Mere Rhetoric

Kairos Podcast




Two definitions of time for ancient Greeks:, chromos and kairos


While chronos chucks around relatively constantly, one minute after minute hour after hours, without any particularly change, kairos is a moment of exigenence, where everything matters on timing. There’s a graph that I like about kairos that I would love to show you, but since I can’t paint you a picture, I’ll have to sing yo a song. While Chronos moves forward like this [solid pitch], Kairos starts low, comes to a fever pitch and then descends again. It sounds like this [assending and descending pitch].  If Chronos is time, Kairsos is timing.




So let’s break down the parts of the kairos song with an example, say, slavery in America:


(low tone) down here might be called the moment that slavery in American begins to be a public issue. This could be called the origin. It might be the 1619, when the first African slaves were brought by the Dutch, but only if the issue of slavery was contested. The origin isn’t necessary when the situation started, but only when people started talking about the situation. The escalating conversation is what makes a public problem move towards a moment of kairos. So even though there were slaves in America in 1619, the escalation came in the 19th century, as the institutuion of slavery changed from something small-scale, individual and temporary to something large-scale that lasted over generations. People began to furiously debate whether there ought to be slavery in the United States on both sides and the issue became more intensely argued (sliding upwards tone). This process is called the maturationof the public issue.  It eventually reached the climax  of the issue (high note.) This high point, the moment of kairos, can be hard to point down: is it the emancipation proclamation? Is it the whole period of the civil war? But somewhere in there, the issue of slavery in America had to be decided. The moment had come. This is what E. C. White calls “"a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved.” Whatever various moments of kairos there were for the issue of slavery, there came a point where the moment passed. The 13th amendment was passed, northern soldiers were dispatched to make sure no one got “re-enslaved,” and the issue of slavery was settled. Now that doesn’t mean people still didn’t argue able it. In fact, lots of people may still debate something after the moment of kairos has passed. This is called deterioration. (sliding lowering tone) The issue of slavery, and what counted as slavery continued through the 19th and even into the 20th century. Today, though, there is effectively no debate about slavery. Sure, there might be a few whack jobs, but you won’t see letters to the editor in the New York Times or Washington Post recommending that we go back to chattle slavery in America. The issue has disintergrated. (low note).




Some issues, like slavery, come to a head, to a single moment of kairos, and then disintegrate for ever, never to return again. Others, though, return periodically. For examples of these kinds of cyclical moments of kairos, you might think about how debates about gun control are renewed every time there is a particularly horrific act of violence. Something terrible happens—the origin—and people renew a fierce debate about whether gun control would have prevented the tragedy. The issue escalates into maturity and then the moment of kairos arrives-- a law is passed, or isn’t passed, and then people gradually stop talking about the issue so much and it deteriorates down again. But then after a few months or—hopefully—years, another tragedy occurs and the issue of gun control again leads to a moment of kairos. Many issues fade in and out just because people lose interest, or get caught up in a public issue that seems more pressing. For instance, people stopped talking so much about violence in schools after Sept 11th because issues of terrorism and privacy and war seemed to be more important. The moment of kairos shifted.










The idea of Kairos is an old one, and a celebrated one. There are many paintings and scultures of Kairos, who was sort of a funny-looking fellow. Or let’s be blunt: he had the worst hair cut known to man. It was long in front and bald in the back, like a reverse mullet: party in the front and all business in the back. The haircut was a metaphor for how you had to grab the moment when it came, because once it was gone, you couldn’t catch it. He had a few other descriptive features. Instead of be describing them, let this Greek poem, translated by Jeffrey Walker,  explain. This poem is ekphersis, a piece of writing that describes a piece of art, in this case a sculpture of Kairos done by Lysippos of Sicyon. The rest explains itself.




From where is your sculptor? Sicyon. What is his name?


Lysippos. And who are you? Kairos the all-subduer.


Why do you go on tiptoes? I’m always running. Why do you have


Double wings on your feet? I fly like the wind.


Why do you have a razor in your right hand? As a sign to men


That I’m sharper than any razor’s edge.


Why does your hair hang down in front? For him that meets me to grab,


By God. Why is the back part bald?


None that I have once passed by on my winged feet


May seize me, even if he wishes to.


Thus the artist fashioned me, for your sake,


Stranger, and placed me at the entrance as a lesson.






--Trans. J. Walker






Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_Kairos_FINAL.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 12:14pm CST

Canons of rhetoric




Today we’re going to talk about the canons of rhetoric (sound: boom). That’s silly. The canons of rhetoric (sound: pachabel’s canon). Okay, now this has just devolved into a morning show called something lik Zaph and the Pigman in the Mornings. The canons of rhetoric were the five parts of rhetoric that were emphasized in ancient classical rhetoric. They were canons the same way that people in literary studies might talk about whether Moby Dick or Huck Finn belongs in the canon—as essential to being an educated individual. They were the five elements that every good Roman rhetor had to study and develop as a student and also practice as a public speaker. The five canons are also kind of arranged in the order that you go through in working on a public speech. So without further introduction, here’s the canons:
















I like to remember these by a mnemonic: I always state my demands, just like I’m a bank robber. But












  Or, I always state my demands.




