What is a Rhetorical Perspective?

During my thesis defense, a committee member asked this question. I found myself stumbling for an answer, not because I didn’t have one, but because I had too many. During the defense, I answered by suggesting that a rhetorical perspective was one indebted to the ever-changing interests of professionals who identify as rhetoricians. In my case, I’m most indebted to the disciplinary histories of rhetoric that emerge from the field of speech communication in the United States.

I wasn’t happy with that answer, because it’s not palpable enough. The idea is too abstract to be applicable during the hands-on work of a project. After my committee member’s question, I realized that my own rhetorical perspective had become backgrounded in order to focus on more elaborate parts of research. Like the idea that Gadamer refers to as prejudices, my rhetorical perspective was something I had stopped reflecting on.

Given that, I’ve been collecting various definitions from textbooks, articles, and conference proceedings, looking for one that I can recognize in my own work. I’ll be adding more as I find them. Some of these are more sophisticated than others, but they’ve all appeared in publication. Enjoy, and please add to the list in the comment section.

  • The shift towards a transcendent definition of rhetorical criticism is likely to be accompanied and reinforced by a shift towards an interdisciplinary conception of the “rhetorical perspective. . . . Similarly, as more interdisciplinary links are fashioned, the encompassing concept of effectiveness may increasingly function as one of the dominant definitional features employed to characterize the rhetorical perspective. (Brock, Scott, & Chesebro, 1989, pg. 514)
  • The bias of a rhetorical perspective is its emphasis on and its concern with the resources available in language and in people to make ideas clear and cogent, to bring concepts to life, to make them salient for people. A rhetorical perspective is interested in what influences or persuades people. (Campbell & Huxman, 2003, pg. 2)
  • A rhetorical perspective, then, focuses on social truths, that is, on the kinds of truths that are created and tested by people in groups and that influence social and political decisions. . . . From its beginnings, this emphasis on social truths has been the distinctive quality of a rhetorical perspective. (Campbell & Huxman, 2003, pg. 2)
  • . . . to take a rhetorical perspective means to assume that rhetoric itself is not good or bad, but instead is a vehicle that can be used for either (or both) of these purposes. (Cisneros, McCauliff, & Beasly, 2009, pg. 233)
  • This is the second premise of a rhetorical perspective: that discourse, language, and persuasive symbols are influential tools within a society. In short, rhetoric matters. (Cisneros, McCauliff, & Beasly, 2009, pg. 234)
  • A rhetorical perspective . . . calls attention to the ways in which language use crystallizes relations between readers and writers. Such a perspective also brings into focus the extent to which the ways authors position themselves within a certain social space is contingent upon a.) authority . . . b.) the purposes that bring writers together within a particular social forum, and c.) the topic of their discourse or task at hand. (Greene & Ackerman, 1995, pg. 383)
  • In the public understanding of science, rhetoric has two distinct roles. It is both a theory capable of analysing public understanding and an activity capable of creating it. From the perspective of its first role, Aristotle’s Rhetoric is primarily a treatise on public understanding; from the perspective of its second, it is primarily a handbook for speakers seeking to co-create public understanding. (Gross, 1994, pg. 5)
  • A rhetorical model of the public sphere would regard each of these engagements as part of the ensemble of discourse that constitutes civil society, examining each encounter as part of a social dialogue on appropriating historicity. A rhetorical model reveals rather than conceals the emergence of publics as a process. (Hauser, 1999, pg. 49)
  • A rhetorical perspective . . . draws on the rich rhetorical heritage of Western civilization that originated with the writings of ancient Greeks and Romans. (Heath, 2000, pg. 69)
  • Whereas a public spheres approach may end itself to reifying rigid boundaries—between inside and outside, us and them, dominant and resistant—a public modalities perspective aims not only to foreground the fluidity of identities across time and space, but also recognize how specific contexts of time and space constitute our identities . . . . A theoretical approach that recognizes publics as processes must value studies that reveal failed attempts at publicity, blockades to democracy, and marginalized stories of critique. (Pezzullo & Depoe, 2010, pg. 103)
  • A rhetorical perspective includes a variety of methodological and theoretical approaches . . . . a rhetorical approach . . . often shares the following characteristics . . . critics focus on texts of written or spoken words. Nonetheless, nonverbal forms of argument are also being analyzed by rhetorical/argumentation critics . . . . rhetorical critics are guided by the belief that our communicative interactions are epistemic and inform most of what we come to know about the world. As a result, rhetoric/argument is important because it is both the how and what of socially-constructed reality. Rhetorical/argumentation analysis is thus also ideological analysis, since all understandings of the world serve particular interests. (Schiappa, 2002, pg. 67)
  • A “rhetorical perspective increases our understanding about how discursive linguistic symbols and non-discursive aesthetic symbols function together to communicate and persuade . . .” (Sellnow & Sellnow, 2001, pg. 395)

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