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logo    The Argumentative Use of Rhetorical Figures

Speculative philosophers have long recognized that some philosophical questions cannot be given literal answers. Indeed, such philosophers speculate because of this recognition. William James nicely summarizes the view that such philosophers adopt:

The only material we have at our disposal for making a picture of the whole world is supplied by the various portions of that world of which we have already had experience. We can invent no new forms of conception, applicable to the whole exclusively, and not suggested originally by the parts. All philosophers, accordingly, have conceived of the whole world after the analogy of some particular feature of it which has particularly captivated their attention.1

Examples of such philosophical views readily come to mind: Plato's use of love as a metaphysical concept, Aristotle's use of desire, Plotinus' use of the emanation of light from its source, Hegel's use of reason, Schopenhauer's use of will, and Dewey's use of experience. Each of these viewsand many moreinterpret a mysterious world in terms of something familiar.

Of course, this dependence upon analogical reasoning has caused many to criticize speculative philosophy as invalid. Locke's sentiments are paradigmatic:

if we would speak of things as they are, we must allow that all the art of rhetoric, besides order and clearness: all the artificial and figurative application of words eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead the judgment; and so indeed are perfect cheats: and therefore, however laudable or allowable oratory may render them in harangues and popular addresses, they are certainly, in all discourses that pretend to inform or instruct, wholly to be avoided; and where truth and knowledge are concerned, cannot but be thought a great fault, either of the language or person that makes use of them.2

Such critics, however, forget how greatly all thinking depends upon analogy, even though logicians of earlier times were well aware of this dependence:

Let us consider in the first place the process of Geometrical Reasoning. . . . When in the fifth proposition of the first book of Euclid we prove that the angles at the base of an isosceles triangle are equal to each other, it is done by taking one particular triangle as an example. . . . But Euclid says nothing about other isosceles triangles; he treats one single triangle as a sufficient specimen of all isosceles triangles, and we are asked to believe that what is true of that is true of any other. . . . This might seem to be the most extremely Imperfect Induction possible, and yet every one allows that it gives us really certain knowledge. . . . The generality of this geometrical reasoning evidently depends upon the certainty with which we know that all isosceles triangles exactly resemble each other. . . . Upon a similar ground rests all the vast body of certain knowledge contained in the mathematical sciences. . . .3

Jevons then shows that algebraic truths similarly depend upon resemblance, as do all imperfect inductions. i.e., empirical generalizations. To point out, however, that formal logic also depends upon analogical reasoning, he does not consider necessary, for after all, when one argues that arguments are valid by form alone, he is obviously arguing that all arguments of a certain kind are analogous to one another and thus either all valid or all invalid. The validity of the method of counterexample in disproving the validity of an argument also rather obviously depends upon analogy, for in a counterexample, one merely argues that since one argument is obviously invalid and since it is exactly analogous to another, that argument too must be invalid.

Analogy, however, is the basis of three figures of speech which themselves can be used argumentatively. Simile, metaphor, and allegory are nothing more than ways of presenting analogies in support of some proposition. For example, when Plato wishes to argue that goodness is a creative and enlightening force in the world, he compares goodness to the sun:

---But, Socrates, what is your own account of the Good? . . . 

---I am afraid it is beyond my powers. . . . However, I will tell you . .  . what I picture . . . as . . . the thing most nearly resembling it.4

Plato, in this passage and in what follows it, argues that because the sun resembles the good, and because the sun is both a creative and enlightening force in the world, the good too must figuratively be such a creative and enlightening force. The form of Plato's argument is analogical.

If one questions the soundness of an analogical argument, the validity of the form is not usually being questioned; rather, the exactness of the comparison is. The conditions of Plato's argument are no different than those mentioned by Jevons in the following lines:

It is very instructive to contrast with these cases certain other ones where there is a like ground of observation, but not the same tie of similarity. It was at one time believed that if any integral number were multiplied by itself, added to itself and then added to 41, the result would be a prime number. . . . 

This was believed solely on the ground of trial and experience, and it certainly holds for many values. . . . No reason however could be given why it should always be true, and accordingly it is found that the rule does not always hold true, but fails when x=40. . . . 

We find then that in some cases a single instance proves a general and certain rule, while in others a very great number of instances are insufficient to give any certainty at all; all depends upon the perception we have of similarity or identity between one case and another. We can perceive no similarity between all prime numbers which assures us that because one is represented by a certain formula, also another is; but we do find such a similarity between . . . isosceles triangles.5

In other words, if one is dubious of the soundness of Plato's argument, the dubiousness is caused not by the argument's form but because no reason for the claimed similarity is apparent. Thus Plato converts a simile into an argument which is sound if the comparison which the simile makes is exact and which is dubious to the extent that the comparison's exactness fails or is unknown. If Plato's argument is fallacious then, it is so because it commits a material rather than a formal fallacy.

