Points of stasis and topoi: a handy tool for helping to analyse and structure arguments

I was just sat in front of my computer thinking about an essay I have to write and totally struggling with a structure for it. After looping over the issues several time, I suddenly remembered a tool I got from a course I took on argument theory (yes, it’s an academic subject), which identifies points of stasis.

What, I hear you ask, is a point of stasis? A point of stasis is the point at which there is disagreement in an argument. For arguments about policy (ie. what one should do), there are just four points of stasis: forum, conjecture, definition and quality.

Forum asks if this is the appropriate place to have this argument? For example, if we’re making accusations of criminal activity, it’s unlikely that pub on a Friday is the correct forum. I rarely find forum useful (particularly in essay writing) as very few subjects are subject to limited fora.

Conjecture asks what has been suggested – ie. what is it that you are saying has happened, should happened. By exploring conjecture, we concede the question of forum (ie. if we’re discussing what may or may not have happened, we concede that this is an appropriate place to discuss it). So, the initial conjecture of the argument may be that Alice’s car has gone missing and that it has appeared on Bob’s driveway. If Bob is pointing to Alice’s driveway and saying, “no, it’s on her driveway!” then the point of stasis is the conjecture.

Definition asks what we should call what has happened: what label should we use for the act? By discussing definition, both forum and conjecture have been conceded (we can’t talk about what to call something if we say it hasn’t happened). Let’s assume that Alice’s car is still on Bob’s driveway: if Bob claims that Alice has sold her his car then he is saying it’s a sale, if, however, Alice is claiming this has not occurred then Alice is claiming it’s taken without consent (the UK version of vehicle theft).

Quality asks about the severity and justification of the act, and conceded forum, conjecture and definition.  Let’s say that Bob concedes the car was taken without consent, but that Alice owes him £5,000 which is overdue and the car is worth £5,000 and that he has taken it in lieu of cash payment. At this point, the question becomes whether this is something that criminal or civil law should address.

There are four topoi which need to be considered at different points during a policy argument. Topoi are common places – topics – which need to be considered in order to draw a legitimate conclusion. The four topoi are ill, blame, cure and cost.

The first topos, ill, was used for the examples above, and explores whether or not there is a problem which needs to be addressed. When considering wider policy issues, one is asking what the problem is, how it should be defined and whether or not it is serious enough to warrant discussion.

Blame, the second topos, asks where credit or blame is due (this set of questions might be asked for each of the actors in the scenario). For example, if there is a policy debate about the state of the economy, the second topos (using the same points of stasis) will explore who was responsible for the ill, whether the previous policy was sufficient (ie. was the failure on the part of the enforcer or the policy-maker), and whether or not the issue is a one-off exceptional event or if it’s typical of the circumstances (ie. was it something the policy should reasonable address or is so exceptional it needs to be dealt with as a one-off).

The third topos, cure, asks whether the proposal (or each proposal in turn) is going to solve the problem. It asks what the proposed solution is, whether it will have the desired effect and the extent to which the desired effect will address the problem.

The final topos, cost, explores whether or not the cure is cost effective in relation to the magnitude of the problem and whether or not it will be better than the original position.

Anyway, the points of stasis and topoi can be combined into a convenient grid (below and pdf) which can be useful for both analysing arguments and discourse and for structuring one of your own. I hope it’s useful, for me, I think it’s helped me to structure a discussion on why Science 2.0 hasn’t taken off as some people think it should.

Coincidentally, this helped me to understand why many controversies cannot in fact be resolved. As an example, in the evolution/creation in schools argument, proponents of teaching evolution state that creationism/intelligent design should not be called science (ill/definition) whilst propositions of teaching creationism/intelligent design typically focus on set of facts A versus set of facts B (ill/conjecture). Until both parties can agree on the points of stasis, the issue cannot even be debated (which has resulted in many proponents of evolution deciding that the forum point of stasis cannot be resolved and that they should not, therefore, engage in public debates on the topic).

Points of stasis Conjecture

Did the act occur?

concedes forum


What should the act be called?

concedes conjecture and forum


Is the act justified?

concedes conjecture, definition and forum

Is there a problem?
What are the facts in relation to the issue? How should we label the issue? If we label the issue problematic, is the magnitude of the issue sufficient to justify change?
BlameWhere is credit or blame due? Who is responsible for making decisions? Has the decision-maker over- or under-used their authority? Is this over- or under-use typical, or is this an exceptional circumstance?
CureWill the proposal solve the problem? What is the proposed solution? Will the proposed solution work? To what extent will the proposed solution address the issue?
CostOn balance, will the proposal be better? What is the potential cost of the proposed solution? What degree of confidence is there in the costs associated with the proposed solution? Do the costs of the solution outweigh the costs of the issue?

About David Waldock

Open University graduate, health and life science at undergraduate level, science and society at post-graduate. Interested in how the Internet is transforming the ways in which the public(s) engage with science(s). Also interested in "the skeptical movement" as a form of science activism and it's effectiveness in achieving its goals. Interested in the representation of LGB types in science and in the periscience communities. Work for a well known and loved public institution. Views are mine and not necessarily my employers.

6 responses to “Points of stasis and topoi: a handy tool for helping to analyse and structure arguments”

  1. Graham Martin-Royle says :

    This will be very useful. Thanks David.

  2. Don Mathews says :

    I like this matrix. I have just been watching a “Great Courses” VHS on Argumentation given by David Zarefsky. The only question I have is: If the creationism debate is definitional then why not use use the topoi for definition and if the stasis is conjecture why not use the topoi for fact. It is a little confusing for me as I have never taken speech and communication. Although, I got a degree in philosophy way beck in 1975 and love to analyze arguments and should have taken rhetoric.

  3. LJ says :

    Nice synopsis – what sources do you have for the different Topoi? I have looked and I find collections of them harkening back to Aristotle, but there are more than four.

  4. Don Mathews says :

    The four David lists are for policy debates. I believe there are four others for factual debates and four others for definitional debates and four more for values debates. This is the source of my confusion. One can have a definitional debate whose stasis if fact and one can have a factual debate whose stasis is definitional.

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