Mere Rhetoric

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

Welcome to Mere rhetoric, a pocast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren and I’d like to take you back, back in time…




It was 1985. As Bowling for Soup would later describe the year, “there was U2 and Blondie, and Music still on MTV” And in the pages of College English a debate was raging. Two scholars, careful and smart, battling over a question that still haunts beginning composition instructors: should we teach punctuation to first year writing students? The debate between Martha Kolln and Patrick Hartwell describes some of the difficulties in navigating the question of teaching grammar and punctuation, but it doesn’t begin with the Hartwell-Kolln debate of the 80s: it begins with the Braddock Report of 1963.




            The Braddock report, or, more properly, “Research in Written Composition" by Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Schoer was commissed by the National Council of Teachers of English to answer the question of whether grammar instruction had any impact on improving student writing. And what they found was that, using one- and three-year studies, instructing in grammar  was “useless if not harmful” to the teaching of writing. And for many instructors, that sealed the deal. Grammar fell deeply out of favor. But the Braddock report wasn’t carefully applied: its full argument was that: "The teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in actual composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing" (Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Schoer, 1963). The way grammar was being taught could be faulty without the practice of teaching grammar being problematic. In other words, to cite the 1960 Encyclopedia of Education Research “Diagramming sentences …teaching nothing beyond the ability to diagram.” Still, grammar was out.




            For Patrick Hartwell, that sealed the deal. In “Grammar, Grammars and the Teaching of Grammars,” he makes some strong claims against the teaching of grammar in composition. For one thing, he says that most errors don’t matter and those errors that do matter can usually be “caught” without knowing if they’re a predicate or a verbal adverb or whatever. Some of these errors will be caught ‘naturally,” Hartwell says, without anyone teaching explicitly. As he says, “If we think seriously about error and its relationship to the worship of forma l grammar study, we need to attempt some massive dislocation of our traditional thinking ,to shuck off our hyperliterate perception of the value of formal rules, and to regain the confidence in the tacit power of unconscious knowledge that our theory of language gives us.




Most students, reading their writing aloud, will correct in essence all errors of spelling, grammar, and, by intonation, punctuation, but usually without noticing that what they read departs from what they wrote.” If you can speak it, you can get it. Hartwell does admit that people who are coming at English from another language tradition may need more explicit help, but grammar can be cut from most classes without much harm being done. Hartwell cites research that spending time on grammar is useless and claims that “It is time that we, as teachers, formulate theories of language and literacy and let those theories guide our teaching, and it is time that we, as researchers,  move on to more interesting areas of inquiry.”  




Martha Kolln was not ready to move on. Kolln read Hartwell’s argument and gave it a big ol’ nu-uh. Students don’t just have an inborn sense of grammar because they don’t have an inborn sense of rhetoric.  She doesn’t think composition should be exclusively a grammar class, but she does believe in what she calls “rhetorical grammar.”




In her book of the same name, Martha Kolln tells us that punctuation is part of our voice, not just a “final, added-on step” (279). Some of these consequences are more delicate (“will that semi-colon create a more formal air than that dash?”), while others are more blunt (“if you use all caps here, your academic paper will look like an eight-grader’s text-message”). Kolln does a good job of not saying that certain things are off-limits—sentence fragments, passive voice, ellipsis.  Overall, these are choices, just like any rhetorical choice. So when Hartwell says that grammar shouldn’t be researched or taught in composition, she read his argument as saying “a subset of rhetorical choices shouldn’t be taught in composition.” And So she wrote a comment in to College English.




In this comment she agrees that composition shouldn’t be just about grammar and she agrees with the Braddock report that “formal grammar is not the best way to teach grammar” but “rhetorical grammar has a place in our composition class, because of course grammar is there” (877). And if the grammar is there, then it ought to be talked about intelligently. Kolln sees a lot of throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater in getting rid of all grammar instruction.




When people claim “ Our students should learn to write by writing-only by writing, by letting it all hang out. Let's not in-hibit their creativity by calling unnecessary attention to the structures they use; and we're certainly to have no "lessons" on sentence structure or parts of speech, on "formal gram-mar."






How foolish. How harmful. The result is a generation (or more) of students who have no language for discussing their language. We teach them terminology in every other field-in science and math and history and geography and computer science and physical education, in literature, and in French. But not in their own language.”




Well, Hartwell read Kolln’s argument and made the snappy reply “ther’s little to be accomplished by talking about paradigms” Zing!




