Aristotle’s Organon, his On Rhetoric, and the law

3 Feb

I’m thinking about the machinery of Aristotle’s Organon. These are the works in which Aristotle lays out his theories of logic and demonstration. Here are the works typically included in the group and a brief coverage of their contents:

  • Categories: Aristotle explains the highest genera (sing. genus), which are called categories (Lat. predicamenta). Though we think of the categories as things that can be said of something, this work was not intended (on most accounts) to be about linguistic predication, but rather about ontology, the nature of the being of a substance or ousia.
  • Interpretations: In this work, the philosopher explains how statement making sentences (logoi) are constructed, including issues of quantification (“all Xs have Y” or “some Ws are not Vs”), types of verbs, and modality.
  • Prior Analytics: This work gives an account of deductions (sullogismos) broadly and also syllogisms more narrowly. (The former is defined as “a discourse in which, certain things having been supposed, something different from the things supposed results of necessity because these things are so” (Aristotle 1989, 24b18); the latter, according to Robin Smith, as “two premises and a conclusion, each of which is a ‘categorical’ sentence, with a total of three terms, one of which (the middle) occurs in each premise but not in the conclusion” (Aristotle, 1989, p. xvi).
  • Posterior Analytics: As Barnes says in his introduction (Aristotle, 1993, p. xii), “is concerned with the organization and presentation of the results of research: its aim is to say how we may collect into an intelligible whole the scientist’s various discoveries—how we may so arrange the facts that their interrelations, and in particular their explanations, may best be revealed and grasped.” He admits that demonstration cannot be productive of knowledge. Aristotle limits the scope of “demonstration” to those “sciences” where one can start with axioms and use deduction exhibit a sequence of theorems. This work also takes up the nature and techniques of definition.
  • Topics: A sort of guidebook to dialectic, a particular type of dialog, where one interlocutor adopts a position and the other attempts to lead the first into a contradiction by asking yes/no questions. This might be used, according to Aristotle, for mental training, serious conversation; and in support of sciences along philosophical lines. Aristotle acknowledges that it cannot be productive of knowledge.
  • Sophistical Refutations: This is Aristotle’s brief guidebook to logical fallacies.

Aristotle seems to acknowledge in most, if not all, the works of the Organon, that logic is not productive of knowledge in the broadest sense. For example, the principles/first premises that ground any science in the Posterior Analytics he acknowledges will come from empirical experience (a redundancy, given that empeiria is Gk for experience). In the Topics, the premises come from what is accepted (endoxa) by the wise, the learned, or people in general.

If we are interested in acquiring knowledge through experience, however, we have to be prepared to get empeiria-cal. It is in formulating inquiry, then, that rhetorical principles can help us. Aristotle’s On Rhetoric (2007) frequently calls upon the tools of the Organon (often by referring to Topics and dialectic, which itself is dependent on the rest of that collection). But the Rhetoric deals with judicial and deliberative questions, not things that are “necessarily the case,” but things that “can also be otherwise.”

In Aristotle’s time, rhetoric was the art (if it could be called art—see Plato, 1998) employed in speeches before the public assemblies, which in Athens were made up of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of free men. (For an overview of this period and the role of rhetoric in Athenian life, see generally Pernot, 2005.) Before these assemblies seated as juries, litigants were required to speak for themselves; the city’s leading citizens also spoke before the assemblies during deliberations on matters of governance and the state.

It’s important to recognize that Aristotle does not offer the Organon as a manual for legal practice. Legal practice is the province of rhetoric. While he expects logic to play a role in rhetorical performance, he identifies the role of other forms of proof, including “inartistic proofs”—pisteis atechnoi, documentary and witness evidence—and “artistic proofs”—pisteis technoi, appeals to the audience’s emotions and to the speaker’s authority/credibility. Before the assembly, no issue is one purely of deduction, and every issue can “be otherwise.”

None of Aristotle’s examples in the Organon relate to judicial or deliberative matters—What should the state do? Is the litigant guilty? Instead, the books dealing with logic take up rudimentary propositions by comparison. Aristotle’s logical treatises need tidy and iron-clad premises, premises which are generally not available in real-world problems. The Organon generally has no truck with probabilities either, but arguments from and about probabilities are the stuff of judicial and deliberative discussion.

This is not to deny the value of the logical treatises when acceptable premises (whether first principles, endoxa, or probabilities) can be adopted. But the process of establishing such premises is itself no function of logic, while it is the bread and butter of rhetoric.

I’ve been looking forward from the past, and now I think it makes sense to look back from the present: How is rhetoric conceived of and theorized in contemporary law and legal scholarship?

Works cited

(Including some works useful for context, even if not cited)

Aristotle. (1963). Aristotle’s Categories and De Interpretatione. (J. L. Ackrill, Trans.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Aristotle. (1989). Aristotle, Prior Analytics. (R. Smith, Ed. & Trans.). Hackett Pub Co.

Aristotle. (1993). Aristotle Posterior Analytics. (J. Barnes, Ed. & Trans.) (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Aristotle. (1997a). Topics. Books I and VIII, with excerpts from related texts. (R. Smith, Ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Aristotle. (1997b). Sophistical Refutations. In R. Smith (Ed.), Topics. Books I and VIII, with Excerpts from Related Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Aristotle. (2007). On Rhetoric. (G. A. Kennedy, Trans.) (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Pernot, L. (2005). Rhetoric in Antiquity. (W. E. Higgins, Trans.). Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press.

Plato. (1998). Gorgias: Translated with Introduction, Notes, and Interpretive Essay. (J. H. Nichols Jr., Trans.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Smith, R. (2008). Aristotle’s Logic. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008, online edition.). Palo Alto, CA. Retrieved from

Studtmann, P. (2008). Aristotle’s Categories. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008, online edition.). Palo Alto, CA. Retrieved from

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