Interactions between rhetoric and philosophy have always been marked by concerns (and sometimes controversy) about the scope, status, and interdependence of the two disciplines. The reason is that while both disciplines are concerned with discourse, their aims are different. Philosophy is chiefly concerned with discourse as a medium to express and test knowledge, whereas rhetoric is chiefly concerned with discourse as a medium of influence on minds of individuals and collectives. As a historical matter, contacts between rhetoric and philosophy have differed according to intellectual and cultural circumstances within the ancient, medieval, renaissance, modern, and contemporary eras.
The earliest relations between rhetoric and philosophy concerned whether principles of speaking constituted an art. Theoretical precepts about speech-making existed before mid-fifth century bce, beginning evidently with Tisias (and possibly Corax) of Syracuse. By the early fourth century, a body of precepts had developed on public speaking that many conceived as an art. The status of the “art of speeches” was first questioned by Isocrates c. 390 bce, when he insisted that speaking was not governed by an invariable, exact art, but rather a variable, productive art (Against the sophists 10– 12). Shortly afterward, Plato enlarged the argument in his Gorgias (c. 387 bce); rhetoric, he reasoned, did not possess knowledge of its object, the soul, could not explain its procedure, and aimed at pleasure – not benefit – of the soul; therefore, rhetoric was not an art (465). Plato later placed rhetoric on a philosophical foundation in Phaedrus (c. 367 bce), where rhetoric was a soul-leading art dependent upon knowledge of soul types and the ability to adapt speeches to such types (261, 271).
Extending and responding to Plato, Aristotle’s On rhetoric (c. 330 bce) defended rhetoric as an art (1354a) and theorized artistic persuasion as deriving from rational arguments, the speaker’s ethical influence, and emotional states of the audience (1355b– 56a). Aristotle constructed rhetorical argumentation on analogy with dialectical argumentation (1354a). Accordingly, rhetoric received two logical instruments, enthymeme (rhetorical deduction) and example (rhetorical induction; 1356a–b); it was also furnished with general and particular heuristic topics (1358a). Concerning the scope of rhetoric, Aristotle constrained its application to settlement of matters falling outside the province of any art, especially matters that were deliberative, epideictic, and judicial (1357a; 1358a–75a).
Aristotle’s On rhetoric combined philosophical conceptions of rhetoric with some preexisting doctrines to provide a fairly complete theory of the parts of rhetoric, including invention, expression (incorporating delivery), and arrangement of speech materials. This theory facilitated further development, especially in the philosophical schools, for almost two centuries. However, around mid-second century bce, renewed hostility arose toward rhetoric among philosophers. They argued that rhetoric was not an art because it dealt with uncertainties, did not reliably persuade, and was not useful, either to speakers or communities. They also complained about the scope of rhetoric. Hermagoras of Temnos’ Rhetorical arts (plausibly c. 140–130 bce) proposed that rhetoric was concerned with political questions of two sorts: particular questions (hypotheses) and general questions (theses). Philosophers argued that general questions were not the concern of rhetoric, because their treatment required knowledge that belonged to other arts (Cicero, De oratore 1.56, 85). Defenders of rhetoric denied that rhetoric was restricted to particular questions (Cicero, De oratore 1.47–57, 85–88); they also argued that philosophy had no practical use (implying it was not an art; e.g., Philodemus, On rhetoric, P. Herc. 1078/1080, fragments 13, 18; Sudhaus 1896, 154–55, 157).
Within this polemical context, Cicero composed De oratore (55 bce), which reduced the dispute over rhetoric and art to a linguistic quibble (1.102–110) and required that any complete speaker know all important matters and arts (1.20). Cicero’s requirement admitted the speaker’s need to understand arts outside of rhetoric, but it also implied that speakers were superior to philosophers, because speakers added to philosophers’ knowledge a capability for persuasive expression (3.143). Quintilian extended Cicero’s view, claiming that rhetoric incorporated everything needed to educate a speaker, including all the philosophical arts (Institutio oratoria 1.pr.16–17, 2.21.13, c. 95 ce). Afterwards there were minor skirmishes between rhetoric and philosophy (see, e.g., Aristides, To Plato on rhetoric, 145–147 ce, and Sextus Empiricus, Against the professors 2, second–third century ce), but the two arts coexisted in a kind of intellectual détente through the remainder of antiquity.
