting their impressions. I sustain the climate of experimentation by continually asking students to take multiple approaches toward topics, committing themselves to innumerable reformulations of arguments, and several revisions of entire drafts.
The description I have given might lead you to think of my procedures as empirical, skewed toward invention and personal writing. Yet I superimpose on all this experimentation resolute assumptions about the efficacy of substantive argument codified in classical rhetoric. I not only expect students to be practiced in putting their ideas down on paper, but also well versed in proposing theses and providing cogent evidence. I combine experiment and practice in rhetoric because practical rhetoric complements invention. My concern, then, is how to fine-tune the merging of these two strains in the teaching of English as a foreign language (EFL) and, particularly, EFL composition.
I see my concern about experiment and rhetoric in light of an ancient dilemma. Rhetoricians have been arguing since the time of Plato and Aristotle whether the writer discovers new knowledge -- this is the "Platonic" or "epistemic" school -- or whether the writer manages what is already known -- the "Aristotelian" school. Added to this dilemma are the assorted readings (and misreadings) of Aristotle and Plato that represent recent efforts by rhetoricians to build on one or both views of the composing process, either to reinvigorate the classical tradition or to propose a new mode of inquiry that derives from tradition.
This dilemma leads to the current debate on various approaches toward invention in writing, a controversy of inventions, as it were. Even while today's teachers and critics develop new or seemingly-new ways for generating ideas, their techniques can be seen as extensions of either the Platonic or Aristotelian school. It follows that we need to understand more about these approaches if we hope to advance effective methods for teaching EFL writing.
A question of legacies: Differences of temperament. I am not intending to detail Plato's or Aristotle's original theories, but to examine the legacies of their theories, especially as the legacies pertain to composition practice today. It may seem as though there were a straightforward opposition between Plato and Aristotle. This is not the case. To illustrate, I agree with Ryle's synthetic view that Aristotle's commonplace topics constitute a "technology" for Plato's dialectical method (1966:103). But I view the traditional opposition between Plato and Aristotle as bearing upon present-day readings of their respective approaches to invention. The differences in approach, in summary, hinge less on what we have inherited as the Aristotelian or Platonic method, and more on distinct temperaments that inform method.
In current English composition practice the Aristotelian temperament comprises a systematic method whose legacy has been frequently reduced to predictable albeit well-managed, persuasive written discourse. The Platonic temperament, on the other hand, concerns itself with a contextual conversational method whose legacy suffers in some comparisons to Aristotle, because it requires an extra pedagogical intervention: The teacher needs to direct and subsequently transform conversation into compositional goals.

Aristotelian Invention: System par Excellence

An art of persuasion. Aristotle is the system maker, the first to devise a total rhetoric for arguing toward probable truth. This system has prevailed over the centuries by virtue of its prescriptive emphasis on deploying deduction to convince one's audience. James Berlin notes Aristotle was convinced students' deductions "might be persuasive in new ways, but never original" (1984:5). This conclusion follows from Aristotle's narrow focus; in Book I of the Rhetoric he defines rhetoric as "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion." Richard Ohmann explains,
 Aristotle domesticated rhetoric by enclosing it in a reassuring system of rules and procedures. And like ethics, metaphysics, and poetics, rhetoric maintained a formulation close to Aristotle's for a good long time (1964:17).
The topoi. Aristotle's system of invention, outlined in Book II of the Rhetoric, focuses on deductive reasoning involving three types of proof: appeals to the will (ethos) and emotion (pathos) -- these are the so-called nonlogical arguments -- and a more deliberate appeal to the intellect (logos) -- this is the conventional concern of English-language academic writing. Proofs are advanced by the topoi, the places or sources of argument, which are either specified by a particular academic domain or non-specified as general topics "suitable for application to diverse inquiry" (Barilli 1989:14). Aristotle's strategies for diverse inquiry comprise 28 general topoi, commonplace lines of argument like "opposites," "analytic division," "definition," "synthesis," "cause and effect."
The general topoi are strategies for advancing a thesis. Here, for example, is how Edward P. J. Corbett elaborates one of the more elementary of the topoi.
Definition is a way of unfolding what is wrapped up in a subject being examined. One of the rhetorical uses of this topic is to ascertain the specific issue to be discussed. Opponents in a dispute may be arguing at cross-purposes if they do not clearly establish just what the point at issue is. Therefore, after we have formulated our thesis, we may find it necessary to define the key terms in our thematic proposition so that our audience will clearly understand what we are talking about (1971:110-111).