I mean, is it okay if I take a sidebar and say that passions here are remarkably high? Both Kolln and Hartwell have deep-rooted passions about the teaching and study of grammar, calling each other’s perspectives “foolish”  and sniping at each other. It’s rare to find such academic vitriol, so when ever it comes up, you know there’s some intense feelings going on.




Anyway, Hartwell says that not teaching grammar doesn’t keep student from talking about grammar because, of course, they will do so naturally, because “every culure develops a remarkable rich metalinguistics vocabulary for discussion language” and current students are no exception. He also says that it’s better to err on his side of thigns because if, hypothetically, he and Kolln were to take a tour of writing instruction among practioners, “ we’d find it dripping with a kind of grammar instruction we both deplore.”






Okay, so after the furver of these grammar debates, where does that leave us? Strangely, the answer to that question depends on which generation “us” is. The Braddock reports did eventually filter down into the classrooms and for a while it looked that Hartwell won this one. During that while was when I went through high school, actually. I had a totally of 3 days of grammar instruction in high school, which came during a creative writing class, of all things. But I was never expected to know any grammar vocabulary beyond what it takes to fillout a MadLibs.




But that’s changed. Yesterday my mom—also a writing teacher—texted me to say that she had been helping her 12-year-old grandson diagram sentences. Diagram sentences! I didn’t know that had been happening since the fifties: bowling leagues, Tupperware parties and diagramming sentences and here’s my nephew, in a generally progressive school, diagramming sentences! I shouldn’t be too surprised, though—I’ve noticed that each year my freshmen student enter with more and more background in grammar. This has led to the odd situation where sometimes my students know more about formal grammar than I do.




If you have strong feelings about grammar one way or another, why not tell us all about it at And don’t worry too much about proofreading your email—I’m not going to send it back corrected.






Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_Kolin_Hartwell_Final.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 1:26pm CST

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

Gorgias podcast




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 and I have--




Big news! Thanks the generous support of the University of Texas Humanities Project, you may notice that this is a beautiful recording. We’ve got a real microphone and not just my iPhone and a real editor and not just—me. So it sounds nice, yeah? That means we’ll be rerecording and rebroadcasting Vintage Mere Rhetoric in this snazzy, cleaned up and impressive new form as well as recording all our new episodes this way.




Tell us what you think about the new quality and suggest new episodes, because summer reruns are what?—the worst. Our email address is mererhetoricpodcast, all one word, at gmail. I totally read every email I get and it can change how the series goes, so that’s internet fame for you.




For instance, remember how listener Greg Gibby recommended we do a series or a countdown and now we’re counting down the villians of rhetoric?






In our “Villans of rhetoric” series we met the taxonomy-obsessed Peter Ramus and the monarchy-loving Thomas Hobbes. We heard arguments against rhetoric by a cast of Renaissance naysayers of smooth sayers and the Enlightenment criticism of rhetoric. Now we have the number one villain of rhetoric on today’s show.




Okay, so here’s the moment you’ve been waiting for, who is the villainous villain of rhetoric? Well. Socrates.


P-what? Yes, the guy featured in the Phaedrus, which not only defended rhetoric, but suggested a broader application of rhetoric, one that includes the private as well as the public stage. But while Socrates wants a more inclusive rhetoric in the phaedrus, in the Gorgias, he vehemnetally opposes the exclusive, political or demonstrative forms of rhetoric.




Gorgias is a dialogue writing by plato, which, like all dialoges is named after the main interlocutor, in this case the great sophist, Gorgias. Gorgias was a rock star rhetor. He gave sold-out performances of speeches that were counter intuitive. We’ll talk more about Gorgias in the future, but for now all you need to know is he was fabulously wealthy because of his rhetoric and people wanted to make gold statues of him. So there you have that.




When Socrates confronts Gorgias about his field, he’s taking on THE rhetor of the day.


Socrates interrogates Gorgias in order to determine the true definition of rhetoric, framing his argument around the question format, "What is X?" (2).[1] He asks, "…why don’t you tell us yourself what the craft you’re an expert in is, and hence what we’re supposed to call you?" (449e). He also challenges Gorgias on the immorality of rhetoric. Socrates gets Gorgias to admit that “effecting persuasion in the minds of an audience” is the only function of rhetoric (13).  There’s no sense that rhetorical thought can lead to any discovery or invention itself—which is quite different from the view of rhetoric as private as well as public and inspirational; the view of The Phaedrus.  So, rhetoric relies on duping the non-expert, over an expert (459a).  This creates immoral power differences. How can a teacher teach students to mislead people?




