Common Place

The expression commonplace corresponds to the Latin locus communis, which translates the Greek topos.

— Often reduced to place (locus, pl. loci), an inferential common place is an inferential topic, or argumentation scheme.

— A substantial common place is an endoxon, a formulary expression of a common thought. Traditional rhetorical invention specialized in the argumentative use of substantial common places.

1. Topical questions: An ontology for doxa-based argumentation

Everyday argumentation is based on an ontology organizing the world of events according to the following broad parameters:

Person, Action, Time, Place, Manner, Cause or Reason.

These dimensions mirror the system of sentence complementation:

Yesterday,     in Philadelphia,      with great difficulty
Time              Place                        Manner

Peter                     met Paul     to settle their business
Focus person      Action        Cause, Reason

The corresponding interrogative words guide the methodical procedure to follow in order to gather and organize information about an event:

Who? What? When? Where? How? Why?

[Interrogative words] have already been recognized in various languages ​​for different purposes: for speculative purposes, in the Latin of the scholastics: cur?, quomodo?, quando? [why? how? when?]; or for military purposes in German, where the tetralogy Wer? Wo? Wann? Wie? is taught to all military recruits as an information framework that any scout on a reconnaissance mission must be capable of providing and reporting back to his superiors. (Tesnière 1959, p. 194)

These common basic dimensions of reality are rubric or “heads of chapters”, generating more or less general ideas and formulas. Their application is extremely general. They might be used to frame a description or narration of any kind, a scout report, a newspaper article, or an event-based essay. Such questions also guide moral evaluation, for example an action such as “having carnal intercourse” will be evaluated as shameful if that if was “with forbidden persons” (With Whom?), or “at wrong times” (When?) or “in wrong place” (When?) (Aristotle, 1383b 15-20; RR p. 279).

When attached to a particular field, these ontological parameters are expressed using words which have a full lexical meaning. For example, the classical guide to political decisions includes questions such as: “Honorable? Will the proposed measure turn out honorable, or embarrassing for us? S. Political Arguments: Two collections

These questions governing the quest for information about a given issue or event, form the very foundation of rhetorical argumentation. They might be answered a posteriori, that is after a full documented inquiry into the specificities of the case. They can also be answered a priori, on the basis of endoxa, that is pre-conceived ideas. The undue prominence given to stereotyped ideas in the construction of arguments, leads to the strong and indignant criticism of rhetoric as a fallacious verbiage, S. Ornamental fallacy?

2. The method: stereotyped portrait-based argumentation

Consider the argumentative question “Has Mr. So and So committed this hideous murder?

— The question Who? is applied to the defendant: “Who is this Mr. So-and-So?”. The sub-topos Which nation? provides the categorizing information: “Mr. So-and-so is Syldavian”, and likewise for all questions parameterizing the topical person.

— Endoxon on the Syldavians: to the category Syldavian is attached a set of defining endoxical predicates such as “the Syldavians are like that”, each having a specific argumentative orientation:

the Syldavians are peaceful / bloodthirsty people.

These predicates provide an endoxic encyclopedic-semantic definition of the Syldavian.

— The instantiation of the endoxic definition backs the conclusion:

the guilt of Mr. So-and-So is likely / unlikely.

Other topical questions regarding the same Mr. So-and-So will provide other, possibly contradictory, orientations. Such questions thereby play a role in the creation or dismissal of inculpations or exculpations, shifting the burden of proof on the whim of pre-established judgments, regardless of the outcome of any detailed investigation of the matter.

3. Common place based portrayal in literature and argumentation

Each and every one of these questions can itself become the source of sub-questions, and these can be developed considerably, to produce a detailed grid of investigation. The results yielded via this technique depend entirely on the method of investigation used to answer the question; an armchair argument for which the ‘research’ is based on common sense and common places will deliver commonplace conclusions.

The richest set of detailed questions concerns the key element of these rhetorical scenarios, that being the person (Who?). Their application produces a portrait of this person, which can be taken as a literary feat (if successful), and a base for argumentative categorizing inferences.

These commonplaces serve as ready-made arguments, from which the investigating party may select the most appropriate, depending on his or her aims.

Quintilian identified the following doxically relevant facets of a person in order to compound the a priori rhetorical representation of a person, independently of any concrete information about the action under discussion.

— “Birth, for people are mostly thought similar in character to their fathers and forefathers, and sometimes derive from their origin motives for living an honorable or dishonorable life” (IO, V, 10, 24 ).

To answer the sub-question “Birth?” the inquiry about the family collects information such as “he is from a well-known honorable family”, or “his father was sentenced”. The first information provides arguments allowing for example the application of the rule “like father, like son”, “he is a chip of the old block”, which serves inferences like:

He made a mistake, but his family affords all the necessary guarantees; good blood cannot lie, he deserves a second chance.

The second information leads to different conclusions:

The father was sentenced, so the son has a heavy inheritance. Bring me more information about him!

The commonplace “the miser’s son is a spendthrift” opposes the preceding one. If the father has a vice, the doxa now credits the son not of the corresponding virtue, but either of the same vice or an opposite vice.

