1. Persuasion as the essence of rhetoric

Since Isocrates and Aristotle, argumentative rhetorical speech is commonly defined by its function, that being persuasion:

Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion. (Rhet, I, 2, 1355b26, RR, p. 105).

According to Crassus as staged by Cicero, persuasion is the “first duty” of the orator (Cicero, De Or., I, XXXI; p. 40). Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, focus their definition of argumentation on how “to induce or to increase the mind’s adherence to the theses presented for its assent” ([1958]/1969, p. 4; italics in the original) before elaborating on the notion of “adherence of minds” by means of an opposition between persuading and convincing speech, S. Assent; Persuading and convincing.

According to these standard definitions, argumentative rhetoric is fundamentally concerned with the discourse structured by the illocutionary (overtly expressed in the discourse) intention of persuading, that is to communicate, explain, legitimate, and make the listeners share the speaker’s point of view and the words that express it. Persuasion, as a perlocutory state obtained through discourse, results from the realization of these intentions.

The rhetorical tradition binds the discourse of persuasion to the production of a plausible representation in the audience’s minds. This rhetorical representation of reality is considered to be antagonistic towards truth by essentialist philosophers such as Plato, S. Probable.

2. A rhetoric without persuasion: the ars bene dicendi

Chapter 15 of Book II of Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory is devoted to challenging the definition of rhetoric in relation to persuasion, “the most common definition therefore is that [rhetoric] is the power of persuading” (IO, II, 15, 3), this definition being attributed to Isocrates. Quintilian rejects all the definitions linking rhetoric to persuasion:
— As the power to persuade:

But money, likewise, has the power of persuasion, as do interest, and the authority and dignity of a speaker, and even his very look, unaccompanied by language, when either the remembrance of the services of any individual, or a pitiable appearance, or beauty of person, draws forth an opinion. (Id., 6)

— Or as an instrument of persuasion, even with the restriction “power of persuading by speaking”:

Not only the orator, but also others, such as harlots, flatterers, and seducers, persuade or lead to that which they wish, by speaking. (Ibid.)

Finally, Quintilian takes up the definition of rhetoric attributed to the Stoics and Chrysippus, “rhetoricen esse bene dicendi scientiam” (id., p. 841), that is to say, “the art to speak well and say the Good”:

The definition that [rhetoric] is the science of speaking well […] embraces all the virtues of [rhetoric] at once and includes also the character of the true orator, as he cannot speak well unless he be a good man. (Id., 34)

Its purpose is, “to think and speak rightly” (id., 36).

The rhetoric of persuasive communication and the rhetoric focusing on the quality of expression have been opposed as primary vs. secondary rhetoric (Kennedy 1999), or extrinsic vs. intrinsic rhetoric (Kienpointner 2003). We can also speak of an introverted rhetoric, focusing on the quality of an expression based on intellectual rigor and depth of feeling. Extroverted, communicative rhetoric strives to be eloquent, while introverted rhetoric requires an alternative concept of style.

Note that this distinction does not correspond to the distinction forwarded in the 1960s, between a restricted rhetoric opposed to a general rhetoric. Likewise, it has nothing to do with the distinction between rhetoric of arguments and rhetoric of figures. S. Rhetoric.

Introverted rhetoric is a rhetoric whose communicative and interactional dimensions, hence persuasiveness, are weakened, but which nevertheless remains an argumentative rhetoric. La Bruyère expresses as follows the concept of such a rhetoric having abdicated eloquence and persuasion:

We must only endeavor to think and speak justly ourselves, without aiming to bring others over to our Taste and Sentiments; that would be too great an enterprise. (La Bruyère, [Of Works of Genius], [1688])2

3. From persuasion to action

In an essential but often neglected complement to the basic definition of argumentation, the Treatise on Argumentation extends the scope of persuasion through argumentation to action. Argumentation would actually produce the “disposition to action”:

The goal of argumentation, as we have said before, is to create or increase the adherence of minds to the theses presented for their assent. An efficacious argument is one which succeeds in increasing this intensity of adherence among those who hear it in such a way as to set in motion the intended action (a positive action or an abstention from action) or at least in creating in the hearers a willingness to act which will appear at the right moment. (Perelman, Olbrechts-Tyteca, [1958], p. 45)

This vision is restated a little later:

Argumentation alone […] allows us to understand our decisions. (Id, p. 37)

The end point of the argumentative process, then, is not persuasion seen as a mere mental state, an “adherence of the mind”. The ultimate criterion of complete persuasion is an action accomplished in the sense suggested by discourse, and emotion plays an essential role where this is acted out. Adherence beyond a certain degree would trigger action. This is a crucial point where argument, emotions, and values are combined in order to give a response to the philosophical problem of action.

