What is Rhetoric?

The Nature of Rhetoric by Dr. Jennifer MacLennan

From University of Saskatchewan web site: http://www.engr.usask.ca/dept/techcomm/whatis.htm

For many people, the word "rhetoric" conjures up images of doubletalk -- political or advertising language used to befuddle and confuse its audience. This common usage of the word causes problems for the serious modern student of rhetoric, because the term can legitimately be defined, as it is in my Random House dictionary, as "the undue use of exaggeration or display ... concerned with mere style or effect." However, this is not the only, or even the primary, definition of the word. It's simply the one with which most people are familiar, and its currency can cause difficulty for someone interested in the discipline of rhetoric.

Such a problem didn't always exist. As one of the classical liberal arts, rhetoric, along with its sister arts grammar (not what we call "grammar", but more akin to the modern discipline of semantics) and dialectic (a system of learned disputation similar to what we now call informal logic), was one of parts of the trivium, the foundation of education in classical and medieval times. Thus it is that my Random House dictionary defines rhetoric also as the art of "influencing the thought and conduct of an audience" through the use of effective language. In this, its primary use, the term "rhetoric" has been around for over 2500 years. In fact, rhetoric was an important part of a European education right into this century.

What is most important to understand about rhetoric is that it is not only a method for training effective communicators (rhetors); as a discipline for advanced study, it is a method for understanding on a theoretical as well as a practical level how humans use language ("discourse") to alter or construct reality.

Rhetoric is thus not limited to any particular discipline; as a method of analysis, it can be applied, for example, to political discourse, though it is not political science; to literary works, though it is not literary criticism; and to scientific discourse, though it is not science. In fact, whenever we use discourse to influence someone else's actions or thoughts, in whatever field, we are using, often without realizing it, ancient principles of rhetoric. Thus the discourse of any field may be fruitfully studied, not for the quality of its politics, literature, or science, but for its rhetorical significance and effectiveness.

Because it proceeds on the assumption that a rhetor's discourse represents a commitment to a view of the world and the audience, rhetorical discourse is said to be anchored in reality; it is situated and contextual, produced because of some exigence or problem in the world that a rhetor believes can be solved if only she can move the right audience to action through her words. Modern rhetorical theory is grounded in classical ideas; Aristotle's Rhetoric, composed somewhere around 350 BCE, is the oldest surviving treatise on rhetoric, and introduced basic theoretical concepts still used today. A rhetorician studying a modern text would still likely work with the modes of appeal identified by Aristotle, who recognized three primary ways in which a rhetor (or speaker) can influence the audience.

First, a rhetor needs to consider the things that the listeners value, need, hope for, fear, and so on; once the rhetor understands the things they care about, he or she can show how what the audience is asked to do is in accord with values they already hold. Aristotle calls this mode of persuasion "pathos."

Second, a speaker must construct the discourse with care, being sure to provide reasonable and logically sound arguments. The speaker must avoid logical fallacies and demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the issues being discussed. This mode of persuasion Aristotle calls "logos." By far the most important of the three modes of persuasion identified by Aristotle, however, is "ethos" -- the character of the speaker as it is displayed in the discourse. Aristotle points out that if a speaker communicates good will, good character, and good judgement, the audience will be far more likely to trust him or her. Trust is at the heart of effective communication, and without careful attention to ethos, the effectiveness of the other two modes of persuasion -- logos and pathos -- is also diminished.

A rhetor can use a variety of strategies to communicate the message, or to create the kinds of appeal that will best move the audience. The rhetor must engage the audience, gaining their attention and maintaining it in order to reveal the exigence as a problem in the world that the audience can change. The speaker must then, using only discourse, motivate them to change the situation the discourse has identified. Finally, if the rhetor is to be truly effective, he or she must in some way enable or empower the audience to take the action requested. The rhetor must do all this in a subtle way, so that the method of influence -- the use of the modes of appeal -- does not call attention to itself, but instead allows its effect to be felt directly. Thus the intended audience for a discourse, who are moved to action by its appeals, would be unlikely to analyze how they are being persuaded; they will feel convinced, but often are in no position to perceive, much less articulate, how that persuasion has occurred. That role belongs to the rhetorical critic.

By contrast with the audience, the rhetorician's role is not to be persuaded by the discourse, but to understand how the discourse works to influence its intended hearers. A rhetorician's job is to "mine" an existing discourse to reveal the underlying strategies and "common-sense assumptions" upon which the argument has been constructed. Among other questions a rhetorician asks is "What view of the world would the audience need in order for this discourse to make sense to them? What assumptions of theirs are being taken for granted?"

Both the rhetor who constructs the discourse and the rhetorician who analyzes its appeals are assisted by a thorough understanding of rhetorical principles, which are built, like most such theories, from a study of effective practice. A rhetorician who studies, for example, political autobiography, will be able to comment on three distinct levels. First, the rhetorical critic will be able to reveal how the specific discourse under consideration achieves its purpose -- how it has been adapted to its intended audience, and the nature of the ethos, logos, and pathos appeals it uses. The critic will consider its engagement, motivating, and enabling strategies.

Second, the rhetorici an will be able to comment on the nature of political autobiography as a genre; he or she will show how, by comparison with other works in the same genre, the author has adhered to, or departed from, the generic conventions, which have acted as constraints upon the rhetor. The rhetorical critic will point out noteworthy effects of the discourse as a representative of its type, how it conforms to or challenges its generic constraints.

Finally, this rhetorician can contribute something to the understanding of how in general discursive appeals work to persuade an audience. He or she may even be able to infer broad theoretical principles from the situated instance of discourse that is being studied, considering how it fits into the theoretical framework of the discipline as a whole.

The study of rhetoric, both as a situated art and as a body of theoretical material, is important. It is a critical tool that helps us to understand how discourse shapes the way people act or think, not only in the case of situated instances of rhetorical discourse but also in much broader terms. Such study leads to a fuller understanding of how discourse, and particularly persuasive discourse, is able to move an audience.

As human beings, as citizens, as teachers and scholars, we use language all the time to modify and influence events in the world around us. Equally, other people use language to influence our thoughts and behaviour. It is important for us, as educated people, to know as much as we can about how this influence is effected. Such knowledge is useful not only for its practical benefits, but because it forms a critical and analytical foundation for approaching many of the tasks that face us daily as we construct and respond to the discourse that shapes our experience of the world.

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