While it is true that rhetoric is amoral, it is not true that rhetoric is necessarily immoral. The best analogy of what rhetoric is in this dialogue is that of the boxer.  This is the example that Gorgias uses to defned teaching rhetoric—the trainer of the boxer isn’t responsible for making someone a bruiser and a bully because that boxer could also use his skills to defend women, children and small animals.




Gorgias is correct that the teacher is not ultimately responsible for the student’s morality. But additionally, the ability to fight well is one that, especially in Greek culture, was one that was without intrinsic right or wrong. It is right that people who can fight should fight to defend their country, their family, or a weak innocent. It is wrong that a person should use that same set of skills to harm the previously mentioned groups, in fact the action becomes treason, abuse and bullying, respectively. But fighting can also be neither good nor bad, as in the case of boxing exhibitions and competitions, which is only fighting for entertainment. With rhetoric, it is similar.




Another metaphor Gorgias and Scorates argue over is that of cookery. Socrates says that rhetoric is like good cooking, which makes things pleasant to the patient, instead of medicine, which tastes terrible, but is healthy. Nutrition arguments aside, Socrates doesn’t think about how if cookery could make medicine taste better, the people who need to take medicine would be more willing to do so. And while cookery’s capacity to do real good may depend on medicine, without cookery medicine might not be able to do any good if the patient is entirely unwilling to take it. This is the smaller argument for rhetoric that Socrates eventually makes. His view of rhetoric is that it “isn’t concerned with all speech” (7), isn’t the “only agent of persuasion” (15), and is only about serving other, deeper knowledges. Socrates concludes that rhetoric can maybe be okay as long as it is “used in the service of right,” like an appendage or ornament (527c).




At the beginning of the dialogue, Socrates made him promise that he would engage in dialogue (Socrtate’s speacialty) and not launch into speechmaking, which is Gorgias’ strong point. As usual,, though, Socrates dominates the conversation while insisting Gorgias is restricted to yes or no statements. It’s kind of playing dirty.


Eventually Gorgias gets either bored or frustrated and just leaves Scorates—who can blame him? That leaves Socrates to debate with Gorgias’ disciples, who are less principled than their teacher.




First he talks with Polus


Polus states that rhetoric is indeed a craft, but Socrates replies, "To tell you the truth, Polus, I don't think it's a craft at all" (462b). The dialogue continues:


"POLUS: So you think oratory's a knack?


SOCRATES: Yes, I do, unless you say it's something else.


POLUS: A knack for what?


SOCRATES: For producing a certain gratification and pleasure" (462c).


Socrates continues to argue that rhetoric is not an art, but merely a knack: "…it guesses at what's pleasant with no consideration for what's best. And I say that it isn't a craft, but a knack, because it has no account of the nature of whatever things it applies by which it applies them, so that it’s unable to state the cause of each thing" (465a).


Callicles is a Neizche  in embryo. He argues that might makes might and that suffering wrong is worse than doing it. He says enslaving people, killing and pillaging is only by convention shameful, and it is not wrong by nature. Nature says that if you can take it, you should take it. Pretty much he’s a bully.




There’s an argument implied by the way that Socrates begins by debating someone who is benevolent, if a little spacy and then by following his students and colleagues discovers that those who follow rhetoric’s precepts eventually descend into immoral cruely.






This dialogue had HUGE influence on the attitudes towards rhetoric. All the good platonists said, “nope, I can’t like rhetoric—it’s tricky and not universal and leads to tyranny.” In fact, most of our villians of rhetoric have directly mentioned Socrates as a source for why rhetoric is immoral, or else they have alluded to his same arguments about the lawlessness, fickleness or violence of rhetoric. Strangely, a lot of Socrates’ claims later show up in Phaedrus’ mouth, so he ends up contradicting himself later in the Phaedrus.




Also Aristotle and Cicero will have to respond to the claims that Socrates makes in the Gorgias about the social use of rhetoric—Cicero especially demands the kind of expertise in other topics that Socrates claims is missing. To be fair, Socrates’ complaints against rhetoric seem valid. But just that he’s attacking what we might see as the very worst of bad rhetoric, which leaves him open to change his position in the Phaedrus to accept a new definition of rhetoric.






Direct download: 01_Mere_Rhetoric_-_Gorgias_Edit_2.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 9:28am CST


“Today,” I.A. Richards begins his 1936 lectures, rhetoric “is the dreariest and least profitable part of the waste that the unfortunate travel through in Freshman English! So low has Rhetoric sunk that we would do better just to dismiss it to Limbo than to trouble ourselves with it--unless we can find reason for believing that it can become a study that will minister successfully to important needs” (3). this is just what Richards sets out to do in a series of lectures at Bryn Mawr that eventually became the thin book The Philosophy of Rhetoric.


