Cause and Effect in Rhetoric (Part 3)


fragment of "WW1 Causes." (Harris Morgan 2007, Sep. 21, Wikimedia Commons)

This section of the blog article “Cause and effect in rhetoric” discusses how cause and effect arguments enter into Rhetorical Criticism of public address.

For the introduction to the article, go to Cause and Effect in Rhetoric Part 1.

Links to other sections of this article:

Part 1: Introduction, Causal Reasoning, Social Constructionism

Part 2: Speech Act Theory and Contemporary Rhetorical Theory

Part 3: Rhetorical Criticism

Part 4: Rhetorical History

Part 5: Rhetorical Praxis and Pedagogy

Part 6: A Typology of Cause-Effect Arguments in Rhetoric

part 7: Social Biases and Disciplinary Power Implications

Rhetorical criticism

A companion to rhetoric and rhetorical criticism - edited by Walter Jost and Wendy Olmsted (2006).

A companion to rhetoric and rhetorical criticism - edited by Walter Jost and Wendy Olmsted (2006).

What complicates rhetorical criticism is that we cannot control all the variables scientificially within the natural rhetorical situation.  Social life is boundless.  Even when the performance “seems” to have an immediate and/or relevant effect, we cannot know all the variables that have interacted with a rhetorical performance or text.

Yet uncertain knowledge, contingency, and complexity have always been in the ocean that rhetoricians and rhetors have to swim in.  Rhetoric does not need certainty of demonstration in order to perform its scholarly or its rhetorical enterprise.

Zarefsky discusses early studies of public discourse before 1965:


  • (Zarefsky, 2008, p. 434) From Zarefsky, D. (2008). History of Public Discourse Studies. In A. Lunsford (Ed.), The SAGE Handbook of Rhetorical Studies (pp. 433-459): SAGE.

Wichelns was approaching cause and effect from a humanistic perspective, not attempting to prove effect through “empirical demonstration.”

The passage by Zarefsky concludes by stating the impact of this mode of scholarship:  “Wichelns’s essay launched the subfield of rhetorical criticism, often thought synonymous with ‘public address’ because that was the principal object to which criticism would be applied.”  Zarefsky (2009, p. 434)

According to Stewart (2004), in his review essay on the library of presidential rhetoric, Wichelns’ 1925 essay “The Literary Criticism of Oratory” influenced rhetorical studies for the next 40 years.

As Stewart explains, Wichelns had a profound influence in the direction of scholarly inquiry, away from aesthetics and toward effectiveness.

Rhetorical criticism, lying “at the boundary of politics,” [Wichelns wrote,] was not to be concerned with permanence or beauty but with effect on the immediate audience and the times. The rhetorical scholar was to determine the effect of a speech through assessment of the situation, the audience, the speaker’s personality and public character, speech preparation, arrangement, style, ideas, motives, topics, proofs, judgment of human nature, and delivery. (p. 407-408)

By performing this criticism on the speeches of well known public figures, Wichelns did not suggest that we could recognize the effect of any and every speech.    You need evidence of the types listed.

Question: Under what conditions is it most plausible and arguable to tie together an argument of rhetorical cause and effect?

Answer: When the social power and intentions of the rhetors combines with the social motivation of the audience to attend to their message as something very relevant to the social situation, and when the social power of the orator is likely to grant his or her speech a wide perlocutionary effect regardless of its intention.

It is easiest to do a criticism of rhetorical performance in history by studying the speeches of presidents and generals during a war, or the speech of teachers in a classroom, or the text of letters sent from a person’s close friend or loved one.  This conjunction of powerful relationship, motivation, and attention is able to strengthen the likelihood that the powerful speaker had an effect on the audience in relation to the situational challenge at hand.

No wonder the study of causes and effects of public address began by focusing on powerful public orators, as Zarefsky (2008) explains.  If one wants to study rhetorical performances “that make a difference” — one needs to discover those that we can at least reasonably hypothesize about a relevant connection between performance and social effect.Rhetorical historians studied figures like Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Webster.


  • (Zarefsky, 2008, p. 435)

Public discourse studies in this vein partake of “rhetorical biography” as well as rhetorical history: “by understanding and evaluating the components of the speaking situation, the analyst could judge the orator as an agent in history.”

In other words, the assumptions of rhetorical biography lean strongly toward the agency of the orator — the “free will” side of the philosophical debate between free will and determinism, without ignoring the fact that rhetorical performance was also determined by “the speaking situation.”

Unfortunately, explains Stewart, since such a wealth of both biographical and historical evidence could only be found in archives for a few famous speakers, rhetorical critics studied them, and with such a wealth of data they filled short journal articles with the biographical information they had discovered about speakers, finding it naturally easier to show how a rhetor’s formation led to his performance than to show how performance led to effects.

The biography of a rhetor was not the full picture of what Wichelns hoped, “rhetorical criticism.”  Yet the Wichelns approach was “interpreted and practiced for decades” by doing rhetorical biography without an appropriate focus on the message of oratory or its effects.  The influence Wichelns had on 4 decades of scholarship was not quite what he had written about in his essay.

In the 1960s and 70s, Stewart continues,

the emphasis changed from speaker-centered to message-centered studies and from concern with effect to how persuasive messages were created and functioned to meet situational exigencies and audience expectations. (p. 408)

As I observed from Stewart’s overview of scholarship, very little work in rhetorical criticism was actually done according to Wichelns’ actual proposed plan.  Stewart mentions one woman’s courageous work which everyone admired and nobody followed … there could have been others who tried to practice Wichelns.

Rhetorical criticism a la Wichelns or Zarefsky perform neither a formalist literary criticism nor a traditional social science approach to discourse and history.

Go to Part 4: Rhetorical History


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