Let me count the ways
May 27, 2011 4:44 AM   Subscribe

[Philosophy/Language/HistoryFilter]: What's the name of this rhetorical or logical technique, where you explain a subject by making a lot of lists?

I'm looking for a way to describe the old-fashioned pedagogical or philosophical practice where an author overviews a subject by breaking it down into successive informational sub-levels (which may be categories, qualities, techniques, anything), arranged in numbered lists, then explaining each list-item in turn. To offer a completely absurd made-up example, in biology, a text might run:

There are 5 main kinds of cats: black ones, yellow ones, grey ones, white ones, and striped ones. Black cats are very fierce, because their coloring hides them in the dark and makes them confident about hunting; yellow and grey cats are inclined to lie on windowsills in the sun; and white cats are shy and retiring because they are so conspicuous. Striped cats are generally changeable and unpredictable. Now, in the temperament of a cat, there are 3 primary qualities: the cat's intelligence, its playfulness, and its bloodthirstiness. The first is what enables the cat to diligently lie in wait for its prey and to predict their moves, and an intelligent cat will generally pursue the more challenging prey, like rats and skunks, in order to keep its mind exercised. The second is...(and so forth)

The context is the sixteenth century, Europe, so I feel as though there must be some classical or medieval model at work, but I haven't been able to come up with anything concrete. I suppose I could describe it as enumeration or analysis, but each of those seems to leave out critical elements. Any ideas? Leads? Thanks!
posted by gallusgallus to Religion & Philosophy (6 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
posted by SomeTrickPony at 5:17 AM on May 27, 2011

posted by nicwolff at 5:22 AM on May 27, 2011

I think you're thinking of the Ramist epitome, discussed by Walter Ong in Ramus, Method and the Decay of Dialogue. This is often laid out in diagram form, with successive layers of division and sub-division. The most famous example of the method in action is J.H. Alsted's Encyclopaedia (1630), described by Perry Miller as 'nothing short of a summary, in sequential and numbered paragraphs, of everything that the mind of European man had yet conceived or discovered'. Ann Blair's recent (and excellent) book, Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (2010), gives further examples.
posted by verstegan at 5:31 AM on May 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

I asked a friend of mine whose Ph.D. thesis is on Renaissance pedagogy, who had the following to say:
Verstegen gave a good start! The method was around before Ramus, but it pretty rapidly became identified with him; Ong offers an (unnecessarily pejorative but thorough) introduction to how this is based in commentary on Aristotle's Categories, part of the logical works.
This matches my own intuitions, but he knows a lot more about this stuff than I do, so I wanted to check with him first. Basically, that kind of taxonomic classification isn't all that dissimilar from the way Aristotle handled things, and it's certainly sounds a lot like the way Medieval Aristotelians would have.

I think this methodology focuses less on the "numbered" and more on the "list" part of what's going on here, but it sounds very, very similar to the way Aristotle approached biology.
posted by valkyryn at 11:08 AM on May 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Forest of Rhetoric website is always good for looking up related questions. From the Figures of Division page:

Eutrepismus: Numbering and ordering the parts under consideration. A figure of division, and of ordering.
posted by ollyollyoxenfree at 8:24 PM on May 27, 2011

I don't know a specific term that covers this, but Foucault's chapter on classifying in The Order of Things might be helpful, or at least of interest.
posted by dizziest at 11:44 PM on May 27, 2011

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