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I'm looking for a word to describe the rhetorical style where one uses different arguments that are not additional, but rather get weaker and weaker. I'm not explaining it very well, so let me give an example.

If Alice argues that X is true because of Y, Bob might say:

  1. X is not true.
  2. Even if X were true, it's irrelevant
  3. Even if X were true and relevant, it doesn't speak in favour of Y.

I'm quite sure I've seen a word to describe such a kind of reasoning, but it was a long time ago and I don't have a clue what it was (I'm not even 100% sure the word was in English). Is there a word to describe this?

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Could be off-topic. If you can find a standard definition of the concept, perhaps a thesaurus might help. –  Kris Dec 7 '12 at 16:03
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How can I use a reference if I don't know what word to look for? –  gerrit Dec 7 '12 at 16:04
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That's what a thesaurus is for. It's the reverse of a dictionary. Try phrases nearest to the idea and get the appropriate words. –  Kris Dec 7 '12 at 16:05
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If this is off-topic, then what is the single-word-requests tag for? –  gerrit Dec 7 '12 at 16:06
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Would it be fair to call this a form of rhetorical backpedaling? –  tylerharms Dec 7 '12 at 19:34
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5 Answers

This might be a form of catacosmesis, which is the ordering of components (usually words, not arguments) from most to least important. It is the opposite of climax (rhetorically speaking), so perhaps you might refer to arguments arranged this way as anticlimactic.

But the structure you cite is more about stating an argument, then adding a condition that if that argument fails here is another argument, and so on. I might be tempted to call this an order of successive conditionals. It is certainly how lawyers proceed:

  1. My client didn't commit the crime.
  2. Even if he did commit it, the statute of limitations has run out.
  3. Even if the statute of limitations hasn't run out, there were extenuating circumstances (e.g., he was temporarily insane, etc.).
  4. And so on, until the judge tells the lawyer to shut up.

Note that these are not necessarily in descending order of importance. They are just a grab-bag of objections to an accusation, listed in a conditional sequence.

Hmm, now that I take into account the numbering, you might also call this eutrepismus.

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One obvious downside to catacosmesis is that it's not even in OED (as I just discovered when looking for an "adjectival" form of the word!). On that basis, I don't think it would be a good idea to throw it into a conversation about "rhetorical devices" unless you were at least prepared to put it "in quotes". –  FumbleFingers Dec 7 '12 at 18:48
    
@FumbleFingers: It's a rhetorical term that exists in a number of sources. If a word isn't in the OED, does that mean it isn't an English word? –  Robusto Dec 7 '12 at 18:53
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@FumbleFingers: So you hadn't even bothered to read to the end of my first paragraph before posting a critique of it? –  Robusto Dec 7 '12 at 19:18
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@Kris: Yes. Apparently you didn't read my answer at all. –  Robusto Dec 8 '12 at 14:31
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@Kris: You don't know what you're talking about. Your comment on the OP's question asks for "a standard definition of the concept," so by your own admission you don't even understand what is being asked. Now you call it a "successive retraction of propositions," which is nonsense because nothing is being retracted, only added to. No one else mentions this in their responses, but you don't give them tart, censorious comments and down votes. You seem to want to be a little flea on my back for some reason I do not fathom, so go ahead: be that small. –  Robusto Dec 9 '12 at 12:35
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Your example is known in law as an alternative pleading, and apparently Freud called it kettle logic, as in, "Your kettle was fine when I returned it, and it was already broken when I borrowed it, and I never borrowed it."

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I think what I actually meant was kettle logic, but my original example was not a good one. –  gerrit Dec 7 '12 at 22:17
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+1 Correct. The OP has confirmed that his idea was this . No other answer has considered the basic logic of the case, that of successively retracting, revising and/or denying. –  Kris Dec 8 '12 at 7:20
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Robusto gave a dailytrope.com link that defines catacosmesis as

Ordering words from greatest to least in dignity, or in correct order of time.

