Invention (Composition and Rhetoric)

Writing in a journal
Woods Wheatcroft / Getty Images

In classical rhetoric, invention is the first of the five canons of rhetoric: the discovery of the resources for persuasion inherent in any given rhetorical problem. Invention was known as heuresis in Greek, inventio in Latin.

In Cicero's early treatise De Inventione (c. 84 B.C.), the Roman philosopher and orator defined invention as the "discovery of valid or seemingly valid arguments to render one's cause probable." 

In contemporary rhetoric and composition, invention generally refers to a broad variety of research methods and discovery strategies.

Pronunciation: in-VEN-shun

From the Latin, "to find"

Examples and Observations

  • Invention in Classical Rhetoric
    "Plato, Aristotle, and Isocrates—three of ancient Greece's most prominent thinkers on rhetoric—offer widely divergent views of the relationship between writing and rhetorical invention... Plato did not see writing as a heuristic that would facilitate the creation or discovery of knowledge. For Plato, writing and invention were disassociated. Unlike Plato, Aristotle did believe that writing could facilitate invention. Yet, like Plato, Aristotle also believed that the current practices of writing failed to realize writing's potential as a heuristic for enhancing complex patterns of thought and expression... Isocrates, on the farthest end of the continuum, viewed writing as endemic to higher education. In his Antidosis, Isocrates expresses his belief that writing is a central part of a process of social knowledge. Isocrates believed that writing was much more than a labor skill; in fact, he believed that writing was so important that excellence in literate expression could be attained at the pinnacle of education and only with the most rigorous training of the best minds. For Isocrates, writing was inherent in rhetorical invention and essential to higher education, a view that Friedrich Solmsen has called the ratio Isocratea (236)."
    (Richard Leo Enos, "Literacy in Athens During the Archaic Period." Perspectives on Rhetorical Invention, ed. by Janet Atwill and Janice M. Lauer. University of Tennessee Press, 2002)
  • "The importance of wisdom for invention appears in Cicero's assertion, made at the beginning of Book 2 [of De Oratore]..., that no one can ever flourish and excel in eloquence without learning not only the art of speaking, but the whole of wisdom (2.1)."
    (Walter Watson, "Invention." Encyclopedia of Rhetoric, ed. by T. O. Sloane. Oxford University Press, 2001)​
  • Invention and Memory
    "The invention of speech or argument is not properly an invention; for to invent is to discover that we know not, and not to recover or resummon that which we already know, and the use of this invention is not other but, out of the knowledge whereof our mind is already possessed, to draw forth or call before us that which may be pertinent to the purpose which we take into our consideration. So as to speak truly, it is not invention, but a remembrance or suggestion, with an application, which is the cause why the schools do place it after judgment, as subsequent and not precedent."
    (Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, 1605)
  • "Invention, strictly speaking, is little more than a new combination of those images which have been previously gathered and deposited in the memory; nothing can come of nothing."
    (Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on the Fine Arts Delivered to the Students of the Royal Academy, Dec. 11, 1769. Rpt. 1853.)
  • Inventory and Invention
    "The Latin word inventio gave rise to two separate words in modern English. One is our word 'invention,' meaning 'the creation of something new' (or at least different)...
    "The other modern English word derived from Latin inventio is 'inventory.' This word refers to the storage of many diverse materials, but not to random storage...
    "Inventio has the meanings of both these English words, and this observation points to a fundamental assumption about the nature of 'creativity' in classical culture. Having 'inventory' is a requirement for 'invention.'... Some type of locational structure is a prerequisite for any inventive thinking at all."
    (Mary Carruthers, The Craft of Thought. Cambridge University Press, 2000)​
  • Invention in Modern Rhetoric
    "Rather than taking 'invent,' 'discover,' and 'create' for synonymous 'neighbor words' and puzzling over the preference of the first over the other two, scholars working in modern rhetoric have come to find in this lexical trio signifiers for three quite different orientations in understanding discursive production. To privilege discovery is to believe in a preexistent, objective determining rhetorical order whose grasp by the rhetor holds the key to the success of any symbolic transaction. To privilege creativity, on the other hand, is to emphasize a general subjectivity as the decisive factor in initiating and sustaining the writing process... Rather than continuing to form an interchangeable terministic trio with 'discovery' and 'creation,' 'invention' has been redefined by many scholars to signify a uniquely rhetorical perspective on composing that subsumes both objectivistic and subjectivistic conceptions."
    (Richard E. Young and Yameng Liu, "Introduction." Landmark Essays on Rhetorical Invention in Writing. Hermagoras Press, 1994
  • Bob Kearns and Charles Dickens on the Nature of Invention
    In the 2008 biographical film Flash of Genius, Robert Kearns (played by Greg Kinnear) takes on the Detroit automakers who, he claims, stole his idea for the intermittent windshield wiper.
    Lawyers for the automakers claimed that Kearns had not "created anything new": "These are basic building blocks in electronics. You can find them in any catalog. All Mr. Kearnes did was to arrange them in a new pattern. That's not the same thing as inventing something new."
    Here's the refutation delivered by Kearns:
    I have here a book by Charles Dickens. It's called A Tale of Two Cities...
    I'd like to read you the first few words if I may. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness." Let's start with the first word, "It." Did Charles Dickens create that word? What about "was"?...
    "The"? No. "Best"? No. "Times"? Look, I got a dictionary here. I haven't checked, but I would guess that every word that's in this book can be found in this dictionary.
    Okay, so you'll probably agree that there's not a single new word in this book. All Charles Dickens did was to arrange them into a new pattern, isn't that right?
    But Dickens did create something new, didn't he? By using words, the only tools that were available to him. Just as almost all inventors in history have had to use the tools that were available to them. Telephones, space satellites—all of these were made from parts that already existed, isn't that true, professor? Parts that you might buy out of a catalog.
    Kearns eventually won patent infringement cases against both the Ford Motor Company and Chrysler Corporation.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Invention (Composition and Rhetoric)." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Invention (Composition and Rhetoric). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Invention (Composition and Rhetoric)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).