Points of Departure

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English 696D 18th and 19th Century Rhetorical Traditions|

Prof. Thomas P. Miller

Office: Modern Languages 380 Wednesdays and Thursdays 12-1:00 and by appointment
Phone: 621-3553     

Syllabus | Resources

Points of departure

What is rhetoric?
As we will discuss in our first class, rhetoric has historically been defined as the art of persuasion, as the persuasive aspects of any discourse whatever its purpose, as the figurist  elements in discourse, and as the art of distracting or inflaming an audience to avoid speaking the truth.  Histories can be composed for each of these definition.  A figurist tradition can be composed that reaches from the sophists through Nietszche to deconstructivist accounts of language as metaphoric rather than referential, and the dismissive attitudes of Plato have interesting continuities with modern science's claims to transcend the vagaries of language to speak for unmediated truths.  My historical perspective centers on the civic tradition in rhetoric, which concentrated on persuasive discourse concerned with deliberating over political needs, abjudicating conflicts, and celebrating public  values.  This tradition can be traced to classical sources such as Isocrates, Aristotle and Cicero and related to rhetoric's traditional relations to the ethical and political concerns of moral philosophy.  From this perspective, rhetoric is integrally involved with political philosophy and practice, and with the ethical process of translating traditional beliefs into practical action to address the shared needs of a group.
In my assessment, one of the most useful definition of rhetoric is that offered by Aristotle: the art of discovering the available means of persuasion in a particular situation, or as it is translated in the edition included in Bizzell and Herzberg, "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion" (153).  This definition foregrounds the process of discovering what is possible in a particular situation for the purpose of persuading audiences how to act upon it.   Below I have links to articles that develop themes arising from this definition.  Here I just want to outline how the elements of the art of rhetoric are related to this definition.   Most obvious is the five-part process of composing discourse: invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery.  Less obvious, as we discussed in class, is that invention was not a solitary process for the ancients but integrally concerned with the inventive potentials of commonplace assumptions and discursive conventions.  This definition also explicitly emphasizes the situational nature of rhetoric, with the means of persuasion arising from the resources of the situation (rhetor/ethical appeal, referent/logical appeal, and audience/pathetical appeal), and various types of discourse defined by types of situations (deliberative/political assemblies, forensic/law courts, and epideictic/ceremonial occasions).  Less obviously, rhetoric has been positioned in the process of the social construction of shared beliefs by treating sites of controversy in a discursive domain as places or topoi where new possibilities can be discovered.

Rhetoric's historical attention to places where what is assumed has been called into question is perhaps the key to its critical potential to be more than the art of convincing the public to accept the leadership of the educated.  As the counterpart to dialectic, as Aristotle also defined it, rhetoric is concerned with the generative potentials of received assumptions, and these potentials need not be contained within an Aristotelian frame of reference.  In our discussions, we will move back and forth among various senses of rhetoric and the praxis of negotiating shared beliefs against changing needs in order to develop definitions of rhetoric that are not limited to the agonistic ethos of The Rhetorical Tradition.

so what is "the rhetorical tradition"?

This question used to be easy to answer.  You could run down a genealogy that ran through centuries of theories of rhetoric enumerating a fairly well defined and agreed upon litany of names, dates, and concepts.  Now "rhetoric" is a contested term, and "rhetorical tradition" can pretty much be defined anyway you want.  Research on the histories of rhetoric has become dauntingly expansive because wide-ranging aspects of education, politics and literacy   are now included in "our" histories.  Of course, what you include in a history should be shaped by what you want to get out of it.  What do you want your history of rhetoric to do for you?

Of course history making is a collaborative process.   In rhetoric and composition, we have over the last decade moved beyond what used to be unproblematically termed The Rhetorical Tradition.  You are reading an anthology of something called The Rhetorical Tradition.  What is it?  What does it represent, what are the terms for defining it, and how do those definitions shape what is worth saying, what purposes are served by writing it, and who gets to speak, write, listen, read, and remain in silence.  The Rhetorical Tradition used to be largely a history of ideas about rhetoric, especially public persuasive and deliberative discourse, though genres varied according to what sorts of discourse had power in the historical context. The best known classical classical categorization of rhetoric divides it into deliberative, judicial, and ceremonial, which were understood to be the three discursive domains of the public sphere.  In the West, the public has often been limited to white male free property-owning males, and The Rhetorical Tradition was pretty clearly a male tradition, valuing argument and persuasion as power over audiences and situations. 

I have written a lot about the history of rhetoric, and my writings may be relevant if some of the terms I use seem either unclear or helpful.  On the other hand, you may have to read more of my writing this semester than you want to. If so, return to resources.  If not, here are a couple of articles:

"A Rhetorical Stance on Archival Research," coauthored with Melody Bowdon, offers a definition of rhetoric to help focus the increasingly wide-ranging research that is being done on the history of rhetoric.  The article appeared in College English 61: 63-70.

"Reinventing Rhetorical Traditions" includes some how to advice on writing histories of rhetoric, particularly histories of women's education and writing, with some useful references to microfilm holdings.  It appeared in Theresa Enos's Learning from the Rhetorics of History (1993)