Mere Rhetoric (education)

Hugh Blair


Welcome to MR. Rebroadcast note



Today in honor of Scotland voting to stick with the rest of the United Kingdom, we’re going to talk about Hugh Blair. That’s right-- a Scottish rhetorician to honor the Scottish referendum. Hugh Blair was a bit of a rising star. He was a Presbyterian clergyman, but the top of the top of Scottish clergymen, eventually getting the High Church of St. Giles: the highest honor for the men of the cloth in Scotland. Once you’ve peaked out in divinity, what do you do? Well, if you’re Hugh Blair, you begin teaching about literature and writing. Originally, he taught pro bono, as a way to stave off the boredom of dominating Presbyterian clergy, but his classes became increasingly popular and the king gave him the Regius Chair of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres.


Which King? King George the III, the same one who lost the Colonies. So when you think about Hugh Blair, put him in context with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.


So King George lost a hemisphere and gained a rhetoric professor, and what a rhetoric professor he gained. Think of the title. Chair of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. Rhetoric, as listeners of this podcast, you know, but what’s Belles Lettres? Belles Lettres means beautiful or fine writing, so all of literature—poetry, drama, fiction. These were considered similar enough to rhetoric so that one chair might have both responsibilities. Blair’s classes were so popular that anyone who was lucky enough to sit in on them could take notes and then redistribute or sell them to others. But if you’ve ever gotten notes from someone in class, then you know that there can be a big different between what the teacher said and what got written down. This bothered Hugh Blair, so he decided to set his lectures down on paper and compile them into a book. This book was given the incredibly clever title Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. The lectures are not particularly novel: Blair draws a lot on Quintilian, whom he loved, as well as contemporary theorists about writing, like the newspaperman Joseph Addison. A lot of what Blair sounds really familiar to us, for reasons I’ll discuss in a minute.



Blair states that “to be truly eloquent, is to speak to the purpose” and “whatever […] the subject be, there is room for eloquence” (234). That means that you don’t have to wait for a noble subject to speak noble words. It’s more important, Blair suggests, that you pay attention to why you are speaking, to the rhetorical situation and then adapt what you say to fit the situation. It’s also important to be sincere: “Nature teaches every man to be eloquent, when he is much in earnest” (235). Language should be simple (naïve) in construction, seemingly natural, avoiding ornament and unaffected (184). This straightforward style is often what Anglo Americans expect when reading everything from newspapers to academic reports.Blair thought that national languages were best for expressing ideas. These means that instead of dropping in tons of Latin or French, you should use good old English, and instead of using the English of Shakespeare or Milton, you should use contemporary English. In short, language should be current and national He defines purity not as referring back to some long-gone golden age, but purity is “use of such words […] as belong to idiom of the language which we speak” (33) propriety depends on relation between the word and “express[ing] the idea which he intends” and “express[ed] fully” (34). So eloquence depends on language that is current and national, natural and sincere.


Still, style, according to Blair, “is a field that admits of great latitude [..] Room must be left here for genius” (190). So there’s room for individuality within the boundaries of “good style.” Individuality matters an awful lot in delivery, too: “Let your manner, whatever it is, be your own; neither imitated from another, nor assumed upon some imaginary model, which is unnatural to you” (336).


Like many of his time, Blair believed that Invention is beyond the scope of rhetoric—“beyond the power of art to give any real assistance” and “to manage these reason with the most advantage […] is all that rhetoric can pretend to” (316). So the first step for, in Blair’s example, a preacher, is to do research and the first step of research isn’t to go imitate someone else’s ideas but to actually start with “pondering the subject in his own thoughts” (291). Blair also made a distinction between conviction of the brain and persuasion of the will (235). So if I get you to agree that smoking is bad and unhealthily, I can convince you through charts and statistics to the point where you admit smoking is bad, but unless you persuade you in your will to take the steps necessary, you might continue to light up. Convincing gets you to know while persuasion gets you to do. This is, as you might imagine, an important distinction for a preacher.



In sum, Blair’s over all argument was that “True eloquence is the art of placing truth in the most advantageous light for conviction and persuasion” (281). None of this sounds revolutionary, does it? Partially this is because Blair pretty much just updated classical sources for contemporary genres of writing, but this is also because Blair’s text was hugely successful. The Lectures on Rhetoric were the most reproduced, imitated and distributed text of its era, and even into the next century…and the next. But it wouldn’t be until the Victorian age that other theorists like Whatley would challenge Blair’s dominance in rhetoric in general and preacher-training in specific.

Blair’s Lectures went through over a 130 editions in the next century and its ideas filtered down through textbooks for college students, high school students, even into elementary school readers!. Sound like the upperclass and you’ll be able to smoothly move into the upper class. All that stuff about current & national language? Turns out that there’s a “correct” type of current and national language.


They were especially influential in America, where Hugh Blair’s texts were seen as a way that you could rise above your station. So around the same time that America gained its independence from England, Blair was writing his rhetoric that would encourage Americans to unite in a “current and national” language. Even though Scotland voted to remain with the rest of the United Kingdom, Blair helped them, too, to recognize the potential of their own current language.


If you want to rise above your station, send us an email. We might not be able to help you but we could take a request for an episode. Email me at and I’ll do my darnest. Until next time

Direct download: 15-10-26_-_Mere_Rhetoric_-_Hugh_Blair.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 11:40am CST

Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks

I’m Mary Hedengren, Samantha and Morgan are in the booth and this is Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. But what does that even mean?


When we talk about the rhetorical tradition on this podcast, we actually don’t mean the rhetorical tradition. We mean the tradition of a very small group of people living mostly in one city in one corner of the Mediterranean. We mean Athenian rhetorical tradition, which, no doubt, has had a long and extensive influence in Western culture from the Romans to the Victorians to this podcast. But while many views of rhetoric focus on the Athenian theories, rhetoric has a far larger reach. After all, what could be more universal than using words to convince other people, to make them better understand you, to create a connection? If we define rhetoric, as Burke does, as “the use of words by human agents to form attitudes or induce actions in other human agents”—why everyone does that! There have been so many human agents on the world, all over the world, and how have they thought about forming attitudes or actions with words?


This is one of the questions that Carol D. Lipson and Roberta A Brinkley seek to answer in their edited anthology Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks. The book looks at 3 major regions, as well as a few “bonus” sections, to find alternative views of rhetoric in the ancient world. The three main areas are Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Chinese rhetoric.




William W Hallo does a quick survey of ancient Mesopotamia and finds rhetorical genres like diatribes and proverbs and disputations as rich ground for a foundation of rhetoric, not to mention the value of looking at epic poetry like Gilgamesh for examples of the kind of rhetoric that sets up such poetic words. Think of the Exordia that calls all the people around to listen to a tale and promises them the relative merits of doing so. Roberta Brinkley, too, looks at the Mesopotamian epics as an early rhetorical hotbed. She focuses on how the epic of Inanna illustrates the rhetorical choices of “the earliest known writer” Enheduanna, who lived in 2300 BC. Let me say that again, 2300 BC. I’m not sure what the Greeks were doing at that time, but they probably weren’t writing what Brinkley calls “rhetorically complex sophistical compositions [that] challenge the traditional canon of rhetoric and thereby many of the origins stores and foundational assumptions of the humanities” (49). And yet, Binkly points out, when did you hear of Enhuduanna? Paul Hoskisson and Grant M. Boswell turn from religious hymns for a goddess to another key genre: shameless self promotion, as Sennacherib “the great king, the powerful king, the king of all there is” sets up some columns to set up how great he is. As Hoskisson and Boswell point out “Assyrian kingship was performative in that Assyrian kings continuously legitimized their claim to the throne” (75).y



The next section shifts to the West to the Egyptian rhetorical tradition.

Carol S. Lipson argue that “It all comes down to Maat” in ancient Egyptian rhetoric, where Maat is “what is right” sort of justice and morality and the order of the “sun, moon and stars” a “balanced state of creation” (81). Egyptian letters concern themselves with moves that perform “maat” Deborah Sweeny meanwhile examines the legal texts of ancient Egypt for examples of persuasion and eloquence. Just as legal tradition spurred the development of rhetoric in ancient Greece, Sweeney sees similar developments in the legal texts of Egypt.


