Philosophy of Rhetoric

James Comas

Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition, edited by Theresa Enos (Garland Press, 1995), 515–18.


Philosophy of Rhetoric: Traditionally, the project of grounding rhetorical theory and practice in a philosophical account of persuasion; more recently, the project of tracing the implications of ontological premises regarding the limits of knowledge and the human use of language.


The idea of a philosophy of rhetoric begins with the separation of philosophy (as a mode of inquiry) from rhetoric (as the object of this inquiry). In Western thought, the foundation for this separation is established in Plato's Gorgias as the difference between true knowledge (epistêmê) and opinion (doxa). Then, in Plato's Phaedrus, Socrates uses this epistemological foundation to ground a philosophical inquiry into the nature of persuasion (pistis) which will serve as a true guide (technê) for rhetorical practice. This conception of philosophy's relevance to rhetoric provides the model for many later philosophies of rhetoric, including a recent collection of essays on rhetoric and philosophy, which begins with a call for "a philosophical grounding for rhetoric" (Johnstone xv).

But the idea of a philosophy of rhetoric should not be reduced to this one tradition. There is a fundamental complication in the initial separation of philosophy from rhetoric which arises with the recognition that persuasion is a mode of human existence. Early statements of this recognition are found in Isocrates and, later, in Italian humanism (see Grassi). More importantly, recent work on the relationship between rhetoric and philosophy shows that, once persuasion is acknowledged as an ontological fact, it becomes more difficult to circumscribe rhetoric as an object of philosophical inquiry; that is, persuasion interjects itself into all inquiry, including the epistemic purity of philosophical inquiry. The history of the philosophy of rhetoric, then, can be read as attempts to manage the tension between the need for a philosophical grounding of rhetoric and the recognition that persuasion is a basic feature of human existence. In traditional philosophies of rhetoric, this tension is managed by ignoring the ontological status of persuasion; but in more recent inquiries, the ontological premise leads to a rethinking of both philosophical inquiry and rhetoric.

Traditional Philosophies of Rhetoric

Traditional philosophies of rhetoric are characterized by an attempt to provide a psychological account of persuasion. The basic features of such an account were established in Plato's Phaedrus. As in the Gorgias, Socrates objects to rhetorical practices that produce only opinion in the minds of an audience; but in this dialogue, he acknowledges the possibility of a type of persuasion that produces true knowledge in the audience. Yet this type of persuasion, Socrates warns, also requires a real art of rhetoric, that is, a rhetoric grounded in a rational explanation of how language affects the mind (psuchê). The requirements of this art, he explains, are similar to the Hippocratic art of healing. Just as the doctor must acquire knowledge of the whole body and knowledge of those things that can affect the body, the rhetor should acquire knowledge of the whole mind and those things that can affect the mind. Moreover, just as the doctor's knowledge allows a classification of kinds of bodies and kinds of diseases, the rhetor's knowledge should result in a classification of the kinds of mind and an understanding of how certain rhetorical techniques affect each kind of mind (269e-272c). This model of an art based on the classification of psychological states is more fully developed in Aristotle's "Art" of Rhetoric, especially Book II.

The project of a philosophy of rhetoric is not common in the history of rhetoric following Plato and Aristotle, but its features reappear throughout the history of rhetorical handbooks. In the wake of the Enlightenment, however, with its attempts to ground an understanding of human behavior in principles of scientific inquiry, philosophical accounts of rhetoric reemerge. George Campbell's Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776) again establishes rules for rhetorical practice by providing a psychological account of persuasion, describing it as the hierarchical sequence of engaging four mental faculties. Successful rhetoric must 1) provide knowledge to the intellect, 2) present knowledge in such a way that it pleases the imagination, which in turn, 3) affects the passions, and finally 4) influences the will (2). Although traditional, Campbell's philosophy of rhetoric attributes to persuasion a quintessential goal of the Enlightenment---the attempt to unify the faculties of mind.


New Philosophies of Rhetoric: Linguistic Philosophy and Ontology

The possibilities for a philosophy of rhetoric change significantly when philosophical inquiry is rethought as questions regarding the nature of language. This modern "linguistic turn" has led to a questioning of the traditional privileging of philosophy over rhetoric; and, in some cases, the relationship is reversed such that philosophy is grounded on inquiry defined as "rhetorical" (Nietzsche) or is collapsed such that neither term provides adequate grounding (Derrida). Moreover, this radical shift has led to redefinitions of rhetoric beyond the traditional idea of persuasion. Linguistic philosophy has influenced two new categories of philosophy of rhetoric. The first category is characterized by projects that ground rhetoric in a philosophical account of linguistic meaning. Projects in the second category begin with the assumption that language use is a key aspect of human existence and, in tracing the implications of this ontology, confront the difficulties of the traditional separation of rhetoric from inquiry (see K. Campbell).

