Lecture: Ethos, Pathos, Logos

Ethos, pathos, and logos can seem like fairly simple concepts — ethos is about the credibility of the rhetor (the speaker or writer), pathos is about emotion and empathy, and logos is about logical reasoning and structure, and we often talk about them as something that is either there (or present in a rhetorical act) or not there (not present in a rhetorical act). For instance, we often talk about scientific writing as writing that avoids pathos and/or ethos. While we often talk about them as such, ethos, pathos, and logos are actually far more complex concepts than this simple conception would suggest. Aristotle discusses them in his Rhetoric as the three available means of persuasion — it might help to remember here that Aristotle defines rhetoric not as the act of persuasion but as the means of persuasion: “an ability, in each [particular] case, to see the available means of persuasion” (Aristotle 36).1)1. Aristotle, and George Alexander Kennedy. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

So, while ethos, pathos, and logos are about the credibility of the rhetor and ethics, about emotion and empathy, and about logical reasoning and structure, they are also about how we apply those means of persuasion in our acts of communication. Ethos is about the reliance upon one’s perceived credibility (both inside and outside the rhetorical act). Pathos is about how we engage emotion, which includes not only emotionally charged language and imagery but engaging the audience’s likes and dislikes and their values and beliefsLogos is about how we use logical reasoning and logical structures as well as the kinds of evidence we use to support our claims.

A rhetorical mixing machine
From Losh, Elizabeth, et. al. Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphical Guide to Writing. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014. 131.

In this way, ethos, pathos, and logos aren’t concepts we simply turn on or off; they are concepts that we dial up or down as if we were using a rhetorical mixing machine. That is, a lack of credibility or a lack of ethics, a lack of emotionally charged discourse, and/or a lack of logical reasoning and structure are not absences of ethos, pathos, and/or logos but an intentional downplaying of their use or a failure to use them or use them effectively. As potential means of persuasion all three always exist within all rhetorical acts whether or not they are actively used. So, when we say that a rhetor lacks ethos, we’re not saying that there is no ethos involved but that we don’t find the rhetor’s intentional or unintentional use of ethos effective. When we say that a piece lacks pathos, we’re saying that the piece doesn’t reach us on an emotional level and/or doesn’t engage our values and beliefs. And when we say that an argument lacks logos, what we’re saying is that we find its logical reasoning, or its structure, or its use of evidence (or failure to use evidence) to be flawed.

These are important distinctions because we tend to think of certain kinds of discourse as devoid of ethos, pathos, or logos. A skeptic such as Richard Dawkins might claim that there is no logic in an argument based in faith even though throughout history plenty of philosophers, including people such as Thomas Aquinas who is known for his logical reasoning, have and do believe that they can make logically valid faith-based arguments.2)1. We could also note that Plato’s dislike of rhetoric is connected to his belief in a knowable absolute Truth and the philosopher’s duty to discover that Truth is itself based upon his philosophy of forms and the idea that there’s a Realm of Forms, all of which is another example of faith-based argument. Likewise, because traditional scientific discourse is supposed to be clear, direct, objective, and dispassionate, we tend to think of it as pure logos that does not engage either ethos or pathos, and in thinking that we would be wrong.

As we’ll see during the next few weeks, both ethos and pathos play important roles in scientific discourse. The very idea that scientific discourse should be clear, direct, objective, logical, and dispassionate is a value judgement whose history can be traced back to the Royal Society of Britain during the Early Modern Period. A rhetor wishing to be taken seriously as they engage in scientific discourse needs to follow these conventions, and in doing so they are using the pathos of scientific discourse (the values and beliefs of how science should be done and how scientific discourse should be practiced) to help establish their ethos ( their credibility) as someone who understands how scientific discourse works.3)1. For the history of how scientific discourse emerged with a focus on the experimental article, see Charles Bazerman’s Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science. We’ll be dipping into this book throughout the semester. As you know, we read from the book’s Introduction last week, and in Week 10 we’ll look specifically at the chapter that discusses how the Royal Society developed scientific prose style and the genre of the scientific experimental article (Chapter 3: “Reporting the Experiment: The Changing Account of Scientific Doings in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 1665-1800“).

References   [ + ]

1. 1. Aristotle, and George Alexander Kennedy. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.
2. 1. We could also note that Plato’s dislike of rhetoric is connected to his belief in a knowable absolute Truth and the philosopher’s duty to discover that Truth is itself based upon his philosophy of forms and the idea that there’s a Realm of Forms, all of which is another example of faith-based argument.
3. 1. For the history of how scientific discourse emerged with a focus on the experimental article, see Charles Bazerman’s Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science. We’ll be dipping into this book throughout the semester. As you know, we read from the book’s Introduction last week, and in Week 10 we’ll look specifically at the chapter that discusses how the Royal Society developed scientific prose style and the genre of the scientific experimental article (Chapter 3: “Reporting the Experiment: The Changing Account of Scientific Doings in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 1665-1800“).