Lecture: Prelli’s “The Nature of Rhetoric”

Lawrence Prelli’s “The Nature of Rhetoric” is the second chapter of his book A Rhetoric of Science: Inventing Scientific Discourse, a book I recommend if you’re finding these readings on the rhetoric of science interesting. 1)1. Prelli, Lawrence J. A Rhetoric of Science: Inventing Scientific Discourse. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1989. While there’s more recent scholarship, taken as a whole, Prelli offers a comprehensive foundation for understanding the rhetorical nature of scientific discourse, something we’re getting glimpses at in this course.

In “The Nature of Rhetoric,” which is, as the title suggests, an introduction to rhetoric itself as Prelli works with it throughout the book, Prelli defines rhetoric as effective expression, which has five general features, each rooted in an assumption about how effective expression works, which is the focus of this chapter (11). According to Prelli, rhetoric is:

  • the suasory use of symbols — the assumption regarding the role of language (pp. 13-21).
  • situational discourse — the assumption regarding situations (pp. 21-24).
  • addressed discourse – the assumption regarding the nature of audiences (pp. 24-28).
  • reasonable discourse — the assumption regarding criteria by which materials are evaluated (pp. 28-31).
  • invented discourse — the assumption regarding the methods of finding these materials in composing rhetoric (pp. 31-32).

Rhetoric is the suasory use of symbols

With its distinction between symbols as tools to express meaning and symbols as the medium through which meaning is made, with its use of the word suasory rather than persuasion, and its reliance upon Kenneth Burke’s concept of terministic screens, this first section is the most complicated and difficult section of Prelli’s chapter.

Prelli presumably uses the term suasory rather than persuasion to leave more room for the idea of dissuasion as well as persuasion. When we dissuade someone, of course, we are persuading them to not do something, so even dissuasion is a form of persuasion. That said, by using suasory rather than persuasion, Prelli is focusing on the issue of inducement — rhetoric as symbolic inducement — independent of whether that act of inducement is for something or against something. I’d suggest this isn’t a linguistic game on Prelli’s part, but, instead, a careful use of language designed to help navigate a nuanced issue.

A key reason for focusing on rhetoric as symbolic inducement is that it “explodes traditional boundaries,” as Prelli explains (14). As he notes, when we think of rhetoric as the use of symbolic meaning to induce others, then we’re talking about how humans making meaning in all forms. That said, Prelli also notes that rhetoric is different from other forms of human symbolic activities such as logic, linguistics, poetics, and hermeneutics (interpretation) (15). Prelli then argues that what differentiates rhetoric from other forms of human symbolic activity is that rhetoric “explains the selective functions involved when we make, apply, and judge symbols” (16). In other words, rhetoric is, as we’ve already discussed in our definitions of rhetoric lecture, a meta-art or meta-discipline that is not limited to one subject domain but an art (tehkne) we apply as we engage in other subjects— what Aristotle calls a “universal art.”

In stressing the importance of understanding rhetoric’s emphasis on the selective function of symbol use, Prelli explains that “[b]y selecting certain terms rather than others, we emphasize particular meanings and values — those that seem appropriate given our understandings” (16). As I suggest above, we see Prelli doing just this in his choice to use the word suasory as opposed to the word persuasion.

Prelli finishes out this section with a discussion of terministic screens and orientations, which comes from Kenneth Burke. Simply put, a terministic screen is the perspective through which we describe, act, and interpret symbolic activity, and that these perspectives are shaped by the terms we use. In other words, there is no neutral point of view from which to perceive and act in the world because neutrality itself requires one to adopt a particular stance through which to use and evaluate symbolic activity.

This idea of terministic orientations and screens might make more sense if you think back to Ch. 3 of The MIT Guide to Science and Engineering Communication. An expert audience and a managerial audience are different because their identities, interests, needs, knowledge, and experiences are different, and those differences shape and are shaped by the terministic screen through which they approach a professional topic. Whereas an expert might be interested in methods and results, a manager is more likely to ask you about usable results and cost-benefit analysis. In one sense, they’re both asking more or less the same thing: what you did and what happened when you did it, but they’re focused on different issues because their terministic screens orients them differently (what Prelli calls terministic orientation).