4. Persuasion, identification, self-persuasion?

Burke stressed that persuasion presupposes identification:

When you are with Athenians, it is easy to praise Athenians, but not when you are with the Lacedaemonians.
Here is perhaps the simplest case of persuasion. You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his. (1950, p. 55).

According to the rhetorical doxa, the preliminary to a successful persuasive performance is based on agreements between the speaker and the audience S. Conditions of discussion. This negotiation of agreements could take place through a preliminary argumentative dialogue, running the risk of an infinite regression. So the orator resolves not to explicitly agree with his audience, but to adapt to it. For this reason, he or she makes a preliminary inquiry about the audience, in order to be able to correctly adapt to, or mimic, the audience. This is precisely what the theory of the ethos of audiences foresees, S. Ethos, §5: through ethotic suggestion, the speaker presents himself or herself as “one of you, the people”. Secondly, by logical proofs, the speaker gives prominence to the values and judgments accepted by his or her audience (he or she argues ex concessis). Thirdly, appealing to pathemic communion with the audience, empathy is shown.

Accordingly, in order that the audience identifies with the speaker, he or she must first identify with this audience. At the end of this process of adaptation, one might ask who exactly is being persuaded by whom? The extroverted rhetoric of persuasion is threatened by the solipsism of identification. It expresses only group introversion. The notion of “communion” proposed by the Treatise, may characterize the culmination of this process. This rhetorical concept of identification is totally foreign to the concept of identification defined in the framework of polyphony theory.

5. Who studies persuasion?

The characteristic difference of rhetorical argumentation cannot be defined by persuasion, for the simple reason that persuasion is an object claimed by many other disciplines, including the sciences and philosophy of cognition; neuropsychology as well as “neuro-linguistic programming”.

One year before the Treatise on Argumentation, Vance Packard published The Hidden Persuaders (1957), in which he developed a criticism of rational persuasion as socially ineffective. This criticism was first elaborated in the twenties by Walter Lippman (1922) and later by Edward L. Bernays (1928). In the wake of these books, but with quite different methods, neuromarketing came to focus on the issue of persuasion. To take a less controversial discipline, the analysis of persuasion also belongs to social psychology. This discipline counts among its fundamental objects the theoretical and experimental study of social influences: persuasion, convictions, suggestion, grip/influence, incitement… the formation and manifestations of attitudes, representations, and correlative transformations in the ways individuals or groups behave. The whole movement of the world, the material events, including scientific discoveries and technical innovations, along with the correlative flows of language, produce and rectify the representations, thoughts, words and actions of individuals and groups. The great classical studies of social psychology of persuasion published in the last century hardly mention rhetoric or argumentation. For example, neither the word rhetoric nor the words argument or argumentation appear in a collection of texts on the psychology of persuasion, entitled Persuasion (Yzerbit and Corneille 1994). The problem of persuasion can be legitimately invoked in relation to discourse, but the study of the process of persuasion, even in term of its linguistic aspects, may in no circumstances be carried out in the sole framework of rhetorical studies (Chabrol and Radu, 2008).

6. Persuasion as a general function of language

Just as rhetorical argumentation cannot be characterized by its persuasive function, it cannot be defined as the study of the persuasive language genres, insofar as the persuasive function is not linked to a genre but is coextensive with language use, S. Schematization.

From the general point of view of language functions, persuasion may be considered representative of the function of action on the recipient (call function, German Appell Funktion, Bühler [1933], or conative function, Jakobson [1960]). More specifically, Benveniste contrasts history (narrative) with discourse, and considers that the intention to influence is a characteristic of the latter category, discourse:

By contrast, we have in advance situated the plane of discourse. Discourse is to be understood in its broadest extension: every utterance supposes a speaker and a listener, and in the first the intention of influencing the other in some way. It is first of all the diversity of the oral discourses of every nature and of every level … but it is also the mass of the writings that reproduce the oral discourses or borrow their turns and ends. (Benveniste [1959], p. 242, my emphasis)

Nietzsche, in his lectures on rhetoric, generalizes rhetorical force to make it “the essence of language”:

There is obviously no unrhetorical “naturalness” of language of which one could appeal; language itself is the result of purely rhetorical arts. The power to discover and to make operative that which works and impresses, with respect to each thing, a power which Aristotle calls rhetoric, is at the same time the essence of language; the latter is based just as little as rhetoric is upon that which is true, upon the essence of things. Language does not desire to instruct, but to convey to others a subjective impulse and its acceptance. (In S. L. Gilman & al. C. 1989, p. 21)

This trend towards the extension of rhetoric as persuasion to any kind of talk is, moreover, compatible with all the classical definitions of rhetoric as a technique capable of developing the natural capacities of individuals.

