Lecture: Defining Rhetoric

Despite its 2,500-year history and its place of privilege in the Trivium as one of Seven Liberal Arts, rhetoric is often thought of as something negative: as empty speech or pretty or flowery language used to deceive. Immanuel Kant wrote that rhetoric is the art “of deceiving by a beautiful show (ars oratoria)” (171) and Ezra Pound defined it as “the art of dressing up some unimportant matter so as to fool the audience for the time being” (83). While rhetoric has gained negative connotations in some circles, it is also commonly associated with persuasive speech, and, arguably, its most familiar definition is from Aristotle, who defined rhetoric as “an ability, in each [particular] case, to see the available means of persuasion” (Aristotle 36). However, while rhetoric is associated with persuasion, as George Kennedy stresses in his edition of Aristotle’s On Rhetoric, Aristotle did not define rhetoric as the act of persuasion but as  “the art of ‘seeing’ how persuasion may be effected” (36, n. 34). Aristotle regarded rhetoric as an art, and, as Kennedy explains, Aristotle defined the arts “as a reasoned capacity to make something and says that it is concerned with the coming-into-being of something that is capable of either being or not being.[1] Art is thus for him not the product of artistic skill, but the skill itself” (36 n. 34).

While Aristotle’s famous definition of rhetoric associates it directly with persuasion, Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric is not the only definition of rhetoric that we have,[2] nor is rhetoric always so directly associated with persuasion, especially since the Twentieth Century. Kenneth Burke, for instance, equates rhetoric with identification, with the attempt to overcome division between people (19-23). “If men were not apart from one another,” he writes, “there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity” (22).

I.A. Richards has defined rhetoric as “the study of miscommunication and its remedies” (3). Sonja K. Foss, Karen A. Foss, and Robert Trapp suggest that rhetoric “is the human use of symbols to communicate” (1) and note that “humans construct the world in which they live through their symbolic choices” (2). Erika Lindemann has defined rhetoric as “a form of reasoning about probabilities, based on assumptions people share as members of a community” (42). Charles Bazerman suggests that we define rhetoric broadly as “the study of how people use language and other symbols to realize human goals and carry out human activities” (6, n. 7). And in “Design as Rhetoric,” Gesche Joost and Arne Scheuermann stress that one of rhetoric’s intrinsic characteristics is its intentionality, and they argue that rhetoric’s focus on effective production ties rhetoric and design closely together: “Production of effectiveness is the central driving force behind rhetorical communication, and thus follows that every decision regarding production is made taking account its impact on the public” (5).

Because Aristotle defines rhetoric as the art (tekhne) of being able to see the means of persuasion rather than persuasion itself, Aristotle gives rhetoric an epistemic function as well as a persuasive one. Rhetoric is about discovering what we know and what we can know about a given situation. Even in the context of persuasion, effective argumentative strategies will depend upon the particularities of that given situation, including but not limited to the motives, goals, values, and beliefs of the people we want to persuade; the various probable outcomes of different decisions and actions; the likely variables and conditions that shape how we might act; and the means by which we might address our audience.

Whereas most arts like architecture, music, carpentry, painting, medicine, and navigation have specific subject domains with specific sets of knowledge and practices that are largely limited to their art, Aristotle argues that rhetoric and its counterpart dialectic focus on things as they are, which is, to some extent, “within the knowledge of all people and belong to no separately defined science” (28-29).[3] Because rhetoric is not limited to one subject domain but is applicable to all subject domains, Aristotle identifies rhetoric as a “universal art” by which we make things, organize knowledge, and create meaning for ourselves and others.

In short, rhetoric, as an art in its own right, is also a meta-art, an art that helps us make sense of and practice other arts as we reason our way through best practices based upon particular circumstances. For instance, while we often take definitions to be definitive, definitions are provisional and situational. The aptness of a definition is determined far more by the situational context that calls for a definition than the inherent nature of the thing being defined. In other words, the very act of defining something and the aptness of a definition offered — issues fundamental to understanding and discussing concepts and phenomena — are in themselves rhetorical issues.

