Cause and Effect in Rhetoric (Part 4)


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 History.

It covers some of the approaches to writing histories of rhetorical practice, showing that rhetoric’s effect on society has not been untouched as a purpose or claim of such histories.

However, it is not always the focus of rhetorical histories.

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 history

Cornelis Cort, "Rhetorica"

Cornelis Cort, "Rhetorica"

To argue about rhetorical effects on society, we need more than traditional rhetorical criticism that focuses on the connection between rhetorical intention and performance.   Effects must be analyzed within a historical perspective.  We need a critical rhetorical history in which rhetorical historian-critics argue about the effects of rhetoric beyond of the boundaries of the immediate speech act — its causes in history, and its effects on subsequent history.

This quotation illustrates the purpose and challenges of studying effects of “Public Discourse” in history and criticism:


  • Zarefsky (2009, p. 434) 

If “studying public discourse serves historical, critical, and theoretical purposes” and if it “permits the assessment of discourse as a causal force,” it is worth doing in spite of the challenges of causality.

We learn from Zarefsky in this passage that since “causality usually is elusive,” one uses humanistic or “interpretive” methods and mounts arguments that “explain or account for historical events.”  Argumentation and appropriate evidence “makes it possible to evaluate rhetorical acts” by their effectiveness.

History, not just rhetoric, is the overall frame that one uses to analyze rhetorical effects on society. When we study rhetorical performance in this frame, the rhetorical critic is also doing history.  This mode of rhetorical criticism (or rhetorical history) is about “understanding … history as a series of rhetorical problems.”

  • If one were to focus only on the historical problem, one would look at the causes of the rhetoric, the exigence that brought it about, the “situations that call for public persuasion to reach collective decisions.”
  • If one were to focus only the historical solution, one would look at historical occurrences after the rhetorical act, to discover how rhetoric made “a difference”.

Traditional rhetorical criticism, in the literary mode of the early 20th century, looked at the first:  effective rhetoric is an effective response to rhetorical exigencies and an outcome of rhetorical education and rhetorical biography.

A critical rhetorical biography could consider the speech itself as a solution to a historical problem.   It could also investigate the performance as an appropriate outcome of certain biographical influences and educational preparation that endowed the rhetor with a disposition and skill.

A critical rhetorical history is different from and complements it.

An interest in the speaking situation naturally leads rhetorical scholars to investigate the situations that surround, or occur between, speeches.  The focus of criticism, therefore could vary.


  • (Zarefsky, 2008, p. 437)

When a rhetorical biography expands its scope far beyond the immediate situation of rhetorical performance into the prior and subsequent history so that the focus is equally on the rhetor and his/her situation, the form of scholarship becomes a hybrid of rhetorical criticism, rhetorical biography,  and rhetorical history.

In such a rhetorical history, the rhetor that the scholar selects is the main character.  The overall “plot” of history and other actors and occasions become part of the complete drama.  Thus the oratorical performance takes its place as one of the factors that contributed to the historical process narrated by the scholar; speech becomes an effect or outcome of history as well.

To do a wide-angle criticism of rhetorical performance in history one could widen the historical scope on both sides of the act — one could consider the biographical/historical causes that may have contributed to the act, the technical strategies and apparent purposes of the act, and the long term social/historical effects after the act. A full critical rhetorical history of this type would make arguments about intended effects and strategies, actual performance situation and audience, and the subsequent observable effects on society.

To argue this way, one would need to consider other plausible lines of causal argument that people currently use to explain the historical events and speeches: 1) are there other potential causes of this particular speech performance than a rhetorical exigence and a rhetorical character and skill developed through education and experience?  Maybe it was just good luck, or a good speechwriter?  2) can the effects be attributed to a cause other than this speech?  and was this speech necessary and sufficient to cause such effects?

The argument of this form of rhetorical history is that the speech of a powerful rhetor with appropriate skills and strategies can be seen to contribute an influence (not all-powerful influence, and not always his or her desired/intended influence) on some subsequent events within the frame of investigation.  We must place rhetorical criticism within a historical narrative, thereby studying historical rhetorical action in its context.

Another possible modification of rhetorical history is the study of a public debate between two or more rhetors on a particular issue like abortion or cold war policy.




  • (Zarefsky, 2008, p. 437)

In this mode of rhetorical history, the study of the content of speeches on a similar issue delivered over time could be seen to have effects on the way subsequent speakers address the issue.  This is a study of rhetorical “intertextuality” and creates a history that plays out over a long period of time but still primarily within the scope of the performances alone.

But in rhetorical history we are not limited to arguing intertextuality … the effect of words upon words.  Intertextuality starts and ends in text.  We’ve already shown that there is a ground in rhetorical theory for arguing beyond this realm, and there is a methodology appropriate to it. The methodology involves a humanistic approach to history and rhetorical criticism that is more than just a literary criticism of texts or dramatic criticism of the interplay between texts.

To argue historical impact, we need history as evidence.  What sort of historical evidence is appropriate?

Let history’s unfolding itself provide the evidence that might be connected to the speech performance. We can only study the potential broader, long term social effects of “perlocutionary acts” (rhetorical performances) once the effects have had sufficient time to occur.

We cannot predict what sort of evidence history may provide, but it will be of a nature that is qualitatively different from the immediate effects of rhetoric on an audience. If historical events between the speeches are examined as well as the speeches themselves, the study can show reasonable correlations between them and argue about the effects that a particular speech seems to have had on its social context over time.

Metaphors for cause & effect in rhetorical history

It is as the stone thrown in a pool … the initial impact of the stone is of a unique nature, much more powerful and immediate than any sustained waves that were sent out.  Let the rings of waves and their nature, trajectory and endurance over time tell us the degree to which that stone, and not very likely another stone thrown elsewhere, and not just a fish from beneath jumping to the surface at the same time, and not just a breath of east wind, caused those waves and made them so high when they reached the western shore.

Medical science and biology makes a similar type of argument. We know of the presence of a disease not only through blood tests but by its effects on the body, and once several symptoms and markers are present, we can then confidently label these phenomena as being “caused” by the disease.

Teachers of rhetoric certainly hope that what they teach does not become a disease or a negative influence! … but only the ethics of rhetors, combined with the influence of their education, have any influence on whether a rhetor is more likely to create a rhetorical performance that potentially causes a disease or a cure … and this brings us to the next topic in this article on Cause and Effect in Rhetoric

Go to Part 5: Rhetorical Praxis and Pedagogy


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s