For Richards, a literary scholar by training and one of the founders of the Close REading and New Criticism, rhetoric had been for too long about disputes and argumentation. Instead he proposes that rhetoric should be “a study of misunderstanding and its remedies” and investigation in “How much and in how many ways may good communication differ from bad?” To this end, the proposes a sort of philological rhetoric, one where there is to be “persistent, systematic, detailed inquiry into how words work that will take the place of the discredited subjuect which goes by the name Rhetoric” (23). This description may rankle contemporary rhetoricicans. We like argumentation, and resist the idea that what we should be doing sounds like the very work schoolmarmn sentence diagramming, but Richards recognized that the way words work cannot be divorced from society.


But Ricahrds also broadened the idea of what rhetoric could be--not just strict argumentation, but an exporation of all language. “Perausion is just one of the aims of discourse” he writes. “It poaches on others.” This opens up rhetoric to more than argumentation, and Richards’ focus on words, words, words does not come at the expense of thinking about meaning.


In fact, he derides what he calls the Proper Meaning Superstitution, the fallacious ida that “a word has a meaning of its own (ideally, only one) independent of and controlling its use and purpose for which it should be uttered” (11).

Instead “What a word means is the missing parts of the contexts from which it draws its delegated efficacy” (35). It’s all context.


In order to illustrate the importance of context, Richards gives the example of the metaphor, one of the four master tropes. He separates the metaphor into its two parts: the tenor and vehicle. the tenor is the thing behind the metaphor and the vehicle is the means of conveying it. So if I said love is a battlefield, love is the tenor and battlefield is the vehicle. That girl is a firework. girl is tenor, firework is the vehicle. So far so good? So metaphors, Richards says, “may work admirably without our being able with any confidence to say how ti works or what is the ground of the shift.” Richards gives his own, slightly outdated example “If we call some one a pig or a duck, for example, it si little use looking for some actual resemblance toa  pig or a duck as the ground. We do not call someone a duck ro imply that she has a bill and paddles or is good to eat” (117). Little venture into canniblistic imagry there, I.A., but, of course, we call someone a duck becuase they are “charming and delightful”--or we could call someone a duck if we were a little more british. But the duck example highlights that while some metaphors work because of a “direct remblance” between the tenor and the vehicle and sometimes because of a similar attitutude to both--love is like a battlefield because there are similar feelings to being at war and being in love. This all sounds like a lot of poetics, but it demonstrates Richards concern for the very small elements of communication.


Words are vitally important, down to the detail, for Richards. “Words are the meeting points at which regions of experience which can never combine in sensation or intuition, come together. They are the occasion and the means of that growth which is the mind's endless endeavor to order itself. That is why we have language. It is no mere signalling system. It is the instrument of all our distinctively human development, of everything in which we go beyond the other animals." (131)


Ultimately, he envisions a philosophical restructuring of rhetoric were “we may in time learn so much about words that they will tell us how our minds work” (136). Further, he goes on “It seems modest and reasonable to combine these dreams and hope that a patient persistence with the problems of Rhetoric may, while exposing the causes and modes of the misinterpretation  of words, also throw light upon and suggest a remdial discipline for deeper and more grievous disorders; that, as the mall and local errors in our everday misunderstandings with language are models in miniature of the greater errors which disturb the development of our personalities, their study may also show us more about how these large scale disasters may be avoided (136-7). The man who pioneered New Criticism proposes a New Rhetoric beyond argumentation.


for all that, you won’t read much rhetorical scholarship pulling on Richards. Back in 1997, Stuart C Brown pointed out that while most rhetoric students read the Philosophy of Rhetoric, or at least excerpts of it, rhetorical scholars don’t really pay much attention to Richards. Maybe they have a word or two of “faint praise” and ackowledge him as part of our tradition, but they don’t spend much time on him. Brown thinks this is a mistake and that Ricahrds “ established the basic argument for establishing a truly new rhetoric” (219) By acknowledging the multiplicity of meanings, the instabliity of langauge, Richards opens up space for rhetorical interpretation. Brown makes an indepth defense of the value of Richards’ work. But still, 1997 was a long time ago and Richards still hasn’t come to the forefront as a rhetorical influence.


that being said, we’ll get to spend a little more time with Richards, because next week we’re going to talk about Richard’s other major work--the Meaning of Meaning--so get ready to get hipster about your rhetorical theoretians next time on Mere Rhetoric.

Direct download: Richards_Philosophy_of_Rhetoric.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 1:11pm CST