Lecture: Introduction to the Enthymeme

This lecture supplements and extends this week’s reading on the enthymeme that is available in Blackboard.1)1. Gage, John T. “The Enthymeme” from The Shape of Reason: Argumentative Writing in College. 4th ed. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2006. 82-85. This lecture draws heavily from Gage’s The Shape of Reason and from Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee’s Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students. 3rd ed.

While we intuitively make use of enthymemes all the time. Whether you’re trying to convince your friends where to go to eat, persuading a potential employer that you’re a strong candidate for their position, or convincing others that you’ve developed a better gene therapy, you are relying upon an enthymeme. Therefore, understanding how enthymemes work, how to explicitly articulate them, and how to analyze them provides you with greater rhetorical control. Moreover, as Gage explains, you can use enthymemes to structure your arguments by analyzing your audience and determining what they need in order to accept your reasons so that they will, in turn, accept your argument. Enthymemes are also great tools for developing a thesis statement of an argument, whether explicitly stated or not.

The Enthymeme

Definition of the Enthymeme

An enthymeme is a form of informal logic (i.e., non-mathematical forms of logic) used to make arguments by connecting a claim with its reason(s).

  • An enthymeme consists of a claim connected to a reason by a word such as “because” or “therefore,” expressed in the following manner: Stated reason + unstated assumption = stated conclusion.
  • They were introduced by Aristotle as the rhetorical version of a syllogism used in everyday arguments where we have a choice between options and answers, and where solutions are not black and white. We use enthymemes to argue probable solutions, possible actions, and/or to make reasonable connections.
  • The word enthymeme [Gk. enthymema (thought, argument)] comes from the Greek words en (into) + thymos (soul). In other words, as a means for persuasion, enthymemes are (metaphorically) rhetorical tools that enter into the souls of our audiences in order to change their thinking about a topic.

Elements of an Enthymeme

An enthymeme consists of:

  1. An assertion,
  2. A reason connected to the assertion by “because” or “therefore,”
  3. A shared term that appears in both the assertion and reason,
  4. Both the assertion and reason must be independent clauses, and
  5. An unstated assumption. (If—and only if—an enthymeme has characteristics 1-4 will it have an unstated assumption.)

Form of an Enthymeme

An enthymeme may be expressed in the following forms:

  • Idea 1 because Idea 2.
    • Example: Batman is a cooler superhero than Superman because Batman is a human rather than an alien with inhuman powers. (In this form Idea 1 is the conclusion and Idea 2 is the reason.)
  • Idea 1 therefore Idea 2.
    • Example: Cats are far more self-sufficient than dogs, therefore cats make better pets for busy people. (In this form Idea 1 is the reason and Idea 2 is the conclusion.)

Discovering Unstated Assumptions in an Enthymeme

A key element in understanding and analyzing enthymemes, both your own and enthymemes used by others, is to identify the unstated assumptions upon which the enthymeme relies. To do so:

  1. Write out the enthymeme, making sure it has the first four required characteristics,
  2. Cross out the shared terms and replace them with a general word, like “something, someone, thing, X, etc.,” and
  3. Replace “because” with “if,” or erase “therefore” and write “if” in front of your reason (your first clause).

You can use this strategy both to help you revise your enthymeme or determine how you need to develop your argument to meet the needs of your audience and purpose, and you can use it to evaluate the arguments of others.

Following the steps above, here’s an example of how to discover the unstated assumptions in the enthymeme “Cats are far more self-sufficient than dogs, therefore cats make better pets for busy people who don’t spend much time at home.”

  1. Cats are far more self-sufficient than dogs, therefore cats make better pets for busy people.
  2. Cats Things are far more self-sufficient than dogs something else, therefore cats things make better pets for busy people .
  3. If things are far more self-sufficient than something else, things make better pets for busy people .

So, the unstated assumption in the enthymeme “Cats are far more self-sufficient than dogs, therefore cats make better pets for busy people” is that self-sufficiency in a pet is an ideal quality for busy people. While the unstated assumption of this simple, straight-forward enthymeme is fairly obvious, the unstated assumptions of more complex, less straightforward enthymemes can be far less apparent.

Tips and Considerations for Writing Enthymemes

  • If you use “because of,” your reason won’t be an independent clause.
  • Your shared term may itself be a whole phrase or clause. Ex.: “We should make rich people pay higher taxes because it would benefit social programs.” The shared term here are “to make rich people pay higher taxes” and “it.”
  • Your assertion and your reason should say substantially different things or else your reasoning will be circular. You also want to keep an eye out for circular reasoning, which is a logical fallacy.
    •  For example: “French food is fattening because it relies heavily upon sauces made from cream and butter.”
      • Technically, “because it relies heavily upon sauces made from cream and butter” isn’t a reason supporting the claim “French food is fattening,” but is instead an explanation of why French food is fattening. The unstated assumption in this enthymeme is “fattening food is fattening” which is circular reasoning.
      • Possible revisions designed to avoid circular reasoning might be: “I don’t want to eat French food because it is fattening” and “French food uses lots of cream and butter which are fattening, therefore I don’t want to eat it.”
  • As enthymemes rely upon unstated assumptions and implicit values, you may need to support those assumptions and values with additional enthymemes. In other words, the reason supporting a claim may itself need to be a claim supported by another reason. In this way, complex arguments are made up of many smaller arguments all leading to a particular conclusion.
  • Whether or not your audience will accept your argument will likely depend upon whether or not they accept your assumptions.
    • When constructing arguments, your goal is to analyze your audience and base your argument upon assumptions your audience believes. While doing so won’t guarantee an argument’s success, the more firmly you can base an argument upon the values and beliefs of your audience, the more likely it is that you will be able to persuade them that your argument has merit.
  • When writing enthymemes, you need to pay attention to the relevance and correctness of your claims and reasons as it is possible for your claims and reasons to be factually correct but fail to logically connect to one another.
  • Likewise,whenwritingenthymemes, consider revising for precision.
    • For instance, while we might argue that “cats make better pets than dogs because they are self-sufficient,” what we really mean is that if we leave enough food and water and a clean liter box for a cat, a cat could be left alone for days while most dogs could only be left alone for a few hours. Technically speaking—and many arguments stand or fall upon such technicalities—”self sufficient” might lack precision, which means that depending upon the audience we might want to revise it further or define what we mean by “self-sufficient” as part of our argument.

References   [ + ]

1. 1. Gage, John T. “The Enthymeme” from The Shape of Reason: Argumentative Writing in College. 4th ed. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2006. 82-85. This lecture draws heavily from Gage’s The Shape of Reason and from Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee’s Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students. 3rd ed.