An important take away here is that rhetoric has never been a static concept but has, instead, always been rooted in its time and culture; nor has it only been applied to oral discourse. Whereas rhetoric was in ancient Athens an art of oration, it was by the time of Cicero’s Rome refashioned into an ars disserendi, an art of correctly discussing or analyzing something, and it was refashioned again during the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and so on. Regardless of when, where, and how rhetoric has been practiced, effective production and communication of meaning has been its key concern, whether that production is a speech, a letter, a website, a building, a painting, a grant proposal, or a graphical interface. While it would be correct to say that rhetoric, especially today, is concerned with far more than persuasion, we are also not all that far from Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric when we remember another of Burke’s characterizations of rhetoric: “Wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric. And wherever there is ‘meaning’ there is ‘persuasion” (172).


[1] The use of “art” here and throughout this lecture harkens back to the Greek tekhnē and the Latin ars rather than to the more modern notion of the fine or performing arts. In Nicomachean Ethics 6.4, Arisotle defines tekhnē as “a reasoned habit of mind in making [poiēsis],” which he differentiates from “a reasoned habit of mind in doing [praxis]” (Aristotle 289). In this section of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle identifies architecture as a tekhnē (289), and he identifies rhetoric as a tekhnē in his Rhetoric (29). In the Nicomachean Ethics, after defining tekhnē and identifying architecture as an example, Aristotle then explains that an art [tekhnē] only deals with things made:

“All art is concerned with coming into being and continuing and seeing how something may come to be among things that are capable of being and not being and of which the first principle [arkhē] is in the maker but not in what is made; for there is no art of things that exist by nature; for these things have their first principles in themselves” (289).

In “The Uses of Rhetoric in a Technological Age: Architectonic Productive Arts,” Richard McKeon explains that architectonic comes from the Greek architectum (architectonic artist or master craftsman) which Aristotle made into a technical term in his schema for the sciences, one of which is the poetic [poiēsis] science (127). In doing so, Aristotle brings together making and doing, what McKeon identifies as architectonic productive arts, with rhetoric as the architectonic productive art of architectonic productive arts.

[2] Aristotle’s On Rhetoric represents one of the earliest forms of the technical or handbook tradition, one of three major forms of rhetoric identified by George Kennedy in Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition: From Ancient to Modern Times. The other two forms of rhetoric are sophistic rhetoric and philosophic rhetoric (13-15). As Kennedy explains, each of the three forms emphasizes a different element of the three-part rhetorical situation–the speaker, the communicative act, and the audience (14).

[3] Dialectic addresses issues of certainty where answers can be given as yes or no and true and false. It is often associated with the syllogism, a three-part argument that contains a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion that must be true if both the major and minor premises are true. One of the more famous syllogisms goes as follows: “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.”

Rhetoric as defined by Aristotle, on the other hand, addresses issues of uncertainty and probability, situations in which a simple yes/no and true/false answers do not apply. Just as Aristotle equates dialectic with the syllogism, he equates rhetoric with the enthymeme. An enthymeme is a quasi-syllogistic statement that includes a minor premise and conclusion along with an unstated major premise. A light-hearted example I often use when teaching enthymemes goes as such: “While Superman is an alien with superhuman powers, Batman is a human who relies upon his native intelligence, training, wealth, and strength of will; therefore, Batman is the cooler superhero.” The unstated major premise is, of course, that a human who becomes a superhero through their own abilities is far cooler than someone who is a superhero for un- or supernatural reasons. While the syllogism is a question of formal logic that has a true or false answer, the issue of who is the cooler superhero is entirely dependent upon the criteria one uses to define coolness in superheroes.

Works Cited

Aristotle, and George Alexander Kennedy. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. 1950. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.

Foss, Sonja K., Karen A. Foss, and Robert Trapp. Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric. 3rd ed. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2002.

Joost, Gesche, and Arne Scheuermann. “Design as Rhetoric: Basic Principles for Design Research.” Symposium of Swiss Design Network. 2007. Paper. PDF file.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Trans. J. H. Bernard. New York: Hafner Press, 1951.

Kennedy, George A. Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition: From Ancient to Modern Times. 2nd ed. Chapel Hill: The U of North Carolina P, 1999.

Lindemann, Erika. A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers. 4th ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2001.

McKeon, Richard. “The Uses of Rhetoric in a Technological Age: Architectonic Productive Arts.” The Prospect of Rhetoric. Ed. Lloyd Bitzer and Edwin Black. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971. 44-63. Rpt. in Professing the New Rhetorics: A Sourcebook. Ed. Theresa Enos and Stuart C. Brown. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1994. 126-144.

Pound, Ezra. Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir. New York: New Directions, 1974.

Richards, I.A. The Philosophy of Rhetoric. 1936. London: Oxford UP, 1965.