The Topics (Greek: Τοπικά; Latin: Topica) is the name given to one of Aristotle's six works on logic collectively known as the Organon. The treatise presents the art of dialectic — the invention and discovery of arguments in which the propositions rest upon commonly held opinions or endoxa (ἔνδοξα in Greek).[1] Topoi (τόποι) are "places" from which such arguments can be discovered or invented.

What is a topic?

In his treatise Topics, Aristotle does not explicitly define topic, though it is "at least primarily a strategy for argument not infrequently justified or explained by a principle."[2] He characterises it in the Rhetoric[3] thus: "I call the same thing element and topic; for an element or a topic is a heading under which many enthymemes fall."[4] By element, he means a general form under which enthymemes of the same type can be included. Thus, a topic is a general argument source, from which the individual arguments are instances, and is a template from which many individual arguments can be constructed. The word topic derives from ancient Greek tópos (literally "place, location"). It is also related to the ancient mnemonic technique method of loci, by which things to be remembered are recollected by mentally connecting them with successive real or imagined places.[5]

Connection to Aristotle's theory of the syllogism

Though the Topics, as a whole, does not deal directly with syllogism,[6] clearly Aristotle contemplates the use of topics as places from which dialectical arguments (i.e. arguments using endoxa) may be derived. This is evidenced by the fact that the introduction to the Topics contains and relies upon his definition of reasoning (syllogismós): a verbal expression (logos) in which, certain things having been laid down, other things necessarily follow.[7] Dialectical reasoning is thereafter divided by Aristotle into inductive and deductive parts. The endoxa themselves are sometimes, but not always, set out in a propositional form, (i.e. an express major or minor proposition), from which the complete syllogism may be constructed. Often, such construction is left as a task to the speaker; Aristotle gives only the general strategy for argument, leaving the construction of propositions to the creativity of the answerer.

Book I

Book I is introductory, laying down a number of preliminary principles upon which dialectical argumentation proceeds. Aristotle defines three types of reasoning in an argument:

Aristotle proceeds to note the utility of the art of dialectic, then presents four materials used in dialectical argument: accident (or incidental), property, genus, and definition. He also explains the various senses of sameness, that bear directly upon the character of arguments, as follows.

Then, the means (organa) by which arguments may be obtained are described:

  1. securing propositions
  2. figuring out the number of senses of a term
  3. finding differences
  4. investigating similarity

Methods and rationale for attaining each of these ends are briefly illustrated and explained. In particular, there is an analysis of how to find the different senses of a term.

Book II

Book II is devoted to topics relating to arguments where an "accident" (i.e. non-essential attribute, or an incidental attribute) is predicated of a subject.

There are important considerations when dealing with these arguments. Is something called accidental when it should be ascribed differently? Examine cases where a predicate has been asserted or denied universally to belong to something. Define terms, even accidental terms. Define what you think should be called by what most people call them. The reason is that sometimes you need the definition a doctor uses, sometimes the definition used by most people. You can also alter terms into more familiar ones so that the thesis becomes easier to attack.

Sometimes, opponents should be drawn to make statements that you can easily respond to. This is necessary when the answerer has denied useful statements for you to attack the thesis. It is apparently necessary when someone makes a derivative statement. It is not necessary in any sense when the opponent has made statements that are unrelated to the thesis, and you should concede the point if it's true because it makes no difference to the thesis anyway.

Recognizing if an accident belongs to a subject is also important. If the accident increases along with an increase in the subject, then the accident belongs to the subject. For example, if more pleasure means more good, then pleasure belongs to the good. If a thing doesn't possess an attribute, and the addition of something else makes it possess that attribute, then the added thing possesses the attribute and imparts it on the new thing. If a dish isn't spicy, then it becomes spicy after adding pepper, then pepper possesses spicy.

Book III

Book III concerns topics that can be discussed with respect to better or worse.

