Rhetoric may refer to a text, a composition, a narrative, a speech, a comment, or prose — really, any act of symbolic communication — but especially discourse that is persuasive and eloquent or fallacious and deceptive (see, e.g., fallacious kairos; fallacious logos; fallacious pathos; fallacious ethos).
Related Concepts: Critical Thinking; Critical Literacy; The CRAAP Test; Rhetorical Analysis; Rhetorical Knowledge
What is Rhetoric?
Rhetoric is an umbrella term in the sense that it means so many different things to different people–and during different historical periods. In fact, at times the word rhetoric is a “contronym” or “auto-antonym” — i.e., a word with multiple meanings, where one meaning is the reverse of another: in contemporary discourse, the term rhetoric can be used positively or disdainfully.
- For many people rhetoric is synonymous with insincerity, persuasion, and ritual discourse. Thus, if someone says you’re being rhetorical, that may not a compliment. That may mean you’re engaged in rhetrickery, sophistry, or persuasion. Likewise, if someone says “That’s just rhetoric!” or “Oh, ignore that guy. He’s just being rhetorical!” then you know they associate rhetoric with rhetrickery — i.e., as inauthentic, manipulative language.
- For professional writers and other knowledge workers, the term rhetorical refers to how well a message accommodates the needs of its readers.
- In the life of a writer, a message that’s not rhetorically appropriate is a failed effort. Thus, if a writer, editor, boss, or critic says, Wow, that’s a solid, rhetorical job, then you know they’ re complimenting how well you composed the message for its audience(s).
Modern Rhetoric – In contemporary times, how does rhetoric inform our understanding of the writing process?
1. Rhetoric refers to text, discourse — any act of symbolic communication
Rhetoric, in 2023, involves much more than the “the ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion” (Aristotle, trans. 1991). In today’s world, rhetoric also refers to any act of symbolic communication, any act of signification. This broad definition encompasses visual rhetoric, performative acts, and even the language of design and architecture.
Consider, for example, the realm of visual rhetoric. Every image, symbol, or visual artifact we encounter—from a political cartoon to an Instagram post, from a corporate logo to a street mural—carries rhetorical potential. These visual texts communicate messages, make arguments, and influence our perceptions and behaviors, often without using a single word.
Similarly, the performative acts we engage in every day—from the clothes we choose to wear to the way we style our hair or decorate our living spaces—are forms of symbolic communication. They project an image of who we are, reflecting our identities, values, and beliefs.
Even architecture and design can be seen as rhetorical. The design of a building or a public space communicates a specific message and promotes certain behaviors. For instance, a building with a grand facade and opulent interiors might project power and authority, whereas an open-plan office space could signify collaboration and transparency.
So, when we talk about rhetoric, we’re not just talking about crafting persuasive speeches or writing effective essays. We’re talking about the myriad ways in which we, as humans, communicate and signify meaning, often without saying a word. We’re surrounded by rhetoric—it’s in the clothes we wear, the pictures we post, the spaces we inhabit. By becoming more attuned to these forms of symbolic communication, we can become more effective communicators and more discerning interpreters of the world around us.
2. Rhetoric refers to the art, practice, theory, and study of effective communication
- Rhetoric as an art refers to the creative and innovative use of language to express ideas and emotions effectively. Rhetoric functions as a symbolic tool for change through the use of powerful language, metaphors, and symbols that can evoke strong emotions and create compelling narratives (Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M., 2003). By using concrete, sensory language, and rhetorical appeals, writers are able to transform abstract concepts into relatable stories and vivid images, allowing audiences to grasp complex ideas and feel more personally connected to the issues being discussed.
- “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” (Aristotle 350 B.C.E.).
- The practice of rhetoric involves the everyday application of rhetorical techniques in communication. This could be as simple as a teenager persuading their parents to extend their curfew, using logical arguments (logos) and emotional appeals (pathos) to make their case. Or, consider the use of rhetoric in advertising, where persuasive language and compelling visuals are used to convince consumers to buy products or services.
- The theory of rhetoric refers to the study and analysis of rhetorical strategies and principles. Academics and scholars analyze texts, speeches, and other forms of communication to understand how rhetoric is used and how it influences audiences. For instance, Aristotle’s “Rhetoric” lays out three modes of persuasion: ethos, logos, and pathos.
