The Question of Defining Rhetoric

Is it possible, even desirable to establish a singular definition of "rhetoric"? To help in the pursuit of this question, this page provides some basic resources, including dictionary entries, a sample of remarks from work in rhetorical theory, philosophy, and composition studies, as well as a bibliography of pertinent texts.

… there are concepts which are essentially contested, concepts the proper use of which inevitably involves endless disputes about their proper uses on the part of their users.
-- W. B. Gallie, "Essentially Contested Concepts" (1964)

When Gallie -- a professor of political science at Cambridge -- made the above claim, he was speaking about concepts found in aesthetics, social and political philosophy, and philosophy of religion -- concepts like "art," "democracy," and "the Christian tradition." Today, many rhetorical theorists would point out that Gallie was actually describing the rhetorical aspect of definition, that is, an apsect in which definitions are shaped within a process of conflicting interests and social forces and, thus, always subject to change.

Moreover, some rhetorical theorists would give this definitional screw an additional turn by including "rhetoric," itself, in Gallie's list of "essentially contested concepts." A notable example is Robert L Scott, a professor of Communications, who argued that "any definition of rhetoric that is taken as once-and-for-all is apt to be gravely misleading" because any definition will be inadequate to the wide range of uses of the term ("On Not Defining 'Rhetoric,'" 1972). By pointing out the word's wide range of uses, Scott suggests that any definition of rhetoric will be conditioned by the local and historical aspects of its use; that is, any definition of rhetoric will be, itself, a rhetorical use of language. On the other hand, such a claim appears to contain a fundamental contradiction: The claim that any definition of rhetoric is a product of its rhetorical circumstances presupposes a singular definition of rhetoric. (Students of ancient philosophy may recognize a similarity between this contradiction and the contradiction pointed to in the traditional rebuttal of skepticism: To say that nothing can be known is, itself, a claim of knowledge.)

So, is there a singular defintion of rhetoric or is it an essentially contested concept? Actually, the usefulness of this question, with its either/or structure, may be limited.

I. Dictionary Entries

Webster's II New Riverside Dictionary (1984)

1. Study of the elements, as structure or style, used in writing and speaking. 2. The art of expression and the persuasive use of language. 3. Insincere or pretentious language <campaign rhetoric>. 4. Verbal communication: DISCOURSE.

Oxford English Dictionary (1910)

The entry in the OED is, of course, quite long. Below, however, is the first definition along with a note that precedes the historical information for this meaning:
1. The art of using language so as to persuade or influence others; the body of rules to be observed by a speaker or writer in order that he may express himself with eloquence.
In the Middle Ages rhetoric was reckoned one of the seven 'liberal arts', being comprised, with grammar and logic, in the 'trivium'.

Larousse Dictionnaire de Français (1991)

It's usually instructive to compare English definitions to those of other cultures. Here is the set of definitions of rhétorique from the standard dictionary of the French language:
1. Ensemble de procédés constituant l'art de bien parler.
2. (péjoratif) Affectation d'éloquence.
3. Figure de rhétorique, tournure de style qui rend plus vive l'expression de la pensée.

Greek-English Lexicon, Liddell, Scott, Jones (1843; 1940)

The modern English word rhetoric derives from the adjective of an elliptical phrase in classical Greek, rhêtorikê (tekhnê), which appears first in Plato's Gorgias (449a) and is usually translated as "the rhetorical art," or "the art of rhetoric." The Liddell, Scott, Jones Greek-English Lexicon shows that rhêtorikê belongs to a pair of words from the late fifth and early fourth centuries BCE (e.g., in the texts of Plato, Isocrates, and Aristotle) that pertain to public speaking, or speaking about public matters: rhêtoreia ("oratory," or "public speaking") and rhêtor ("public speaker"). These words are related to a more ancient set of words that convey the more general meaning of that which is stated, specified, or proclaimed: rhêma ("that which is said" or "spoken"), rhêtos (something "stated," "covenanted"), and rhêtra (vrebal agreement, covenant). This set of words derives, in turn, from erô ("I will say," "I will speak"), the future form of the verb eirô ("to say," "speak"; but also "to string together"). [More on the etymology of the Greek rhêtorikê]

II. Definitions and Remarks from Philosophy and Rhetorical Theory

Gorgias, "Encomium on Helen" (414? BCE)

The power of speech [tou logou dunamis] has the same effect on the condition of the soul as the application of drugs [tôn pharmakôn] to the state of bodies; for just as different drugs dispel different fluids from the body, and some bring an end to disease but others end life, so also some speeches [tôn logôn] cause pain, some pleasure, some fear; some instill courage, some drug and bewitch the soul with a kind of evil persuasion [peithoi tini kakê]. (Trans. George A. Kennedy [with additional interpolations of transliterated Greek])

Although Gorgias's "Helena" does not contain rhetoric or any cognate (and thus does not contain a definition of rhetoric), I begin the list with this passage because it provides an important example of the ancient Greek interest in persuasion (peithô) as the power of language over the mind. [More on Gorgias's "Helena"]

Plato, Gorgias (c. 387-385 BCE)

SOCRATES: In my opinion, then, Gorgias, it [i.e., rhetoric] is a certain pursuit that is not artful but belongs to a soul that is skilled at guessing, courageous, and terribly clever by nature at associating with human beings; and I call its chief point flattery. (463 a-b; trans. James H. Nichols, Jr.)