During medieval times intellectual relations between rhetoric and philosophy were transacted chiefly in western Europe. Here rhetoric survived in three more or less philosophical venues – theology, logic, and the liberal arts – and its reception in these venues changed over time (cf. McKeon 1942). In relation to theology, rhetoric was initially theorized in Saint Augustine’s On Christian doctrine (c. 425) as the instructional complement to scriptural interpretation in preaching. Within Augustine’s theory, the materials of ecclesiastical speaking were to be discovered through semiotic interpretation of scripture, while the structure and expression of such materials was to be guided by rhetoric. Later preaching theorists embraced a broader range of rhetorical resources, including Thomas of Salisbury, whose Principles of the art of preaching (before 1230) exploited Roman principles concerning parts of rhetoric and parts of speeches.
Within the realm of logic, Boethius’ On topical distinctions (before 523) conceived of rhetoric alongside dialectic as a means of argumentative invention – one of two parts of logic (the other part was judgment). This general conception, which subordinated rhetoric to logic, persisted throughout the medieval era, for example, in Isidore of Seville’s On distinctions of things (before 636) and Hugh of St Victor’s Faculty of instruction (around 1130). In the medieval tradition of liberal arts, rhetoric was treated as one of a family of arts, otherwise including grammar, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Our early sources for this tradition include Martianus Capella’s Marriage of Rhetoric and Philosophy
Philology and Mercury (before 439) and Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies (before 636); these works represented rhetoric as an autonomous art generally consonant with ancient theories. Still, the increasing stature of logical theory during medieval times eventually produced an erosion of this autonomy and a subjection of rhetoric to logic even in the context of liberal studies, for instance in John of Salisbury’s Metalogicon (1159).
In the Renaissance, preaching theory and liberal studies persisted as venues in which rhetoric flourished; however, both were pursued along humanistic lines that showed significant independence from philosophy. In advanced education, the medieval artes liberales were largely supplanted by the studia humanitatis (grammar, rhetoric, poetic, history, moral philosophy), a course of study designed to inculcate an eloquent prose style. Likewise, innovation in preaching theory brought religious teaching in closer alignment with rhetorical concerns for discourse types, discourse parts, and eloquent style (e.g., in Hyperius’ On the composition of sacred sermons, 1553). The principal site of interaction between rhetoric and philosophy was at the boundary between logic and rhetoric. Along this frontier the competing claims of the two arts were prosecuted in a back-and-forth confrontation. The issue was joined first in Valla’s Recultivating dialectic and philosophy (1439), which subordinated dialectical argument to rhetorical invention (Mack 1993).
This stance was countered in Agricola’s On dialectical invention (1479), where Agricola added discourse arrangement and expression to invention and judgment as elements of the dialectical apparatus. Agricola’s strategy was reversed by Melanchthon’s Principles of rhetoric (1521); here, dialectical themes were added to the types of rhetorical speaking, and dialectical invention and judgment were integrated into the parts of rhetoric. Agricola received more positive response from Ramus, whose Principles of dialectic (1543) and Criticisms of Aristotle (1543) framed a critique of discourse arts that assigned dialectic the functions of invention and judgment (including arrangement) and allocated only style and delivery to rhetoric. Ramus’s conception of the rhetorical art was soon realized in Talon’s Principles of oratory (1545) and Rhetoric (1548), and this conception was influential for more a century throughout Europe and in North America. In this intellectual context it is not surprising that Bacon’s Advancement of learning (1605) constricted rhetoric in favor of logic, reducing it to an illustrative function in discourses, the content and arrangement of which were supervised by logical arts.