- The study of how relationships among authors, audiences, topics, technologies impinge on composing, interpretation, reasoning, and composing.
- The study of rhetoric involves learning about, understanding, and critically evaluating rhetorical techniques and their effects. Students of rhetoric might analyze historical speeches, advertising campaigns, political debates, and other forms of communication, honing their understanding of how rhetoric is used and how it can influence audiences.
3. Rhetoric refers to a method for creating change
- “[R]hetoric is a mode of altering reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action. The rhetor alters reality by bringing into existence a discourse of such a character that the audience, in thought and action, is so engaged that it becomes mediator of change (Blitzer 1968, 4).
- “The study of how people use language and other symbols to realize human goals and carry out human activities . . . ultimately a practical study offering people great control over their symbolic activity” (Bazerman 1988)
- Rhetoric serves as a means for individuals and communities to engage in productive dialogue and deliberation, fostering understanding, empathy, and collaboration (Young, I. M., 2000). In this sense, rhetoric can function as a catalyst for change by facilitating meaningful conversations and promoting consensus-building.
Historical Context: How has the concept of rhetoric evolved since first being introduced in Ancient Greece?
Rhetoric, originally defined by Aristotle as the “art of finding the available means of persuasion,” has transformed over centuries to embrace a multitude of perspectives. The Enlightenment broadened its scope to include written discourse, emphasizing logic and argumentation. Modern interpretations, such as James Berlin’s constructionist view, consider “rhetoric as a social act” that shapes and is shaped by societal context. Today’s postmodern rhetoric, featuring concepts like James E. Porter’s “institutional critique,” further explores how institutions influence the construction of reality through language and symbols.
- Sophists and Classical Rhetoric (5th century BC-4th century AD):
- Rhetoric originated in Ancient Greece with the Sophists, who were among the first to teach techniques of effective speaking. Aristotle later defined rhetoric as the “art of finding the available means of persuasion.”
- Medieval Rhetoric (5th century AD-15th century AD):
- During this time, rhetoric took on a more pedagogical role, teaching writing and speech in religious and institutional contexts. St. Augustine made significant contributions by blending classical rhetorical theory with Christian teachings.
- Renaissance Rhetoric (14th century-17th century):
- The Renaissance saw a revival of interest in classical rhetoric. It was used for exploration and expression of ideas, and became integral to education. Rhetoric became a key part of the liberal arts curriculum during the Renaissance. For example, the studia humanitatis, an educational program influenced by humanist thought, incorporated rhetoric alongside subjects like grammar, poetry, history, and moral philosophy. This approach was influential in many educational institutions, including the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford.
- Enlightenment Rhetoric (18th century):
- The definition of rhetoric broadened to include written discourse, not just oratory. The focus shifted towards argumentation and logic, in line with the rationalist thinking of the Enlightenment. Prior to the Enlightenment, the art of rhetoric was largely seen as an oral tradition, primarily used in public speaking or debates. However, with the rise of literacy and the printing press, written texts began to hold as much, if not more, sway as oral discourse. This shift was evident in figures like Thomas Paine and his pamphlet “Common Sense,” which used powerful rhetorical strategies to persuade readers and played a significant role in advocating for American independence. The Enlightenment also gave rise to significant works of rhetorical theory that acknowledged the importance of written discourse. One example is Hugh Blair’s “Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres” (1783), a widely-read manual for effective writing and speaking that encouraged a clear, direct style based on logical argument. It was one of the first comprehensive rhetoric textbooks in English and had a considerable influence on the teaching of written composition.
- Modern Rhetoric (19th century-present):
- In the modern era, rhetoric has been recognized as not just an art of persuasion but as a critical means of analyzing and constructing arguments. There’s a greater emphasis on context, audience, and purpose. The concept of visual rhetoric also emerged, examining how images can be used persuasively.
- Constructionist/Cultural Studies Rhetoric (20th century-present):
- The constructionist view of rhetoric, as proposed by scholars like James Berlin, suggests that our understanding of reality is shaped through our discourse and interactions within the social and cultural contexts in which we live and communicate. This perspective sees rhetoric as a socially constructed act that both influences and is influenced by societal factors. Rhetoric is understood as being deeply intertwined with cultural, political, economic, and ideological contexts. For example, In the constructionist view, a public health campaign about smoking doesn’t merely convey information about the dangers of smoking. Instead, it actively participates in shaping societal perceptions and norms about health, lifestyle, and personal choice, reinforcing certain ideologies while challenging or excluding others.