That definition appears to be copied from rhetoric.byu.edu. Somewhat more useful information is given by Henry Peachum, in the Schemas section of his 1593 book The Garden of Eloquence:

Catacosmesis, in Latine ordo, is a meete placing of words among themselves, wherof there be two kinds, the one when the worthiest word is set first, which order is naturall, as when we say: God and man, men and women, Sun and moone, life and death. And also when that is first told that was first done, which is necessary and seemly. ...
The use of this first kind of order, doth most properly serve to the propertie and elegancy of speech, and due observation of nature and dignitie: which forme is well represented in the civil and solemne customs of nations, where the worthiest person are alwaies first named and highest [placed].
The grace and comelinesse of this order is often diminished, and much blemished through want of discretion, or by rashnesse of the speaker, putting the lesse worthie, before the more worthy, ...

In short, the rhetorical form catacosmesis consists of placing words in proper order (when that proper order is most important first, or highest ranking first) to strengthen a passage. Catacosmesis is a positive term. Listing the best reasons first appears to be an example of catacosmesis. (As FumbleFingers points out, either arranging arguments to rise to a climax, or to fall from one in anticlimax, is rhetorically more effective than a pyramidal arrangement.)

One also finds the technique described as a “Arson, Murder, And Jaywalking” trope. TVtropes offers numerous examples, including:

• Juvenal (second century A.D.) uses this now and then in his satires. Most of the time his examples actually escalate (adultery, murder, murder of close relations) but now and then he throws in this trope, as in listing the dangers of living in Rome as “conflagrations, collapsing buildings, poets reciting in the month of August”.
• In her non-fiction book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach describes her experience at a mortuary college embalming lab. Anyone who enters the blood splash area has to wear plastic and latex to protect against HIV, hepatitis, and stains on your shirt.

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"Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes... The dead rising from the grave! Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together..." –  Mitch Dec 7 '12 at 19:01
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It's worth pointing out first of all that "When citing multiple arguments, classical rhetoric recommends placing the strongest argument last" (p.55 in that pdf link).

This "classical" sequence is largely based on the idea that ordinary people remember the last argument most clearly, so for maximum effect it should be the strongest one. Rhetoric is much concerned with using devices/tricks to artificially sway the audience, so obviously a skilled professional would soon get used to the idea of inverting his "natural" argument sequence.

Thus OP's context is effectively "non-standard" rhetoric. But I think there's no doubt it's the format most likely to be used by ordinary people, since it reflects the way we normally think. Here's the best summary of the position I can find...

“Be aware that people will remember what you say first (the primary principle) and what you say last (the recency principle). In light of this, it is logical that arranging your arguments either from weakest to strongest (climax) or from strongest to weakest (anticlimax) would be more effective than placing your best points in the middle (pyramidal)”

In light of that from The Speakers Handbook, Sprague and Stuart, I suggest aniticlimactic.

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so maybe the word the OP wants is 'bad rhetoric'. –  Mitch Dec 7 '12 at 17:20
    
@Mitch: I didn't want to go that far, which is why I tentatively put up "non-standard". But when I Google rhetoric "strongest to weakest" arguments, it reports only 33,800 results - as opposed to 17,800,000 for the more "conventional" rhetoric "weakest to strongest" arguments. So perhaps you're right! –  FumbleFingers Dec 7 '12 at 17:39
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While I realise that this is a , you might be thinking of reductio ad absurdum:

Reductio ad absurdum (Latin: "reduction to absurdity") is a common form of argument which seeks to demonstrate that a statement is true by showing that a false, untenable, or absurd result follows from its denial, or in turn to demonstrate that a statement is false by showing that a false, untenable, or absurd result follows from its acceptance.

The "absurd" conclusion of a reductio ad absurdum argument can take a range of forms:

  • Rocks have weight, otherwise we would see them floating in the air.
  • Society must have laws, otherwise there would be chaos.
  • There is no smallest positive rational number, because if there were, it could be divided by two to get a smaller one.
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A reductio ad absurdum is something completely different from what I mean. Maybe I didn't explain clearly enough what I meant. –  gerrit Dec 7 '12 at 16:31
    
@gerrit Fair enough. I thought that the "reduction" to "absurdity" might have correlated to "progressively" and "weaker". –  coleopterist Dec 7 '12 at 16:34
    
Actually, I think if it means anything at all to talk about the "sequence of arguments" in a reductio ad absurdum presentation, you'd probably have to say the last argument is overwhelmingly the most powerful one, since that's the point at which it becomes clear the proposition [being argued against] is completely untenable! –  FumbleFingers Dec 7 '12 at 17:42
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