The Purposeful Use of Communication to Inform and Influence Others

Rhetoric Encompasses All Forms of Purposeful Communication

From the words you say to the movies you recommend to the clothes you wear, you communicate ideas to others. This page offers an overview of some key issues in the study of rhetoric. Please note, however, that these are my own personal priorities — this is by no means a complete list, and my definitions will differ somewhat from other texts.

Photo from Hilesheim, Germany, by falco from Pixabay

Key Considerations: Contemporary Rhetoric

  • Multimodality: When Rhetoric Goes Beyond Writing. The "modes" of communication involve all the senses: everything we see, hear, and feel can be affected through rhetorical means. Powerful combinations of verbal, written, and "unspoken" communication can be exceptionally persuasive.
  • Genre: The Categories of Communication. All forms of rhetoric fit within specific "patterns" or "types" — we call these genres. Books, tweets, movies, and songs are some examples of genres — within each of these forms you'll find sub-genres that we may simply call genres. The "break-up text," for example, is a genre — we expect it to be short, cruel, and unexpected.
  • Technology Affects Genre and Multimodality. We live in bold times: thanks to digital tools such as computers, cameras, and social media, individuals with access to technology can express themselves to much larger audiences than at any prior time in history. We are able to record and transmit a far greater variety of multimodal modes at far greater speed than could be imagined only a few decades ago, and this changes the categories and expectations of communication. Tweets, memes, and viral videos are some examples.

Key Considerations: The Rhetoric, "Truth"

  • Rhetoric Is More Than Just Persuasion. Although all communication affects the perceptions, thoughts, and actions of others, not all rhetoric is specifically meant to persuade. Rhetoric may also involve communicating agreement or solidarity, or expressing opinions to invite discussion, or to force specific actions through coercion. Please note: not everyone agrees that coercion should be considered rhetorical, since it obligates behavior rather than influence beliefs.
  • Honesty Isn't Always True, Deception Is Still Rhetorical. When we consider "truth" and "misinformation," we must remember that each person speaks from a different perspective. Some very well-meaning individuals believe information that isn't true, and some deceptive individuals will provide very convincing arguments for false information. When we study rhetoric, we examine not only what people say, but how their statements affect the beliefs and motives of others — and, ultimately, how people decide what "truth" to believe.

Rhetoric and Reality

Rhetoric matters because words affect our perception. By studying rhetoric, we can better identify how to communicate clearly and effectively — just as importantly, we can better learn whose words to trust and why.

Often, major disputes arise not simply because people disagree with each other, but because they disagree regarding the nature of rhetoric and its relationship with reality. Because of this, certain "debates" can never truly be resolved — representatives from opposite sides simply can't agree on which facts matter because they'll disagree about what counts as factual.

In Western thought, Modernism and Postmodernism lead to disputes that are particularly difficult to reconcile. Part of the confusion comes from a misunderstanding of these terms. They don't refer to the "modern" times of today, but rather to specific intellectual movements of the past.

Modernism Sees Reality as Fixed

Many individuals believe that there is a fixed and unchanging reality — from this perspective, all words are judged as either "true" to this reality or "false." Classical Rhetoric relies upon these assumptions.

Two key examples of modernist approaches are seen in religion and in science:

  • From a religious perspective, the dictates of a higher being or beings are likely seen as an inviolable "truth."
  • In science, reality is seen as an object of study, and the interpretation of experiments brings society closer to understanding this reality.

Postmodernism Views Reality as Subjective

In Modernism, two people who disagree with each other may each see the other person as lying. In postmodernism, by contrast, it's accepted that each person has a different set of individual experiences and cultural expectations, and that no one group has a monopoly on "The Truth." Instead, each person is understood to have their own lived "truth."

Today, disagreements still arise regarding whether we should study rhetoric as a modernist or postmodernist phenomenon.

Composition Studies and Rhetoric

English 101 and similar classes are considered composition courses. Though the focus of the course is writing, the act of writing is far more complex than simply placing words on the page. Writing is a sophisticated form of communication that involves many stages of interaction, consideration, and drafting — a successful paper by a single student will likely involve ideas and input from several other people, research from multiple sources, and multiple rounds of revision. Hence, we don't simply call it writing — composition embraces every step of preparing written communication.

Classical Rhetoric

Rhetorical Triangle

  • Speaker: the writer, speaker, or rhetor.
  • Purpose: the author's reason for communicating.
  • Audience: the individuals who hear, see, or perceive the communicated message.

Rhetorical Modes of Persuasion

In classical rhetoric, the emphasis was on rhetoric as persuasion. From this focus, three key types of rhetorical utterance were recognized:

  • Ethos: the author's appeal to their personal knowledge or authority on a subject.
  • Pathos: the author's appeal to emotional needs, desires, or considerations.
  • Logos: the author's appeal to logic or factual information.

Contemporary Rhetoric

Rhetorical Moment

Today, we see communication occurring in a particular moment. This rhetorical moment encompasses all the events, expectations, and purposes of speakers and audiences when something is said.

Because social norms change with time, statements from the past can be seen as "wrong" or "unacceptable" because they violate today's values. Conversely, "radical" or "extreme" statements in the past may become "normal" with time.