Desirability and the good are treated as the subject of "better". Remember that these statements are in relation to arguments about what most people accept is the case, as in all of Topics. What is lasting is more desirable than what is less lasting. What an expert would choose, or what in general most people would choose, is more desirable. What is desired for itself is more desirable than what is desirable incidentally. The cause of good is more desirable than what happens incidentally. What is good absolutely is more desirable than what is good in particular.

Consequences are another way to judge desirability. When something is of the greater consequence relative to the context, such as age of the speaker, it is more desirable.

Similarity to other things that are desirable can help, but not always. You could argue that Ajax is better than Odysseus because Ajax is more like Achilles. Ajax might not resemble Achilles on the relevant points. If man is the most beautiful, and monkeys resemble man more than horses, somebody might say that monkeys are more handsome than horses. But horses can still be more beautiful than monkeys in the relevant ways.

Book IV

Book IV deals with genus — how it is discovered and the sources of argument for and against attribution of a genus.

Aristotle points out a number of errors that arguers make about genus relating genus to species. Some of these topics are as follows, phrased as questions:

There are also considerations to make about genus relating to states and deprivations.

Then there are considerations to make about genus relating to differentia.

Importantly, you can distinguish genus from differentia by looking to see that the genus has a wider denotation, that the essence is stated for the genus, and that the differentia signifies a quality.

Lastly, there is a topic about affectation. That which is affected should not be in a genus of what affects or the other way around. Air is affected by wind (it is made to move a certain way) but that doesn't mean that wind is a type of air, or that air is a type of wind. Wind is not "air in motion", but the movement of air.

Book V

Book V discusses the topic of property—that which is attributable only to a particular subject and is not an essential attribute.

Property is subdivided in four ways.

In addition to these distinctions, intelligibility of the alleged property is an important topic. A property is rendered correctly when the terms used to state the property are more intelligible than the property, or if the subject is more intelligible. Intelligible here is something more immediately understood. The following questions can help identify intelligibility.

Some topics are quite unique.

There are also some topics more particular to relational properties.

Lastly, Aristotle notes that superlatives cannot be properties, because as soon as the thing perishes, the superlative could apply to something totally new.

Book VI

Book VI describes definition and the numerous means that may be used to attack and defend a definition.

There are five parts to discussing definitions, phrased in terms of looking to defeat one's opponents.

  1. Show that the definition cannot be applied to every object it is meant to apply to. The definition of man should be true of every man.
  2. Show that though the object has a genus, the opponent has failed to put the defined object into the genus, or to put it into the appropriate genus. The person creating a definition should first place the object in its genus, and then add the differentia.
  3. Show that the expression is not unique to the object. A definition should be unique.
  4. See if, in addition to everything else, the opponent has yet failed to express the object's essence.
  5. Show that the definition is not correct.

There are two types of incorrect definitions: obscure (lack of clarity), and superfluous (longer than necessary).

First, Aristotle mentions some topics about obscure definitions. Is the definition ambiguous? Is the definition metaphorical? Is it a little bit of both, which is even more confusing? Is the definition of the contrary unclear? Is a single definition used to define more than one sense of an ambiguous term? If it applies to all of them, it is not true of any of them.

Then, he points out a topic for superfluous definitions. Does the definition still make clear the essence of the term and what makes it particular, after you remove a portion of it? If so, the definition is superfluous, you can cut out that part. For example, if man is defined as "rational animal", then adding "capable of receiving knowledge" will not add anything essential or distinguishing.

There are also topics about the differentia of a definition.

There are a number of topics for complex definitions, definitions that pertain to more than one element.

Some topics are about the products of two things.

But Aristotle also recognizes that neither follows. Like with drugs, two different drugs can be good, but when combined they are bad.

Aristotle provides one more topic about definition. If the thing defined possesses contraries equally likely to occur, the definition should not be through one of them. If the soul is equally capable of knowledge as it is of ignorance, then the soul should not be defined in terms of either. After all, this would mean that two definitions would apply to the object, even though the objective is a single unique definition.

Book VII

Book VII restates the proper method of definition, discusses the topic of sameness again, and compares the various difficulties involved in forming arguments.


The final book contains suggestions, hints, and some tricks about the techniques of organizing and delivering one or the other side of verbal argument.[10]

Aristotle provides tips for constructing an argument.

