Mere Rhetoric


Welcome to Mere Rhetoric the podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, ideas and movement that have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren and   the University of Texas’ Humanities Media Project supports the podcast and


A few weeks ago I was at an excellent lecture by Collin Brooke here at the university of Texas and he was talking about applying the master tropes to different models of networks. Then I thought--by Jove, the Master Tropes! What a brilliant idea for a podcast! So with all deference to Dr. Brooke, let’s dive into these four beauties of the world of tropes.


A trope, you may or not know, is a way of presenting thought in language. A trope is different from what’s called a figure because it doesn’t deal with arranging words, but rather arranging thought. For example, a figure might be something like hyperbaton, which is the the way that Yoda talks: “Patience you must have” just means “you must have patience” there’s not change in the thought behind the words, but the refiguring of the words creates interest, so Yoda says things like “Miss them do not” instead of do not miss them, but the ideas aren’t changed at all. That’s figures.


Occasionally, though, Yoda will use a trope. For example, once he said ““In a dark place we find ourselves, and a little more knowledge lights our way.” This is, as it turns out, a metaphor: knowledge doesn’t actually cast a glow, but it does make things metaphorically clear. The words transform the ideas: light equals knowledge. It’s not that Yoda changed the words around--all considered this is pretty syntactically straight-forward for the sage-green sage--but he’s presented the ideas in a different way. This is a trope, not a figure.

It is, as a matter of fact, one of the four master tropes: Metaphor, Synecdoche, Metonymy and Irony.  It’s possible that these terms aren’t familiar to you, or only in a vague, AP English sort of way, so let me provide examples and definitions. Metaphor is the trope that is most familiar to us: knowledge is light, the Force is a river, many Storm troupers are a wall. So I’m going to skip over that. Synecdoche is--aside from being difficult to pronounce, using the part to represent the whole. I always think of that movie Synecdoche New York, where the guy builds a replica of New York for a movie. The standard examples include things like “earning your bread and butter” when you’re hopefully earning much more than that or “putting boots on the ground” when the military often needs soldiers, too, to fill those boots. I used to joke with my Mormon comedy group since everyone prays to “bless the hands that prepared this food,”  if there was a terrible accident in the kitchen and everyone died, at least the hands would be preserved. So you get the idea. Metonymy can sometimes be a little more confusing, because it, like Synecdoche, involves using a word associated with the idea to stand in for the idea itself. We say things like “the White House has issued a statement” when the building itself has done no such thing, or “Hollywood is corrupt” to represent the movie business generally. Some people will say that synecdoche is just a specific kind of metonymy, like how simile is a specific kind of metaphor. Finally, irony may seem like a simple, straightforward trope, but it can be notoriously complex, as Wayne Booth describes in greater detail in The Rhetoric of Irony. How we we know when someone is being ironic? How much is irony dependent on understanding cultural cues? Why do we say the opposite of what we mean as a way to say what we want? Tricky stuff all around.

The four master tropes are probably most familiar to rhetoricians as the essay found way in the back of Kenneth Burke’s Grammar of Methods, way way back as an appendix. There, Burke equates these over-arching tropes with different epistemic perspectives: metaphor correlates with perspective, metonymy with reduction, synecdoche with representation, and irony with dialectic. The way that we construct thought depends on how we use these four master tropes.

Remember when we talked about the Metaphors we live by? Well, Burke says that we don’t just live by metaphors individually, but also by the idea of metaphor, or by reduction, representation or dialectic. The tropes, instead of just being a way to make your writing more flowery, can be a critical part of invention, and how you see the world more generally. Are you inclined to think inductively, looking at a couple of examples of Sith lords and there after making generalizations about the group as a whole and their capacity to run a competent daycare? It’s possible to think in terms of irony, transpositioning one view of truth with an anti-thetical perspective: can Anikin be both on the dark side and not on the dark side? Can you both do and do not if you only try? These master tropes are not just ways of expressing ideas about the world, but coming to make ideas as well.

