Ethos, Pathos, Logos: focusing the conversation

I introduced “rhetoric” as one of our keywords, and defined it in this way: the art (in the original Greek, the word is techne) of developing and delivering persuasive expression or communication. In “Hidden Intellectualism,” when Graff argues for the importance of argument, he is arguing for rhetorical knowledge. For Graff, such knowledge can be found in schools, interacting with books, but it can also be found in the vernacular, in the world of what he calls “street smarts.” For some further discussion of the power of rhetoric and its relevance to you as college students, read “How to Think Like Shakespeare.”

I want to introduce three terms from classical rhetoric that can be useful to think about as we go forward in the course–and apply both to our critical reading and our writing. I suspect that some of you have encountered these concepts previously in an English or composition class. Whether you know them well or not at all, I suggest that they can be useful for us as a heuristic, a tool for getting our hands on the rhetorical mechanics that are hidden behind the curtain.

In classical rhetoric, where the focus is on an orator and his/her presentation to a live audience, there were, according to Aristotle, three main appeals or ways of relating to your audience. “Appeal” refers to the ways an orator (now writer) gets her audience to listen and be compelled: ways to focus on the kind of conversation you are having and ways to engage your audience. To use the terms from Harris’s Rewriting, these are older names for ways we do things with texts and engage in the social practice of academic or intellectual argument.

Ethos: as in ethics; where the stature and character of the speaker is what persuades and convinces. One way to think of ethos now–the credibility or authority or expertise of the writer. This authority might be suggested in the writer’s background and credentials; but it can also be demonstrated in the way the writer presents herself and her argument.

Pathos: as in sympathy and empathy; where the orator/author appeals to the emotions of the reader–focuses on convincing by way of feeling.

Logos: as in logic–also more broadly, evidence; where the author follows the laws of logic in providing evidence–and must be careful not to be illogical: for example, contradictory.

These are key elements of what we  can think of as the “rhetorical situation” (more on this from Purdue OWL) that form the conditions for any act of composition–or even prior to that, any act of thought or conversation. We will be focusing on these rhetorical conditions of our writing and critical thinking in each writing project. When we are effective in our composition of writing and thinking, we have a good handle on these conditions. Here is a link to the original discussion in Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

You can think of these rhetorical elements as a sort of template or tool to use in your composting of ideas for a writing project; that could begin with your blog writing, focus your close reading response on an element of the writer’s ethos, pathos, or logos. You can also use these elements as a revision tool: identify a place where you can strengthen your pathos or logos, for example, in a draft you are working on. In a larger sense, the word (and study that goes with it) rhetoric is about how to develop, arrange, and deliver arguments by using these kinds of templates.

A basic definition of rhetoric I am working from is thus: the tools a writer or speaker uses to focus the audience’s attention on being informed, persuaded, delighted–ultimately, compelled–by the conversation at hand. That takes work. But since the very beginnings of the academy, this art of rhetoric has been something  that could be taught, practiced, learned. That’s my guiding assumption in this course.

Think about applying this concept to guide your initial reading. For example: how would you characterize the ethos, pathos, logos of Graff’s argument, or Berry’s “In Defense of Literacy”? Where do you see it at work and effective, and why? Where would you say it is lacking?


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