Plato's argument in which the similarity of the objects compared is not evident can be contrasted with an argument of Berkeley's in which the similarity is evident. In Three Dialogues between Hylos and Philonous Berkeley, given the premise that "no idea can exist unless it be in a mind,"6 argues,

I have properly no idea either of God or any other spirit; for these, being active, cannot be represented by things perfectly inert as our ideas are. I do nevertheless know that I, who am a spirit or thinking substance, exist as certainly as I know my ideas exist [since no idea can exist unless it be in a mind]. . . . I [thus] know what I mean by the terms "I" and "myself"; and I know this immediately or intuitively, though I do not perceive it. . . . The mind, spirit, or soul is that indivisible unextended thing which thinks, acts, and perceives. I say "indivisible," because unextended; and "unextended," because extended, figured, movable things are ideas; and that which perceives ideas, which thinks and wills, is plainly itself no idea, nor like an idea. I do not therefore say my soul is an idea, or like an idea. However . . . my soul may be said to furnish me with an idea [in a figurative but not literal sense], that is, [figuratively] an image or likeness of God. . . . For all the notion I have of God is obtained by reflecting on my own soul, heightening its powers, and removing its imperfections. I have therefore . . . in myself some sort of an active thinking image of the Deity. And though I perceive Him not by sense, yet I have a notion of Him, or know Him by reflection and reasoning [i.e., by analogy].7 [Since God is the] omnipresent eternal Mind which knows and comprehends all things, and exhibits them to our view.8

Given Berkeley's premises that no idea can exist unless it be in a mind, that "sensible objects," i.e., material objects, are nothing more than "the things we perceive by sense," and that the things we perceive by sense are 'our own ideas and sensations," the analogical argument previously quoted is sound; it can only be rejected if a premise is false. Thus the meaning of Berkeley's word "notion" is merely "idea or knowledge gotten by means of figurative reasoning."

This case for the argumentative use of figures which are based upon the resemblance between two objects of different kinds is, of course, the easiest to make, and what has been written about simile can easily be rewritten to apply to metaphor and allegory. However, these are not the only figures that can be used argumentatively. Synecdoche and metonymy are also sometimes the basis for arguments.

For example, a fundamental Cartesian inference may be said to be based upon synecdoche: In the first part of his Discourse on Method, Descartes argues that

Good sense is of all things in the world the most equally distributed, for as to reason or sense, inasmuch as it is the only thing that constitutes us men and distinguishes us from the brutes, I would fain believe that it is to be found complete in each individual, and in this I follow the common opinion of the philosophers, who say that the question of more or less occurs only in the sphere of the accidents and does not affect the forms or natures of the individuals in the same species.9

Descartes' appeal to authority here is unconvincing, however, for his philosophical predecessors were not rationalists. (Aristotle could, for instance, argue for the rationality of man empirically as he does in the Nicomachean Ethics;10 Descartes, however, cannot.) Thus he must justify the proposition that man is a rational being in another way, since that proposition is neither a first-person psychological statement nor an obvious logical truth. I would like to suggest that he does do so by arguing that since I am a man and since I am rational, to be a man is to be rational even though this argument can, of course, merely be understood as an invalid syllogism that fails to distribute its middle term. The argument can, however, also be understood as an inference based upon synecdoche in that in the argument, a characteristic part of a thing is being taken as a standin for the thing. Whether or not the inference is sound then depends upon how characteristic the part actually is. For instance, if one were to call Plato The Dialectician, to infer that anyone who is a true Platonist is also a dialectician would be proper, since dialectic is a characteristic ingredient in Plato's philosophical views. However, if one were to call Aristotle The Peripatetic, to infer that anyone who is a true Aristotelian is also a peripatetic (in its literal sense) would be improper, since walking about is not a characteristic ingredient in Aristotle's philosophical views. Thus Descartes can be thought of as arguing in this way: Since reason is characteristically an aspect of me and since I am a man, reason is characteristically an aspect of man; thus to be a man is to be rational. The concept of rationalityan attribute which is characteristic of mancan properly be used as a standin for the concept of man. That reason is characteristically human is the argument's conclusion, and synecdoche is the argument's basis. Again, if reason is characteristically human, the argument is sound.

