53 Rhetorical Criticism Overview


After reading this chapter you should be able to:

  • Define rhetoric.
  • Identify key features of classical rhetorical theory.
  • Identify the challenges that contemporary theorists are making to the study of rhetoric.
  • Define rhetorical criticism.
  • Explain the purpose and uses of rhetorical criticism.
  • Explain the different models of rhetorical criticism.
  • Understand how rhetorical theory and criticism are a current part of the communication discipline.

What do you think of when you hear the word “rhetoric”? Do you have a positive association with the word? Perhaps it feels difficult to define. We often hear that rhetoric is connected to politics, or specifically, the speeches made by politicians, as in, “That campaign speech was just a bunch of empty rhetoric.” Sound familiar? As is often the case, the popular media has distorted the meaning of this word thus, making it difficult to understand. Another problem is that “rhetoric is not a content area that contains a definite body of knowledge, like physics; instead, rhetoric might be understood as the study and practice of shaping content” (Covino and Jolliffe 4). A third source of difficulty when it comes to defining this concept is that scholars themselves have been debating this term for thousands of years!

In this chapter devoted to rhetorical theory and criticism, we will explore both of these separate but related fields of inquiry, briefly map out their history, discuss some of the major rhetorical theories and methods of doing rhetorical criticism, and finally, explain how this specialization contributes to the larger discipline of Communication. But, before going any further, let’s begin by highlighting the definitional and historical debate so we may begin with a common understanding of the term, “rhetoric.” Remember from Chapter 5 that we are defining rhetoric as “any kind of symbol use that functions in any realm” (Foss, Foss, and Griffin 7).

One would think that after thousands of years people would finally come to an agreement about what rhetoric means. But as is the way with all symbols (words in this case) their meaning can and does change over time to reflect the ever-changing social, political, religious, and cultural context in which they operate. More specifically, they change to reflect the needs, attitudes and beliefs of the people living and communicating within a particular context. Let us take a trip around the world and through time to explore the origin and meaning of rhetoric. As we tour the origins and various definitions of rhetoric we will also highlight the view or scope allowed by each, for “a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing” (Burke 49).


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