Chinese rhetoric may seem the epitome of exotic compared to Athenian rhetoric, but the Chinese had a richly developed pattern for discussing rhetoric. George Q Xu describes the confusion principles of rhetoric which ranks different kinds of speech, with “clever talk” taking the lowest rung (122) Arabella lyon, meanwhile, describes the value of silence in confusion rhetoric As she says “Confucian silences go beyond a reticence to speak, a willingness to act and a refusal of eloquence” the “silence workds by not saying what should be obsious, what should be self-discovered and that which alienated” (138). Yameng Liu Xunzi and Han Feizi’s rhetorical criticism, arguing hat “instead of a mere byproduct of philosophical inquiries, classical Chinese rhetoric was a discipline/practice in its own right” (161) as different schools of thought competed with each other.


After Mesopatamia, Egypt and China are investigated, there’s a sort of catch-all of many alternative traditions. David Metzger writes about the rhetoric of the frist five books of the Hebrew Bible, and James W Watts and C Jan Swearingen look at ancient near eastern texts. Meanwhile Richard Leo Enos actually deals with Greek rhetoric, but a different type of Greek—the rhetoric of Rhodes. Rhodes was a far more diverse city-state than Athens. As Enos says “the orientation of rhetoric at Rhodes was not internal but external. That is, the emphasis on rhetoric was directed toward facilitating communication with other peoples (184) Such a perspective emphasized a cross-cultral epideictic rhetoric, inclusive and found on declamation” (194). Going over my notes in this text, I see I’ve written “ooh, I’m all psyched now,” and I admit that I am again—there’s a lot more the Greek rhetoric than just one city-state stuck in a hundred-year period. That’s what the whole book is arguing—there’s a whole world of rhetoric out there and we ought to do something to explore it.


There are some questions of omission you could have about this volume: for example, why talk about ancient China but not India? It’s hard to anthologize anything without leaving something out and especially a topic as ambitious as everything-not-ancient-Greek. Don’t worry, Lipson and Brinkley came out with a sequel to this book five years later called Ancient Non-Greek Rhetoric. And, yep, it continues to expand the view of what is rhetoric, collecting works about the ancient near-east, Japan, India and pre-Roman Ireland. It’s a pretty exciting and wide ranging text itself and you know what? It’s not done yet! Studying the rhetorical traditions of people wherever they use language can yield fresh insights into what rhetoric is and how it works. Kind of makes you want to get out there and open up rhetoric to something beyond just 5h century BC Athens, up to the whole world. If you want to open this podcast up to some particular types of rhetoric, go ahead and email us at because there’s a lot of rhetoric out there and we just have to tackle it one week at a time.

Direct download: 15-08-12_-_Mere_Rhetoric_-_Rhetoric_Before_and_Beyond_Greece.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 10:46am CST



Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren, Samantha’s the booth, Humanities Media Project sponsored us and I have nothing to regret.


Remember back when we talked about kairos? Just to remind you, here’s a poem, a 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.


So here we have this figure of kairos, with a haircut that is party in the front and business in the back ad if you don’t grab him, too bad. It’s done. Game over, chance lost.


But then what? when you’ve missed your chance, what’s even left? Are you all alone as Kairos flits away?


Not really. The ancient Greeks created another figure, named Metanoia to describe the deep regret that comes when there’s something you could have done and you missed the chance. MEtanoia literally means after thought, or after mind, I guess if you want to get picky about it. It’s similar to regret. As Kelly A Myers put it in her rhetoric society quarterly article, Metanoia was a figure that “resides in the wake of opportunity, sowing regret and inspiring repentance in the missed moment” (1). It is “a reflective act in which a person returns to a past event in order to see it anew” (8)


In Roman poetry, metanoia accompanies the god of opportunity in Ausonius’s epigrams. The first part of the epigram sounds very similar to the ekphrasis of kairos poem “who are you” “I’m opportunity” “why do you look so weird?” “seize the moment” etc. etc. but then the questioner turns to metanoia “please tell me who you are.” “I am a goddess to whom even Cicero himself did not give a name. I am the goddess who exacts punishment for what has and has not been done, so that people regret it. Hence my name is Metanoea.”


There’s something weirdly compensatory in this accusation against Cicero. Metanoia is a such an important concept, Ausonius seems to say, that Cicero must have known, must have felt, but neglected to name. Metanoia is out there, but under studied and ignored.


But we’ve all felt that regret, haven’t we? Me, personally, I get that feeling in the shower, when dumb things I’ve said, or witty comebacks I should have said come sweeping in on me. I’ve also heard people getting hit with metanoia when they’re trying to sleep or when they’re driving or when they’re staring into a beautiful tropical sunset. It makes you want to stab your eyes out.




So what was the purpose of metanoia? What did it accomplish to feel such crippling regret? Hopefully such reflection and regret means that next time around you doing something different. Hopefully you change. This became a big deal as Christianity burst onto the scene. Metanoia became associated as a step of repentance, reflecting on the mistake you made before you can move forward. The New Testament uses matanoia as an “act of repentance that lead to spiritual conversion.” (9).

As kittel et al describe it “affects the whole man,” not just the brain.


It’s important that this emotional aspect of metanoia exists. Some sources point out that metanoia is always emotional as well as mental it is a “change of mind ad heart” (Liddell and Scott 1115) a “profound transformation of the epistemic orientation of the whole person” (Torrance 10). Myers points out that “metanoia ia the affective dimension of kairos” (2)



Metanoia as a rhetorical figure really hit its stride in the middle ages and beyond. Visual representations of metanoia became as common as kairos. Metanoia stuck with kairos, showing up in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, sometimes as a beautiful young woman and sometimes as a vengeful hag. Here’s the thing: there’s a moment of indecision, a Schrödinger's Cat moment where you don’t know whether you will seize the moment or live to regret it.As Myers says ‘once a descion has been made or missed, the two part ways, but before that crucial moment they stand together” (4).


So when you think of kairos, think of the inverse as well, the potential for deep abiding regret that makes you want to burn your high school yearbook. But remember metanoia in the moment that comes, not just regretting what is past, but looking at where you are now and making sure you make the right choice right now, so that you don’t have to regret it later.


Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_Metanoia_1.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 8:33am CST

Welllllcome to Meeeeere Rhetooooooooric!

Ooooh, it’s Halloween week, which means here at Mere Rhetoric, we bring you a spoooooky story. Last year we explored the dark side of anonymous peer review and this year we get to talk about another scary aspect of the academic life: writing prompts. Writing prompts are, as genre theory has informed us, their own weird genre, with better and worse practices. Generally speaking, giving students a clear sense of direction in what to write while empowering them to pursue their own objectives for writing gives them a chance to become independent writers. Give them busy work and, usally, they’ll resent you and even writing. In the worst cases, though, they may produce something far worse… As M. R. James illustrates in his classic tale “A School Story.”


TWO men in a smoking-room were talking of their private-school days. "At our school," said A., "we had a ghost's footmark on the staircase. What was it like? Oh, very unconvincing. Just the shape of a shoe, with a square toe, if I remember right. The staircase was a stone one. I never heard any story about the thing. That seems odd, when you come to think of it. Why didn't somebody invent one, I wonder?"

     "You never can tell with little boys. They have a mythology of their own. There's a subject for you, by the way--'The Folklore of Private Schools.'"

     "Yes; the crop is rather scanty, though. I imagine, if you were to investigate the cycle of ghost stories, for instance, which the boys at private schools tell each other, they would all turn out to be highly-compressed versions of stories out of books."

     "Nowadays the Strand and Pearson's, and so on, would be extensively drawn upon."

     "No doubt: they weren't born or thought of in my time. Let's see. I wonder if I can remember the staple ones that I was told. First, there was the house with a room in which a series of people insisted on passing a night; and each of them in the morning was found kneeling in a corner, and had just time to say, 'I've seen it,' and died."

     "Wasn't that the house in Berkeley Square?"