The topoi's role in current-traditional composition. We find telltale traces of the Aristotelian approach in contemporary practice, albeit in oddly mutated and diminished forms. For example, the Aristotelian, thesis-driven approach to invention is a predominant feature of what Richard Young describes as the "current-traditional" approach to composition teaching. In this approach students concentrate on superficial, grammatical correctness and topoi-based forms of discourse -- description, narration, exposition, and argument -- and more significant to this analysis, the discourse forms are frequently simplified to topoi-based assignments like "the cause/effect essay." The role of rhetoric is thus reduced to formal concerns, such as persuasive force and grammatical precision.
The topoi's application within the current-traditional approach is still the single most pervasive instance of Aristotle's invention. For example, the influence of Aristotle's approach contributes to the current debate in EFL composition methodology regarding forms of structured writing versus more free-form personal writing (see Horowitz 1986a, 1986b; Zamel 1987, 1992; Silva 1990).
The topoi as thought processes. Among neoclassicist theoreticians who are influenced by developmental psychology, the topoi are seen as systematizing invention through "cognitive activities" functioning as "patterns of human conceptual behavior" (D'Angelo 1975). D'Angelo argues that invention "always takes place in a system," which he depicts as an underlying cognitive structure that is "already present in the mind." He adds,

Paradoxically, the topics of invention are both parts and the whole of this system. At no stage in the composing process can division into parts be separated from classification or classification from comparison. Probably all of the topics operate together as a single entity in the process of composing although for theoretical purposes we distinguish them. All are manifestations of the same underlying thought processes (1975:53).
While D'Angelo sheds no new light on how the topoi function as thought processes ("Probably all of the topics operate together as a single entity..."), he revitalizes the topoi by situating them in a psychological framework where they are viewed as a rational mode of consciousness operating simultaneously with intuition.
Criticisms of current applications. C. H. Knoblauch and Lil Brannon (1984) argue against the view that the topoi are cognitive manifestations. "We only suggest the philosophical inadequacy of subdividing imaginative activity in the artificial ways that the classical rhetoricians did, as though the whole were equivalent to the sum of its topos-parts" (50). Referring to writing teachers' need for a "system" of procedures, such as is evidenced by the commonplace topics addressed to a given question or central thesis, Bartholomae and Petrosky (1986) argue that
failure to recognize the metaphorical nature of such descriptions has haunted research and pedagogy in language learning. Because writers, for instance, can be said to proceed systematically, teachers have offered as holy writ that writers begin with a "controlling idea" (10).
Knoblauch and Brannon are especially critical of the topoi as heuristic panaceas.

 The trouble lies mainly in what students infer about the nature and value and purpose of writing when teachers isolate heuristic "strategies" outside the context of writers' primary concerns -- which are to make significant meanings and communicate them to others... It is conceptually wrong, we suggest, to regard inventiveness as a collection of skills and strategies, and pedagogically inappropriate to make them a focus of attention (1984:37).

