Figure of Thought in Rhetoric

Figure of thought
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In rhetoric, a figure of thought is a figurative expression that, for its effect, depends less on the choice or arrangement of words than on the meaning(s) conveyed. (In Latin, figura sententia.)

Irony and metaphor, for example, are often regarded as figures of thought--or tropes.

Over the centuries, many scholars and rhetoricians have attempted to draw clear distinctions between figures of thought and figures of speech, but the overlap is considerable and sometimes bewildering.

Professor Jeanne Fahnestock describes figure of thought as "a very misleading label."


- "A figure of thought is an unexpected change in syntax or an arrangement of the ideas, as opposed to the words, within a sentence, which calls attention to itself. Antithesis is a figure of thought involving arrangement: 'You have heard that it was said "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you' (Matt. 5:43-44); rhetorical question one involving syntax: 'But if the salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?' (Matt:5:13). Another common figure of thought is apostrophe, in which the speaker suddenly makes a direct appeal to someone, as Jesus does in the eleventh verse of Matthew 5: 'Blessed are you when men revile you...' A less common, but quite effective figure is climax, where the thought is emphasized or clarified and given an emotional twist as if by climbing a ladder (the term means 'ladder' in Greek): 'We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us' (Rom.


(George A. Kennedy, New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism. The University of North Carolina Press, 1984)

- "Recognizing that all language is inherently figurative, classical rhetoricians regarded metaphors, similes, and other figurative devices as both figures of thought and figures of speech."

(Michael H. Frost, Introduction to Classical Legal Rhetoric: A Lost Heritage. Ashgate, 2005)

Figures of Thought, Speech, and Sound

"It is possible to distinguish figures of thought, figures of speech, and figures of sound. In Cassius's line early in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar--'Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods'--we see all three sorts of figure. The apostrophe 'Rome' (Cassius is really talking to Brutus) is one of the rhetorical figures. The synecdoche 'blood' (using one component of the organism conventionally to represent human quality in the abstract) is a trope. The pentameter, the iambic rhythm, and the emphatic repetition of certain sounds (b and l in particular) are figures of sound."

(William Harmon and Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 10th ed. Pearson, 2006)

Irony As a Figure of Thought

"Like Quintilian, Isidore of Seville defined irony as a figure of speech and as a figure of thought--with the figure of speech, or clearly substituted word, being the primary example. The figure of thought occurs when irony extends across a whole idea, and does not just involve the substitution of one word for its opposite. So, 'Tony Blair is a saint' is a figure of speech or verbal irony if we really think that Blair is a devil; the word 'saint' substitutes for its opposite.

'I must remember to invite you here more often' would be a figure of thought, if I really meant to express my displeasure at your company. Here, the figure does not lie in the substitution of a word, but in the expression of an opposite sentiment or idea."

(Claire Colebrook, Irony. Routledge, 2004)

Figures of Diction and Figures of Thought

"To confer distinction (dignitas) on style is to render it ornate, embellishing it by variety. The divisions under Distinction are Figures of Diction and Figures of Thought. It is a figure of diction if the adornment is comprised in the fine polish of the language itself. A figure of thought derives a certain distinction from the idea, not from the words."

(Rhetorica ad Herennium, IV.xiii.18, c. 90 BC)

Martianus Capella on Figures of Thought and Figures of Speech

"The difference between a figure of thought and a figure of speech is that the figure of thought remains even if the order of the words is changed, whereas a figure of speech cannot remain if the word order is changed, although it can often happen that a figure of thought is in conjunction with a figure of speech, as when the figure of speech epanaphora is combined with irony, which is a figure of thought."

(Martianus Capella and the Seven Liberal Arts: The Marriage of Philology and Mercury, ed. by William Harris Stahl with E.L. Burge. Columbia University Press, 1977)

Figures of Thought and Pragmatics

"This category [figures of thought] is difficult to define, but we can begin to understand it from the perspective of pragmatics, the dimension of linguistic analysis concerned with what an utterance is supposed to accomplish for the speaker and with how it functions in a particular situation. Quintilian captures the pragmatic or situational nature of the figures of thought when he tries to distinguish them from the schemes, 'For the former [the figures of thought] lies in the conception, the latter [the schemes] in the expression of our thought. The two, however, are frequently combined . . .."

(Jeanne Fahnestock, "Aristotle and Theories of Figuration." Rereading Aristotle's Rhetoric, ed. by Alan G. Gross and Arthur E. Walzer. Southern Illinois University Press, 2000)

Further Reading