Ancient argumentative rhetoric is grounded in the natural speaking competence. This natural skill is developed through conceptualization and practical exercises concerning general or social issues. Such a rhetoric combines linguistic, interactional and citizenship’s competencies.
1. The rhetorical address
The rhetorical address corresponds to discourse in its traditional sense, that is to say, “that which, in public, treats a subject with a certain method, and a certain length” (Littré, [Discourse]); a discourse is a “formal and orderly and usually extended expression of thought on a subject.” (W., Discourse). This concept of discourse has nothing to do with the concept of discourse as defined by Foucault (1969, 1971) or Pêcheux (Maldidier, 1990). Moreover, this meaning of discourse does not appear among the six meanings considered by Maingueneau in his founding presentation of “French discourse analysis” (1976, p. 11-12).
A rhetorical address is a speech delivered by a speaker or orator to an audience, along the following lines.
— The orator deals with an urgent issue of general interest, typically he or she aims to influence an ongoing decision-making process developing under certain time constraints. Classical rhetoric considers an orator, addressing an audience. In reality, a full rhetorical situation is a situation of choice, involving as many orators or voices as there are possible choices.
— The speech is a relatively long, planned monologue composed of a set of speech acts constructing a unified representation, supposed to lead to action.
— It is produced in the context of discursive competition taking place between different speeches of mutual opponents, supporting incompatible proposals. The rhetorical address is given in a space of contradictory discourse, where all interventions are positioned in view of one another. Even if the speaker tries to erase all traces of the counter-discourses that surround him or her, the speech is nevertheless structured by the competing discourses.
— This speech is delivered to an audience, composed of all the people who will play a role in the decision-making process relevant to the matter in hand. The audience is divided in regard to what the right decision would be; it includes staunch supporters and opponents of each proposal, as well as undecided people, S. Roles. The focus traditionally put on persuasion suggests that the orator focuses upon those who doubt and question, more than upon the determined opponents. The job is to remove doubt, to create and lead the opinion, S. Logos, Ethos, Pathos.
The rhetorical audience is both lowered and magnified. It is lowered, because it is defined by its lack of knowledge, its indecision and dissension. But within the New Rhetoric framework at least, the audience is also magnified as a critical instance, somewhere on the way to achieving a universal, deeply rooted and justified consensus.
Argumentative rhetoric has theorized, codified, evaluated and stimulated this kind of public communication, which was the only kind of public address possible before the appearance of the radio, cinema, television and the internet. Its theoretical object, the circulation of contradictory speeches within a decision-making group, remains well-defined. S. Argumentation (II); Persuasion.
2. The rhetorical catechism
At least until the modern age, rhetorical argumentation was the backbone of teaching and education in the Western world. In the Middle Ages, rhetorical argumentation served as one of the three arts of speech constituting the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric), propaedeutic to the quadrivium (geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, music).
For pedagogical purposes, rhetoric has constructed a standard self-representation of both the production process of the address, and its product, the address as delivered to the audience:
— A five-step production process, invention, disposition, speech, memory, pronunciation.
— Three genres of discourse, deliberative, judicial, epideictic.
— Three actors: the rhetorical interaction is functionally three-poles. It brings together “the speaker who wants to persuade, the interlocutor who must be persuaded, and the opponent whom he must refute” (Fumaroli 1980, p. 3).
— Three discursive means of pressure focused on the transformation of the audience representations and desire for action. The speaker seeks:
To inform and teach, by his or her logos, that is the logic of the narrative and the argumen
To please and attract by his or her style, that is the self-image, or ethos, projected in the speech.
To move to action, through the pathos.
— According to the tradition, the acts aimed at producing these effects are concentrated in the strategic moments of the discourse:
The introduction is the ethotic moment.
The narration and the argumentation are ruled by the logos.
The conclusion is the pathemic, emotional moment, through which the speaker hopes to wrest the final decision.
3. Organizing the process
The process of constructing argumentative rhetorical discourse is traditionally described as involving five stages. The corresponding Latin words are mentioned in order to avoid possible confusion with the English words, of which they are false cognates.
(i) Inventio: Finding the arguments
“Invention [inuentio] is the devising of matter, true or plausible, that would make the case convincing” (Ad Her., i, 3). The inventio is the cognitive step corresponding to the methodical search for arguments, guided by the technique of “topical questions”, S. Common Places.
The Latin word inventio does not mean “invention” taken as a creation of something that did not exist before. The meaning is “to find, to discover” (Gaffiot , Inventio).
Psycho-linguistic research on the production of written and oral discourse has taken over the reflection on the inventio techniques.
Rhetorical arguments are found on the basis of an exploration of reality, guided by a natural, substantial ontology. Religious argument has introduced a fundamental change in this vision. Good reasons are not statements expressing sense data or elaborated intellectual conceptions, but are sacred statements drawn from the foundational sacred text and, to a lesser extent, from the texts of tradition.
(ii) Dispositio: Planning the argumentation
“Arrangement [dispositio] is the ordering and distribution of the matter” (ibid.), that is, speech planning. Inventio and dispositio are the two cognitive stages of this process.
(iii) Elocutio: Expressing the argumentation
“Style [elocutio] is the adaptation of suitable words and sentences to the matter devised” (ibid.). The word style used in translation may evoke a superficial arrangement of the expression, but the elocutio is more than that, it corresponds to the “putting into language” of the arguments, to their semantization, corresponding to the whole linguistic expression.