I’m a huge fan of Burke, but I’m afraid that I can’t give him credit for coming up with the idea of four master tropes that encompass other ways of figuring ideas. I’m sorry to say that that distinction goes to--ew--Petrus Ramus. Yes, Ramus, the mustache-twirling villain of rhetoric himself. Back when we did our series on the villains of rhetoric, Ramus was public enemy number one, removing invention from rhetoric and diminishing the whole affair to a series of branching “yes and no” questions and needless ornamentation. And yet it was Ramus, in his eagerness to classify everything into categories and subcategories who coined the idea of the master tropes back in 1549. Fortunately the idea was taken up by a more palatable figure of rhetorical history, Giambattista Vico, who in the 18th century, identified the master tropes as basic tropes, or fundamental tropes, being those to which all others are reducible.  

Since Burke, though, others have taken up the idea that these tropes of arranging ideas might become ways to think about the world in general. Hayden White, for instance, saw the master tropes as representing something about literature.




('mode of emplotment')


('mode of argument')


('mode of ideological implication')


















He constructed a table where each trope has its own genre, worldview and ideology. Metaphor, for instance, was about romance--or we might say fantasy--and was associated with formism and an ideology of anarchism because anything might apply as a metaphor. Metonymy was associated with comedy, organicism and conservatism--presumably because if you assume that “the White House” speaks for the country, you’re putting a lot of stock in the traditional power that dominates. Conversely, synecdoche was associated with tragedy, mechanism and radicalism. Irony, naturally enough, was the trope of satire and its world view of contextualism and liberalism. Once White had come up with this tidy table, he because to think about the tropes not just statically, but how they might evolve temporally, both in terms of an individual child’s development and in a civilization.

Metaphor was the earliest stage, corresponding to infants up to two years old and aligned with Foucault’s conceptualization of the Renaissance. Then metaphor gives way to metonymy, the domain of children from 2-7, which White lines up with the Classical period and the Enlightenment--very conservative and fond of straight-forward comedy. Next comes synecdoche of tweens and the modernist period--radically breaking from the past and finally, in crowning achievement, irony, the stage of teenagers and adults, corresponding to the post-modernist era, with its love of counterintuitive and contradictory thought.


Hayden White's Sequence of Tropes

Piagetian stages of cognitive development

White's alignment of Foucault's historical epochs


sensorimotor stage (birth to about 2 years)

Renaissance period (sixteenth century)


pre-operational stage (2 to 6/7 years)

Classical period (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries)


concrete operations stage (6/7 to 11/12 years)

Modern period (late eighteenth to early twentieth century)


formal operations stage (11/12 to adult)

Postmodern period

Others have highlighted the philosophical or historiographical possibilities of the mastertropes, including Jakobson and Foucault himself. Which brings me back to this fascinating, exploratory lecture by Collin Brooke.


Brooke suggested another correlation for the master tropes: not ways of thinking or periods of time, but networks of connection. Networks are a big stinking deal for digital humanists and new media rhetoricians like Brooke, and some of the different types of networks, brooke proposes, may correlate to the master tropes: hierarchies, for instance, are like metaphors, which correspond across groups--the padowan learner doesn’t really tell us much about the Jedi master who trains her, but you expect the role of that padowan learner to be similar to the role of another padowan who studies under another master. Synecdoche, though, can be seen in truly random networks. A network of 200 that is truly random, is representative of a network of 2000, or of 2 million. Some networks are neither analogous like metaphor or random like synecdoche. In situations that produce what’s been called the long tail--citations for example, some groups or people are more popular because they are more popular. the more people who fear Jabba the hut--peons, bounty hunters-- the more he is feared. It creates a snowball effect that is similar to metonymy. Brooke’s ideas are inchoate and he admits that he’s not sure what network might correlate to irony--it’s all a work in progress, afterall, but it goes to show that the organization appeal of the master tropes continues. The idea of tropes that rule all the other tropes and say something meaningful about the ways in which we construct and understand the world around us is a timeless appeal that goes all the way back to Vico--er, let’s just say Vico, okay.  Until next week--miss us you must not because patience you must have.


Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_Master_Tropes.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 12:00pm CDT