Kant too resorts to figurative argumentation in crucial places. For instance, in the Critique of Pure Reason, the categories are given their literal usages in reference to the manifold of intuition, and among the categories is the concept of unity. Thus "unity" in its literal sense applies only to intuitions. But in the "Transcendental Deduction," Kant applies the concept of unity to a transcendental objectthe transcendental unity of apperception. This latter use of "unity" can only be figurative, and Kant makes the distinction between this figurative use of "unity" and the literal category quite clear:

This unity, which precedes a priori all concepts of combination, is not the category of unity; for all categories are grounded in logical functions of judgment, and in these functions combination, and therefore unity of given concepts, is already thought. Thus the category already presupposes combination. We must therefore look yet higher for this unity, namely in that which itself contains the ground of the unity of diverse concepts. . . .11

If anyone should question Kant's right to apply to a transcendental object a concept which is a category, one could in turn construe Kant's reply like this: Since the transcendental object is "the ground of the unity of concepts," the transcendental object is related to the category as a cause is related to its effect. Therefore, some indication of the nature of the ground of the concept can be derived from the nature of its sequent; the name of the sequent can figuratively be applied to the ground itself. The rhetorical figure upon which the inference is based is metonymy, and again, if one questions the soundness of the argument, the relationship between the terms of the argument and not its form is what is usually being questioned.

Little, if anything, of philosophy would be left if everything within it that is based upon figurative inferences were abandoned. Indeed, what great philosophers from ancient times to the twentieth century have written can be used to support the contention that philosophy is nothing more than the provocative use of such inferences. While trying to define the phrase "speculative philosophy," Whitehead wrote that "Words and phrases must be stretched towards a generality foreign to their ordinary usage; and however such elements of language be stabilized as technicalities, they remain metaphors mutely appealing for an imaginative leap,"12 and Aristotle, while discussing figurative language, wrote that "metaphor must be by transference from things that are related, but not obviously so, as it is a sign of sound intuition in a philosopher to see similarities between things that are far apart."13 Throughout the alphabet of philosophy, from its Aristotle to its Whitehead, so to speak, figurative inference has been the philosopher's peculiar mode of thought, and Aristotle's reference to the "sound intuition" of a philosopher is exemplified by Plato. If when he argued that the sun is the thing most nearly resembling goodness Plato had . . . instead argued that the sun is the thing most nearly resembling knowledge, the validity of the analogy would have been obvious, since knowledge is figuratively both a creative and enlightening force in the world. The obviousness of this analogy would have rendered Plato's thought superficial however, and only the soundness of his intuition enabled him to sense the similarity between goodness and lightthings which are in Aristotle's words "far apart"made his thinking profound, and endowed it with insight, while Berkeley's unimaginative use of analogical reasoning yields no insight at all.

This figurative mode of thought is, however, only deceptively peculiar, for it models the most generic attributes of thinking itself. A critic, for instance, may contend that what distinguishes formally valid argumentation from figurative argumentation is the tautological character of the valid forms, and this contention implies, of course, that no tautological principles justify the figurative forms. But one can justify the validity of the figurative forms which are previously exemplified by citing the very same grounds that justify all valid reasoning.

Consider arguments which are based upon resemblance. If the comparisons are exact, such arguments yield true conclusions only because resemblance is founded upon the principle of identity: only because one thing is identical to another can anyone argue that what is true of the one is also true of the other. Failure to understand that the principle of identity justifies analogical argument leads to the wholly illogical rules that are often given in discussions of argument by analogy, for such rules are based upon the totally unjustifiable principle that if one thing is very much like another, then what is true of the one is very likely true of the other. Yet no matter how many characteristics two different things of different kinds are known to share, that these things probably both share another characteristic which is prominent in only one is in no way justifiable, since the characteristic in question may be one of those which differentiates the kinds. Instead, the valid (and tautological) principle which justifies analogical reasoning is this: if one thing is essentially like another, then what is essentially true of the one is essentially true of the other, and this kind of essential likeness between the sun and goodness is what Plato, for instance, relies upon. Inferences which are based upon synecdoche are likewise based upon a tautological principle, for such arguments merely state that implications of a thing's essence can be attributed to the thing. In other words, if a thing's essence implies hidden attributes, they are nevertheless essential attributes of the thing, and this maxim is obviously tautological since its negation is self-contradictory.

