Saturday, September 04, 2004

Circumstantial Topics

The medievals identified seven circumstantial topics (a 'topic' or 'commonplace' is something from which an argument can be drawn), each of which has parts. This is the analysis of which the "5W-H" you were taught in elementary school is the...well, the elementary school version. I just came across some of my notes on the subject:


1. Who, i.e., who did it

Who has eleven parts:

a. name, e.g., Tully
b. nature, e.g., foreigner
c. mode of life, e.g., friend of nobles
d. fortune, e.g., rich
e. studies, e.g., geometrician
f. luck, e.g., exile
g. feelings, e.g., loving
h. disposition, e.g., wise
i. purpose (I don't have an example in my notes, and I might be misremembering, but I think this would be something like office or duty)
j. deeds (other than those at issue)
k. words (other than those at issue)


2. What, i.e., what the action is

What has four parts:

a. the gist of the deed, e.g., killing of a parent
b. before the deed, e.g., he seized the sword in anger
c. while it occurs, e.g., he struck violently
d. after the deed, e.g., he hid in a secret place.

3. Why, i.e., the reason the action was done

4. Where

5. When

When has two parts:

a. time
b. opportunity

6. How, i.e., by what method

7. With what means

The idea behind these 'actional' (as I have called them) circumstances is that for every action there are questions that may be asked about time, place, opportunity, method and means; but these are not actions but 'adhere' to the actions. While the general idea is from Aristotle, the real father of this sort of analysis is Cicero, and circumstantial topics have always had a close relationship with fields that are closely bound up with forensics, i.e., public rhetoric (like journalism and law). Circumstantial descriptions are extremely important for our understanding of what is going on and whether it's good or bad; it's worth keeping an eye out occasionally for how circumstantial topics are used in discussions, especially political ones. But they have lots of uses beyond bland description; for instance, they can be used for speeches of praise or blame, case analysis, and, for one I hadn't thought of, see this post on the 'Circumstantial Rosary' at Disputations -- I suppose they would be very good for all kinds of meditations on actions.

Aquinas has a great discussion of the circumstances at ST I-II.7, in which he clarifies the nature of circumstances (article 1), argues for their importance in moral considerations (article 2), analyzes them into their main types (article 3), and ranks them (article 4).

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