Theories of Rhetoric(s)

Since the ancient Greeks coined the term "rhetoric" to identify the politically crucial skill of effective public speaking, there have been countless theories about what rhetoric is, how it works, why it works, and what it means for human socio-political interaction. To get a handle on 2,500 years of theory in rhetoric, I'll rely on a taxonomy created by scholar James A. Berlin to classify many diverse theories.

When we communicate we employ rhetoric(s). This means, at some level, we are engaging in socio-political action with/for/against others. The 's' appended to "rhetoric" indicates that there are more than one, and each arises based on the socio-political needs of a given person, group, or culture.  Berlin says, a rhetoric

"has at its base a conception of reality, of human nature, and of language. In other terms, it is grounded in a noetic field: a closed system of defining what can, and cannot, be known; the nature of the knower; the nature of the relationship between the knower, the known, and the audience; and the nature of language. Rhetoric is thus ultimately implicated in all a society attempts. It is at the center of a culture's activities."1

We can look at the rhetorics of a given society and begin make judgments about who may speak, how they may speak, who listens, how they may listen, and what types of arguments and language features are deemed persuasive.

Berlin created a simple 3-part taxonomy2 to classify rhetorics based on epistemology and ontology:

  1. Objective theories: These "rhetorics are based on a positivistic epistemology, asserting that the real is located in the material world. From this perspective, only that which is empirically verifiable or which can be grounded in empirically verifiable phenomena is real. The business of the [communicator] is to record this reality exactly as is has been experienced so that is can be reproduced in the [audience]. Language here is a sign system, a simple transcribing device for recording that which exists apart from the verbal...Truth is determined through the inductive method--through collecting sense data and arriving at generalizations...[such rhetorics are] subservient to the ends of science and is no longer concerned with the probabilistic nature of value in the legal, political, and social spheres."
  2. Subjective theories: These rhetorics "locate truth either within the individual or within a realm that is accessible only through the individual's internal apprehension, apart from the empirically verifiable sensory world...[T]ruth can be passed on from one individual to another only in a limited sense. Truth must still be discovered by the individual in a private act."
  3. Transactional theories: These rhetorics are "based on an epistemology that sees truth as arising out of the interaction of the elements of the rhetorical situation:  an interaction of subject and object or of subject and audience or even of all elements--subject, object, audience, and language--operating simultaneously."

There are three subdivisions of transactional rhetorics: classical, cognitive, and social-epistemic.

Modern adaptations of classical systems are, according to Berlin, the most popular of the transactional theories. For these theories, truth is an interaction between the rhetor and audience; it arises from discourse in socio-political communities. New truth and knowledge arises from such interaction. Such truths are contingent and open to debate. The truths of science and logic are not the concerns of rhetoric because such truths are not often the source of social or political disagreement.

The epistemology of cognitive rhetorics draws a correspondence between the structures of the mind and the structures of nature. Truth is located in a social environment and a natural environment. Truth arises out of the interaction between one's mind and these environments.

Finally, the social-epistemic rhetorics locate truth in all the elements of the rhetorical situation. Language grounds all human experience and is "implicated in all human behavior. All truths arise out of dialectic, out of the interaction of individuals within discourse communities."


1 Berlin, James A. Writing Instruction in Nineteenth-Century American Colleges. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984.

2 _____. Rhetoric and Reality. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1987.

Back