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  • Peri Ti?:Interrogating Rhetoric's Domain
  • Megan Foley

You, who call yourself a rhetorician, what is your art? With what particular thing is your skill concerned? Weaving is concerned with fabricating fabrics, music with making melodies; rhetorician, with what is your know-how concerned? This is the question that Socrates poses to Gorgias in Plato's notorious refutation of rhetoric: "Peri tēs rhētorikēs, peri ti tōn ontōn estin epistēmē?" (1925, 268). Socrates' question frames rhetoric in the genitive case—which, in this case, specifies the source or origin of one thing from another. To ask of rhetoric "peri ti tōn ontōn?" is to ask from whence rhetoric comes, from where rhetoric originates, from what rhetoric is generated. So Socrates' question—"peri ti tōn ontōn?"—asks about rhetoric's domain.

Gorgias—or, to be fair, Plato's ventriloquized version of Gorgias—answers that rhetoric is concerned with speech: "Peri logous" (1925, 268). Gorgias reframes Socrates' genitive question, responding in the accusative case. While the genitive case identifies one thing as generated from another, the accusative case identifies something that is being acted on by another. The genitive case specifies a species of some genus; the accusative case addresses the direct object of some action. So Gorgias explains rhetoric's origin by pointing to its object. Gorgias' answer supplies the source of rhetoric's generation by delineating its object domain: "peri logous." Rhetoric is about, is composed of, and comes from speech.

But, Socrates responds, the same is true of many other technai: medicine, gymnastics, arithmetic, and geometry, for example. These, too, are concerned with speech: speech about bodily condition or speech about numbers. Pressed, Gorgias clarifies that rhetoric is the power to speak and also to persuade: "Legein kai peithein" (Plato 1925, 278). But, Socrates still asks, to speak and to persuade about what? He presses on, parroting, [End Page 241] "Peri ti? Peri ti?" (Plato 1925, 272-274). What is rhetoric about? "Peri ti tōn ontōn?" What is rhetoric's ontic domain? To what class of objects does it belong? From what category of existing things does it emerge?

While Plato's Gorgias plays along with this ontogenetic question, Aristotle's response to the Gorgias in the opening book of his Rhetoric questions the terms of that question. Plato's repeated question—"Peri ti, peri ti?"—contains a categorical error. Or, to be more precise, Plato's error is categorization itself. Plato's question, Aristotle suggests, mistakenly attempts to contain rhetoric within a particular genus. Instead, Aristotle argues that rhetoric is "ou peri ti genos idion" (1926, 14). It is not concerned with any particular genus; it is not proper to any genus; it has no genus of its own. Aristotle writes that "ouk estin oute henos tinos genous aphōrismenou hē rhētorikē" (1926, 12). Rhetoric does not come from one definite kind of stuff; its horizon is not delimited to a single genus of somethings.

This, Aristotle explains, differentiates rhetoric from all those other technai like medicine, geometry, and arithmetic. Each of them are indeed able to persuade about their own particular area of study: "peri to autē hypokeimenon" (Aristotle 1926, 14). These technai are about what they lie underneath: "hypo-," meaning "below," and "-keimenon," meaning "positioned." They come from and are subordinate to a specific genus, category, or class of things: arithmetic about numbers (peri arithmōn) or medicine about health (peri hugieinōn) (Aristotle 1926, 14). While these other arts are "to hypokeimenon"set underneath their specific domains, as a species to a genus—rhetoric is instead "tōn prokeimenōn"—set before, set forward, set forth (Aristotle 1926, 14). And rhetoric is set forth in advance—what it is set before is generation or beginning itself.

Rather than hypokeimenon, rhetoric is hyparchonta (1926, 12)—not lying underneath some genus but below the archē: underneath a beginning, a prime mover, or a first principle. So ironically, Aristotle's archēdefinition of rhetoric undermines rhetoric's arche. Rhetoric's domain is the hyparchonta: beneath the first principle, before the beginning, in advance of the first move. Its genus is not speech and persuasion, legein kai...


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