Plato, Phaedrus (c. 370 BCE)

SOCRATES: Well, then, would not the rhetorical art taken as a whole be a certain leading of the soul [psychagogia] through speeches [logon], not only in law courts and whatever other public gatherings, but also in private ones, the same concerning both small and great things, and no less honored, with a view to what's correct at least, when it arises concerning serious than concerning paltry matters? (261a-b; trans. James H. Nichols, Jr.)

Aristotle, On Rhetoric (c.360-c.334 BCE)

Rhetoric is an antistrophos to dialectic; for both are concerned with such things as are, to a certain extent, within the knowledge of all people and belong to no separately defined science. (1354a; trans. George A. Kennedy) [More on the relationship of rhetoric and dialectic]

Isocrates, "Antidosis" (354-53 BCE)

Speech (logos) is responsible for nearly all our inventions. It legislated in matters of justice and injustice and beauty and baseness, and without these laws, we could not live with one another. By it we refute the bad and praise the good; through it, we educate the ignorant and recognize the intelligent. We regard speaking well to be the clearest sign of a good mind, which it requires, and truthful, lawful, and just speech we consider the image (eidolon) of a good an faithful soul. With speech we fight over contentious matters, and we investigate the unknown. We use the same arguments by which we persuade others in our own deliberations; we call those ale to speak in a crowd "rhetorical" (rhêtorikoi); we regard as sound advisers those who debate with themselves most skillfully about public affairs. If one must summarize the power of discourse, we will discover that nothing done prudently occurs without speech (logos), that speech is the leader of all thoughts and actions, and that the most intelligent people use it most of all. (15.255-57; trans. David C. Mirhady)

Cicero, On Invention (De Inventione, c. 87 BCE)

There is a scientific system of politics [Civilis quaedam ratio] which includes many important departments. One of these departments -- a large and important one -- is eloquence [eloquentia] based on the rules of art, which they call rhetoric [rhetorican]. . . . Therefore we will classify oratorical ability [oratoriam facultatem] as a part of political science. (I.v.6; trans. H. M. Hubbell [interpolations added])

Cicero, On the Orator (De Oratore, 55 BCE)

the duty of an orator is to speak in a style fitted to convince [ad persuadendum accommodate] (I.xxxi.137; 97; trans. E. W. Sutton and H. Rackham [interpolation added])

Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria (c. 95 CE)

rhetoric is "the science of speaking well" [rhetoricen esse bene dicendi scientiam] (II.xv.38; trans. Donald A. Russell)

Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning (1605)

The duty and office of Rhetoric is, to apply Reason to Imagination for the better moving of the will. For we see Reason is disturbed in the administration thereof by three means; by Illaqueation or Sophism, which pertains to Logic; by Imagination or Impression, which pertains to Rhetoric; and by Passion or Affection, which pertains to Morality. (238)

John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding (1689)

… if we would speak of Things as they are, we must allow, that all the Art of Rhetorick, besides Order and Clearness, all the artificial and figurative application of Words Eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong Ideas, move the Passions, and thereby mislead the Judgment; and so indeed are perfect cheats …. (Bk.III, ch. 10, § 34)

Giambattista Vico, The Art of Rhetoric (Institutiones oratoriae, 1711-1741)

Rhetoric or eloquence . . . is "the faculty of speaking appropriate to the purpose of persuading" (facultas dicendi apposite ad persuadendum). (5; trans. G. A. Pinton & A. W. Shippee) [More on Vico and rhetoric]

George Campbell, The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776)

In speaking there is always some end proposed, or some effect which the speaker intends to produce on the hearer. The word eloquence in its greatest latitude denotes, "That art of talent by which the discourse is adapted to its end" (Quintilian). (Bk. I, ch. 1)

Friedrich Nietzsche, "Description of Ancient Rhetoric" ("Darstellung der Antiken Rhetorik," 1872-73)

it is not difficult to prove that what is called "rhetorical," as a means of conscious art, had been active as a means of unconscious art in language and its development, indeed, that the rhetorical is a further development, guided by the clear light of the understanding [Verstandes], of the artististic means which are already found in language. (21)

I. A. Richards, The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936)

Rhetoric, I shall urge, should be a study of misunderstanding and its remedies.

Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (1950)

Rhetoric is concerned with the state of Babel after the Fall. (23)

[Rhetoric] is rooted in an essential function of language itself, a function that is wholly realistic, and is continually born anew; the use of language as symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols. (43)

Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity (Totalité et Infini: Essai sur l'extériorité, 1961)

Rhetoric, absent from no discourse, and which philosophical discourse seeks to overcome, resists discourse (or leads to it: pedagogy, demagogy, psychagogy). It approaches the other not to face him, but obliquely -- not, to be sure, as a thing, since rhetoric remains conversation, and across all its artifices goes unto the Other, solicits his yes. But the specific nature of rhetoric (of propaganda, flattery, diplomacy, etc.) consists in corrupting this freedom. It is for this that it is preeminently violence, that is, injustice -- not violence exercised on an inertia (which would not be a violence), but on a freedom, which, precisely as freedom, should be incorruptible. To freedom it manages to apply a category; it seems to judge of it as of a nature; it asks the question, contradictory in its terms, "what is the nature of this freedom?" (70)

Paolo Valesio, Novantiqua: Rhetorics as a Contemporary Theory (1980)

… rhetoric is the functional organization of discourse, within its social and cultural context, in all its aspects, exception made for its realization as a strictly formal metalanguage -- in formal logic, mathematics, and in the sciences whose metalanguages share the same features. In other words: rhetoric is all of language, in its realization as discourse. (7)

Michel Foucault, The Courage of Truth (Courage de la vérité 1983, 2008)

Let's say, very schematically, that the rhetorician is, or at any rate may well be an effective liar who constrains others. The parrhesiast, on the contrary, is the courageous teller of a truth by which he puts himself and his relationship with the other at risk. (14)

Steven Mailloux, Rhetorical Power (1989)

rhetoric [is] the political effectivity of trope and argument in culture. Such a working definition includes the two traditional meanings of rhetoric: figurative language and persuasive action…. (xii)

Jacques Derrida, "On Rhetoric and Composition: A Conversation" (1990)

… rhetoric, as such, depends on conditions that are not rhetorical. In rhetoric and speaking, the same sentence may have enormous effects or have no effects at all, depending on conditions that are not verbal or rhetorical. I think a self-conscious, trained teacher of rhetoric should teach precisely what are called "pragmatics"; that is, the effects of rhetoric don't depend only on the way you utter words, the way you use tropes, the way you compose. They depend on certain situations: political situations, economical situations -- the libidinal situation, also. (15-16)

III. Definitions from Composition Studies

Wayne Booth, "The Rhetorical Stance" (1963)

The common ingredient that I find in all of the writing I admire (excluding for now novels, plays, and poems) is something that I shall reluctantly call the rhetorical stance, a stance which depends on discovering and maintaining in any writing situation a proper balance among the three elements that are at work in any communicative effort: the available arguments about the subject itself, the interests and peculiarities of the audience, and the voice, the implied character, of the speaker. I should like to suggest that it is this balance, this rhetorical stance, difficult as it is to describe, that is our main goal as teachers of rhetoric. (141)

Edward P. J. Corbett, "The Usefulness of Classical Rhetoric" (1963)

It might be objected that because classical rhetoric was confined to argumentative discourse it is too narrow a system for our composition courses. But there is no reason why many of the precepts of classical rhetoric cannot be used to guide students in writing the other three forms of discourse. Donald C. Bryant and Kenneth Burke have shown how classical rhetoric can be extended to cover expository writing, and Wayne C. Booth in his excellent book has shown us that there is a rhetoric of fiction too. A rhetoric of description could also be developed from a classical base. (164)

Francis Christensen, Notes toward a New Rhetoric (1967)

The hand-me-down rhetoric that we are trying to alter to fit the needs of our own times has three main divisions -- invention, disposition, and style.…

In writing a piece of any length, one uses the resources of rhetoric in the order of their listing above -- first invention, then disposition, and finally style. Although most rhetorics take up the divisions of their subject in this order, proceeding from the larger to the smaller units, it is an order that should not be allowed to dictate the order in which we take up these topics in teaching how to write. (x-xi)

Richard E. Young, Alton L. Becker, and Kenneth L. Pike, Rhetoric: Discovery and Change (1970)

… the discipline of rhetoric is primarily concerned with the control of a process. Mastering rhetoric means not only mastering a theory of how and why one communicates but mastering the process of communication as well. (9)

C. H. Knoblauch, "Modern Rhetorical Theory and Its Future Directions" (1985)

… rhetoric is the process of using language to organize experience and communicate it to others. It is also the study of how people use language to organize and communicate experience. The word denotes, as I use it, both a distinctive human activity and the "science" concerned with understanding that activity. All human beings are "rhetors" because they naturally conceive as well as share their knowledge of the world by means of discourse. Certain individuals are also "rhetoricians" because they study the nature, operations, and purposes of discourse. I suggest further that rhetoric, as a generic discipline, encompasses all forms of written as well as oral expression and includes the efforts of undeveloped speakers and writers as well as the achievements of literary artists. (29)

Works Cited

Last update: 01-Jan-12

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Dr. James N. Comas (
Middle Tennessee State University
English Dept., Box 70
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Some pages on this site contain material from my classes taught in The Department of English at Middle Tennessee State University.

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