     "I dare say it was. Then there was the man who heard a noise in the passage at night, opened his door, and saw someone crawling towards him on all fours with his eye hanging out on his cheek. There was besides, let me think---- Yes! the room where a man was found dead in bed with a horseshoe mark on his forehead, and the floor under the bed was covered with marks of horseshoes also; I don't know why. Also there was the lady who, on locking her bedroom door in a strange house, heard a thin voice among the bed-curtains say, 'Now we're shut in for the night.' None of those had any explanation or sequel. I wonder if they go on still, those stories."

     "Oh, likely enough--with additions from the magazines, as I said. You never heard, did you, of a real ghost at a private school? I thought not, nobody has that ever I came across."

     "From the way in which you said that, I gather that you have."

     "I really don't know, but this is what was in my mind. It happened at my private school thirty odd years ago, and I haven't any explanation of it.

     "The school I mean was near London. It was established in a large and fairly old house--a great white building with very fine grounds about it; there were large cedars in the garden, as there are in so many of the older gardens in the Thames valley, and ancient elms in the three or four fields which we used for our games. I think probably it was quite an attractive place, but boys seldom allow that their schools possess any tolerable features.

     "I came to the school in a September, soon after the year 1870; and among the boys who arrived on the same day was one whom I took to: a Highland boy, whom I will call McLeod. I needn't spend time in describing him: the main thing is that I got to know him very well. He was not an exceptional boy in any way--not particularly good at books or games--but he suited me.

     "The school was a large one: there must have been from 120 to 130 boys there as a rule, and so a considerable staff of masters was required, and there were rather frequent changes among them.

     "One term--perhaps it was my third or fourth--a new master made his appearance. His name was Sampson. He was a tallish, stoutish, pale, black-bearded man. I think we liked him: he had travelled a good deal, and had stories which amused us on our school walks, so that there was some competition among us to get within earshot of him. I remember too--dear me, I have hardly thought of it since then--that he had a charm on his watch-chain that attracted my attention one day, and he let me examine it. It was, I now suppose, a gold Byzantine coin; there was an effigy of some absurd emperor on one side; the other side had been worn practically smooth, and he had had cut on it--rather barbarously--his own initials, G.W.S., and a date, 24 July, 1865. Yes, I can see it now: he told me he had picked it up in Constantinople: it was about the size of a florin, perhaps rather smaller.

     "Well, the first odd thing that happened was this. Sampson was doing Latin grammar with us. One of his favourite methods--perhaps it is rather a good one--was to make us construct sentences out of our own heads to illustrate the rules he was trying to make us learn. Of course that is a thing which gives a silly boy a chance of being impertinent: there are lots of school stories in which that happens--or any-how there might be. But Sampson was too good a disciplinarian for us to think of trying that on with him. Now, on this occasion he was telling us how to express remembering in Latin: and he ordered us each to make a sentence bringing in the verb memini, 'I remember.' Well, most of us made up some ordinary sentence such as 'I remember my father,' or 'He remembers his book,' or something equally uninteresting: and I dare say a good many put down memino librum meum, and so forth:


but the boy I mentioned--McLeod--was evidently thinking of something more elaborate than that. The rest of us wanted to have our sentences passed, and get on to something else, so some kicked him under the desk, and I, who was next to him, poked him and whispered to him to look sharp. But he didn't seem to attend. I looked at his paper and saw he had put down nothing at all. So I jogged him again harder than before and upbraided him sharply for keeping us all waiting. That did have some effect. He started and seemed to wake up, and then very quickly he scribbled about a couple of lines on his paper, and showed it up with the rest.


As it was the last, or nearly the last, to come in, and as Sampson had a good deal to say to the boys who had written meminiscimus patri meo and the rest of it, it turned out that the clock struck twelve before he had got to McLeod, and McLeod had to wait afterwards to have his sentence corrected. There was nothing much going on outside when I got out, so I waited for him to come. He came very slowly when he did arrive, and I guessed there had been some sort of trouble. 'Well,' I said, 'what did you get?' 'Oh, I don't know,' said McLeod, 'nothing much: but I think Sampson's rather sick with me.' 'Why, did you show him up some rot?' 'No fear,' he said. 'It was all right as far as I could see: it was like this: Memento--that's right enough for remember, and it takes a genitive,--memento putei inter quatuor taxos.' 'What silly rot!' I said. 'What made you shove that down? What does it mean?'


'That's the funny part,' said McLeod. 'I'm not quite sure what it does mean. All I know is, it just came into my head and I corked it down. I know what I think it means, because just before I wrote it down I had a sort of picture of it in my head: I believe it means "Remember the well among the four"--what are those dark sort of trees that have red berries on them?' 'Mountain ashes, I s'pose you mean.' '


I never heard of them,' said McLeod; 'no, I'll tell you--yews.' 'Well, and what did Sampson say?' 'Why, he was jolly odd about it. When he read it he got up and went to the mantel-piece and stopped quite a long time without saying anything, with his back to me. And then he said, without turning round, and rather quiet,


"What do you suppose that means?" I told him what I thought; only I couldn't remember the name of the silly tree: and then he wanted to know why I put it down, and I had to say something or other. And after that he left off talking about it, and asked me how long I'd been here, and where my people lived, and things like that: and then I came away: but he wasn't looking a bit well.'

     "I don't remember any more that was said by either of us about this. Next day McLeod took to his bed with a chill or something of the kind, and it was a week or more before he was in school again. And as much as a month went by without anything happening that was noticeable. Whether or not Mr. Sampson was really startled, as McLeod had thought, he didn't show it. I am pretty sure, of course, now, that there was something very curious in his past history, but I'm not going to pretend that we boys were sharp enough to guess any such thing.

     "There was one other incident of the same kind as the last which I told you. Several times since that day we had had to make up examples in school to illustrate different rules, but there had never been any row except when we did them wrong. At last there came a day when we were going through those dismal things which people call Conditional Sentences, and we were told to make a conditional sentence, expressing a future consequence. We did it, right or wrong, and showed up our bits of paper, and Sampson began looking through them. All at once he got up, made some odd sort of noise in his throat, and rushed out by a door that was just by his desk. We sat there for a minute or two, and then--I suppose it was incorrect--but we went up, I and one or two others, to look at the papers on his desk.


Of course I thought someone must have put down some nonsense or other, and Sampson had gone off to report him. All the same, I noticed that he hadn't taken any of the papers with him when he ran out. Well, the top paper on the desk was written in red ink--which no one used--and it wasn't in anyone's hand who was in the class. They all looked at it--McLeod and all--and took their dying oaths that it wasn't theirs. Then I thought of counting the bits of paper. And of this I made quite certain: that there were seventeen bits of paper on the desk, and sixteen boys in the form. Well, I bagged the extra paper, and kept it, and I believe I have it now. And now you will want to know what was written on it. It was simple enough, and harmless enough, I should have said.

     "'Si tu non veneris ad me, ego veniam ad te,' which means, I suppose, 'If you don't come to me, I'll come to you.'"

     "Could you show me the paper?" interrupted the listener.

     "Yes, I could: but there's another odd thing about it. That same afternoon I took it out of my locker--I know for certain it was the same bit, for I made a finger-mark on it and no single trace of writing of any kind was there on it. I kept it, as I said, and since that time I have tried various experiments to see whether sympathetic ink had been used, but absolutely without result.

     "So much for that. After about half an hour Sampson looked in again: said he had felt very unwell, and told us we might go. He came rather gingerly to his desk, and gave just one look at the uppermost paper: and I suppose he thought he must have been dreaming: anyhow, he asked no questions.

     "That day was a half-holiday, and next day Sampson was in school again, much as usual. That night the third and last incident in my story happened.

     "We--McLeod and I--slept in a dormitory at right angles to the main building. Sampson slept in the main building on the first floor. There was a very bright full moon. At an hour which I can't tell exactly, but some time between one and two, I was woken up by somebody shaking me.

It was McLeod, and a nice state of mind he seemed to be in. 'Come,' he said,--'come there's a burglar getting in through Sampson's window.' As soon as I could speak, I said, 'Well, why not call out and wake everybody up? 'No, no,' he said, 'I'm not sure who it is: don't make a row: come and look.' Naturally I came and looked, and naturally there was no one there.