7. Persuasion and the “colonization of minds”

The concept of rhetorical persuasion is built on the key idea that persuasion is intrinsically good, even if men and women have an unfortunate tendency to misuse the best things. The orator is placed in the elevated position of being a “good man, speaking well” and aspiring to universalize his visions and aspirations, an aristocrat of speech, while his audience is framed in the lower, insubstantial position of the undecided, because of poor reasoning and decision- making abilities, S. Enthymeme; Metaphor. The audience is considered barely capable of reaching an independent decision, needing guidance and easy prey to manipulators.

On the political and religious level, persuasion is the strictly correct term to use for propaganda. Propagandists and converters also introduce themselves as good persons eager to persuade, and might also count dictators and fundamentalists amongst the deeply self-convinced persuaders. S. Dissensus. In the early fifties, Domenach defined propaganda as the activities systematically organized “to create, transform or confirm opinions” ([1950], p. 8), while Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca focus on “the adherence of minds”; and to adhere is also the first step to becoming a member. A key difference between argumentation and propaganda is the means they use: argumentation uses “discursive techniques” (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca [1958], p. 5), that is an overt, technique, while propaganda uses all the available means, both overt and covert, to achieve its goal, using not only discourse, but also images and all spectacular manifestations demanding a ritual collective action.

To persuade is to convert or, in Margaret Mead’s words, to “colonize minds” (Dascal 2009), to save the audience from some evil and direct them to some good, of which they were formerly neither persuaded nor convinced.

8. Arguing in an exchange structure

The theory of rhetorical persuasion is discussed in the context of an interaction without exchange (an addressed monologue, that is to say a one-turn interaction), which gives the public a largely passive role.
Pragma-Dialectic starts not from an opinion to be conveyed to a public but from a difference of opinion between two individuals, giving each opinion an equal value and chance to prevail. This theory “takes as its object the resolution of divergences of opinion by means of argumentative discourse” (van Eemeren and Grootendorst 1992, 18). Rule 1 opens up the space for debate and controversy:

Freedom – The parties must not obstruct the free expression of points of view or their questioning. (van Eemeren, Grootendorst, Snoeck Henkemans 2002, p. 182-183),

The debate reaches its rational goal if it can effectively eliminate either the doubt or the “inconclusively defended point of view”:

Closing – If a point of view has not been conclusively defended, the advancing party must withdraw it. If a point of view has been conclusively defended, the other party must withdraw the doubts it has expressed with respect to that point of view.” (Ibid.)

This leads to a consensus either on the opinion, or on its “withdrawal” (from the current interaction, from the other’s mind, etc.).
Interactional and cooperative approaches to argumentation consider that the viewpoint that one partner brings into the discussion and lays out for the appreciation of the other participants arguing their own perspective can be profoundly transformed by the encounter. Consensus can be achieved by merging primitive views or by co-constructing a third opinion, participants behaving like Hegelian evolutionary dialecticians progressing by synthesis of actual positions, and not as Aristotelian dialecticians, progressing by eliminating the competing position, S. Rhetoric; Dialectic.

9. Externalized persuasion

Persuading, that is to say changing the audiences’ minds, means changing the audience’s language. The persuasion experience leaves an inflection point in the discourse of the persuadee. The new discourse produced by a persuaded audience is characterized by its argumentative co-orientation with the persuader’s discourse. The persuadees ratify the persuader’s interventions; they adopt the speaker’s presuppositions, repeat his or her arguments, adopt his or her personal style, and, in the cases of “deep persuasion”, his or her tone of voice.

That is, persuasion can be externalized, to be analyzed, on the basis of linguistic evidence obtained by comparing the persuading and the persuaded discourses.

1 Quoted after Quintilien, I. O. = Institution oratoire, Trans. by J. Cousin. Paris: Les Belles Lettres,
2 Jean de La Bruyère, The Characters, or Manners of the Age. London: D. Browne, etc. p. 7. [Des ouvrages de l’esprit. In Les Caractères ou les mœurs de ce siècle, 1688] (03-19-2017)