Characteristics of Rhetorical Discourse

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Overview of the Six Characteristics of Rhetorical Discourse

This literature observes six distinguishing characteristics of rhetorical discourse, the footprints the art of rhetoric leaves on messages. Messages or thoughts crafted to fulfil the principles (or criteria) of rhetoric is what is called rhetorical discourse.

Characteristically a rhetorical discourse is:
  1. planned,
  2. adapted to an audience,
  3. shaped by human motives,
  4. responsive to a situation,
  5. persuasion-seeking, and
  6. concerned with contingent issues.

Not all discourse or speech that might meaningfully be termed rhetoric fulfills all of these criteria, but the criteria will serve as a basis for identifying, understanding, and responding to rhetorical discourse. We examine each one of these six criteria in turn, beginning with the most fundamental quality.

1.     Rhetoric Is Planned

Regardless of the goal at which it is directed, a discourse that fulfils the criteria of rhetoric involves forethought or planning. Choices are made and questions are raised when people decides how they will address their audiences; the important questions they face when planning a message include the following:

  • Which arguments will I advance?
  • Which evidence best supports my point?
  • How will I order and arrange my arguments and evidence?
  • What resources of language are available to me, given my topic and audience?

The planned nature of rhetoric has well gain prominence as one of its defining features. Some early rhetorical scholars have come up with elaborate systems to assist would-be orators in planning their speeches. The Roman orator Cicero, for instance, under the heading “inventio” (invention), devised specific methods for inventing arguments quickly and effectively. With this, he describes the process of coming up with arguments and evidence appropriate for a persuasive case.

Cicero also used the term “dispositio” (arrangement), to emphasize the effective ordering of arguments and appeals while he used the term “elocutio” to designate the process of finding the right linguistic style for one’s message, whether elegant or conversational.

2.     Rhetoric Is Adapted to an Audience

The fulfillment of forethought or planning brings to the fore a second characteristic of rhetorical discourse. RhetoricOpens in new window is planned with some audience in mind to creates attention and receptivity and good will.

Audience, in this regard, does not strictly refer to the traditional conception of a large group of people seated in rows of chairs in large hall. A small group of employees at work or a small class of people in a specific field also constitutes an audience.

A rhetor may adapt his/her discourse to appeal to the values, experiences, beliefs, and aspirations of the imagined audience.

Twentieth-century rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke used the term “identification” to refer to the bond between rhetors and their audiences, finding identification crucial to cooperation, consensus, compromise, and action.

3.     Rhetoric Reveals Human Motives

A third quality of rhetoric is closely related to the concern for the audience. Any study of rhetoric will reveal people acting symbolically in response to their motives, a term taking in commitments, goals, desires, or purposes that lead to action. Rhetors address audiences with goals in mind, and the planning and adaptation processes that mark rhetoric are governed by the desire to achieve these goals.

4.     Rhetoric Is Typically Responsive

A rhetorical discourse—almost all the time— is crafted in response to an existing situation or to respond to a set of circumstances, including political controversy concerning welfare, a religious conflict over the role of women in a denomination, a debate in medical ethics over assisted suicide, the discussions about a policy that would control visitors in university dormitories, or a theatrical performance in which a plea for racial harmony is advanced.

5.     Rhetoric Seeks Persuasion

The art of rhetoric focus primarily on persuasion as its core goal. Although it often seeks other goals, such as beauty or clarity, it is important to recognize the centrality of persuasion throughout rhetoric’s long history.

Rhetorical discourse often seeks to influence an audience to accept an idea, and then to act. For example, an attorney argues before a jury that the accused is guilty of a crime. The attorney seeks the jurors’ acceptance of the idea that the defendant is guilty, and the resulting action of finding the defendant guilty.

Generally, four resources of symbol systems— arguments, appeals, arrangement, and aesthetics—have long been recognized as assisting the goal of persuasion.

6.     Rhetoric Addresses Contingent Issues

Rhetoric addresses contingent questions that do not dictate a particular outcome, and in the process it engages our value commitments. As individuals and members of the larger public, we face many kinds of practical and moral issues that demand decisions or judgments.

  • Is a just war possible?
  • What subjects should be taught in our schools?
  • How can health care be equitably distributed?

When there are alternatives to be weighed and matters are neither inevitable nor impossible, we are facing contingent issues that invite the use of rhetoric.

The rhetorical theorist, Lloyd Bitzer, quoting the nineteenth-century writer Thomas DeQuincey, has this observation about contingency: “Rhetoric deals mainly with matters which lie in that vast field ‘where there is no pro and con, with the chance of right and wrong, true and false, distributed in varying proportions among them.’” Bitzer observes, “Rhetoric applies to contingent and probable matters which are subjects of actual or possible disagreement by serious people, and which permit alternative beliefs, values, and positions.”

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