I was cross enough, and should have called McLeod plenty of names: only--I couldn't tell why--it seemed to me that there was something wrong--something that made me very glad I wasn't alone to face it. We were still at the window looking out, and as soon as I could, I asked him what he had heard or seen. 'I didn't hear anything at all,' he said, 'but about five minutes before I woke you, I found myself looking out of this window here, and there was a man sitting or kneeling on Sampson's window-sill, and looking in, and I thought he was beckoning.'


'What sort of man?' McLeod wriggled. 'I don't know,' he said, 'but I can tell you one thing--he was beastly thin: and he looked as if he was wet all over: and,' he said, looking round and whispering as if he hardly liked to hear himself, 'I'm not at all sure that he was alive.'

     "We went on talking in whispers some time longer, and eventually crept back to bed. No one else in the room woke or stirred the whole time. I believe we did sleep a bit afterwards, but we were very cheap next day.

     "And next day Mr. Sampson was gone: not to be found: and I believe no trace of him has ever come to light since. In thinking it over, one of the oddest things about it all has seemed to me to be the fact that neither McLeod nor I ever mentioned what we had seen to any third person whatever. Of course no questions were asked on the subject, and if they had been, I am inclined to believe that we could not have made any answer: we seemed unable to speak about it.

     "That is my story," said the narrator. "The only approach to a ghost story connected with a school that I know, but still, I think, an approach to such a thing."

   *     *      *     *      *

     The sequel to this may perhaps be reckoned highly conventional; but a sequel there is, and so it must be produced. There had been more than one listener to the story, and, in the latter part of that same year, or of the next, one such listener was staying at a country house in Ireland.

     One evening his host was turning over a drawer full of odds and ends in the smoking-room. Suddenly he put his hand upon a little box. "Now," he said, "you know about old things; tell me what that is." My friend opened the little box, and found in it a thin gold chain with an object attached to it. He glanced at the object and then took off his spectacles to examine it more narrowly. "What's the history of this?" he asked. "Odd enough," was the answer. "You know the yew thicket in the shrubbery: well, a year or two back we were cleaning out the old well that used to be in the clearing here, and what do you suppose we found?"

     "Is it possible that you found a body?" said the visitor, with an odd feeling of nervousness.

     "We did that: but what's more, in every sense of the word, we found two."

     "Good Heavens! Two? Was there anything to show how they got there? Was this thing found with them?"

     "It was. Amongst the rags of the clothes that were on one of the bodies. A bad business, whatever the story of it may have been. One body had the arms tight round the other. They must have been there thirty years or more--long enough before we came to this place. You may judge we filled the well up fast enough. Do you make anything of what's cut on that gold coin you have there?"

     "I think I can," said my friend, holding it to the light (but he read it without much difficulty); "it seems to be G.W.S., 24 July, 1865."


Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_Halloween_2015.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 8:13am CST

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, terms and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren, Samantha’s in the booth and we have a brand new episode here for you. If you like new episodes, or if you have an episode to suggest, you can email me and tell me. The email is just and we’d be thrilled to hear from you. Here’s the thing, though, today’s episode isn’t on rhetoric.


It’s on rhetoricality. Psych! What, you may ask, is the difference between rhetoricality and rhetoric? Well, John Bender and David E Wellbery wrote this article in 1990 titled “Rhetoricality: on the modernist return of rhetoric” where they argue that for too long rhetoric had been deeply misunderstood and maligned and it was time to dust off rhetoric for the last 20th century.


They start with a metaphor about architecture to describe their plans. Imagine a Classical building of, say, Athens. You’ve got your triglyphs, you’ve got your stylobates. But then history keeps happening and architectural fashions change and no one is doing stylbates anymore. Then classical architecture is dusted off--literally--, and people say, “wow--let’s do that.” But don’t do that, not really, because things have changed. They have to alter the classics in order to fit a modern aesthetic. This is the difference between rhetoric and rhetoricality.


Bender and Wellbery argue a project of a Modernist reconciliation of rhetoric, as opposed to the Enlightenment and Romanticism hostility that characterized much of history. It’s funny that you don’t usually think of the philosophies of the Enlightenment and Romantic eras of having much in common: one group parades about in powdered wigs, says “what-what” and writes comedies of manners and constitutions while the other falls in love with consumptive prostitutes, wanders the lake district and dies young. But they’re both sort of anti-rhetorical. As Bender and Wellbury put it “Foundational subjectivity--be it the subject as res cogitans or as creative origin, as unique individual personality or as disinterested free agent within the political sphere--erodes the ideological premises of rhetoric” (12). So whether you’re a free spirit at the whims of the muse or a cog-like actor in the machine, there’s no place for the socially constructed work of rhetoric.

Five factors went into of the death of rhetoric, according to our authors:

  1. “scientific discourse became anchored in ‘objectivity’” (and you can see my air quotes)
  2. imaginative discourse became anchored in ‘subjectivity’” (ditto on the air quotes)
  3. “Liberal political discourse emerged as the language of communal exchange”
  4. The end of oral speeches and rise of print
  5. “standardized national languages emerged as the linguistic sphere of reference for cultural production and understanding” (22)

During this time, rhetoric, Bender and Wellbery argue, has been “contracted” (6) from its original form because “much of the terrain over which [rhetoric] held absolute sway during … 2 millennia [...] has now been appropriated by other disciplines: linguistics, information theory, stylistics, literary criticism, sociology, communications, marketing, public relations… To classical rhetoric ...belonged the description and theorization of all aspects of discourse not comprehended by the more delimited formulations of grammar and logic, the other two divisions of the so-called trivium” (6). Rhetoric has been poached upon. What is the point and purpose of modern rhetoric, then?


But if you’re looking at that list I gave earlier, you may notice that these factors are no longer such a part of our lives any more. Because the “new cultural and discursive space is fashioned that it is no longer defined by objectivism, subjectivism, liberalism, literacy and nationalism” (23). For instance, consider point 4--the rise of print. There’s no denying that more people are literate than in Cicero’s time, but we’re beyond literate in print text. Bender and Wellbury point out the rise of television and radio and we might, rolling our eyes at the old technology of the nineties, point to the advent of internet gifs, YouTube videos and podcasts. The conditions of classical and enlightenment thought have changed. We aren’t going back to oral speeches in the forum, but neither are we dominated by only print media.


And the modernist reinterpretation of rhetoric isn’t going to resemble rhetoric of ancient origins any more than the architecture is doing to resemble the posts and lintels of greek architecture.

The past isn’t ignored, though. Rhetoric, say Bender and Wellbury is  “Not just “rarified speech” but “groundless, infinitely ramifying character of discourse in the modern world”  and “Rhetoric is no longer the title of a doctrine and a practice, nor a form of cultural memory; it becomes instead something like the condition of our existence” (25). The condition of our existence! Heavy stuff that. Instead of calling something rhetoric, rhetoricity is now big rhetoric, pervasive and spurred by the conditions of modern life.

They give the examples of how pervausive rhetoric is, citing Thomas Kuhn and the rise of a rhetoric of science, and a rhetoric of linguistics, psychoanalysis, and mass communication. Our man I.A Richards ushered in, according the Bender and Wellbury, the rhetoric of literary analysis, and Lakoff and Johnson--whose book we reviewed in another episode--describe a rhetoric of pragmatics. Everything it seemed, could have “rhetoric of” tacked on front because everything was rhetorical.

“We are dealing no longer with a specialized technique of instrumental communication,” Bender and Wellbury writing, “but rather with a general condition of human experience and action” (38). If rhetoricality is everything,  “There can be no single contemporary rhetorical theory: rhetoricality cannot be the object of a homogeneous discipline” (38). This opens the way for all sorts of disciplines to enter into the rhetoricality bcause it’s a condition of being human.


As they say, “Modernism is an age not of rhetoric but of rhetoricality, the age, that is, of a generalized rhetoric that penetrates to the deepest levels of human experience” (25).

And that is quite the legacy for the Athenian rhetors.


If you have a favorite “rhetoric of” drop us a line at or shout out to us on the twitter device, which are both, I guess, modes of literacy, modern and post modern and very different from the print media of the Enlightenment and Romantic eras.


Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_Rhetoricity.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 10:40am CST



Welcome to Mere Rhetoric the podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, ideas and movement that have shaped rhetorical history. Big thanks to the University of Texas’ Humanities Media Project for supporting the podcast. Today we get to talk about a rhetorician who may have influenced everyone, or may not have even existed.



Aspasia is one of the most historically elusive, even mythical rhetoricians. As with Socrates, we only have second-hand accounts of her life and work, but unlike Socrates, she was a woman, which meant that much of the accounts we have of her are fragmented and often disparaging.


Aspasia is one of the few women from classical Athens who is listed by name and certainly one of the first female rhetoricians we have record of. What kind of rhetorician she was and how she was able to leave such a legacy is shrouded in jealousy, lies, and accusations. Anything we think we know about Aspasia has to be tempered by the historical circumstances of 5th century bc Athens.


And these were the circumstances for women in Classical Athenian life. If you were an upper-class woman, your life was circumscribe from birth. You were living cloistered in your father’s home until you married, quite young, to an older man. There was no real expectation for passion in marriage, and no sense of equal partnership. Your education was entirely within the home and your whole life was to be “daughter of a citizen and a citizen’s daughter.” Things were difference, however, if you were on the fringes of Athenian society, as Aspasia was.


Aspasia was a foreigner, the daughter of neither a citizen or a citizen’s daughter, and as such, she was outside of the restrictions of typical Athenian women. In someways, this may have aided her education and development. She became a hetaera, which is sometimes translated as prostitute, but that’s doesn’t do the position justice. Hetaera were women who entertained men intellectually, socially and sexually. They were capable of witty conversation and knowledgeable. To get an idea of who the hetaerea were, you’d have something like a prostitute mixed with a well-trained geisha. You can imagine that although Greek men had to marry an upper-class citizen for a wife, they more interested in actually spending time with women who were educated and could spend time with them and their friends, instead of being secreted away in the women’s quarters.


One Greek man, Pericles, certainly thought a hetaera could be more interesting than a whife. Pericles thought Aspasia was tops, and spent all of his time with her instead of with his wife. As a matter of fact, in a move that was shocking to the Athenians, Pericles wasn’t just content to have Aspasia as his mistress—he had to go and make her his wife. He divorced his proper, home-kept Greek wife and lived with this foreigner, whom he loved so audaciously that he kissed her at the doorstep every time he went in and out of the home. Now that’s just sweet. And that made many of the comic writers nervous.


It’s possible that Aspasia was so close to Pericles because she was his intellectual equal and some of the fragmented stories we have about her say that Pericles loved her for her brain. Really. Plutarch’s biography of Pericles relates ““Aspasia, some say, was courted and caressed by Pericles upon account of her knowledge and skill in politics.” (qtd 183)


Aspasia may have been one of Pericles’ logographers. If you recall, logographers were the speech writers of ancient Greece, and having a female logographer may be considered an insult to Pericles. For example, the lengthy argument made in Plato’s Menexenus (men-uh-zeen-us) that Aspasia wrote the famous funeral oration. There’s no reason why Aspasia couldn’t had written it, especially if she was as well-educated and cultural astute as the stories about her suggest. But Socrates makes the logographer woman analogous to the whore. Just as a logographer will write any one who pays a speech, regardless of their clients’ political or legal position, Aspasia the prostitute has, in scholar Madeleine Henry’s words “Aspasia made speakers of many men. The fact that one is names and that this one is a man with whom she had a sexual relationship, delicately suggests that she had sexual relationships with the others as well and that they all speak with words she taught them” (35). The connection between the rhetor and the prostitute does not go unnoticed in Cheryl Glenn’s 1994 article recovering Aspasia’s contribution to rhetoric. ““the ideal woman,” she writes “has been disciplined by cultural codes that require a closed mouth (silence) and closed body (chastity) and an enclosed life (domestic confinement).” (180). Glenn sees that Pericles saw—that Aspasia was very different from the Greek wife in all these ways, even breaking domestic confinement to write and teach.


The rhetoric teacher is a hussy because she teaches others. And it wasn’t just Pericles who went to Aspasia. From Plutarch, again “Socrates himself would sometimes go to visit her, and some of his acquaintances with him; and those who frequented her company would carry their wives with them to listen to her” because she “has the repute of being resorted to by many of the Athenians for instruction in the art of speaking” (qtd on 183). If this is accurate, Aspasia had her own school, the same way the Sophists like Isocrates did.



For all of the Socratic irony in the Menexenus that tears her down, you may have noticed that the Romans connected Aspasia with Socrates. Henry says that in some ways it wasn’t that Aspasia was a female Socrates, but, since she came first, Socrates was a male Aspasia. Aspasia also could out-socratic method Socrates and some people think that she taught Socrates how to be socratic. Listen to this dialoge quoted by Cicero in On Invention:



Aspasia reasoned thus with Xenophon's wife and Xenophon himself: "Please tell me madam, if your neighbor had a better gold ornament than you have, would you prefer that one or your own?" "That one." "Well, now, if she had a better husband than you have, would you prefer your husband or hers?" At this the woman blushed. "I wish you would tell me Xenophon, if your neighbor had a better horse than yours, would you prefer your horse or his?" "His." "Now, if he had a better wife than you have, would you prefer yours or his?" And at this Xenophon, too, was himself silent. . . . "Therefore, unless you can contrive that there be no better man or finer woman on earth you will certainly always be in dire want of what you consider best, namely, that you be the husband of the very best of wives, and that she be wedded to the very best of men." (I. xxxxi.51-53)


Sounds an awful lot like the socratic method, doesn’t it? Some scholars think, incidentally, that this dialog is sincerely advocating that both spouses in a marriage should be equally engaged in the relationship, but after reading the Menexenus, it seems to me that there is an equally compelling argument here that Aspasia is saying, “go ahead and covet your neighbor’s wife or husband because you could probably do better.” So you see how Aspasia’s rhetorical contributions are always being read through the lens of her sexuality.


According to the later Greek text Deipnosophists—or, as I like to call them, “Insufferable Foodies of the Second Sophistic”—it was Aspasia that also taught Socrates how to find, pursue and win love.


So if Aspasia was all this, why did she fade from the rhetorical tradition? The easiest answer is to say that as a foreigner and a woman it was very difficult for her to remain in the tradition. During the 1990s, feminist rhetoricians like Cheryl Glenn and C. Jan Swearingen, Susan Jarratt and Rory Ong all set out to “recover” Aspasia from the fragments and jealousy of the classical sources. Strangely, though, interest in Aspasia seems to have waned. There hasn’t been much written on her lately, maybe because it’s hard to say anything about her than what the unreliable, male classical sources have said. Madeleine Henry’s book, for instance, sets out to create not Aspasia’s history, but her historiography, how she has been invoked since the earliest western tradition through the renaissance, Enlightenment and up to the 20th century. In someways, then, we can’t ever know Aspasia, but only know about her. She remains stubbornly elusive and slandered.

Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_Asp_Asia.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 7:20am CST



Doot-do-do…doot-doot-do-do…Welcome Mere rhetoric a podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, ideas and movements that have shaped the rhetorical world. Special thanks to the Samantha in the booth and the Humanities Media Project for the support as we head on into the podcast. First though, I’d like to remind you to swing on over to iTunes and leave us a review. Hopefully a good review, but, you know, you have to take what you get. Or you can check out our Twitter page @mererhetoricked. Also, if you want to reach out to me in more than 140 characters, you can send me an email at mererhetoricpodcast That’s a lot of ways to send me a message. It wasn’t like that for poor Peter Elbow.



In the early 1960s, Peter Elbow was an over-worked, over-stressed grad student. He was homesick as an American in Oxford, rejected by an English girl whom he loved and, just as bad, he couldn’t writing. Week after week, he failed to turn in the essays assigned him.


He felt burned out on school and like he was a failure. But then he learned about a scholar named Ken Macrorie, who emphasized a method called freewrting, the unimpeded flow of writing without second-guessing, without doubting yourself and without worrying about whether you were impressing anyone else. He began to take notes about when his writers block took over, when he got stuck and what he did to become unstuck. By the time he emerged from the sixties, PhD in hand, he had a huge stack of notes which eventually became Writing Without Teachers, a book that is still widely read more than 25 years later and a hallmark of the expressivist movement.


