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Defining Rhetoric

Defining Rhetoric

An exploration into the tricky territory of defining Rhetoric


An essential component of Rhetoric as a discipline, and often the topic of one's first introductory Rhetoric class introduced by a smirking professor, is discussing its definition. More accurately, we're concerned with the plethora of options and thus subsequent lack of singular definition of Rhetoric. Whereas one can readily describe the study of music or mathematics, the topic of Rhetoric may give you pause. In addition to being unable to decisively pin down what constitutes the study of Rhetoric, we may not even be able to say what rhetoric itself is or how it does or should function. This isn't a failure of rhetoricians; rather, Rhetoric as a discipline inherently subverts definition.

The multiplicity of definitions surrounding the study of Rhetoric forces one to think critically about language, communication, and their interplay within our world. Plato thought of rhetoric as in instrument; Aristotle, an act of invention and discovery. In contrast, Peter Ramus argues rhetoric is purely about its performative aspect and how well one can polish the truth. Cicero sought to categorize the broad idea of rhetoric into canons, whereas George Campbell classifies the four goals of discourse. Some definitions only describe components of what I would consider holistic rhetorical theory, some are reductionist, some exclusionary, and at worst, some are sinister. While finding value in others, I prefer the definition set forth by Andrea Lunsford, who defines Rhetoric as the art, practice, and study of human communication. This is a successful definition because it includes the performative and analytical aspects of both studying and "doing" rhetoric. Lunsford’s definition also doesn't exclude an aspect of the discipline nor does it emphasize the importance of one aspect over another. However, one could argue that Lunsford proposes an overly broad definition of rhetoric, and those with a differing view of rhetoric's capacity to be an art form could always greet it with criticism. 

The reason why we can find merit and flaw in each proposed definition of rhetoric is because rhetoric fundamentally cannot have a fixed definition. At its core, rhetoric is inextricably tied into language and communication. It is in the nature of both language and communication to evade fixities and absolutes. It would be nearly impossible to succinctly describe the English language because you can only describe what English is right now, not what it was or what it will be. Just as the definition and connotation of words ebb and flow with the passage of time, so too does ones' method of communication necessarily change. Rhetoric is meant to be continually explored because it's a function of language and communication and thus dependent upon innumerable factors and complexities. What may be a successful use of rhetoric in one situation could be entirely different if we change the speaker, the setting, or even just a few words. Therefore, we cannot exclude what may constitute Rhetoric in a single definition, yet one should also be wary of saying everything is Rhetoric. 

Thus, it isn't one definition we're searching for when we think about Rhetoric. Rather, by engaging in discussion of the merits and shortcomings of a variety of rhetorical theories, we're deepening our understanding of the discipline and performing precisely what it dares us to do: explore effective arguments, find possible exceptions to a rule, inquire into inherent paradoxes, and, above all, approach the world from a critical perspective. Rhetoric cannot have a single fixed definition, nor should it. When one accepts one definition for the discipline one is consequently undermining what it means to be a rhetorician. 

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