- Postmodern Rhetoric (20th century-present):
- Postmodernists view rhetoric as the main way that reality is constructed and understood, focusing on deconstructing the language and symbols used in communication to understand their underlying messages and biases. In this vein, James E. Porter brought forward the concept of “institutional critique,” emphasizing how institutions — their rhetorics, practices, and policies — can be rhetorically analyzed and critiqued. Porter’s approach encourages the examination of an institution’s discourse and practices to reveal how power structures and ideologies are ingrained within them. This perspective further enriches the postmodern understanding of rhetoric by acknowledging the profound influence of institutional forces on the communication and construction of reality.
Summary of Related Terms
The term “rhetor” is derived from the Greek word “rhētor” (ρήτωρ), which refers to an orator or a public speaker skilled in the art of rhetoric. Rhetors are writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . who engage in rhetorical analysis and rhetorical reasoning to interpret and compose texts.
Rhetoricians refers to people who study or practice rhetoric.
Rhetoricity is the degree to which a rhetor’s written, spoken, and visual language is appropriate given the rhetorical situation. Texts with a high rhetoricity score are those that are written and designed in ways that most appeal to their audiences. Texts with low scores are ones that ignore what the reader, listener, or user thinks, feels, and knows about the topic.
The term rhetrickery was coined by Wayne Booth (2004) to refer to “The whole range of shoddy, dishonest communicative arts producing misunderstanding — along with other harmful results. The arts of making the worse seem the better cause” (p. 11). Thus, rhetrickery refers to occasions where writers, speakers, and knowledge workers aim to fool their reader by using intentionally vague language, ignoring counterclaims, misrepresenting knowledge claims, and appealing to pathos and ethos over logos.
Techno-Rhetoricians are rhetoricians who focus on investigating digital matters, such as the effect of new writing tools on composing, interpretation, or literacy.
For college-level writers, rhetoric is so integral to reading and writing that the Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA), the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and the National Writing Project (2011) identifies rhetorical knowledge as a core outcome of postsecondary education: “To be rhetorically sensitive, good writers must be flexible. They should be able to pursue their purposes by consciously adapting their writing both to the contexts in which it will be read and to the expectations, knowledge, experiences, values, and beliefs of their readers” (Council 2011).
Why Does Rhetoric Matter?
Rhetoric is a foundational skill: rhetorical knowledge can help you communicate and interpret successfully:
- For readers and listeners, In turn, for audiences, rhetoric functions as a lens, an interpretive framework, that can help readers and listeners better understand why people say what they say and do what they do. Mastering rhetorical can help you construct compelling arguments, engage with diverse audiences, and effectively convey complex ideas–especially in tricky situations.
- For writers, rhetoric provides a framework for strategically using language to persuade, inform, or entertain an audience. Writers engage in analysis of their rhetorical situation to discern what topics should be addressed (or avoided) based on the audiences’ feelings and opinions about the topic). They engage in rhetorical reasoning to identify the most appropriate rhetorical stance (voice, tone, persona) for a text or speech.
Furthermore, Wayne Booth (2004) argues that knowledge of rhetoric is essential for avoiding violence and promoting peaceful resolution of conflicts. Booth suggests effective communication and persuasive discourse can help people navigate disagreements and misunderstandings without resorting to violence or aggression. By engaging in rhetoric, Booth believes rhetorical knowledge can help people can engage in meaningful conversations, find common ground, and work towards mutually beneficial solutions:
[Rhetoric refers to] “the entire range of resources that human beings share for producing effects on one another: effects ethical (including everything about character), practical (including political), emotional (including aesthetic), and intellectual (including every academic field). It is the entire range of our use of “signs” for communicating, effectively or sloppily, ethically or immorally. At its worst, it is our most harmful miseducator — except for violence. But at its best — when we learn to listen to the “other,” then list to ourselves and thus manage to respond in a way that produces genuine dialog — it is our primary resource for avoiding violence and building community (Booth, p. xi-xii).
- Booth. (2004). The rhetoric of rhetoric : the quest for effective communication. Blackwell Publishing.
- Carter-Tod, Sheila. “Rhetoric(s) A Broader Definition“. Composition Studies, 2021