Yet the most fundamental principle of all is the one which underlies inferences which are based upon metonymy, because this principle is presupposed by all reasoning, for when one argues that the essential attributes of an effect, conclusion, or sequent can be figuratively attributed to the corresponding cause, reason, or ground, he is implying the well-known philosophical principle that a thing's cause, reason, or ground contains in essence (either objectively, formally, or eminently, as Descartes would say) the effect, conclusion, or sequent. In other words, when one argues that the essential attributes of an effect, conclusion, or sequent can be figuratively attributed to the corresponding cause, reason, or ground, he is arguing that the cause, reason, or ground essentially implies the effect, conclusion, or sequent, for if the effect, conclusion, or sequent were not in some way essentially implied in the cause, reason, or ground, the former could never be derived from the latter. Formal reasoning presupposes this principle for such reasoning is nothing but the explicating of what is implicated in the premise, the unfolding of what is folded into the premise, and the rules of natural deduction are nothing more than some ways of unfolding the fabric of thought. Likewise, discussions of informal fallacies merely show that certain kinds of consequents are not implicated in certain kinds of grounds and that certain kinds of grounds are not explicated in certain kinds of consequents, and calling this kind of reasoning informal merely means that no ways of unfolding what is folded into the fabric of thought or of folding into that fabric what is unfolded can be specified. Rules for proper inductions are likewise nothing more than rules for ascertaining when what is explicated in sequents is something essentially implicated in the ground. Thus all reasoningformal, informal, inductive, and figurativeis merely the unfolding of what is folded in or the folding in of what is unfolded, the explicating of the implicated or the implicating of the explicated, and the same presupposition underlies all modes of thought, including the figurative mode. The absence of rules to govern the correctness or incorrectness of figurative argumentation is thus no more mystifying than is the absence of such rules for the correctness of informal reasoning or the absolute validity of imperfect induction. The perception of the correctness or incorrectness of reasoning of all kinds is at bottom founded on what Aristotle has referred to as "sound intuition."

Of course, this mode of thought which is peculiar to speculative philosophy has not only led critics to contend that speculative philosophy is a mistaken venture but also that such philosophy is overly obscure. Within this contention is the implication that if philosophers thought and wrote less figuratively, both their obscurity and the spells it casts would be broken, that the art of plain talk would sweep the metaphysical closet clean of eerie and ensnaring cobwebs. The admonition is clear: Brand Blanshard, in condemning philosophical obscurity and appealing for some measure of clarity, has written that the use of "words that carry images with them that sort of words that poets use is not the way to write philosophy."14

But the admonition refutes itself and buttresses the philosophical view, for Mr. Flesch's advice goes like this:

If you had a smattering of Chinese, you could teach yourself simple English in no time. You could apply the Chinese way of talking to your own language, and without much effort you would form the habit of terse, clear, picturesque talk.15

And when abstract philosophy is considered,

If you think, however, that Chinese has no way of expressing abstract ideas, you are wrong. Remember, the Chinese were talking and writing about religion and philosophy long before our own civilization started. If they had no exact word for an abstraction, they used the concrete word, or words, that come nearest to the idea. So, naturally they formed the habit of expressing ideas by metaphors, similes, and allegories, in short, by every known device for making a thing plain by comparing it with something else.16

Somehow the conclusions that speculative thinking is as valid as any and that philosophical obscurity is already the brightest clarity now seem arrestingly evident. The whirlpool of figurative reasoning is what sucks man into the depth of philosophical profundity and relates metaphysics to poetry.


1 William James, "A Pluralistic Universe," Essays in Radical Empiricism and A Pluralistic Universe {New York, 1958), p.8.

2 John Locke, An Essay Concerning Hanson Understanding, ed. Fraser (New York, 1959), 11, 146 [Bk. II1, Ch. X, 34].

3 W. Stanley Jevons, Elementary Lessons in Logic (London, 1943), pp. 218-219.

4 Plato, Republic, ed. Cornford (New York, 1945}, pp. 216-217 [Bk. VI, 506b-e]. 5 W. Stanley Jevons, Elementary Lessons in Logic [London, 1948), pp, 221- 222.

6 Berkeley, Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, ed. Turbayne (New York, 1954), p. 58.

7 Ibid., p. 78; slightly amended.

8 Ibid., p. 77.

9 Descartes, "Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason," Philosophical Works of Descartes, eds. Haldane & Ross (New York, 1955), I, 81-82.

10 Aristotle, "Nicomachean Ethics," The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. McKeon (New York, 1941), pp, 942-943 [Bk. l, Ch. 7, l09'lb33fl'].

11 Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Kemp-Smith (New York, 1961), p, 152 [B131].

12 A, N. Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York, 1960), p. 6 [Pt. I, Ch. 1, 2].

?13 Aristotle, "Rhetoric," On Poetry and Style, trans. Grube (New York, 58), p. 93 [Bk. III, Ch. XI, 1412a].

14 Brand Blanshard, On Philosophical Style (Bloomington, Ind., 1967), p. 48.

15 Rudolf Flesch, The Art of Plain Talk (New York, 1946), p. ll.

16 Ibid., p. 16.