Knoblauch and Brannon contend that invention skills and strategies separated from "primary concerns" should not become centers of interest in the writing classroom. They assert, in addition, that writers "in action look to their purposes, not to their tools," and so focusing on strategies is not useful "particularly when writers already 'know' them in the sense of knowing their use" (ibid.).
This seems a sweeping judgment, as constraining in its advocacy of invention as a tool for a predetermined purpose as it is incisive in its criticism of the view of invention as merely a set of strategies. In response to Knoblauch and Brannon, I would suggest that college writers, both native speakers and EFL students, frequently discover their purposes in the process of writing, that is, in the process of inventing. And if students know the use of some invention strategies, it does not necessarily follow that writers know strategies pertinent to tasks at hand, or that EFL writers, for example, are well practiced in applying what they know. Surely there are occasions when college writers can profit from experimenting with comparisons or extended definitions (to name just two strategies), if only to discover how far their imaginations might take them, and to what ends. I find, for instance, that some of my students here in Japan come up with new angles or recover old ideas about a topic when they temporarily suspend their "primary concerns" about significant meaning and audience, and undertake such experiments. Peter Elbow, another practitioner who stresses experimentation, claims that ignoring audience can sometimes lead to better writing (1987:53).
Reassessing the topoi. I concur with the major point of Knoblauch's and Brannon's critique. Isolating heuristic devices like the topoi from the making of real meaning is a formula for stunted growth. The fault, though, derives not so much from the topoi's inadequacy even when devoid of a writer's purpose, as from our pedagogical inattention to the topoi's primary potential for making meaning. William Grimaldi laments that the topoi have been passed down to us in truncated form. He suggests that

there has been lost along the way the far richer method of discourse on the human problems they provide. Seen as mere static, stock "commonplaces," stylized sources for discussion on all kinds of subject matter, they have lost the vital, dynamic character given to them by Aristotle, a character extremely fruitful for intelligent, mature discussion of the innumerable significant problems which face man (1958:1).

The topoi possess "vitality" for a range of discussion. In this view the topoi are seen as problem sets leading to methods of discourse addressing controversies. But issues of method arise. How do writers go about their wide range of inquiry? One answer appears in the theory of invention developed by Plato.

Platonic Invention: Context as Method

A dialogue of the practical. Plato's dialectic is a purposeful conversation, a dialogue that addresses ideas and arguments, encourages contradiction and counterarguments, and stresses analysis and synthesis as primary means for discovering knowledge. The capacity of dialectic for self-examination and self-instruction sets it apart from other kinds of discourse. Turning to Plato's Gorgias, Samuel Scolnicov observes:

 The contrast between rhetoric and dialectic is struck in the first lines of the dialogue. Gorgias, the renowned orator, is prepared to appear in a set speech. But Socrates asks, will he also be willing to engage in a dialectical conversation? Will he be prepared to let himself too be examined, or will he insist on sticking to his rehearsed "demonstrations"? (1988:31).

 Plato's dialectic is a process of examination organized in a three-part structure: (1) definition of particular terms; (2) analysis, the division of subject matter into particulars, and particulars into the smallest units possible; (3) synthesis, moving upward from concrete to abstract, and combining particulars to reach a unified conclusion (Golden 1984:30-32).
In contrast with Aristotle's invention scheme which presupposes the topoi be applied to a given premise or thesis question, Plato's invention-as-discovery is flexible, though implicitly inductive. It is flexible in that participants can move "up" or "down" the ladder bridging the abstract and concrete. It is also implicitly inductive in that the subject of conversation is divided into its discrete components and reconstituted -- making room for the possibility of novel premises and limitless variation. For instance, to converse on "love," one might divide the term into its various types ranging from mere affection to unbridled passion. One could attempt to divide the types further, determining the constituents, say, of "mild" versus "warm" affection. (See Plato's Phaedurs for a classic application of dialectic on love.)
If some of these strategies seem familiar, this is because many of Aristotle's topoi derive from Plato's dialectical invention. In reconstructing Plato's conception of dialogue we recover the practical and original methodology and context for confronting the implicit controversies posed by the topoi.

How does this affect Japanese college writers?

