Topos in Semantic

In the Argumentation within Language theory of Ducrot and Anscombre, the topoi are defined as general gradual principles, relating predicates, and “presented [by the speaker] as accepted by the group” (Ducrot 1988, p. 103; Anscombre 1995a). The word topos (pl. topoi) will be used to refer to this specific concept as distinct from the classical argument schemes.

Topoi are pairs of predicates (noted by capital letters). The (+) or () factor indicates that these predicates are gradual.

+ A, + P “more… more” “The higher one rises in the P scale, the higher one rises in the Q scale”, (Ducrot 1988, p. 106):

Topos: “(+) democratic regime, (+) happy citizens”

Argumentation: “Syldavia is a democratic regime, SO its citizens should be happy

– B, – Q “less… less…” “the more one moves down P, the more one moves down Q”: Topos: “() working time, () stress”

Argumentation: “But now you work only halftime, SO you should be less stressed

+ C, – R “more… less” More we have P, less we have Q:

Topos: “(+) money, () true friends”

Argumentation: “He is rich, SO he has many friends (topos “+M, +F”), BUT not so many true friends” (topos “+M, F”).

– D, + S
“less… more”
Less one makes P, more one is Q:
Topos: “() sport, (+) heart problems”Argumentation: “He stopped doing sport, AND (SO) now he has heart problems


This type of inter-predicate linkage was also observed by Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca in their discussion of values ([1958], pp. 115-128).

All predicates are gradual. For example, in a Syldavian subculture, the following topos might structure conversation about “being a real man” (M) and “drinking BeverageB”, (B); this relation is expressed by the topos “(+)M, (+)B”; advertisers claim that “real men drink BeverageB”; the more of BeverageB that one drinks, the more of a “real man” one will be.

The same predicate may be associated by the four topical forms, for example in the following argumentations.

(+) money () happiness: “he is a rich financier, so he has many anxieties and sleeps poorly
() money (+) happiness: “money can’t buy happiness”;
the poor cobbler sings all the day long[1].

() money, () happiness: “lack of money is terrible
(+) money, (+) happiness: “money can buy everything”.


In the case of sport and health:

(+) sport, () health: “champions die young
() sport (+) health: “to stay healthy, refrain from sports” (Churchill, “no sport”).

() sport, () health: “when I stop training, I feel bad
(+) sport, (+) health: “do a sport, you will feel better”.

In such cases, the predicates are linked by four different topoi <+/- S, +/- H>; nonetheless, communities have preferences, in this case for the two last ones.


These topoi are the exact linguistic expression of the “active associative nodes for ideas” mentioned by Ong (1958, p. 122); S. Collections (I). They express the possible linguistic associations between “having money” and “being happy”, between “living a healthy life” and “practicing sport”. To summarize, current talk about money and happiness prefers the (, ­) association, whilst current talk about sport and a healthy life prefers the (+, +) association.

Such associations will emerge in the discourse as reasonable and convincing inferences. In ordinary discourse a complex causal elaboration such as “some/all plant protection products are the/a cause of bees disappearance” boils down in ordinary talk to an accepted, doxical association “+PPP, – bees”.

These expressions are semantic inferences, and are pseudo-reasoning insofar as they say nothing about reality; discourse is an inference machine, an argumentative machine; language can and does speak. This vision legitimates the skepticism of the theory of argumentation in the language with respect to ordinary argumentation as a form of reasoning, S. Criticism. Reasoning emerges from ordinary talk only under specific conditions; there might be a big step between debating and learning (Buty & Plantin 2009).

[1] According to La Fontaine, “The cobbler and the financier”, Fables, Book VIII, Fable 2.