  1. select the grounds to make an attack
  2. frame and arrange questions one by one to oneself
  3. actually putting forth the questions to the other person

2 and 3 are unique for dialecticians. The arrangement should involve inductively securing premises, lending weight to argument, concealing conclusions, and making argument clear. Concealment is basically for making the conclusion not so obvious, which can make somebody more receptive because it is not immediately obvious where you are going.

There are additional topics for argument construction. You can't show first principles with the propositions shown through them, so first principles are understood through definition. Inferences closer to first principles are harder to argue with because fewer arguments can be used with regard to them. It might seem like this should be easier because fewer arguments are possible, but this also means there are fewer paths to show first principles compared to deeper and derivative ideas.

When inferences are drawn from premises more generally rejected than the conclusion, they should not be granted. Taking longer through many steps is faulty reasoning, because it conceals the grounds that the argument depends.

Aristotle makes clear that there are different rules for arguing for training or examination, compared to competition. Learners should state what they think, a questioning competitor should produce an effect on the other person, an answering competitor avoids being affected by the other person.

There are four ways to prevent someone from reaching a conclusion.

An argument is fallacious in four senses.

Aristotle ends with suggestions that you can use for yourself to practice and hone your skill. He mentions the importance of memory, and that you should have easily accessible ideas such as definitions, primary ideas, and familiar ideas. It is generally better to commit to memory premises that have general application, rather than specific pre-constructed arguments. Additionally, Aristotle advocates being a devil's advocate and to try arguing against yourself as practice.

The Topics as related Sophistical Refutations

The Sophistical Refutations is viewed by some[11] as an appendix to the Topics, inasmuch as its final section[12] appears to form an epilogue to both treatises.

See also


  1. ^ These "commonly held opinions" are not merely popular notions held by the man-on-the-street about any and all subjects; rather, the dialectical ενδοξα are commonplaces of reason upon which those who conscientiously dispute (all men, most men, the wise, most of the wise, or the best known among the wise) agree in principle -- i.e. that which is "enshrined" (to borrow a cognate religious term) in opinion or belief among those who engage in disputation.
  2. ^ "Dialectic and Aristotle's Topics". Stump, Eleonore. Boethius's De topicis differentiis. Cornell University Press. Ithaca and London, 1978. p. 170.
  3. ^ Aristotle refers to rhetoric as "the counterpart to dialectic" in the introduction to his Rhetoric (1354a et seq), noting that both alike are arts of persuasion. Both deal, not with a specific genus or subject, but with the broadly applicable principles of things that come within the ken of all people. Rhetoric is distinguished from dialectic in that the former employs not only a specific type of syllogism (i.e., enthymeme), but additionally makes use of the character of the speaker and the emotions of the audience to perform its persuasive task.
  4. ^ Rhet. 1403a18-19
  5. ^ E.g. as houses along a street one knows by heart
  6. ^ These are discussed elsewhere, as in the Prior Analytics.
  7. ^ Topics 100a25-27
  8. ^ For Aristotle, "demonstrative" arguments (ἀποδείξεις, apodeíxeis) are those that comprise science, and analyze a particular genus or subject matter by means of propositions or axioms that admit of no further syllogistic proof. "Contentious" arguments are those that proceed from propositions that only seem to be ἔνδοξα éndoxa, or that only seem to reason from such propositions. "Pseudo-scientific" arguments are those based upon faulty models—such as a geometer's argument from a falsely drawn diagram.
  9. ^ This does not mean that it expresses an attribute comprising an essential element of the subject, but rather that it is a characteristic that is predicated solely of that subject and that it is an effect of the essential nature of the subject
  10. ^ The Topics contemplates an adversarial system of question and answer, in which one party attempts to elicit from another, through yes-or-no questions, the conclusion he wishes to prove.
  11. ^ E.g. Forster, E. S. in Aristotle. Topica. Loeb Classical Library Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989. p. 265.
  12. ^ 183a38-184b9

Further reading

Critical editions and translations

Critical studies