Applications in EFL. Dialectic offers an ideal praxis for writers to communicate at various stages of composing. (a) Students can talk to one another in advance of their writing, each in turn questioning and defending topical ideas, preliminary lines of reasoning, and so forth. (b) Students can as readily employ dialectic strategies to review one another's written texts, cross-examining, as it were, each other's arguments, offering ideas, suggesting points for further analysis, etc.
(a) In advance of EFL students writing a formal assignment, the teacher can loosely model behavior by suggesting topical lines of questioning for students to choose from in paired conversations. Students can try different idea-generating techniques, focusing, for example, on a single concrete term such as "sports" or "money" for the purpose of listing a free flow of associations which can be assembled and rearranged by students working in pairs. For more formal writing, the teacher could furnish topical and rhetorical criteria with which students can frame their conversations with one another. The teacher in effect has the option of modeling one or more kinds of dialogues, listing examples of questions and responses, for instance, to a set of shared readings which the class has reviewed together. Working in pairs, students can read these dialogues aloud to one another to reinforce the form and "feel" of talking about their ideas on the shared texts.
(b) A similar modeling framework can be used to help students dialogue with one another about their own writing, that is, reading one another's writing in order to comment on it as a shared text. For example, in the case of students reviewing one another's writing about academic topics, the teacher can prepare a dialogue sheet with appropriate criteria concerning the topic and the attendant rhetoric for developing the topic.
Another approach, perhaps best suited for less advanced language learners, would be an adaptation of the so-called talk-write method (see Zoelner 1969, Wixon and Wixon 1983). Students again work in pairs and in this instance one student is the "writer" and the other is the "questioner."

The writer will talk out what he or she wants to write with the questioner encouraging, helping to bring out the material by asking natural questions like "What happened next?" (Wixon and Wixon: 129)

 Plato's influence on the aims of discourse. It seems instructive to consider the transformative potential of Platonic dialogue on the practical aims of discourse, since learning regimens using dialogic communication, like those outlined above, foster discovery. One who participates in dialogic activity is placed at the center of one's limited understanding, and this is epistemologically appealing because the aims of discourse then become a function of meeting the challenge of alternative voices, and accounting for one's understanding in the face of choice. For example, the language learner will need to supply an answer to a peer who questions, "What happened next?"
Practice in new discourse forms. Finally, when college writers communicate with one another about each other's writing, they are practicing new dimensions of English-language invention. This sort of practice makes sense in light of the central role some topoi, for example, play in influencing the structure of academic discourse and formal writing in English.
Moreover, the notion of vibrant conversation is an analog for the communicative style and tone of well-formed prose in English, psycholinguistic and rhetorical characteristics that stand in sharp contrast with Japanese prose. Fister-Stoga (1993) identifies English-language rhetorical style as "variable" and "lively" and its tone as "animated" and "controversial"; Japanese prose style, on the other hand, is more "ambiguous" and its tone more "unexcited." It follows, then, by engaging in conversation and dialogic debate, Japanese learners could benefit from experiencing the essential (and for them, the additive) psycholinguistic element of controversy that engineers academic argument in English-language prose. Fister-Stoga adds that the audience for Japanese prose is typically "subordinate," receptive and passive; whereas the audience for English-language prose is "cooperative," that is, it participates in the controversy. Here, too, Japanese writers might profit from rehearsing this participatory role of their audience by helping to bring the debate to life, if you will, talking over components of a formal argument with other students.


This review of the controversy of inventions was prompted by my recognizing two pedagogical strains in my practice, one that emphasizes experimentation as a means for making meaning, the other that "superimposes" rhetorical norms on the communication of meaning. In review, I'll make two points.
Aristotle's topoi are valuable tools. Although we have inherited the topoi in truncated forms, they retain their original heuristic value in that they imply controversies which invite deeper consideration within a more communicative pedagogy.
Plato's dialectic affords an argument-centered context and communicative method of discovery. Dialectic provides a formal, immediate context for inquiring into and detailing controversies. Additionally, dialectic shows how communication engenders invention-as-discovery. This can be helpful in teaching EFL composition in Japan, because elements of dialectic reinforce rhetorical and psycholinguistic features of English prose.

