Aristotle defines rhetoric as the art of determining the available means of persuasion in a particular case. This can be interpreted in a number of ways. When considered narrowly, the study of rhetoric can be equated with the psychology of persuasion or with informal logic. However, when that definition is read along with the rest of the Rhetoric, as well as the Ethics and the Politics, and in the context of the rhetorical instruction given by the Sophists and Isocrates, rhetoric is better understood as the theory and practice of civic discourse.
This civic orientation is, at least among American scholars working in communication departments, usually associated with the study of political oratory, or what is called public address. While studies of public address in the early to mid-twentieth century were often primarily descriptive or appreciative, the last three decades of that century saw the development of a systematic attempt to link rhetorical theory and the study of public address to the literature on political and social theory. This was anticipated in the work of Kenneth Burke, which was heavily influenced by Marx and Freud, in books such as Counter-statement (1931), A grammar of motives (1945), and A rhetoric of motives (1950). Burke offered a philosophically rich account of the political and social implications of the human use of symbols. Rhetoric and social theory developed in the context of the “linguistic turn,” the resurgence of French and German social philosophy, and the consolidation of cultural studies in the humanities. Rather than focusing on the artfulness or effect of particular speeches, rhetoric and social theory sought to identify the role that public discourse plays in social, cultural, and political processes.
As a project, rhetoric and social theory has three trajectories. The first trajectory is analytic and descriptive, and directed toward properly identifying the manner in which public discourse mediates the development of politics and culture. The second trajectory is critical, and aims to identify the systematic distortions, biases, or interests produced or served by public discourse. These first two trajectories, when linked to a discussion of power, are often subsumed under the category of “critical rhetoric,” a term coined by Raymie McKerrow (1989). Finally, the third trajectory is to contribute to normative political philosophy by developing norms for democratic public communication.
The most influential American rhetorical scholars in the development of rhetoric and social theory in the late twentieth century include Michael Calvin McGee and Thomas B. Farrell, both because of their authorship of heavily cited essays in the Quarterly Journal of Speech, and because of their formative effect on doctoral students at the University of Iowa and Northwestern University, respectively. While they did not collaborate and their work is in many respects incompatible, it in large measure defined the boundaries of work that would follow. McGee, an anti-foundationalist, argued that rhetoric rather than philosophy was the source of political values such as “liberty” and “equality.” His work thus emphasized rhetoric’s ontological power. Farrell, a neo-Aristotelean, looked to Aristotle’s Rhetoric to develop an alternative to normative models of democratic communication developed by German political philosopher Jürgen Habermas, the best-known heir to the “Frankfurt School” of critical theory. Farrell, as such, emphasized rhetoric’s power to create social knowledge.
The rhetoric and social theory project was in large part successful, in that contemporary rhetorical studies is written in the context of and responds to German critical theory, cultural studies, feminism, poststructualism, and postmodernism.
- Burke, K. (1931). Counter-statement. New York: Harcourt.
- Burke, K. (1945). A grammar of motives. New York: Prentice Hall.
- Burke, K. (1950). A rhetoric of motives. New York: Prentice Hall.
- Farrell, T. B. (1976). Knowledge, consensus, and rhetorical theory. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 62, 1–14.
- McGee, M. C. (1980). The “ideograph”: A link between rhetoric and ideology. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 64, 1–16.
- McKerrow, R. E. (1989). Critical rhetoric: Theory and praxis. Communication Monographs, 56, 91–111.