Rhetorical Foundations

What is Rhetoric?

Rhetoric is the ancient art and science of persuasion, the study of persuasion, and the individual process of persuasion. Unfortunately, in the 21st century, rhetoric tends to be positioned as something separate from everyday communication. However, all human activities are rhetorical, whether or not we are conscious of it.

Rhetoric is about strategic choices and approaches to communication whether textually, verbally, or even aurally and visually. When we communicate to different types of audiences about the same topic, we make strategic decisions on what details to include or omit, what types of evidence or support to use, and so on.

For example: let’s imagine that you spent a little bit of time last weekend studying but mostly party-hopping and celebrating because your school’s football team won the championship.

  • When you speak to your best friend about your weekend, you are likely to provide details about how many parties you went to and what exactly you did at the parties, including gossip about mutual friends.
  • When you speak to your grandmother about that same weekend, you might mention your study group meeting on Sunday afternoon, the take-out dinner you had on Friday night, and perhaps briefly mention that you celebrated the team’s win with friends.
  • When you speak to your supervisor at your on-campus job, you are likely to discuss the big football win (Go Team!), your looming exam schedule and how your study and exam schedule will impact your availability to work for the rest of the term.

All versions are accurate representations of your weekend, but you make strategic choices about which details to include or not include based on the particular rhetorical situation of your discussion. That is, how and what you communicate is shaped by:

  • The writer, author, creator, also known as the rhetor
  • The audience, including primary, secondary, and tertiary audiences
  • The topic of the communication
  • The purpose, which often can be broken into a primary, secondary, and tertiary purpose
  • The context and culture within which the communication is taking place.

The context and culture impact the rest of the rhetorical situation (rhetor, audience, topic, purpose).

The three rhetorical appeals, as discussed by Aristotle are ethospathos, and logos. These three appeals are guided by kairos, which is about timing. The three appeals may be used alone, but arguments are most effective when they combine appeals to ethos, pathos, and logos, with strong grounding in kairos or timeliness.

Ethos: a Greek word for character, ethos is an appeal to character, especially authority and expertise. Ethos is often mistaken as an appeal to ethics. Though ethics are an aspect of a person’s or organization’s ethos, ethics are not the only component of character, authority, or expertise.

Celebrity and other endorsements are often based on ethos. Ethos is why an American Dental Association endorsement of a toothpaste is more powerful and generally holds more sway than an endorsement from a non-medical professional. At the same time, though, ethos as it relates to advertising is  bit complex. Sometimes people or organizations will have strong ethos not because they are professionals in a given field (such as dentistry) but because they may they demonstrate the ideal results or benefits of a product.

Let’s take Sofia Vegara, for example. Vegara is a popular actor due to her role on the sitcom Modern Family. Her ethos as one of the world’s most beautiful people makes her an especially useful spokesperson for an array of personal care products, in part because she is known not only as an actor but as an attractive person.   It is no surprise that she is a spokesperson for a variety of cosmetic and personal products, from Cover Girl makeup to Head and Shoulders shampoo. The latter product, though, is really where her ethos shines. Head and Shoulders is a dandruff shampoo, and generally, flaky scalp is not associated with beauty. By having Vergara star in Head and Shoulders’ commercials, and further, having Vergara happily admit that her family has been using Head and Shoulders for over 20 years, the company relies on Vergara’s ethos as a confident, beautiful woman to combat embarrassment that some people (perhaps particularly women) may feel when faced with their own dandruff and flaky scalp and the need for a medicated shampoo. Vergara’s emphasis on how long her family has used Head and Shoulders even suggests that perhaps some of Vergara’s success in the beauty arena is due to Head and Shoulders.

Pathos:  originally, pathos described appeals to audiences’ sensibilities. Modern uses of pathos generally means an appeal to emotions, both positive and negative. A rhetor may appeal to emotions that an audience already has about a subject, or a rhetor may elicit emotions.

The Emotions are all those feelings that so change men as to affect their judgements, and that are also attended by pain or pleasure. Such are anger, pity, fear and the like, with their opposites. We must arrange what we have to say about each of them under three heads. Take, for instance, the emotion of anger: here we must discover (1) what the state of mind of angry people is, (2) who the people are with whom they usually get angry, and (3) on what grounds they get angry with them. (Aristotle, 1378)

As Aristotle argues, emotions are central to our decision making, even if we are not consciously aware of it. If a rhetor desires to persuade a particular audience, then the rhetor must understand the ruling emotions regarding the topic and the specific audience. What makes the audience angry (or pleased), who or what is involved in producing or evoking that emotional state, and why does that particular audience become angry (or pleased) within a specific context? Knowing the answers to these questions will help a rhetor better prepare an argument and provide a basis for developing evidence and identifying counterarguments.

Pathos appeals can sometimes be overwhelming and dominate an argument because emotions in general can be overwhelming. When emotions are strong enough, they can overtake logic and reason. Political campaigns are excellent examples of pathos appeals. Political ads often play on the fears and hopes of different demographics. For example, a political ad focused aimed at retired and elderly voters may claim that a candidate plans on eliminating social support programs such as Medicare or will drastically cut Social Security benefits. These types of ads do not need to contain facts or evidence of such actions to be useful and successful because they rely on the fears and worries that the intended audience already has about financial and medical security.

Remember, pathos is about the emotional state of the audience, not the rhetor.

Logos: an appeal to logical reason, logos is about the clarity, consistency, and soundness of an argument, from the premise and structure to the evidence and support.  A rhetor appeals to logos by making reasonable claims and supporting those claims with evidence, such as statistics, other data, and facts. However, Logical and reasonable arguments and evidence are not universal across audiences, contexts, cultures, and times. What an audience considers reasonable claims and adequate evidence is influenced by an audience’s values and beliefs. Further, data and facts may evolve over time as we obtain more evidence, information, and data.

For example, some people believe the Federal Drug Administration is part of a conspiracy to cover up evidence that common vaccines cause a variety of neurological, psychological, and physical disorders, despite extensive scientific evidence from around the world that demonstrates common vaccines are safe. The scientific evidence is not reasonable or logical (and therefore not persuasive) for the conspiracy audience because the evidence may come from manufacturers of vaccines, FDA-sponsored studies, or researchers or studies with have connections to the FDA or other government agencies. However, for other audiences—such as those who are simply unsure about the actual benefits or reasons for vaccines—the same studies and data may be quite persuasive.

Kairos is the Greek word for time. In Greek mythology, Kairos (the youngest son of Zeus) was the god of opportunities.  In rhetoric, kairos refers to the opportune moment, or appropriateness, for persuading a particular audience about a particular subject. Kairos depends on a strong awareness of rhetorical situation. Kairos is the where, why, and when of persuasion.

For example, nearly all op-eds and political essays are kairotic. The rhetors work to relate their ideas and messages to whatever is happening in the news and popular culture.


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A Guide to Technical Communications: Strategies & Applications Copyright © 2016 by Lynn Hall & Leah Wahlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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