Expressivism was a composition theory that really took off in the 70s and 80s in America as composition instructors moved away from the strict “drill and kill” days of current traditionalism. Because of the trickling impact of research like the Braddock reports, which condemned the efficicacy of grammar drills, instructors were looking for a new way to teach and expressivism was just that.


Elbow and other expressivist theoreticans like Wendy Bishop, and Donald Murray believed that the best way for student to write was to just let them write, and write a lot. Instead of focusing on what the teacher wants the student to say, the expressivists were more concerned with what the student has to say. This means more open topics, even more open genres of writing. Want to write a poem about global warming? Sounds great. Want to express your anger t having to take a required class? Excellent. Passion is a big deal. Over all, expressivism was highly individualistic, impressionistic and idiosyncratic.


This can take different forms. Elbow’s Teacherless Writing Class as a way of giving and getting feedback: a very diverse group (115)seven to twelve people, encouraged to give only their personal reading responses (77) instead of worrying about “whether the writing is good or bad” but rather “whether it worked or didn’t work” (80, emphasis in original). Elbow admits that he was heavily influenced by Carl Rogers and group theorpy. If you don’t remember who Rogers was from your psychology class, he’s the guy who’s always parroting back what you said in the form of a question. “I’m angry.” “So you’re saying you’re angry?” So you can imagine Elbow’s workshops going kind of similarly: “I can’t write my introduction.” “So you’re having a hard time writing an introduction? Why do you think that is?”


Another expressivist, Donald Murray, in A Writer Teaches Writing suggests that students write like real writers and the instructor “shut up, to wait, to listen, to let your students teach themselves” (144, cf 224, 103). However, Murray is concerned that students learn to work under the deadlines and criticism that real writers use. Although Murray admires Peter Elbow (Murray calls him “the master of free writing” [8]) for the workshopping thing, but I think there’s less of a connection than some have claimed. While he claims that writing can be therapeutic, he doesn’t think that writing should be therapy (()) and he thinks that bad writing comes from “writing before [students] are ready to write” (17) which is very different from Elbow’s “write until it comes” philosophy, Although Murray did “vote with that caucus” of personal expression for many years (4-5).



Expressivism, despite-slash-because of its hippy-dippy reputation was controversial. Harris and Hashimoto (debate and doubt are vital to critical thinking), James Berlin (knowledge is too private, not socially conductive enough).


Famously, David Bartholmae who claimed that Elbow “comes down on the side of credulity as the governing idea in the undergraduate writing course” and doesn’t expect writers to prove themselves first and “wants his students to ‘trust’ language and implies, rightly, that I would teach a form of mistrust” (CCCC 1995)


But all of these critics may have been overstating the importance of expressivism as a movement.


As James Zebroski has pointed out in History, Reflection and Narrative: the Professionalization of Composition 1963-1983, expressivism was never actually a serious threat, even to the degree that he finds “very little evidence to suggest there even was anything one could title an expressivist movement” (106). Still what Zebroski calls “the spectre of expressivism” (106-9) nevertheless played a crucial role in rallying compositionists to professionalize within the academy. By responding to the imaginary opposition, those who wished to professionalize composition could draw lines in the sand that articulate their position. Faced with the idea that writing can’t be taught, compositionists had to formulate a good argument about how it could and develop cognitive lines of research that emphasize the process of writing and writing acculturation.


So while few compositionists would ever call themselves expressivits (Wendy Bishop insisted that she was, instead, a “social-expressivist”), expresivism had a huge impact on composition studies, even if it was just something to shake us out of the emphasis on grammatical correctness and writing themes that had dominated writing instrution for more than 75 years. So at least for that, we owe the expressivists a huge debt of gratitude. And even if the whole movement didn’t take root permanently, the methods of expressivism, of open, uncriticizing writing, free, fast and joyful, these have been added to the techniques of helping writers just write something, the way the helped Peter Elbow to do so all those years ago.


Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_Expressivism_Rough.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 1:40pm CST

Welcome Mere rhetoric a podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, ideas and movements that have shaped the rhetorical world. Special thanks to the Samantha in the booth and the Humanities Media Project for the support I’m mary h and today we’re talking about Mina Shaughnessy’s book Error and Expectations


Errors and Expectations was published in 1977, but the story that led to it begins earlier, in the late 60s. After centuries of higher education being limited t the elite classes, universities began to open up. In fact, many universities, including Shaughnessy’s City College in New York, began open admissions. This meant that college education was now available to many people who had never before thought that they could attend college. This also meant that many of the new students were underprepared for college. This led to the development of what was called “basic writing”—what had previously been called “remedial writing.” Shaughnessey had to develop a program that would help the students to learn to write in ways that would enable success in all of their college classes. Quickly she discovered tht the students she taught weren’t writing like absolute novices or children, but that their writing had its own sort of logic based on the rules they thought they knew about writing. She found “BW students write the way they do, not because they are slow or non-verbal, indifferent to or incapable of academic excellence, but because they are beginners and must, like all beginners, learn by making mistakes “ But it wasn’t enough just to go off of a hunch. Shaughnessey compiled more than 4000 placement essays—the essays that determined whether students needed to be placed in basic writing—and searched for the patterns in them.


In this way, Shaughnessay was a pioneer in two fields: First off, she was among the first composition scholars to look at the characteristics of basic writers in more than a defitionency model. These students weren’t monkeys bashing away at typewriters when they wrote their essays, but their errors were informed by their expectations—what they thought was good writing. If certain rules or principles hadn’t been taught them, their errors would exhibit those patterns, but Shaughnessy broke away from the idea that some people just couldn’t write or couldn’t be taught how to write. She encouraged instructors to not worry about having to lay ground work but instead insisted ““Words, for the most part, must be learned in contexts, not before contexts” (217).

She legitimized the study of basic writing and dignified basic writers within composition.


As she writes in her introduction “the territory I am calling basic writing and what others might call remedial or developmental writing” is still very much a frontier, unmapped, except for a scattering of impressionistic articles anda few blazed trails that individual teachers propose those their tests, and like the settlers of other frontiers, the teachers who by choice or assignment are heading to this pedagogical West are certain to be carrying many things they will no be needing, that will clog their journey as they get further on. So too they will discover the need of other things they do not have and will need to fabricate by mother wit out of what is at hand”


That kind of rough-and-ready development of a theory, is the other way that Shaughnessay influenced a developing field; she was among the first practitioner-scholars of composition. She taught basic writers for nine years and was intimately connected with these students’ experience, but she wasn’t content to thinking about improving the writing of just a handful of students in just her class. She found patterns in writing, began to classify and characterize these patterns and connected them to the available. When most of the understanding about basic writing was mired in what Stephen North would call “lore,” Shaughnessy was trying to find clear empirical ways of talking about student writing. This isn’t to say she was a pioneer in an ivory tower—each of her chapters gives suggestions to other practitioners and she talks about the importance of “Monday morning, into the life of the young man or woman sitting in a BW class,” where” our linguistic contemplations are likely to hover over a more immediate reality—namely the fact that a person who does not control the dominant code of literacy in a society that generated more writing than any society in history is likely to be pitched against more obstacles than are apparent to those who have already mastered that code” –in short, writing with errors hurts the lives of basic writers. For Shaughnessy, the access to this code was a matter of political and social justice, and was imperative to her age—and if you think about how we have entered a world of incessant texting, blogging, report writing, then you can imagine how important these questions of access are today. You can image these questions of access resonating with later scholars who care about questions of access like Lisa Delpit.


Although we now have many more studies about the patterns of Basic writing and how to educate basic writers, Shaughnessy remains a crucial figure for the discipline and this book Erros and Expectations, is now a classic of composition research.


Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_Errors_and_Expectations_Rough.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 9:36am CST

The classic, the first episode in better form! (Except this transcript is a little was-translated-by-someone-unfamiliar-with-rhetoric-and-American-politics. Thanks, Fivrr!)


What is Rhetoric?




            Welcome to MereRhetoric, a podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, terms and movement that have defined the history of rhetoric. Sponsored by the University of Texas Student Chapter of the Rhetoric Society of America.