Understanding terministic orientations is important, Prelli argues, because it allows us to understand and predict three things: instrumental valuings, logical valuings, and moral valuings (18). Instrumental valuings define how one thinks things should be done (18-19), logical valuings define what we think makes sense and has legitimate value as evidence (19-20), and moral valuings define what one thinks is proper (what one ought to do) and improper (what one ought not to do) (20).

If we recall I.A. Richards’ definition of rhetoric as the study of miscommunication and its remedies (see the definitions of rhetoric lecture), then we can easily see how recognizing, analyzing, and navigating different and even clashing terministic orientations is a necessary component of rhetoric.

Rhetoric is situational discourse

Prelli argues that rhetorical discourse will always be based in a particular situation, and drawing from Lloyd Bitzer’s “The Rhetorical Situation,” 2)1. Lloyd Bitzer, “The Rhetorical Situation,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 1 (1968)., Prelli identifies the three features that make up what we call a “rhetorical situation”: It must have an exigence, there must be an intended audience, and there must be constraints upon how the rhetor can influence the audience (22).

The exigence is a problem, “[s]omething [that] is perceived as other than it should or could be” (22). More importantly, it needs to be seen as something we believe we can change or do something about. A rhetorical exigence, therefore, is “an ambiguity, defect, or obstacle” that we believe can be altered or removed by inducing our audience into action or by changing their position on the issue (22).

The audience of a rhetorical situation (i.e., a rhetorical audience) is one that we have reason to believe we can influence through our suasory use of symbols. We should keep in mind here that whether an audience is rhetorical depends upon our aims. In one context, a stranger on the bus might listen intently to your complaints about your co-workers but having no ability to affect change at your workplace, they are not a rhetorical audience. However, if your aim in complaining about your co-workers is to feel better by having a sympathetic ear listen to what you have to say or to gain a perspective that might help you better handle the situation, then that same stranger can be a rhetorical audience.

The constraints of a rhetorical situation “limit or enhance opportunities for making appropriate rhetorical responses to an exigence” (22). The rhetorical concept of kairos is very much at play here. So too issues such as your audience’s interests and terministic orientations, your aims, and the genre conventions in which you need to work.

Rhetoric is addressed discourse

As Prelli explains, different audiences have different values, beliefs, assumptions, backgrounds, interests, etc., and the practice of effective communication requires of us that we seek to shape our discourse to our intended audiences, even when that audience is ourself (24-28).

Rhetoric is reasonable discourse

Drawing from Chaim Perelman’s “The Rational and the Reasonable” (Chaim Perelman, “The Rational and the Reasonable,” The New Rhetoric and the Humanities)) Prelli makes a distinction between what is rational and what is reasonable, arguing that rhetoric is concerned with the reasonable rather than the rational. Reasonableness, Prelli reports, is concerned with judgement and commonsense in a given situation; whereas rationalness is concerned with abstract contexts governed by predetermined conclusions (28). Seen in this light, it’s quite understandable as to why rhetoric focuses on the reasonable rather than the rational.

Likewise, reasonableness has to do with the particular values and beliefs of particular audiences, with reasonable meaning something that the audience will find valid or acceptable.

Rhetoric is invented discourse

Finally, Prelli argues that rhetorical discourse is invented, that is, the rhetor evaluate their goal (31-32); they must evaluate the issue at hand within the context of its rhetorical situation, and how to order the discourse in a way that best meets their goals within the context of that situation (32); and then the rhetor must decide the specific things she or he wants to say in order to develop each topic or issue they wish to address. In other words, as we saw in The MIT Guide to Science and Engineering Communications chapters 3 and 18, even when we are constrained by a specific formal genre such as the job application letter or a  report on designing for earthquakes in the San Francisco waterfront, we can’t approach our writing tasks as an act of fill-in-the-blanks and expect it to be an act of effective communication.

References   [ + ]

1. 1. Prelli, Lawrence J. A Rhetoric of Science: Inventing Scientific Discourse. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1989.
2. 1. Lloyd Bitzer, “The Rhetorical Situation,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 1 (1968).