These canons of rhetoric


So let’s go through these 5 quickly:


Invention: this one is one of the controversial. There are some villains of rhetoric who will say that rhetoric doesn’t have any business dealing with invention. Soctrates, sometimes, is in this camp, saying invention, or coming up with what to say, is the business of philosophy. Or Francis Bacon who will say that you just need to figure out a tree of possibilities and don’t trust rhetoric, which is slippery with telling you how to get at knowledge. It’s true that invention wasn’t always anything under the sun and could be sticky. for example, commonplaces were these common…places from which you could argue. So a commonplace is a culturally accepted argument, like that pirates are stinky, could be a starting place to come up with your speech against a stinky person who is accused of being a pirate. Aristotle separated topics of invention into common topics, which work for any type of rhetoric and special topics which have to do with judicial, oratory or forensic speeches. Common topics include things like parts and the whole, compare and contrast, past fact and future fact, things like that. Once you explore the ways to come up with something to say, the next step in arrangement.




Arrangement is how you set up the argument. In Plato’s Pheadrus, which we’ve talked a bout in an earlier podcast, Socrates argues that a speech should have a head, a body and a conclusion. This is sort of the standard form that many pieces of western rhetoric begin to take Arrangement often took a very specific form in Classical rhetoric: introduction, statement of facts, division of parts, proof, refutation of the opponent and then conclusion.




Okay, once you have your argument and you’ve arranged it the next step is to write the actual words. What Style are you going to use? Although Hermogenes described many types of style, generally in Roman rhetoric there were 3 types




Roman Levels of Style

English Term

Latin Names

Greek Name

Rhetorical Purpose

High Style or Grand Style

supra, magniloquens


to move

Middle Style

aequabile, mediocre


to please

Low or Plain Style

infinum, humile


to teach




Every thing as style. Style isn’t something you add on because even plain style is a type of style




Memory and delivery were really important to classical rhetoricians, but these elements of the canon have been downplayed, even as invention has become more important in 21st century rhetoric. Memory was critical for presenting an oral argument in front of a judge or the senate without speech. There were several diff ways of looking t memory:


  • the degree to which a speaker successfully remembers a memorized oration
  • the facility with which a speaker calls upon his memory of apt quotations and thoughts that effectively meet the rhetorical intention
  • an analysis of the methods a speaker uses in order for the message to be retained in the memory of those hearing (mnemonics)
  • assessment of direct appeals to memory or the mention of it or related terms


In order to keep up memory, many rhetoricians used mind maps or mind palaces. You might have seen this on the BBC Sherlock: you place different information in a physical location and then imagine yourself walking through that space. For example, maybe in your speech against the supposed pirate you’ll put the things from the introduction, the sunk ships and lost gold, in the front room of a house. Then the statement of facts: the peg leg, the stinkiness, the eye patch, might be on stairs that you step over on your way to the next floor. Then you see the division of the parts of the argument in the bedroom. And so forth as you walk through the space it’s easier to memorize locations of physical things than the order of abstract things, although I’ve lost my keys enough time to know it’s no walk in the park.




Delivery is the other thing we don’t really talk about much any more. Again, back in the classical days this was all oral. Cicero and Quintilian emphasize the need for the orator to have big lungs to shout and good posture and hand gesture, stuff we don’t’ even think about in terms of rhetoric. And what about enunciation? Demosthenes the great orator who was able to incite a revolution with his words allegedly suffered from a speech impediment. So he put pebbles in his mouth and learned to speak around them. Through doing something unnecessarily hard he was able to learn to enunciate clearly. Allegedly when he was asked to name the three most important elements in oratory, he replied "Delivery, delivery and delivery! Classical orators were doing this sort of thing all the time. Many writers suggest things like doing to the sea short to shout against the waves or doing gymnastics to improve gesture and posture.