In this first category, I. A. Richards's The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936) clearly illustrates the influence of the "linguistic turn" in Anglo--American philosophy and an exigency for enlarging the conception of rhetoric beyond persuasion. Richards's project, in fact, takes the basic assumptions of Anglo--American linguistic philosophy and extends their scope to the study of non--philosophical discourses. The first of these assumptions finds its classic statement in Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico--Philosophicus (1922), where the task of philosophy is defined as the clarification of cloudy thought. Richards's debt to this concern for clarification is apparent in his definition of rhetoric as "a study of misunderstanding and its remedies" (3). The second basic assumption is that misunderstanding results from our lack of knowledge about the nature of language. Wittgenstein, for example, claims that most philosophical questions have arisen solely from the failure to understand the logic of language. Similarly, Richards claims that the basic problem of traditional rhetorical theory from Aristotle to Whately is its failure to provide knowledge of "the fundamental laws of the use of language" (7). The final assumption is that language is best examined by analytical methods. Thus, for Richards, knowledge of the laws governing linguistic meaning can be discovered only by examining "the structures of the smallest discussable units of meaning and the ways in which these vary as they are put with other units" (9--10). Although these three assumptions redirect the philosophy of rhetoric away from psychology and toward language, it is important to note that Richards's project remains well within the traditional philosophy of rhetoric in that it still grounds rhetoric in a philosophical account of language use; his account merely replaces the psychological account of persuasion with semantics and, thus, reproduces the separation of philosophical inquiry from rhetoric that marks the traditional philosophy of rhetoric. A more significant aspect of Richards's project is his break with the traditional definition of rhetoric in terms of persuasion. For Richards, persuasion is merely one "aim" of discourse; yet the study of rhetoric should be concerned with linguistic meaning and, thus, expanded to cover all aims of discourse (23--24).

It is only with the emergence of ontological concerns that the originary separation of philosophical inquiry from rhetoric has come under question. This ontological questioning has developed along two basic lines. The first focuses on human limitations which imply the impossibility of certain knowledge and the contingency of understanding. This skeptical ontology has led to two conclusions that challenge the traditional project of a philosophy of rhetoric: 1) if certain knowledge is not possible, then philosophical inquiry cannot provide an epistemological grounding for rhetorical theory; and 2) if philosophical inquiry cannot produce certain knowledge, then the traditional opposition between true knowledge (epistêmê) and opinion (doxa) cannot be maintained and philosophical inquiry cannot be distinguished from rhetoric. This last conclusion has provided the basis for the dominant trend of contemporary rhetorical theory: rhetoric as "epistemic." The seminal text outlining this new conception of rhetoric is Robert L. Scott's "On Viewing Rhetoric as Epistemic." Scott returns to the ontological skepticism of the Greek sophists to argue that knowledge does not exist prior to action but, instead, is constructed through action. Most importantly this argument for the rhetorical nature of knowledge has raised questions concerning the ethical and political dimensions of action that results in knowledge construction, thus shifting attention from content to conduct. This kind of concern has been developed by theorists and critics associated with the "rhetoric of inquiry" movement, in which the epistemological goal of traditional philosophical inquiry has been replaced by an inquiry that accounts for knowledge in rhetorical terms (e.g., argument, audience, narrative, trope) and, often, in socio--political terms (e.g., gender, institution, professionalism, race). (See The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences.)