I'm Mary Hedengren at the University of Texas Austin and thank you for joining us on our inaugural podcast. Today, we're going to talk a little bit about "What is Rhetoric?"


            "No more rhetoric," says a politician or "Let's stop the empty rhetoric. It's time to cut the rhetoric and get to action." These are expressions that we hear all the time. Rhetoric is one of the only fields that's consistently used as a pejorative. We know better than that though. We know that rhetoric is a dynamic field with really important thinkers and a lot of contributions to a lot of other disciplines.


            But do we actually know what rhetoric is?


            It's hard for us to define what rhetoric is when everybody seems to think that it's something like rhetricory,to use Wayne Booth's term. So what is it? How do we explain to our potential fathers-in-law, aunts at family reunions or hairdressers? What it is that we're doing with our time and our money?


            Actually, the history of defining rhetoric is the history of rhetoric. This is a question that's been plaguing people for a really long time. I'm trying to figure out what it is that we're doing and how to describe it becomes an obsession of a lot of the greatest thinkers.


            Today, we're going to talk a little bit about some of these thinkers; some of the ways that rhetoric has been defined historically and some things that might be useful for us now as we seek to find an answer to that pesky question, "What is it that you're doing?"


            One of the biggest ways to sort of think about rhetoric is through metaphors and we'll talk more about metaphors and the powers that they have in a later podcast. We might think about some of the ones that Plato brings up when he's talking about them in Gorgias. Is rhetoric sugar for medicine? Spoonful of sugar that makes medicine go down; that's able to sort of lighten the load of the hard truths of philosophical or scientific inquiry?


            Is rhetoric like fighting in boxing and when we teach people rhetoric, we're only giving them a neutral skill that could be used for positive purposes or negative purposes. These are a few of the many metaphors that come up to sort of try to describe what is that rhetoric is about.


            Now, some of the different definitions that have come up have been sort of through the western tradition. Plato for example called rhetoric the art of winning the soul by discourse and we sort of think of Plato as being sort of back and forth from how you felt about rhetoric. Sometimes he seems to think that rhetoric is a really bad idea; other times, he's more concerned about how it can be done well and defining rhetoric can something that can be useful.


            So when he says winning the soul through discourse, he's really concerned a lot about how you can talk to somebody who you really love and care for and know a lot about them and sort of have responsible good rhetoric. Aristotle on the other hand – instead of thinking about winning the soul by discourse is more about finding the available means of persuasion.


            This is kind of a different switch from Plato where instead of rhetoric being something that you use as an instrument, you have what could really be called defensive rhetoric. Just discovering. It's an act of invention. You sort of see what could be possible.


            This is going to be important for a lot of rhetorical history especially if pedagogs you are people are starting to think about how do we do exercises were people try to find all of the available means of persuasion. What could be done? What could be effective? Instead of thinking as purely it’s something that's practical.


            You may get this a lot when you're talking to people at parties. Is rhetoric something that you just teach people so that they can use, so that they can give a good speech or give a good presentation? Or is rhetoric also something that you want to study so that people aren't taken in byhuxtorsor are able to weigh an argument, be more balanced about it.


            This is a pretty big definition and it bears more conversation than we have time for here but we'll probably talk about that in a later podcast. If not, I encourage you to go through and sort of think about how that definition is going to impact the way that you give an answer and the way that you direct your own work. Now, Cicerodid a lot of different definitions of rhetoric and he's one of guys who's most famous for sort of breaking up this one big art, rhetoric, into these several different sort of sub purposes or canons.


So we have things like invention as being part of rhetoric and all the way back to memorizing the speech and giving a good delivery, pronouncing the words that you say. All of these things, Cicero says, are part of rhetoric.


            These distinctions can be important for us as we try to define our own definition of what rhetoric is. Are we going to say that rhetoric is about finding the information? Does it include the research that we go to? Does it include the things that impact the way that we do the research we do? What kinds of inquiry are appropriate through the kind of product that we want to produce?


            On the other side of things, how much of rhetoric is delivery? Is the performance of it? In recent times, we sort of stepped away from thinking about performance too much as opposed to sort of what Cicero was thinking about what was actually an oral performance where you stand up and entertain people and sort of get up; many different sort of public speaking elements that you can or sort of hold their interest.


            And this becomes something that we could really think about especially this one with whether invention is part of rhetoric. Back in history, this is going to be a big question to sort of define what our field is. Some people are going to put Peter Ramos as sort of the bad guy in the story as somebody who says, "Maybe rhetoric doesn't have to do with invention. Maybe rhetoric is just this other half, this delivery; how you polish it up," Is rhetoric just a pretty face that we put on a good piece of philosophy?


            This definition may remind you a little bit about Plato's idea that this is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. But in another sense, it's really taking out any sort of invention and put in that more sort of the business of science as opposed to [00:06:57] philosophy which I think is where some of these other bacon and [00:07:03] are sort of taking it.


This starts to become little bit more upended mostly in the 18th century. We have people like George Campbell who said rhetoric is an art or talent by which discourse is adapted to its end. The four ends of discourse are enlightening the understanding, pleasing the imagination, moving the passion and influencing the will. These four ends of discourse become really important; they sort of trickle down a lot through textbooks during this period.


            Is rhetoric something that is going to be involved with literature? And fiction? And pleasing the imagination? Is it going to be something that moves our passions? Changes our emotions? Like a passionate appeal for a political change. Is it going to be something that enlightens the understanding? Do textbooks have rhetoric?


            These are some questions that sort of Campbell, his definition, are really going to influence with us. Now, let's move finally to the 20th century and some of the definitions here. Kenneth Burke sort of changes our idea of what is rhetoric. He sort of says, "Rhetoric is rooted in an essential function of language itself; a function that is wholly realistic and continually born anew."


            The use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings by nature respond to symbols. This is kind of a step away from some of the things that even George Campbell was saying. What if rhetoric isn't just about persuasion? What if it isn't just about getting people to think the way you do? What if it has to do with any sort of cooperation based on symbols?


            This is a huge break. This sort of breaks away from this idea that it has to be linguistic or that it has to be about achieving some end like George Campbell said. It's an exciting development and we'll talk a lot more probably in an upcoming podcast about Kenneth Burke. By the way, this is a really cool place to start push rhetoric in another direction.


            Finally, moving in to people who live today. This is not like we've settled the question of what is rhetoric. There's still lot of people who are trying to figure this out and put different definitions of it. The great leader in composition Andrea Lunsford says that rhetoric is the art, practice and study of human communication.


            This is an interesting definition that might come up when you're talking with people. This is really hard problem because sometimes, we're really good at the study of human communication. But as rhetoricians, are we responsible to think about the practice of human communications? How well does rhetorician do standing up in front of an audience talking about their research?


            This is something that's making me super self-conscious as somebody who's put in together a podcast. But how much of what we do is sort of divorced from this level where a sister I was talking about it as a performance, a practice; something that's sort of happens out there as delivery. Another major of trend that seems to pop up with a lot of these modern definitions of rhetoric is thinking about what the goal is.


            For example, Charles Chuck Bazerman talks about how rhetoric is the study of how people use language and other symbols to realize human goals and carry out human activities. This is something about getting it done. Another definition that's sort of focuses on this is Gerard or Gerry Hauser's definition where he says, "Rhetoric is an instrumental use of language."


            One person engages another person in an exchange of symbols to accomplish some goal; it is not communication for communication sake. Rhetoric is communication that attempts to coordinate social action. For this reason, rhetorical communication is explicitly pragmatic. Its goal is to influence human choices on specific matters that require immediate attention.


This is a really interesting idea and it's what that [00:11:09] thinking about when you're defining rhetoric for your friends and then for yourself. Do you see rhetoric as something that accomplishes goals? Can good rhetoric be ineffective?


            A lot of times, people think about this in terms of Edmund Burke who is this great thinker and a fantastic writer. Someday, we'll talk about him. I'd like to think so. If not, go online and check out some of the speeches because this guy is on fire. He's like one of the best speakers to ever come out of England. And he gave one of his like creme de la creme speeches and a really strong one saying, "Hey England. Let's not go to war with America," but what happened, right?


