What is Rhetoric?
Rhetoric refers to the study and uses of written, spoken and visual language. It investigates how language is used to organize and maintain social groups, construct meanings and identities, coordinate behavior, mediate power, produce change, and create knowledge. Rhetoricians often assume that language is constitutive (we shape and are shaped by language), dialogic (it exists in the shared territory between self and other), closely connected to thought (mental activity as "inner speech") and integrated with social, cultural and economic practices. Rhetorical study and written literacy are understood to be essential to civic, professional and academic life.
Rhetoric began 2500 years ago as the study of the forms of communication and argument
essential to public, political and legal life in Ancient Greece. It has since evolved
a rich and diverse body of research, texts, and pedagogies.
Useful Definitions of Rhetoric
Selected Other Definitions of Rhetoric
Must not the art of rhetoric, taken as a whole, be a kind of influencing of the mind by means of words, not only in courts of law and other public gatherings, but in private places also? And must it not be the same art that is concerned with great issues and small, its right employment commanding no more respect when dealing with important matters than with unimportant? Phaedrus, 261a-261b.
The rhetoric under discussion here is that metalanguage (whose language-object was "discourse") prevalent in the West from the fifth century BC to the nineteenth century AD. We shall not deal with more remote efforts (India, Islam), and with regard to the West itself, we shall limit ourselves to Athens, Rome, and France. This metalanguage (discourse on discourse) has involved several practices, simultaneously or successively present, according to periods, within "Rhetoric ":
- A technique, i.e., an "art," in the classical sense of the word; the art of persuasion,
a body of rules and recipes whose implementation makes it possible to convince the
hearer of the discourse (and later the reader of the work), even if what he is to
be convinced of is " false."
- A teaching: the art of rhetoric, initially transmitted by personal means (a rhetor
and his disciples, his clients), was soon introduced into institutions of learning;
in schools, it formed the essential matter of what would today be called higher education;
it was transformed into material for examination (exercises, lessons, tests).
- A science, or in any case a proto-science, i.e. a. a field of autonomous observation
delimiting certain homogeneous phenomena, to wit the "effects" of language; b. a classification
of these phenomena (whose best-known trace is the list of rhetorical "figures"; c.
an "operation" in Hjelmslevian sense, i.e. a meta-language, a body of rhetorical treatises
whose substance—or signified—is a language-object (argumentative language and "figured"
- An ethic: as a system of "rules," rhetoric is imbued with the ambiguity of that word:
it is at once a manual of recipes, inspired by a practical goal, and a Code, a body
of ethical prescriptions whose role is to supervise (i.e. to permit and to limit)
the "deviations" of emotive language.
- A social practice: Rhetoric is that privileged technique (since one must pay in order
to acquire it) which permits the ruling classes gain ownership of speech. Language
being a power, selective rules of access to this power have been decreed, constituting
it as a pseudo-science, closed to "those who do not know how to speak" and requiring
an expensive initiation: born 2500 years ago in legal cases concerning property, rhetoric
was exhausted and died in the "rhetoric " class, the initiatory ratification of bourgeois
- A ludic practice: since all these practices constituted a formidable ("repressive," we now say) institutional system, it was only natural that a mockery of rhetoric should develop, a "black" rhetoric (suspicions, contempt, ironies): games, parodies, erotic or obscene allusions, classroom jokes, a whole schoolboy practice (which still remains to be explored, moreover, and to be constituted as a cultural code)."The Old Rhetoric: An aide-mémoire." The Semiotic Challenge, 12-14.
What happens, then, if we choose to begin with our knowledge that we are essentially creatures made in symbolic exchange, created in the process of sharing intentions, values, meanings, in fact more like each other than different, more valuable in our commonality than in our idiosyncrasies: not, in fact, anything at all when considered separately from our relations? What happens if we think of ourselves as essentially participants in a field or process or mode of being persons together? If man is essentially a rhetorical animal, in the sense that his nature is discovered and lived only in symbolic process, then the whole world shifts: even the usage of words like I, my, mine, self, must be reconsidered, because the borderlines between the self and the other have either disappeared or shifted sharply . . . All we need do is honour what we know about who we are and how we come to be, in language. Once we give up the limiting notions of language and knowledge willed to us by scientism, we can no longer consider adequate any notion of "language as a means of communication" . . . It is, in recent models, the medium in which selves grow, the social invention through which we make each other and the structures that are our world, the shared product of our efforts to cope with experience.
Rhetoric has a number of overlapping meanings: the practice of oratory; the study of the strategies of effective oratory; the use of language, written or spoken, to inform or persuade; the study of the persuasive effects of language; the study of the relation between language and knowledge; the classification and use of tropes and figures; and, of course, the use of empty promises and half-truths as a form of propaganda. Nor does this list exhaust the definitions that might be given. Rhetoric is a complex discipline with a long history: It is less helpful to try to define it once and for all than to look at the many definitions it has accumulated over the years and to attempt to understand how each arose and how each still inhabits and shapes the field. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, "General Introduction." The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. p 1.