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The rhetorical impulse may be conceived as the desire to express one’s thoughts in a way that affects the thoughts of others. Such an impulse is universal among humans, and historical evidence exists for its cultivation in ancient civilizations of Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Early instances of theoretical inquiry concerning rhetorical communication have been documented in China (c. eighth century bce), Egypt (c. eleventh century bce), India (c. fourth century bce), and Greece (including Magna Graecia, c. fifth century bce). Arguably, each of these regional developments gave rise to a different tradition and trajectory of indigenous rhetorical studies. However, as a historical matter, the European tradition was most closely related to the emergent discipline of communication; accordingly, it receives emphasis here.
Ancient Rhetorical Studies
Within the European tradition of rhetorical studies, self-conscious attempts to theorize persuasive speaking were initially concerned with speech organization and elaboration of subject matter. Theoretical studies of rhetoric soon became abstract, with a focus on functions of speakers and types of speeches. By the second century bce, both of these theoretical categories became more or less crystallized; the functions of speakers were conceived as invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery; likewise, the kinds of speaking were conceived as deliberative, judicial, and demonstrative (or occasional).
The development of rhetorical theory was accompanied by the rise of pedagogical, critical, and historical studies. Pedagogical inquiry was concerned with effective means of inculcating rhetorical expertise in practitioners. Early materials for rhetorical instruction included rudimentary treatises, model speeches, and specimens of eloquence. Educational theory became a deliberate part of rhetorical education in the school of Isocrates, who stressed preceptive instruction, practice, and moral as well as literary imitation of political discourse. In Hellenistic times, rhetoric was adopted as the centerpiece of an ancient literary educational program. During the Roman imperial era, the rhetorical program of education was codified in Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria (c.95 ce).
Rhetorical criticism was pursued as an independent form of literary production. Cicero may be credited with historicizing rhetorical criticism in Brutus (43 bce), which provided a chronology and critique of Roman speakers up to his own day. History of rhetorical theory was invented by Aristotle when he gathered early rhetoric books in his Collection of arts (mid-fourth century bce).
Medieval Rhetorical Studies
The Middle Ages were marked by both tradition and innovation in the theory and practice of rhetorical arts. The ancient tradition of rhetoric was Br uce E. Gronbeck represented initially within new encyclopedic treatments of rhetoric as part of the liberal arts Later on, traditional rhetoric found a place in rhetorical compendia as well as in commentaries and translations of ‘classical’ authors.
Rhetorical criticism frequently takes on a historical outlook. Partly this is because much of such criticism is designed to explain, assess, or defend the composition of ancient authors in the Bible. Innovation in medieval rhetoric came chiefly in development of discourse types that achieved new significance in the Middle Ages, specifically preaching, letter writing, and poetry writing. By the thirteenth century, preaching theory reached a new level of advancement; the result was the thematic sermon, a rhetorical discourse of religious worship built around the elements of theme, division, and development (of divisions).
Renaissance Rhetorical Studies
Early Renaissance thought was dominated by the humanist objective to re-create the culture of classical antiquity, not least through the studia humanitatis, a program of education designed to inculcate eloquence through instruction in grammar, rhetoric, poetic, history, and moral philosophy. Consistent with the humanist objective, Renaissance rhetoricians turned to ancient materials – many newly found – for inspiration in their development of rhetorical works.
Given the admiration of ancient culture that motivated many Renaissance humanists, the rhetorics they produced were inevitably connected with historical concerns. At least in part, the same was true of rhetorical criticism in this period. Renaissance humanists extended rhetorical criticism to the problem of interpreting Biblical texts (e.g., Philipp Melanchthon). Of course, not all rhetorical criticism in the Renaissance addressed ancient works.
Modern Rhetorical Studies
Faculty psychology was perhaps first applied to the uses of rhetorical theory at the beginning of the seventeenth century, when Francis Bacon explained the function of rhetoric with reference to four mental capacities – reason, imagination, emotions, and will. Blaise Pascal’s idea, that auditors possessed multiple mental faculties, each of which was subject to rhetorical appeal, was quickly seized on by rhetorical theorists as the basis for new approaches to the discipline. Early belletrists offered rhetorical theory (and criticism) emphasizing aesthetic reception of discourse. Likewise, preaching theorists placed new stress on appeals to emotions as well as reason in the composition of sermons.
In the eighteenth century Thomas Sheridan characterized “elocution” as an unexplored language of imagination and passions, and he argued that this language shed as much light on human nature as the language of understanding. Certainly, in this era, the work most obviously influenced by faculty psychology is George Campbell’s The philosophy of rhetoric (1776); here the definition and types of eloquence are both tied to mental faculties: eloquence is the “art or talent by which discourse is adapted to its end.”
Contemporary Rhetorical Studies
The focus of this new rhetorical outlook was upon meaning. Meaning-making became understood as a textual struggle, requiring both rhetors and audiences to be sensitive to linguistic constructions and psychological processing to overcome multiple obstacles to clear communication. Misunderstanding could be avoided or sidestepped through analytic processes that students of general semantics turned into laws of language use.
By around mid-century, rhetoric’s search for ‘informed opinion’ separated it from the exploitation of advertising and propaganda, the indirection of poetry, the facticity of science. Its central function of ‘adjusting ideas to people and people to ideas’ operated by leveraging emotions at play in specific situations and rationally assembling ideas in bundles compatible with auditors’ capabilities and circumstances. Developing simultaneously were new rhetorics fostering basic understandings of language-in-use, pedagogical approaches to teaching composition and criticism, and tools for pursuing historical-comparative studies of rhetorical style, broadly conceived.
These approaches encouraged a reconsideration of rhetorical criticism, particularly its sources of evidence, standards of evaluation, and relation to the critic. Further, popular reform and protest movements, antiwar and race riots, and a growing feminist consciousness began to put stress on traditional, civic, and civilized conceptions of the rhetorical arts. The scope of rhetoric enlarged and its functions multiplied (Gronbeck 2004).
Three dilations of rhetoric’s scope in the last third of the twentieth century are especially noteworthy. First, identity, self, subjectivity, and consciousness are concepts deployed across the communication arts generally, and the rhetorical arts specifically, when speculating about the person-centered dimensions of discoursing. Second, many relational activities, e.g., parent–child interactions or manager–worker interactions, occur outside of formally constituted ‘places.’ Third, we have come to understand that human beings relate to each other through multiple symbol systems like films or television.
Among the new functions of rhetoric is the call for more engagement with the psychoanalytic and the psychotherapeutic dimensions of shared culture. Erving Goffman’s (1959) conception of human interactions as negotiative and transactional suggested that rhetorical encounters could become instrumental in self-development and the fostering of healthful relationships. Further, following the revolutionary temper of mid-century politics, it was but a short step for rhetoricians to critique institutions and seek empowerment. Finally, coming forward from Claude Luvi-Strauss’s conception of ‘making something,’ including ideas, out of found materials, came an expanded function of rhetoric: articulation, i.e., “the production of identity on top of differences, of unities out of fragments, of structures across practices” (Grossberg 1992, 54).
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