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Syllogism, Enthymeme, and (minimal) Maxim

“Everyone who affects persuasion through proof does in fact use enthymemes or examples: there is no other way” (182).

“The enthymeme must consist of few propositions, fewer often than those which make up the normal syllogism” (183).

I am interested in the differences between the syllogism and the enthymeme, and find the latter of particular note because of the information it excludes. Like maxims, the enthymeme is contingent upon cultural knowledge that is not specifically given because it is assumed to be known by the hearers/readers. I find it particularly interesting that Aristotle clearly preferred the enthymeme to the syllogism for rhetorical purposes, even calling the former a “rhetorical syllogism,” and am curious about the basis of this preference. What would make an enthymeme more convincing or appealing to logic than the syllogism? What is it about leaving some information out of the deductive process that makes it more persuasive?

Some views I have read about this (including in the introduction to “Rhetoric” in The Rhetorical Tradition) discuss that “scholars disagree about what distinguishes the enthymeme from other syllogisms [but that] a common view is that in the enthymeme the first premise is based on probable, not certain, knowledge” (171). This, however, doesn’t really explain why the technique would still be favored over the syllogism, or why excluding part of the three-stage process would make a better, or more logical, argument.

In addition, the maxim is sometimes viewed as a type or part of enthymeme, while other times it is treated individually. Again, the point of intersection between these two devices seems to me to rely upon the cultural knowledge that connects and engages both the speaker and listeners; for either the enthymeme or maxim to make sense, one must share particular kinds of knowledge, assumptions, and experiences in order for the technique to have the desired effect, or even to be comprehensible. If “it is roughly true that the premises or conclusions of the Enthymemes, considered apart from the rest of the argument, are Maxims,” then a maxim is a syllogism that is missing two, rather than one, of its constituent parts. In this way, the speaker skips not only one segment of the logic chain by which the point is proven, but two of these segments, moving straight to the conclusion or final point. Without a large body of shared cultural knowledge, it would seem that this technique would be not only ineffectual, but at times incomprehensible, to an audience without that shared knowledge base.

I am curious if perhaps it is this shared cultural knowledge and the participation by the listener(s) to engage with that aspect to understand what is missing from the argument that makes it so effective. In other words, these techniques directly engage the logic of the listener by requiring him or her to add information to that which is given in order to make sense of the line of reasoning. In this rhetorical technique, the rhetoritian stimulates the logic-creating principles within the minds of the listeners, leading them to partially “create” the argument that they are receiving, rather than absorbing it in a totally passive way. This may actually add to the ethos of the speaker, in that he subtly puts himself “on the same side” as the listener by using logic devices that call upon their shared cultural connection and ability to make meaning(s). It is mentioned by Aristotle that an audience will be more likely to accept that which is stated by their own countrymen, and these shared cultural meanings may be part of that effectiveness.

This highlights the function of rhetoric as a social practice that is reliant upon shared meanings and cultural context. In addition, it highlights the ways in which what is not stated may be as deeply influencing as what is — to restate the obvious is, perhaps, to alienate one’s self from one’s audience by telling them what they already know, thereby indicating a separation from or existence outside of that culture. This highlights the social aspects of rhetoric in particular, and language in general, and parallels the idea (stated in Information Theory) that for real information to be communicated, there must be a signal to noise ratio; all signal or all noise will not lead to information transmission. In this way, some space for ambiguity must be left within the argument, or else the logic contained within it may not be transmitted effectively. In this space, the audience participates to add the missing pieces of the logic chain, thus connecting the speaker and listener(s) within a larger cultural framework of meaning structures and generation.

(From: Aristotle. “Rhetoric.” The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to thePresent. 2nd Ed. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2001. 179-240.)


One comment on “Syllogism, Enthymeme, and (minimal) Maxim

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