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Sunday, January 3, 2021

Aristotle on rhetoric #2 - logos

Fans of the 1960s sci fi series Star Trek will remember the character Mr Spock. Mr Spock was a Vulcan. Vulcans (as well as being extra-terrestrial humanoids) are totally rational creatures. They think, they reason, they weigh up the evidence and they come to logical conclusions. ‘That would appear logical, Captain’, was Mr Spock’s catchphrase.

You’ve probably noticed that we humans are not the same as Vulcans. We’re swayed by all kinds of things that have nothing to do with logic: our ever changing emotions; what the people around us think and do; a need to protect ourselves from attack.

However, debating is meant to be a place where Mr Spock would feel at home; a place where reason rules supreme, where only evidence, logic and argument matter. In British Parliamentary debating, the quality of the argument is supposed to be the only factor considered by judges.

This brings us to the second in Aristotle’s trinity: logos. In his Rhetoric, he uses it to mean ‘reasoned discourse’.

What is ‘reasoned discourse’?

This is a very big subject. It is in fact almost an entire subject, in the sense of a school or university subject, called Critical Thinking. Critical Thinking analyses arguments to see if they are logically coherent and hold together. It’s not possible to teach everything you need to know about Critical Thinking in one blogpost; it could fill several books. However, we can look at the basic building block of reasoned discourse, the syllogism, and how you might use it in a debate.

Syllogisms are made out of premises and conclusions. Premises are statements which, when put together in a certain way, lead to conclusions. Usually the first premise is more general, and is known as the major premise; the second premise is more specific, and is known as the minor premise.

To give an example. Suppose you are debating that ever popular motion, ‘This house would make all schools co-educational’, and you are speaking for the opposition. You might want to argue that single-sex schools are better for girls because they tend to get better GCSE results. Your argument might therefore go:

Major premise

 Young people’s life chances are improved by having better GCSE results.

Minor premise

Girls’ schools get better GCSE results than co-ed schools.

Both of these premises are virtually beyond challenge. The first is extremely hard to argue against, and the second is a matter of fact. Put them together, and you come to a conclusion:


Therefore, girls’ life chances are improved by going to single-sex schools.

This is a syllogism. When you use a syllogism, you are using reasoned discourse, or ‘logic’, a word derived from ‘logos’.  This is what Aristotle means when he refers to the importance of ‘logos’ in rhetoric - the art of persuading that is at the heart of debating.

If we were all entirely rational creatures (like Mr Spock), that would be enough. But of course we’re not. While the structure of major premise - minor premise - conclusion might underpin your speech, if every paragraph of your speech follows the same format, you will soon lose your audience. More likely, your speech will go like this:

‘Imagine a young woman setting out on her life. How much better it will be if she is equipped with strong exam results; the kind of strong exam results that single-sex schools provide. Single-sex schools give girls confidence, self-belief and success. Isn’t that more important than “learning how to get on with boys”?’

The logical syllogism I described is present in this speech. But it also appeals to emotion: students’ anxiety about exams; parents’ love for their children. Emotion plays a much greater role in persuading people, and therefore in debating, than anyone likes to admit. We’ll look at it in our post on the last element in Aristotle’s trinity of persuasion: pathos.

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