Thoughts on rhetorical cause & effect

"Cassandra" by Evelyn de Morgan.  The prophetess that nobody believed.  (from Wikimedia Commons)

"Cassandra" by Evelyn de Morgan. The prophetess that nobody believed. (from Wikimedia Commons)

Lately I have been pondering the degree to which the belief that “rhetoric has effects on the social world and therefore on history” is fundamentally an ideology or matter of faith, or at least, of theory.

Do you “believe” in the power and potential of your own rhetoric to change history (or have an effect on your family and friends), or do you question it?  Are you a skeptic or a man/woman of faith when it comes to your rhetorical agency and efficacy?

I don’t mean “do you believe rhetoric is all powerful.” No.  I mean, “do you believe that rhetoric can be influential if it is designed to fit the situation and the audience participates in being persuaded.”

If you do believe there is a relationship between what you say/write and how the world changes, then should we not be able to see evdience of that fact when looking at our rhetorical act as history?


Ironically I think we have faith in our ability (and our RESPONSE-ibility) to speak with positive effects on others, and we have more faith in that (alas, human pride) than faith in the ability of others to persuade or affect us with their rhetoric.  The only time we are quite happy with the latter belief is if we are accusing someone of harming us with their words/rhetoric (i.e. harming our reputation, discouraging us).  Then we seem to be quite comfortable with the idea that their rhetoric affected our personal history, and that they should be held responsible for the misuse of their rhetorical power!


The question of rhetorical causality arose because I observed someone seriously question the degree to which rhetorical criticism and theory, in the absence of reference to audience or context, could reveal how language works its power on reality.

In fact I don’t believe rhetorical criticism can “reveal” or prove such things by just looking at a text through the lenses of theory.   I don’t believe it because this is what “formalism” of the early 20th century seemed to claim: that you could take the text of a poem and understand it without reference to its creation or social context because the text is now timeless and carries its meaning along with its form.


Nevertheless, even a formalist rhetorical criticism is permitted and useful in making hypotheses about the relationship between text and context.  It helps us imagine the possiblities of language to influence society, and to have the influence flow the other way. It’s about what is possible and likely, given what we believe to be true about language and audiences in general.


The next step that got me thinking is that often people who are generally familiar with rhetoric but aren’t rhetoricians may see a rhetorical criticism when what is really going on is something a bit more wide in scope than that… a rhetorical history.

A rhetorical history (a history of rhetorical action) puts rhetorical acts in the context of historical unfolding, as one factor among many, and tells the tale or the drama of history as if rhetoric were one actor among many on the stage of life.

Can a rhetorical history perspective do a better job at revealing the cause and effect relationships that we can only “believe in” and hope for as we construct a speech or text?

You’d think that when we deal with history, we have more access now to understanding things than did the people in the moment, because we have had time to investigate a moment from many points of view, depending on the evidence available.

However, history also creates loss of data and selection / deselection of data: there is no way we can ever gather enough information to create a full history of a moment in time and all the factors weighing on an act or an outcome.


Given this ultimate lack of omniscience, we face our ultimate inability to “prove” any cause and effect conclusively, and even if we establish a causal relationship, we can’t weigh one cause more than another cause.

However, must we only launch arguments that are conclusively proven or disproven?  I have heard somewhere that rhetoric is useful for dealing with uncertainties.  To some degree, therefore, scholarly work involves rhetoric to argue where things cannot be proven.

Just because cause-effect relations cannot be perfectly proven, does that mean that engaging in causal reasoning is worthless?


Why should causality be given up on when so many people engage in causal reasoning at the moment of rhetorical praxis?  When they try their best to craft a speech or a piece of writing in order to have particular effects on social context, they are hoping in the cause-effect relationship.

Why do people bother to speak or express at all, if not to be heard and to make some difference in an auditor, even oneself, by giving voice to a thought or feeling?  Do we not believe there is a chance that if our communication strategy is appropriate to the moment, we will have success more often than if we spoke randomly?


So, back to rhetorical history.  Perhaps a little more evidence, even if selective, might give us more insight into what made a particular historical speech or text effective in accomplishing a certain effect.   We could never prove that rhetoric was the ONLY cause of that event, or that it were the NECESSARY cause in order for the “effect” to occur.

All we could do is argue that a certain “shape” of rhetoric will create a certain “shape” of dent in reality when they make contact.  We can indeed forensically analyze the trajectory of the rhetorical “bullet,” look for evidence that the speed and type of bullet would make such an impact on the bodies and minds of its auditors.  We can indeed argue reasonably, even in the absence of complete evidence, about the association and possible contribution that rhetoric made to a particular realm of social action during and after the speech/text was received into the world.

And this leads us to evidence.  Given that you may not have been there at the time when the rhetorical act occurred, are you going to say that only certain kinds of evidence are admissible when trying to build a causal argument, such as witness statements of people present at the delivery of an oration.


Hmmm. Aristotle theorized the 3 genres of rhetoric as forensic (arguments about what has happened), epideictic (arguments about what is now worth praising and blaming, such as when writing a funeral speech or a letter of reference), and deliberative (arguments about what should be done, such as writing a petition or a bill in political affairs).

  • Rhetorical history is forensic (an argument about what happened rhetorically and why, and who is responsible).
  • Rhetorical criticism is epideictic (about the text now in front of us, praising, blaming, analyzing it)
  • Rhetorical praxis is deliberative (about how to construct the most effective, ethical text/speech)

Our rhetorical history methods and theories  ought to mirror our theory of deliberative rhetoric, that is, our belief about how people persuade each other and themselves to make choices about the future.  There ought to be a principle of consistency, or at least of mutual testing.


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