Kimball's Research Index


Aristotle. Rhetoric. Tr. W. Rhys Roberts. 1954. In Aristotle. NY: Modern Library.

Barilli, Renato. 1989. Rhetoric. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

 Bartholomae, David and Anthony R. Petrosky. 1986. Facts, Artifacts and Counterfacts. Upper Montclair, NJ: Boynton/Cook.

Berlin, James A. 1984. Writing Instruction in Nineteenth-Century American Colleges. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

 Berlin, James A. 1987. Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900-1985. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

 Brannon, Lil and C. H. Knoblauch. 1982. On students' rights to their own texts: A model of teacher response. College Composition and Communication 33: 157-166.

 Brannon, Lil and C. H. Knoblauch. 1984. Rhetorical Traditions and the Teaching of Writing. Upper Montclair, NJ: Boynton/Cook.

 Connors, Robert J., Lisa S. Ede and Andrea A. Lunsford (Eds.). 1984. Essays on Classical Rhetoric and Modern Discourse. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Corbett, Edward P. J. 1971. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. New York: Oxford University Press.

 D'Angelo, Frank J. 1975. A Conceptual Theory of Rhetoric. Cambridge, MA: Winthrop.

 Elbow, Peter. 1987. Closing my eyes as I speak: An argument for ignoring audience. College English 49 (1): 50-69.

 Fister-Stoga, Francis. 1993. Convention and composition in the Japanese ki-sho-ten-ketsu: Towards a methodology of contrastive rhetoric. Gaikokugoka Kenkyukyo (Proceedings of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature, College of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo) XLI (3): 130-168.

Golden, James L. 1984. Plato revisited: A theory of discourse for all seasons. In Robert J. Connors et al. (Eds.).

Grimaldi, S. J., William. 1955. The Aristotelian topics. Traditio 14.

 Horowitz, D. 1986a. Process not product: Less than meets the eye. TESOL Quarterly 20 (1): 141-144.

 Horowitz, D. 1986b. What professors actually require: Academic tasks for the ESL classroom. TESOL Quarterly 20 (3): 445-462.

 Kinneavy, James L. 1971. A Theory of Discourse. New York: W. W. Norton.

 Kinneavy, James L. 1984. Translating theory into practice in teaching composition: A historical view and a contemporary view. In R. Connors et al.

 Ohmann, Richard, 1964. In lieu of a new rhetoric. College English 26: 17-22.

 Plato. Plato. Tr. Benjamin Jowett. 1952. Vol. VII of R. Hutchins and M. Adler (Eds.) Great Books of the Western World. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica.

 Ryle, Gilbert. 1966 Plato's Progress. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 Scolnicov, Samuel. 1988. Plato's Metaphysics of Education. New York: Routledge.

 Silva, T. 1990. Second language composition instruction: Developments, issues, and direction in ESL. In B. Kroll (Ed.) Second Language Writing: Research insights for the Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 Wixon, Vincent and Patricia Wixon. 1983. Using talk-write in the classroom. In M. Myers and J. Gray (Eds.) Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Composition. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

 Young, Richard, Alton Becker and Kenneth Pike. 1970. Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. NY: Harcourt, Brace, and World.

 Young, Richard. 1976. Invention: A topographical survey. In G. Tate (Ed.) Teaching Composition: 10 Bibliographical Essays. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press.

 Zamel, Vivian. 1987. Recent research on writing pedagogy. TESOL Quarterly 21 (4): 697-715.

 Zamel, Vivian. 1992. Writing one's way into reading. TESOL Quarterly 26 (3): 463-485.

 Zoellner, Robert. 1969. Talk-write: A behavioral pedagogy for composition. College English 30: 267-320.