The elocutio is characterized by four qualities, the grammatical correctness (latinitas), the clarity of the message (perspicuitas), the customization of the message to suit the audience (aptum) and the density and wealth of its expression (ornatus). A discourse may be rejected as defective on any of these levels, S. Destruction.
The English word elocution currently refers to “the skill of clear and expressive speech, especially of distinct pronunciation and articulation” (W., Elocution); elocution clearly belongs first to pronuntiatio, and only peripherally to elocutio, as expression and style.
(iv) Memoria: Memorizing the speech
The discourse must be memorized since it is intended to be delivered orally, without the use of paper documents or autocues. As the invention, the memory involves cognitive factors. The cultural import of this memorization work, which might seem anecdotal, was revealed by Yates (1966).
(v) Pronuntiatio: Delivering the speech
“Delivery [pronuntiatio] is the graceful regulation of voice, countenance, and gesture” (ibid.). The Latin word pronuntiatio refers not only to this physical process of speech production and modulation, but also expresses the idea of an assertive speech: a pronuntiatio is a “declaration, announcement, proposal” (Gaffiot , Pronuntiativus). The judge does not say or read the verdict, he or she pronounces it. Rhetorical tradition sees delivery as the moment of performance, and dramatization of discourse, requiring a special education of the body, the gesture and the voice. The orator, the preacher, the actor are under the same public performance constraints, although their techniques, social statuses and messages are quite different.
In short, finding arguments, ordering them, expressing them in writing: the rhetorical prescriptions are particularly suited to general academic essays. They seem clear and they are easy enough to teach — but, unfortunately, not so easy to put into practice.
In the Divisions of Oratory Art, Cicero has framed the concepts of ancient rhetoric as a succession of question-answers, “very similar to a catechism”, as Bornecque notes (, p. VII). Rhetoric may have suffered from such allegedly pedagogical representation where everything has to be done and said by the book.
4. Textual organization of the speech
This process leads to a finished product, the speech delivered in a specific situation. It is articulated in parts, traditionally named:
Argumentation (a confirmation followed by a refutation)
The argument is the central part of the speech. Contrary to a simplistic vision of discourse, there is no opposition between argumentation, narration and description. Argumentative narrations or descriptions, like literary narrations or descriptions, are made from a particular viewpoint.
5. Extensions and restrictions of rhetoric
Ancient argumentative rhetoric has been redefined on various dimensions.
— Restriction to its expressive dimension. Argumentative rhetoric can be oriented towards persuasive communication or the quality of expression.
— Generalization to its persuasive dimension. Nietzsche assimilates the rhetorical function to the persuasive function of language, S. Persuasion.
— Restriction to its linguistic dimension and liquidation of its cognitive dimensions. The apparent logic of the five components of rhetorical production was profoundly challenged in the Renaissance (Ong 1958). The three components related to thought (invention, disposition, memory) were separated from those related to language (expression and delivery). Inventio, the bones of argumentation, rejected out of rhetoric and language was no longer considered to be the fundamental moment of the discursive process. An orphan of the inventio, rhetoric redefined its object, moving away from social discourses to focus on literature and belles-lettres, and developing a passion for the autonomous study of the discourse variations and figures of style.
A language deprived of thought and a thought deprived of language: this orphaned rhetoric would become the target of violent attacks from Locke, S. Ornamental fallacies. In France, in the nineteenth century, Fontanier (, ) was the emblematic figure associated with this “restricted rhetoric” (Genette, 1970), in opposition to the so-called “general” rhetoric, which was revived by Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca (1958) — The question of a revival of an integral concept of rhetoric remaining a topos of rhetorical studies.
— Generalization along its linguistic dimension. A rhetoric restricted to figures of speech can itself be called “general”: this paradoxical expression corresponds to the “Group μ” approach in their General Rhetoric (1970). The problems of figures are taken up in a structuralist framework, and figures are reconsidered under the two basic dimensions of language, the syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes. Issues of argumentation, public speaking, interaction or communication, are not accounted for, nor indeed are the aesthetics of figures. This General Rhetoric was virtually the only concept of rhetoric to be considered in the French literature during the 1970s, and Perelman’s New Rhetoric occupied only a marginal position. Wenzel devoted an avenging paragraph to this “alarming” view of rhetoric (1987, p. 103; see Klinkenberg, 1990, 2001). The contrast with the status of rhetoric in the United States’ Speech and Communication Departments could not be greater.
— Extension to ordinary speech. The rhetorical approach can be extended to everyday forms of talk, insofar as they involve face management (ethos), data processing oriented towards a practical end (logos), and a correlative treatment of the affects (pathos) (Kallmeyer, 1996). The rhetorical trilogy can thus be regarded as the ancestor of the different theories of the functions of language (Bühler 1933, Jakobson ), in a completely distinct theoretical atmosphere. This extension also retains a fundamental characteristic of rhetorical speech: to alter reality and participate in the structuration of ongoing actions. This view may resonate with Bitzer’s evocation of the dialogue between fishermen at work in the Trobriand Islands, and his definition of the “rhetorical situation” as involving a degree of “urgency”:
Rhetorical situations may be defined as complexes of persons, events, objects and relations presenting an actual or potential exigence, which can be partially or completely removed if discourse, introduced into the situation, can so constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significant modification of the exigence (Bitzer , p. 5).
— Extension to any semiotic domain. Rhetoric naturally extends to the co-verbal and paraverbal signifiers. Moreover, any strategic implementation of a semiotic system can be legitimately regarded as a rhetorical practice; the rhetoric of painting, of music, of architecture, for example.