So those are the canons of rhetoric. Less dangours than canons of war, less wedding-associated than pachabel’s canons, but vastly important in the anceitn world. It’s funny to think how much rhetoric has changed. For all that we look back at ancent rhetoric to clarify rheteorical theory, we forget how oral a culture it was, and how much traditions and commonplaces figured in. If you have an idea of what the new canons of rhetoric are or how modern rhetoric would look if we recaptured some of the older canons, feel free to email me at Until next time [canon]








Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_Canons_of_Rhetoric_FINAL.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 9:24am CST

Kenneth Burke




Welcome to Mere rhetoric a  podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, ideas and movements that have shaped the rhetorical world. I’m mary h and today we’re talking about KB




Burkey was a major rhetorican who lived May 5, 1897 – November 19, 1993. Also, his middle name was Duva and his grandson wrote this song. [Cat’s in the Cradle]




But Burke didn’t always want to be a rhetorican. In fact, rhetoric was kind of out of favor as an academic discipline when Burke was coming of intellectual age: he wanted to be a poet, live in Greenwich Village and be part of the Marxist bohemians. But events conspired to develop Burke as rhetorican. For one thing, he got the Marxists mad at him when he suggested the word “people” as a replacement for “worker.” Also, his poetry wasn’t taking off. That made him begin to move away from politics and production of poetry and start thinking more about criticism.




His first critical work counter-statement is still powerful today as a response to new criticism and the artforart’ssake crowd. Here he demonstrates the power of art on an audience, the rhetoricality of art. In Gregory Clark’s words, here he is “less concerned with seeing the arts thrive than helping the people on the other end of the arts” as form is received by the reader. He developed his aesthetic-rhetorical connections when he wrote extensive on how literature is a sort of "equipment for living," giving people the models of action, wisdom and expectation that help them deal with reality.




From this auspicious start, Burke’s importance to rhetorical studies only took off more. His re-definition of rhetoric as “a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” broke rhetoric out of the aristotlian understanding of rhetoric that had dominated for millennia.




Burke’s A Grammar of Motives  has as its epigraph, ad bellum purificandum -- toward the purification of war. He supposedly handwrote this saying mounted over his windowframe where he worked in an obscure New Jersey farmhouse, far from the typical academic hubbub. It’s possible that what he meant by a purification of war is that according to burke scholars James P. Zappen, S. Michael Halloran, and Scott A. Wible’s gloss of A Grammar of Motives “studying "the competitive use of the coöperative," helps us to "take delight in the Human Barnyard," on the one hand, and to "transcend it by appreciation," on the other.” Transending binaries was a big deal for Burke.




One of his biggest ideas is the “burkian third term.” Let’s imagine a war. A sandwich war. Say you really, really want tuna fish sandwiches for lunch, and I think tuna is gross (I don’t, but that’s just what makes it hypothetical). I want peanut butter and marshmellow sandwiches for lunch, but you think they’re too high in calories. We can argue all day, through lunch, and on empty stomachs about which sandwich is better, but Burke would remind us that there is a “third term” which unites us: sandwiches. We can both see eye-to eye about sandwiches. The ablity for people to connect ad divide over similarities and differences was fascinating to Burke.




In fact, that leads us nicely to another of his main ideas: identification. In A Rhetoric of Motives (not to be confused with the Grammar of Motives or the never-published Symbolic of Motives), Burke describes how symbols don’t just persuade people to do things—they also persuade people to an attitude (50). When I tell you, “well, at least we both agree on sandwiches for lunch,” we haven’t changed anything about our inablitity to choose a sandwich, but maybe I’ve changed your attitude—to me, to our lunch, to arguments in general. If I’m able to “talk your language by speech, gesture, tonality, order image, attitude idea” I’m doing what Burke calls “identifiying [my] ways with yours.” In that moment, we become consubstantial: part of me is you, and part of you is me as we engage in this identification. We are “both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial” (21).  




Another big idea is Burke’s pentad. This way to interpret motives and intention is described in depth in the grammar of motives. Then pentad is this: act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. Later, Burke would say that he wished he could had added “attitude” as a sixth-ad. The eample burke gives is this: say a guy trips you with his legs on the bus: do you get angry? You might But if the guy had a broken leg, that changes the agent and the agency—maybe he couldn’t help it. And if the purpose was not to humiliate you, but an accident, you might not think it an insult. The pentad can impact this human action’s communication: was getting tripped a deliberate rhetorical insult or wasn’t it?




The last big idea of Burke’s is the terministic screen. The way we use language, especially poetic language, determines how we see the reality against us. If we’re used to seeing the world through certain terms: war, sandwich, bus, we’ll only see those terms. The terms, to use a catch phrase, both reflect and deflect the reality around us.




This is only a brief introduction to Kenneth Burke, and there’s lots more to say about him and his influence on Rhetoric. I recommend checking out, a free resource of Kenneth burke scholarship for more information. You also might check out of the work of some of the biggest Burke scholars: Jack Selzer at Penn State, Ann George at Texas Christian University, Gregory Clark at Brigham Young University, Elizabeth Weiser at Ohio State.




If you have experiences with Kenny B (as I think we can now call him) or if you would like to have another podcast about one of Burke’s theories, please email me at




Until next time, remember even if you become a big-time rhetorician, you should still  take time play ball with your boy in the backyard.