The second line of ontological speculation is less concerned with the construction of knowledge and, instead, regards the ontological status of language as central to an understanding of human relations and to the possibilities of community. If the first type of ontological rhetoric is "epistemic" in orientation, this second type is "anthropological" (see Blumenberg). This anthropological rhetoric, however, has yet to achieve the academic recognition of epistemic rhetoric; and its conceptions of rhetoric remain scattered in individual texts. Some sense of coherence, though, centers around the philosophical hermeneutics of Hans--Georg Gadamer. Hermeneutics is usually understood to be concerned with interpretation. But in his Truth and Method, Gadamer is concerned more specifically with a cultural problem that emerges from the development of the human sciences in the nineteenth century: culture's sense of its tradition and, thus, its own identity has been narrowed to "an experimental finding---as if tradition were as alien and, from the human point of view, as unintelligible, as an object of physics" (xxi). The important role of rhetoric in addressing such a problem can be found, according to Gadamer, in the humanist tradition and, more specifically, in Giambattista Vico's On Method in Contemporary Fields of Study (1709). Recognizing that a sense of community is maintained through education, Vico argues that instruction must not be limited to the methods of producing scientific knowledge but must include training in the sensus communis, the set of beliefs held by a community, in virtue of which the community exists. Instruction in the sensus communis is fundamentally rhetorical in that it concerns knowledge of social beliefs (doxa). More importantly for Gadamer, this instruction in social belief establishes the basis for a kind of practical knowledge (phronêsis) needed to act wisely in concrete situations, which are always shaped by these social beliefs. It is this concrete, or situated aspect of human action that the human sciences tend to overlook.

Similarly, Kenneth Burke grounds his "philosophy of rhetoric" in an ontological premise that stresses the role of language in establishing and maintaining community. Looking at research in cultural anthropology, Burke defines rhetoric as rooted in "the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols" (A Rhetoric of Motives 43). Moreover, Burke's ontological approach leads him to, arguably, the most profound reconceptualization of rhetoric since the classical tradition. Attentive to both Freud's and Marx's critiques of a conscious--centered subject, Burke observes that the traditional rhetorical concept of persuasion is inadequate because it entails intentionality. For example, an examination of class relationships will be hampered by "the classical notion of clear persuasive intent" (xiv). Instead, Burke argues, rhetoric should be understood in terms of "identification," allowing examinations not only of an audience's non-conscious identification with certain interests, but the complexities of the rhetor's identification with the audience, including the sense of audience that the rhetor has internalized through the life-long process of socialization. The philosophy of rhetoric is thus expanded to a project of elucidating "the ingredient of rhetoric in all socialization, considered as a moralizing process" (39).


Blumenberg, Hans. "An Anthropological Approach to the Contemporary Significance of Rhetoric." After Philosophy: End or Transformation? Trans. Robert M. Wallace. Ed. Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman and Thomas A. McCarthy. Cambridge: MIT P, 1987. 429--58.

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. 1950. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.

Campbell, George. The Philosophy of Rhetoric. 1776. Ed. Lloyd F. Bitzer. Landmarks in rhetoric and public address. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1963.

Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs. "The Ontological Foundations of Rhetorical Theory." Philosophy and Rhetoric 3 (1970): 97-108.

Derrida, Jacques. "White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy." Margins of Philosophy. 1982. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 207--71. Trans. of "La mythologie blanche (la métaphore dans le texte philosophique)." First published in Poétique 5 (1971): 1--52.

Gadamer, Hans Georg. Truth and Method. Trans. edited by Garrett Barden and John Cunningham. New York: Continuum--Seabury, 1975. Trans. of Wahrheit und Methode. 1960. 2nd ed. Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1965.

Grassi, Ernesto. Rhetoric as Philosophy: The Humanist Tradition. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1980.

Henry W. Johnstone, Jr. "Foreword." Rhetoric and Philosophy. Ed. Richard A. Cherwitz. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1990.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. "On Truth and Lying in an Extra--moral Sense." Friedrich Nietzsche on Rhetoric and Language. Ed. and trans. Sander L. Gilman, Carole Blair and David J. Parent. New York: Oxford UP, 1989. 246--57. Written in 1873.

The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences: Language and Argument in Scholarship and Public Affairs. Ed. John S. Nelson, Allan Megill and Donald N. McCloskey. Rhetoric of the human sciences. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1987.

Richards, I. A. The Philosophy of Rhetoric. 1936. New York: Oxford UP, 1965.

Scott, Robert L. "On Viewing Rhetoric as Epistemic." Central States Speech Journal 18 (1967): 9--17.

Vico, Giambattista. "On Method in Contemporary Fields of Study." Vico: Selected Writings. Ed. and trans. Leon Pompa. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982. 31--45. Trans. of De nostri temporis studiorum ratione (1709).

Index Terms

anthropological rhetoric



Blumenberg, Hans

Burke, Kenneth


Campbell, George

Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs


Derrida, Jacques




epistemic rhetoric


Gadamer, Hans--Georg

Giambattista Vico

Grassi, Ernesto







Nietzsche, Friedrich









rhetoric of inquiry

Richards, I. A.


Scott, Robert L.




Vico, Giambattista


Wittgenstein, Ludwig