            So here's a guy who's really good at what he does and really one of the top retorts but when he speaks, he doesn't bring about change. So, was that good rhetoric? Or bad rhetoric? Does rhetoric depend on its efficiency with audience? Is it all about the ends? Or can it be good rhetoric that does everything that rhetoric should do and is a shining beacon but nonetheless, fails to convince its audience.


            Another way to sort of think about this – one of my favorite examples is Eminem's song Mosh. Do you remember that? This is from the second election of George W Bush. It was awesome and passion rap song; sort of tells people to go out and let's not re-elect Bush and let's show him how angry we are. It's such an awesome piece of music.


            But you know what, Bush didn't win. And me? I still think Eminem is a great rapper.


            So in sum, we've talked about a lot of good questions that you'd think about and making your own definition of rhetoric. Is rhetoric something that you practice? Or is it something that's studied? Does it include invention and coming up with ideas? Does it include delivery and how those ideas are actually presented?


            Is rhetoric dependent on being language? Or does it work with any symbol? Does rhetoric always have to involve persuasion? And if so, does it depend on whether or not the goal is achieved; whether or not that was good rhetoric?


            As we continue to define and find sort of a definition of rhetoric, the purpose of this podcast is going to be sort of expand on some of these questions about what rhetoric is doing. We're going to talk about some of the most important ideas; some of the most important figures and some of the most important theories and movements that have shaped through rhetorical field.


            Decide for yourself. What is rhetoric? Why is rhetoric important to you? What sort of advances in rhetoric are going to be the ones that you want to contribute? You could think for yourself but one sort of one liney, piffy definition of what rhetoric is may be coming from some of these theories.


            Practice it for yourself a few times and that way next time, when somebody at a party asks you what it is you study, you could have a good comeback instead of just staring at your punch glass for a few more minutes.


            Thank you for joining me today – our first episode of Mere Rhetoric. If you have any questions or suggestions or things that you really would like to hear more about, feel free to email me. My email is And I'll try to take some of yourquestions sometimes. Thanks for joining us and remember, rhetoric is not just a pejorative.


Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_Episode_1_What_Is_Rhetoric.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 9:15pm CST



Welcome to Mere Rhetoric the podcast for beginners and outsiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. Send us feedback or suggestions at if you’d like, or go on iTunes and give us a rating—hopefullly a good one, but whatever you do... I’m Mary Hedengren and I was an English major.




We English majors are always being accused of loving metaphors. “We write clearly,” our science friends say smugly. “We don’t use any of that flowery language.” We, because we love our science friends, refrain from pointing out that “clear” writing and “flowery language” are, in fact, metaphors. Metaphors are often seen as deliberate and poetic in the hands of our greatest literary minds: from “It is the east and Juliet is the sun”, to “Love is a battle field” we think that metaphors are purposeful and avoidable and exclusively for poets or English majors.




Not so! Say conceptual metaphor scholars George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. In Lakoff and Johnson’s highly influential 1980 text Metaphors We Live By, they argue that Metaphors used by poets are just reformulations of conventional conceptual metaphors (267).  We discover the power of metaphors in all kinds of language in this book, not just “clear” writing and “flowery language,” but even daily greetings like “what’s up?” or “What do you have going on?” These metaphors are grounded in everyday life and make abstract ideas concrete.




Think about it: abstract thought is largely metaphorical, and the more abstract, the more we try to ground it (and there’s another metaphor). If you want to talk about abstracts, you almost always fall into metaphorical thought. It’s unavoidable and unconscious. In this sense, the title of the book Metaphors we Live By demonstrates how pervasive these patterns of thinking really are. Metaphors rely on understanding the world through the experience from “the perspective of man as part of his environment” (229).




It’s granted though, that “part of a metaphorical concept does not and cannot fit” (13). Love may be a battlefield because of the high stakes and opposition, but it certainly isn’t a battlefield because there are canons, bayonets and eventually historical markers. Lakoff and Johnson acknowledge the limits of the metaphor because “when we say that a concept is structure by a metaphor, we mean that it is partially structure and that it can be extended in someways but not in others” (13). Exactly what it is that does get highlighted points out something about the author or community that created the metaphor. The phrase “love is a battlefield” is shocking and expressive because it highlights the violence and pain of love. Saying love is like a red, red rose highlights another aspect of love. The metaphor of love as a gift highlights something else. Love as a tyrant highlights get another thing. Love as a shock, as magic, as a hole into which one falls, or an armed, naked child all fit and don’t fit love and they all highlight some aspect of what the author or community is trying to say about love. The structure of a metaphor highlights somethings and hide others. The structure extends beyond a single metaphor, though, to families of metaphors.




Lakoff and Johnson point out that there are some general metaphors that connect many smaller metaphors into a big, over arching metaphor. Some of these master metaphors include social groups as plants or life as a journey. Think about it: We might have a friend who has “lost all direction” and is “wandering” and “stalled out,” while another is a “go-getter” who is always on the “fast track” “getting ahead” along a “career path.” We ourselves  talk about “back when I was in high school” or “I’m looking forward to Tuesday,” or say “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it” like life is a path that takes us from one physical spot to another.  All of these little one-word metaphors belong under the larger umbrella of “life is a journey.” Similarly, we might say the same thing about LOVE IS WAR: We speak of romantic conquests, misalliences, being won over and fighting for a beloved’s affection. They all circle around this idea of war, which our culture has connected, weirdly, with romance.




And when these metaphors become part of our lives, we begin to extrapolate that the metaphors we’ve used in our society begin to have an impact back on our society again. If our society is invested in the idea that life is a journey, we may see the past as distant and unapproachable, something you can’t return to, once you’ve left. The metaphor comes from our culture and the metaphor comes back and changes our metaphor. It’s a process that reinforces itself so that cultural assumptions are backed up by tiny language choices. We can see this easily in overtly sexist, racist or ablest metaphors in language: “man up,” “red-headed stepchild,” “strong argument,” “a black day,” “lame idea.” People are used to using the pejorative metaphors so much that they seem natural and innocuous, while they reinforce ideas of which groups are powerful and which are subjected. It’s not just minority groups that are kept in subjection by the pervasive use of unexamined metaphoric language. An entire culture can be limited from seeing alternative narratives of power because of a block of metaphors that reinforces one perspective.




Let me give an example that Lakoff and Johnson give. We often use war metaphors to talk about discussions and debate. We say that we will either “win” or “lose” an argument. That we argue “against” an “opponent.” We can “attack a weak argument” or “make a good point” and if we do, they might respond, “touché.” Or an idea might “lose ground” or be “indefensible.” What if, instead, we thought of discussions as dances instead? Suddenly our opponents become “partners” and we move through a discussion in a non-combative sense.




You may point out, “Sometimes arguments are dances—what about when we ‘dance around’ an idea?” You’re absolutely right. While metaphors used to reason about concepts may be inconsistent, we live our lives on the basis of inferences we derive via metaphor (272-3).




Because metaphors are both formed by a society and influence the society, Lakoff and Johnson argue that they provides a philosophical middle ground between objective and subjective myths (184-225). This understanding is situated in neither an objective world outside of human experience nor in an entirely internal state; metaphors are constructed culturally in “the way we understand the world through our interactions with it” (194). These ideas mean that much of the history of thought is actually a history of trying to come up with better metaphors. Lakoff has written about how metaphors have influenced decisions like who to vote for and whether to go to war, with the assumption that this influence was, in some way, a tainting of rational thought. I’m not sure what correct thought would look like, partially because I have a hard time imagining anything breaking away from metaphorical conceptualization.




This book has had lasting influence since it was published more than 40 years ago. Look it up on Google Scholar and you’ll find it cited well over 30,000 times in everything from business to linguistics to computer programming. For instance, Peter Novig has pointed out how useful this kind of thinking may be for those in AI. Because those robots are always so literal—I’m looking at you, Data!








If you have a favorite metaphor, why not drop us a line at  And don’t forget, whether you’re an airy poet or the most hard-nosed scientist, there’s no escaping the power of metaphors.


Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_Conceptual_Metaphors_Final.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 10:26am CST