Mere Rhetoric

Happy one-year anniversary!


  Welcome to mere rhetoric, a podcast for beginners and insighters 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 your for joining us on our inaugural podcast. Today we are going to talk a little bit about what is rhetoric? No more rhetoric says a politician or lets stop the empty rhetoric, it is 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 is 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 is hard for us to define what rhetoric is when everybody seems to think that it is 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 are doing with our time and our money? Well actually the history of defining rhetoric, is the history of rhetoric. This is a question that has been plaguing people for a really long time and trying to figure out what it is that we are doing and how to describe it becomes an obsession of a lot of the greatest thinkers. Today we are 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 your doing? One of the biggest ways to sort of think about rhetoric is through metaphors and we will 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 is talking about in the Gorgias. Is rhetoric sugar for medicine? Spoon full of sugar that makes medicine go down, that its able to sort of lighten the load of the hard truths of philosophical or scientific inquiry? Is rhetoric like fighting and boxing, and when we teach people rhetoric we are only giving them a neutral skill that can be used for positive purposes or negative purposes? These are the few of the many metaphors that come up to sort of try to describe what it 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 on how he felt about rhetoric. Sometimes he seems to think that rhetoric is a really bad idea, other times he is more concerned about how it can be done well and defining rhetoric in something that can be useful. So when he says winning the soul through discourse, he is 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 were instead of rhetoric being something you use as an instrument, you have what could really be called defensive rhetoric. Just discovering its 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 with pedagogs where people are starting to think about well how do we do exercises where people try to find all of the available means of persuasion? What could be done, what could be effective? Instead of thinking as purely its something that is practical. You may get this a lot when you are 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 by huxtors, or are able to weigh an argument and be more balanced about it. This is a pretty big definition and it bears more conversation then we have time for here, but we'll probably talk about that in a later podcast and 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 Cicero did a lot of different definitions of rhetoric and he is one of the guys who is 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 pronunciating 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 through? Does it include the things that impact the way that we do the research we do? What kinds of inquiry are appropriate for the kind of product that we want to produce? On the other side of things how much of rhetoric is delivery, the performace of it? In recent times we have sort of stepped away from thinking about performance to much as apposed to sort of what Cicero was thinking about where it was actually an oral performance where you stand up and entertain people and sort of get at many different sort of public speaking elements that you can to sort of hold their interest. This becomes something that we can really think about, especially this one with whether invention is part of rhetoric. Again 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 this 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 idea that this is the spoon full of sugar that makes the medicine go down, but in another sense it is really taking out any sort of invention and putting that more in sort of the business of science as apposed to philosophy which I think is where some of these other Bacon and Ramos where sort of taking it. Now this starts to become a little bit more upended at mostly in the 18th century. We have people like George Campbell who all say that 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 and 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 in 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 lets move finally to the 20th century and some of the definitions here. Kenneth Burk 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 holey realistic and continually born a new the use of language as a symbolic means of injected, inducing cooperation in beings that 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 it sort of breaks away from this idea that it has to be linguistic, or that it have to be about achieving some end, like George Campbell said. Its an exciting development and we will talk a lot more probably in an upcoming podcast about Kenneth Burk. This is a really cool place to sort of push rhetoric in another direction. Now we are finally moving into people who live today, this is not like we've settled the question of what is rhetoric. There are still a lot people who are trying to figure this out and put different definitions of it, the great leader and 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 are talking with people, this is really hard problem because sometimes we are 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 is making me super self-conscious, as somebody who is putting together a podcast, but how much of what we do is sort of divorced from this level where Cicero is talking about it as a performance, a practice, something that sort of happens out there as delivery. Another major 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 our human activities. There is something about getting it done, another definition that sort of focuses on this is, Gerald or Gerry Hosier'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 its one that Bears thinking about when your defining rhetoric for your friends and 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 was this great thinker and a fantastic writer. Someday we will talk about him I would like to think so and if not go online and check out some of his speeches because this guy is on fire, he is like one of the best speakers to ever come out of England and he gave one of his crem de la crem speeches, really strong one, saying hey England lets not go to war with America. Wooh! But what happened right? So here is a guy who is 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 there be good rhetoric that does everything that rhetoric should do, and is a shining beckon, but non the less 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 was from the election, the second election, of George W. Bush, it was this awesome impassioned rap song that sort of tells people to go out and lets not re-elect Bush, and lets show him how angry we are, and its such an awesome piece of music, but you know what Bush didn't win and me I still think Eminem's a great rapper. So in some we have talked about a lot of good questions that you can think about in making your own definition of rhetoric. Is rhetoric something that you practice or is it something that is 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? Well, as we continue to define, find sort of a definition of rhetoric the purpose of this podcast is going to be to sort of expand on some of these questions about what rhetoric is doing. We are 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 the 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 can think for yourself, but one sort of one liney piffy definition of what rhetoric is may be coming from some of these theorists. Practice it for yourself a few times and that way next time when somebody at a party asks you what it is your study, you can have a good comeback, instead of just staring at your punch glass for a few more minutes. Well thank your for joining me today. Our first episode of mere rhetoric and 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 will try to take listener questions sometimes, thanks for joining us and remember rhetoric is not just a pejorative.   

Direct download: what_is_rhetoric_rebroadcast.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 11:59am CDT

A rebroadcast of my favorite rhetorician.

Direct download: rebroadcast_isocrates.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 8:15am CDT