Evolution of Rhetoric and Rhetorical Theory Term Paper

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History Of Rhetoric

Rhetoric and rhetorical theory has been evolving and changing since Aristotle first wrote On Rhetoric, and this process continues to this day. Changes in rhetorical theory have largely coincided with developments in other areas of philosophy and critical thought, but one cannot consider the evolution of rhetorical theory to be a straightforward process, because contemporary theorists are still grapple with many of the same questions and issues first proposed by Aristotle, because each new contribution to the field forces a reevaluation of everything that came before.

Utilizing an eclectic approach to the history of rhetoric with an explicit goal of avoiding the biases inherent in the majority of rhetorical texts prior to the last thirty years, this essay considers the evolution of rhetorical theory from Aristotle until the present day without pretending that this evolution proceeded in a strictly linear fashion, with one text naturally giving rise to the next. Instead, it recognizes that certain elements of all texts remain in conversation with each other, so while this history proceeds in a linear fashion, the meaning created by these texts and the status and function of rhetorical theory is considered to be far more amorphous and changing.

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Examining rhetorical theory in this way allows one to see how an abandonment of the moralizing goal of rhetoric first proposed by Aristotle has allowed rhetorical theory to expand the scope of its criticisms so that it has become an important critical framework for understanding the function of power and ideology as it relates to language.

Term Paper on Evolution of Rhetoric and Rhetorical Theory Assignment

Rhetoric and rhetorical theory has been evolving and changing since Aristotle first wrote On Rhetoric, and this process continues to this day. Changes in rhetorical theory have largely coincided with developments in other areas of philosophy and critical thought, with some of the most major developments occurring over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, one cannot consider the evolution of rhetorical theory to be a straightforward process, because contemporary theorists are still grapple with many of the same questions and issues first proposed by Aristotle, because each new contribution to the field forces a reevaluation of everything that came before. Thus, rhetorical theory is still very much concerned with investigating the meaning of rhetoric, what sets rhetoric apart from other forms of speech, how rhetoric is deployed in the public sphere, and the parameters of a possible universal theory of rhetoric. This essay does not pretend to be able to answer those questions, but rather serves to demonstrate how the answers to those questions have changed over time due to historical context of contemporary philosophical and critical thought, deeper understanding of human nature and ways of meaning, and the particular deployment of rhetoric in any given period.

Before discussing the evolution of rhetoric and rhetorical theory throughout human history, it will be useful to briefly consider rhetoric as such, in order to provide the reader with a clue as to some of the key issues and themes running throughout the history of rhetorical theory. Because the deployment of rhetoric can be so varied, from attempts to "improve student retention" at universities to debates over the role of religion in science to the shifting discourse surrounding gays in America, one must attempt to consider rhetoric in general in order to understand the fundamental characteristics linking all of these deployments of language (Waggoner 86, Lessl 379, Darsey 43, Montanye 325).

At its core, the study of rhetoric is devoted to a recognition that "words often do more than merely inspire;" they motivate others to action such that language becomes as powerful as physical force (Archer iii). However, a precise definition of rhetoric is hard to come by, because different theorists have posited different constituent aspects of rhetoric, such that certain instances of speech might be considered rhetoric or not depending on the theoretical paradigm used (Kennedy 2). In a broad sense, one may consider rhetorical theory to be "a science of human social discourse," but this only helps in narrowing its object of study somewhat by noting that rhetoric must in some way be public or social (Klinkenberg 145). Nonetheless, this broad consideration of rhetoric highlights the relationship between society and language, a relationship that will become especially central to rhetorical theory in the mid to late twentieth century.

Recognizing that rhetoric is a necessarily public deployment of discourse leads to the crucial distinction between rhetoric and all other forms of language, which is the fact that rhetoric is deployed specifically to motivate action on the part of an audience (even if that action is only mental). Of course, nearly all public discourse can motivate some kind of response, but to be considered rhetoric the particular instance of discourse must have motivation to action as its primary effect. Certain theorists attempt to include the intention of the speaker in this definition by suggesting that rhetoric must have motivation to action as its primary intention, but because determining the intention of another consciousness is so problematic, considering the effect of the speech is a somewhat more fail-safe approach. This distinction leads to the central problem in attempting to discuss the evolution of rhetoric, because the disagreements on seemingly fundamental aspects of the object under discussion lead one to wonder if there is even a single history of rhetoric.

This is not to say that the task undertaken in this essay is a priori doomed, but rather to acknowledge that one must attempt "the pluralizing of the history of rhetoric" if one wants to provide a robust account of the various approaches offered on the subject, because the history of rhetoric for much of the twentieth century revolved around an unnecessarily reductive idea of "the rhetorical tradition" (Bizzell & Jarrat 20, Miller 6). This notion of a single, unified history of linear rhetorical evolution has led to "problematic constructions that reflect unexamined biases about rhetoric and history, biases unwittingly inscribed by historians into their histories" (Miller 6). This is not to suggest that previous considerations of rhetorical theory have been unhelpful or otherwise useless, but rather to acknowledge the tendency of all human production to re-inscribe the biases of the dominant culture.

Thus, in order to avoid these previous mistakes, this essay will discuss the evolution of rhetoric without making claims towards the continuity of this evolution. In other words, although this history will proceed linearly, discussing the developments in rhetorical theory as they occurred throughout history, it will nonetheless avoid considering these developments as linearly building upon each other, but rather acknowledge that all of these texts remain in dialogue with each other, such that insights in one may inform a reading of another, regardless of their position in a time-line of rhetorical theory. In this way, this essay hopes to implicitly argue for the necessity of "a newly 'eclectic' history of rhetoric," while charting the "historical changes in the status of rhetoric from a science/art of correct, effective, & persuasive speaking to a tool in the stylistic analysis of discourse & language" (Gross 89, Domanska-Gruszka 43). While these changes do not represent a fundamental change in rhetoric itself, they do mark the evolution of rhetorical theory, which has gradually emerged from the cultural and academic ghetto in which it resided for many centuries.

The first major contribution to rhetorical theory recorded in human history is Aristotle's text On Rhetoric. In it, he attempts to define rhetoric and explicate its particular uses. One of the first key insights offered by Aristotle is his claim that "rhetoric […] does not belong to a single defined genus of subject [and] its function is not to persuade but to see the available means of persuasion in each case" (Aristotle 35). This would seem to contradict the earlier statement which claimed that the effect of rhetoric is to motivate others to action, but only if one does not investigate Aristotle's statement further.

After defining rhetoric as "an ability, in each case, to see the available means of persuasion," he notes that "this is the function of no other art, for each of the others is instructive and persuasive about its own subject […] but rhetoric seems to be able to observe the persuasive about 'the given' so to speak" (Aristotle 36-37). Aristotle's point in claiming that rhetoric serves not to persuade but rather to see the available means of persuasion is a way of noting that rhetoric does not limit itself to the expression of true statements or an appeal to people's reason through unassailable logic, but rather may be deployed to argue any point, and to do so using any of the possible means of persuasion. Thus, the function of a particular deployment of rhetoric is to persuade an audience, but only after the entirety of the possible means of persuasion have been regarded by rhetoric as such, in the same way a particular argument is different from argumentation in general.

From here, Aristotle outlines his somewhat famous distinctions regarding the different means by which people are… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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