—  “Nation? (ibid.) and “Country?” (id., 25). The answers will introduce national stereotypes: “if he is a Spanish, he is proud, if he is British, he is phlegmatic”. These conclusions, “he is proud, he is phlegmatic”, may prove useful for the discussion to come “he is Spanish, so he is proud, so he certainly strongly reacted to this personal attack”.

— “Sex, for you would more readily believe a charge of robbery with regard to a man, and poisoning with regard to a woman” (ibid.) The prejudiced investigator will follow the commonplace suggestion: in case of poisoning, he will tend to look for a woman. A French book, “The Famous Poisoners” [Les Empoisonneuses Célèbres] is exclusively dedicated to famous female poisoners.

—  “Age?”, “Education?”, “Bodily constitution, for beauty is often drawn into an argument for libertinism, and strength for insolence, and the contrary qualities for contrary conduct” (id., 25-26). In other words, “he is handsome, he must be a debauchee” is more probable than “he is handsome, therefore he must live an austere life”. If A is stronger than B, then “A is more aggressive than B” is likely, and therefore, if A and B had a row, “certainly, A attacked B”, in other words, A bears the burden of proof. These inferences can be turned around by application of the paradox of plausibility: “actually, B must have attacked A, because he knew that the appearances were against A”.

— “Fortune, for the same charge is not equally credible in reference to a rich and a poor man, in reference to one who is surrounded with relations, friends and clients, and one who is destitute of all such support” (id., 26). The commonplaces associated with social roles and positions come under this heading. An elderly man from the countryside, sitting on a bench in the setting sun, will certainly deliver some deep and true thought about the current state of affairs, S. Rich and Poor.

— “Natural disposition, for avarice, passionateness, sensibility, cruelty, austerity, and other similar affections of the mind, frequently either cause credit to be given to an accusation or to be withheld from it” (id., 27): “the assassination was committed in a particularly cruel manner, Peter is cruel, therefore he is the murderer’, S. Circumstances.

— “Manner of living, for it is often a matter of inquiry whether a person is luxurious, or parsimonious, or mean” (ibid.).

The following questions refer to arguments based on desires and motives_ (ibid.):

— “What a person affects, whether he would wish to appear rich or eloquent, just or powerful” (id., 28).

— “Previous doings and sayings” (ibid.), used to find motives and precedents.

— “Commotion of the mind, […] a temporary excitement of the feelings, as anger, or fear” (ibid.), S. Emotions.

“Designs” (id., 29)

This set of commonplaces underlies portraits such as:

A man in his thirties, Canadian, West Coast, sporty, from a well-known and respected family, has never completed his law education, very kind with his neighbors, living a conventional life, works in a pharmacy, with limited prospect for the future…

This portrait can be read as an (unsuccessful) literary attempt, a police form, etc. In all cases, it is a stock of premises. Doxa-based argumentation is based on pieces of information like “the man is X”, draws on the stereotyped categories attached to Xs, “the X are like that”, and concludes that “the man is like that”, S. Categorization; Definition.

4. The literature of characters

This topology has a derived argumentative function and a direct aesthetic-cognitive function. It is linked to the question of the socio-linguistic or doxical beliefs, that is to the prejudiced identity of the person. It is antagonistic with a problematic of identity as deep being, the psychological nucleus of the person. Providing a technique for the construction of the portrait, it thus establishes a bridge between argumentation and literature through the genre of “Characters”, as those of the Greek Theophrastus, and, more generally, the classical literature of portraits and mores.

We are no longer in the realm of ethos as an autofiction, but in the pure world of the ethopoeia, that is to say, of the fictional representation of a “character”, such as “the Miser” or “the Garrulous person” via his or her typical manners, discourse and actions. Such de-contextualized portraits can be used as authorized and respectable sources about the character which they are used to depict, as prolegomena to the exercise of the argumentation in situation, where they will be applied to a particular person.

Historically, this is part of a coherent educative, esthetic and cognitive process of controlled, systematic writing and thinking, the very antithesis of any uncontrolled automatic writing.

5. “This noxious fertility of common thoughts” (Port-Royal)

When based exclusively on common knowledge, that is language associations and doxa-based knowledge, this technique makes it possible to quickly compose fairly convincing, true-to-life pictures of things and events. Critically, these are justifiably very difficult to rebut, as they are the mere expression of shared preconstructed knowledge. The vicious circle between persuader and persuadee is an example of such a situation, S. Persuasion. Such compositions are not scientific characterizations of the individual, as can be developed in psychology or philosophy, but the perfect stronghold for all positive or negative social prejudices. Port-Royal has severely condemned this “noxious fertility of common thoughts”:

Now, so far is it from being useful to obtain this sort of abundance, that there is nothing which more depraves the judgment, nothing which more chokes up good seed, than a crowd of noxious weeds; nothing renders a mind more barren of just and weighty thoughts than this noxious fertility of common thoughts. The mind is accustomed to this facility, and no longer makes any effort to find appropriate, special and natural reasons, which can only be discovered by an attentive consideration of the subject. (Arnauld, Nicole, [1662], III, XVII; p. 235)