What is Rhetoric?
Rhetoric is a discipline built on the notion that language matters. It’s a discipline that’s been around for over 2,500 years, and at different times, people who have studied it have been interested in different things. While their interests have led them to focus on different aspects of rhetoric, there are several common characteristics of rhetoric that modern readers and writers value.
Rhetoric is Communicative
It’s about conveying ideas effectively in order to promote understanding among people.
I.A. Richards, an early 20th-century philosopher, defined rhetoric as “the study of misunderstandings and their remedies.” Language is messy. It is difficult, contextual, and based on individual experience. We use language and privilege particular languages based on who we are, where we come from, and who we interact with. In essence, communicating with others is complicated and fraught with potential misunderstandings based on our experiences as individuals. Rhetoric gives you a way to work within the messiness of language. It helps writers think through the varied contexts in which language occurs, giving them a way to—ideally—effectively reach audiences with very different experiences.
Rhetoric is About Discovery
It’s about inquiring into and investigating the communication situations we participate in.
Aristotle defined rhetoric as “the faculty of discovering in any given case the available means of persuasion.” Often, the word “persuasion” is emphasized in this definition; however, the concept of “discovery” is also key here. In order to have ideas to communicate, we have to learn about the case—or situation—we’re commenting on. Kenneth Burke likened this process to a gathering in a parlor, where you arrive with a conversation already in progress. You have to actively listen to the conversation—carefully observe the situation you will participate in and the subject(s) that you will comment on—finding out the different participants’ positions and justifications for those positions before you can craft an informed opinion of your own. Rhetoric is a tool that helps you think through and research the situation as you prepare to communicate with others.
Rhetoric is about Doing Things
Jeff Grabill, a contemporary writing teacher, asks, “What are people doing when they are said to be doing rhetoric?” In response, he argues that rhetoric is a kind of work that creates things of value in the world. In other words, rhetoric creates attention to the world around us and particular people, places, and ideas in it. Paying attention to others around us helps us identify and make connections with others and their ideas, needs, and interests, and ultimately this can deepen our relationships with others. Importantly, connecting with others leads to action that alters the physical world around us, leading to the production of art and music, protests and performances, and even new buildings and spaces for people to conduct their lives. Understanding that rhetoric makes things can provide a reason to care about it and motivation to practice it.
Rhetoric is Systematic
One characteristic that influences each of the previous three is that rhetoric is systematic. It provides both readers and writers with a purposeful and methodical approach to communicating, discovering, and generating with language. It provides a set of skills and concepts that you can consistently use in order to critically think, read, research, and write in ways that allow you to achieve your communication goals. It’s important to realize, though, that rhetoric is not a one-size-fits-all formula. It’s not a series of steps that you follow the same way every time. Every communication situation is different, with different goals, contexts, and audiences, and thinking rhetorically is a flexible process that allows you to adapt to, as Aristotle put it, “any given situation.” You can think of rhetoric like a toolbelt. When using your tools, you don’t always use a tape measure first, then a hammer, then a screwdriver. In fact, you don’t always carry the same tools to different jobs. Depending on the job, you use different tools in different ways and in different orders to accomplish your task. Rhetoric is the same way.
Rhetoric is Transferable
Perhaps the most important part of rhetoric is that it’s transferable. Rhetoric isn’t just a tool that you use in English classes; thinking rhetorically is a way to methodically approach any writing situation that you may run across in your academic, professional, or personal lives. You use rhetorical analysis in the chemistry classroom to dissect complex equations and then to communicate that knowledge to others, just like you use it to decipher what a TV commercial is attempting to make you believe about a given service or product. You use persuasion to pitch business ideas just as you use it when constructing a resume. Considerations of audience are vital for Facebook posts as well as job interviews. Understanding genre helps you to create effective lab reports as well as office e-mails. Learning to think and write rhetorically can impact every area of your life. Rhetoric is everywhere that language is. And language is everywhere.
Aristotle. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Translated by George Kennedy. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Berkley: University of California Press, 1941.
Grabill, Jeff. “The work of rhetoric in the commonplaces: An essay on rhetorical methodology.” JAC: A Journal of Composition Theory 34, no. 1 (2014): 247-267.
Richards, I.A. The Philosophy of Rhetoric. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1936.
This chapter is adapted from “Open English @ SLCC” by Chris Blankenship and Justin Jory (on Open SLCC). It is licensed under licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.