Modern times brought a new alignment of rhetoric with philosophy, particularly through the attempt to reshape rhetoric in accord with philosophical conceptions of human nature. One of the most important of these conceptions was faculty psychology, or the theory that soul or mind is constituted by separate elements with characteristic faculties or capabilities. This theory was current in Renaissance philosophy, e.g., in Reisch’s The pearl of philosophy (1503); however, in the modern era, rhetorical theorists increasingly conceptualized their art with special reference to its operation on mental faculties.
Pascal’s L’art de persuader (1658) conceived of different means of persuasion for the understanding and will, and provided a method for achieving the former. So too, Fénelon’s Dialogues sur l’éloquence (1717) presented the theory of eloquence as a set of precepts for proving to the understanding, portraying to the imagination, and moving the emotions. Such innovations popularized faculty psychology and encouraged its incorporation in more traditionally motivated rhetorics, for example, Gottsched’s Ausfürliche Redekunst (1736) and Sheridan’s A course of lectures on elocution (1762).
The flower of faculty psychology was realized in Campbell’s Philosophy of rhetoric (1776), where a concern for the faculties of understanding, imagination, emotions, and will served as the basis for the definition of rhetoric, the distinction of types of discourse, and the central heuristic for the development of theoretical principles. Campbell intended that his account would reposition rhetoric among the arts, and his definition of eloquence as “that art or talent by which discourse is adapted to its end” included all the forms of purposive discourse – not least poetry. This extended the reach of rhetoric and provided a rationale for belletrism, a contemporary movement that subsumed rhetorical, poetical, and sometimes other forms of discourse under a general literary theory (as, for example, in Rollin’s De la manière d’enseigner et d’etudier les belles lettres, 1726–1728). Although less programmatically inclined, Blair’s Lectures on rhetoric and belles lettres (1783) and Whately’s Elements of rhetoric (1828) both employed faculty psychology in explaining persuasion and its processes.
In the twentieth century, rhetoric was most influenced by two philosophical trends, the linguistic turn and social materialism. The linguistic turn attempted to understand human nature and epistemology by focusing on semiotics, especially the reality-disclosing function of linguistic communication. In the rhetorical discipline, this focus led at first to a narrow, communicative theory, where the subject of rhetoric became “misunderstanding and its remedies” (Richards 1936). However, later on it inspired a more expansive conception of rhetoric as a “symbolic means of inducing cooperation” (Burke 1950).
After mid-century, there was increasing philosophical support for the view that language constituted reality. This view heavily influenced theories of rhetorical criticism and eventually led to a new focus of the rhetorical discipline upon how rhetoric constitutes identities of individuals and communities (e.g., Charland 1987). A second and complementary trend was discursive materialism, or the philosophical view that the human condition is explicable through reference to its material basis in discourse. Consistent with this view, rhetoric came to be defined materially as “speech” (e.g., McGee 1982), and an immediate consequence was the identification of rhetorical theory with any systematic conceptualization of speech or situated discourse, including, for instance, discourse theories formulated by Toulmin, Foucault, and Habermas (see, for example, Foss et al. 1991).
- Burke, K. (1950). A rhetoric of motives. New York: Prentice Hall.
- Charland, M. (1987). Constitutive rhetoric: The case of the “Peuple Québécois.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 73, 133–150.
- Foss, S. K., Foss, K. A., & Trapp, R. (1991). Contemporary perspectives on rhetoric. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.
- Mack, P. (1993). Renaissance argument: Valla and Agricola in the traditions of rhetoric and dialectic. Leiden: Brill.
- McGee, M. C. (1982). A materialist’s conception of rhetoric. In R. E. McKerrow (ed.), Explorations in rhetoric: Studies in honor of Douglas Ehninger. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, pp. 23–48.
- McKeon, R. (1942). Rhetoric in the middle ages. Speculum, 17, 1–32.
- Richards, I. A. (1936). The philosophy of rhetoric. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Sudhaus, S. (1896). Philodemi volumina rhetorica, vol. 2. Leipzig: Teubner.