restricted access Aristotle's Phantasia in the Rhetoric : Lexis, Appearance, and the Epideictic Function of Discourse
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Aristotle’s Phantasia in the Rhetoric:
Lexis, Appearance, and the Epideictic Function of Discourse


The well-known opening line of Aristotle's Rhetoric, where he defines rhetoric as a "counterpart" (antistrophos) to dialectic, has spurred many conversations on Aristotelian rhetoric and motivated the widespread interpretation of Aristotle's theory of civic discourse as heavily rationalistic. This study starts from a statement in the Rhetoric less discussed, yet still important, that suggests that a visual aspect inheres in Aristotle's theory of rhetoric. Near the beginning of book 3, which deals with lexis (style, sometimes subsuming delivery1 ), Aristotle conjoins lexis and phantasia with the copula "is" (eimi): "The subject of expression [lexeôs], however, has some small necessary place in all teaching; for to speak in one way rather than another does make some difference in regard to clarity, though not a great difference; but all these things are forms of outward show [phantasia] and intended to affect the audience" (1404a).2 Whereas scholars exploring the relationship between rhetoric and dialectic have compared and contrasted the Rhetoric and the Topics, I explore rhetoric's relationship with phantasia by reading the Rhetoric alongside De Anima. De Anima is Aristotle's seminal account of the senses and their relationship to psychê (often translated "soul"). It addresses topics intimately connected to rhetoric: perception, cognition, deliberation, visualization, imagination, and the image. Phantasia is integral to each of these psychic processes and to Aristotle's understanding of the function of appearance in human experience. Hence, itis a lens suitable for exploring the relationship between Aristotle's conception of civic discourse and his notions of sight and appearances as they relate to perception, interpretation, deliberation, and judgment. I find in Aristotle's phantasia a tie between his art of rhetoric and his psychology and phenomenology (anachronistic though these terms are). Aristotle's psychological works, as Richard McKeon points out, are foundational to Aristotle's philosophy, and thus to his Rhetoric. [End Page 16] "Psychological inquiries occupy an extremely important position in the philosophy of Aristotle, for the conception of the psychê lays the foundation for the continuity of functions in nature" (1947, 142). De Anima, especially, articulates the psychological and phenomenological conceptions often tacitly at work in the Rhetoric.

The importance of phantasia for the trajectory of ancient rhetorical and aesthetic theory is seen in the parallels between the visual arts, rhetoric, and poetics in Greek and Roman thought.3 As David Freedberg states (perhaps, slightly overstates), parallels between painting and poetry are "to be found everywhere in classical literature" (1989, 50). With respect to such visual-verbal parallels in Aristotle, D. Thomas Benediktson's reading of Aristotle's psychological, poetic, and rhetorical works concludes that phantasia ties together the visual and the literary. "[Aristotle's passages on phantasia] do help to see why Aristotle took for granted the similarity, almost the identity, of literature and the visual arts. Both types of art are imagistic; they present to the viewer either an image, as in visual art, or as in literature, a set of moving images that the soul then uses as raw data (phantasia) to enable thought to occur" (2000, 170). Phantasia developed a legacy in Hellenistic aesthetics, where it came to designate suprarealism in painting, moving art "beyond imitation" (Fowler 1989, 180–81). In later Greco-Roman works, phantasia was used to designate vivid imagery in written and oral discourse, imagery that could create sights and scenes in the minds of audience members. As Quintilian noted in his discussion of forensic rhetoric, in Latin phantasiai were termed visiones. Here, phantasiabecame a mode of displacing narrative in rhetorical discourse:

There are certain experiences which the Greeks call phantasiai, and the Romans visions [visiones], whereby things absent are presented to our imagination with such extreme vividness that they seem actually to be before our very eyes. . . . From such impressions arises that enargeia which Cicero calls illumination [illustration] and actuality [evidential], which makes us seem not so much to narrate [dicere] as to exhibit [ostendere] the actual scene.

(Institutio Oratoria 4.2.29, 32)

Quintilian's invocations of phantasia and enargeia can be traced to Aristotle's discussion of rhetorical style in book...