(Re)Defining Rhetoric

Based on the readings for the week, it seems to me that the 20th century recovery of rhetoric is about defining what is entailed when we talk about rhetoric.  Not necessarily satisfied with the way rhetoric was being treated, intellectuals like Kenneth Burke and Chaim Perelman took it upon themselves to remind us what rhetoric is and what it should be.  Burke’s A Grammar of Motives discusses “agents” and “scene” along with “nominalism” and “materialism” and incorporates those terms into the study of rhetoric.  Burke comments, “the symmetry is also impaired by the fact that there has been much borrowing of terms among the various philosophic schools, so that one cannot always take even key terms at their face value” (Burke 129).  In this statement, Burke’s notes that there are no universal terms or definitions for how to describe rhetoric and persuasion.  The art of rhetoric has been used by many people with many different backgrounds and so while they all use the same, or similar, words, the meanings can be different.  These shifts in the signified/signifier are what Burke is trying to clear up for the 20th century recovery of rhetoric.

Chaim Perelman also presents definitions of rhetoric but in a different format.  His The New Rhetoric:  A Treatise on Argumentation is similar to the work of Plato and Aristotle in that in establishes what makes a good argument and how to create a good argument.  He states that an orator must pay attention to audience first and foremost.  While some audiences can be specific and local, the majority of arguments are to be addressed to a global audience in order for maximum reception no matter who the specific audience is.  The accompanying reading notes with Perelman’s Treatise only further define the field of rhetoric and what is expected of rhetoricians.  Perelman’s article reminds me of those classical rhetoricians and their guidelines for who can become an orator, what they must do to be a good orator, and how they must use their power of persuasion for the good and not the bad.

This week’s readings show an attempt made at reclaiming and redefining the field of rhetoric to make it once again respected like with was during the times of classical rhetoric.  Chaim Perelman does his best to create a modern outlook on the role of the orator or rhetorician in order to bring it to the forefront of discussion in life.  Kenneth Burke attempts to redefine the words that had been lost to rhetoric for many years so that the study of rhetoric could once again stand proud as a respected field.

Leave a Reply