Direct download: 01_Mere_Rhetoric_-_Kenneth_Burke.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 12:55pm CST

Today, as promised, the sequel to last week’s episode on I.A. Richards. Last week we learned about Richards’s The Philosophy of Rhetoric, where he sought to redeem rhetoric from a pejorative by recognizing that every word is intimately tied to its social context. Today we get to talk about his other major work, the Meaning of Meaning. Some initial thoughts: first off, this is a somewhat cheekier title. Second, The Meaning of Meaning is always filed under the works of I.A. Richards, but actually it’s a joint effort by Richards and CK Ogden. Ogden was a bit of an eccentric linguist. He invented a language called Basic English, which was like English but...Basic. He figured this would lead to world peace because people could communicate more easily. Because a simple English is a better idea than a simple other language? I donno, but he brought a hefty dose of old-school linguistics to Richard’s already linguistically inclined bent. The Meaning of Meaning  was a fundamental text for much of the 20th century’s obsession with the connection between words and their referents.


At the heart of the text is a three-part semiotics. There are symbols, thoughts and referents. Symbols are things like words and images. Or as Ogden and Richards put it, Symbols are “those signs which men use to communicate one with another and as instruments of thought, occupy a peculiar place” (23).  Referents are things that exist in the “external world,” things like teacups and tanks, Churchill and Lady Gaga and Switzerland. Thoughts represent the third point of the triangle, what happens in the brain to connect these referents and symbols. If there’s a good relationship between the thought and the symbol, it is “correct”; if there’s a good relationship between the thought and the reference, it is “adequate” and if the sign to referent connection is good, it is “true.” So do you have a clear image of what this looks like? A triangle with three points and three sides of symbols, thoughts and referents. For Ogden and Richards, “Words and Things are connected “through their occurrence together with things, their linkage with them in a ‘context’ that Symbols come to play that important part in our life [even] the source of all our power over the external world” (47).


The source of all our power! That’s some heavy stuff. But here’s the tricky stuff, the fly in the ointment of all this--”Signs,” the authors point out “are not pictures of reality” (79). And appealing to the dictionary does no good: As Ogden and Richards say, “When we define words we take another set of words” (110). A dictionary is only a complication of internal references.


Even the pictures aren’t pictures of reality. Here’s an example. Imagine a dog for me. Go ahead. When you have a good image in your brain of “dog,” imagine how you would paint it. What does it look like?  How did you do that? Well, you had some series of experiences with what we’re calling dogs here and your specific dog may be determined by that experience. Maybe you thought of your own dog, or maybe you imagined something with a long tail, even though there are some dogs with docked tails.  Ogden and Richards put it like this”the effects upon the organism […] depend upon the past history of the organism, but generally and in a more precise fashion” (52).


Wait, it gets worse: Further, “speech on almost all occasions presents a multiple, not a single sign situation” (230), whole sentences of referents, grammatical markers, prepositions that complicate and befuddle the philosopher looking for clear linguistic meaning.  So for symbols to be understood “requires that it form a context with further experiences” (210). The “weaving together of contexts into higher contexts (220) of all of these meanings spiral out irresolvably. Our individual experiences with these different symbols are irreducible.


This isn’t to say it’s time to give up on language. Without language, we can’t understand the world around us: “we can only identify referents through the references made to them” As Ogden and Richards tell us (127). So they give us Symbolism, which they define as the study of “the influence of language upon Thought” (243), and they tell is us a “science” (242).


In order to develop this science of symbolism, Ogden and Richards propose the five canons of symbolism [canon sound]


Sigh. Okay. the first point is that there should be one symbol for one and only one referent (88)


Second, interchangable symbols must refer to the same referent (92)


third, “referent of a contracted symbol is the referent of that symbol expanded” (93),


fourth, symbols should be descriptive rather than prescriptive (103),


“no complex symbol may contain constituent symbols which claim the same ‘place’” (105).


When you go through these tenets, you begin to see how Ogden could be the kind of guy who wants to invent a new, universal language. These seem like difficult, even impossible, conditions to meet.Think about the dog you imagined earlier. It’s likely that your dog looks very different from my dog, because we have different experiences. Our symbol to referent correlation is based on our experience and that’s a sticky thing. But that’s less of something for me to dig into than what Derrida dives into in Limited Inc. In fact, a lot of these ideas will get bandied around for a century as people argue about signs, symbols and referents.  And that’s not a bad influence for a guy who doesn’t get a lot of press time in rhetorical history.


If you know of a rhetorican who could use a little more love, why not send us an email recommended them for a future episode of Mere Rhetoric? send your email to and I’ll see what I can do. But now it’s time to go walk a dog. Whatever that means.

Direct download: 01_Mere_Rhetoric_-_IA_RICHARDS_Ed.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 10:00am CST