Rhetoric… the term that is apparently impossible for humans to define (despite the fact that humans created it to begin with), and incapable of acquiring an agreed upon understanding of (irony!). In James Herrick’s Overview of Rhetoric, Herrick defines rhetoric as an examination of a huge system of various symbols, all with hidden or understood meanings. He thinks it’s important to suggest that rhetoric involves symbols and signs much of the time. What he means by a symbol is “a general term referring to any mark, sign, sound, or gesture that communicates meaning based on social agreement” (Herrick 5). Such symbols if we were to clarify further would be things such as language, music, gestures, postures, and facial expressions. Even trying to understand the symbolic meaning of monuments apparently has to do with the ‘symbols’ that were used; the material a monument is made out of, the shape, the size, the engraving!

In further defining the word rhetoric, he goes on to say, “If persuasion is central to social organization, and if the art of rhetoric takes in the study of persuasion, then our lives as members of human communities are inherently and inescapably rhetorical. It may even be the case that individual conscious thought often is rhetorical in nature. Understanding rhetoric, then, is crucial to the success and happiness of communities and of individuals” (Herrick 6). He believes the goal of rhetoric is using persuasion to get someone else to see why your idea is the right one, using symbols in order to make clear precisely what you mean to convey, and in the end to accomplish mutual understanding in such a way that you know you have gotten your listener to agree with your side of the argument. In short, he defines the art of rhetoric as “the systematic study and intentional practice of effective symbolic expression” (Herrick 7). Simply put, it all has to do with knowing how to use symbols properly in order to achieve your goal. He claims that rhetoric was originally meant as an art of persuasion using language, but now it has evolved into something more that is less… deceptive… yet significantly more tricky to pinpoint an actual definition for.

According to Herrick, there are “five distinguishing qualities of rhetorical discourse” (7). How can you tell that someone is using rhetoric? If their pitch sounds like it was “planned”, if what is being said was “adapted to some sort of audience” (doesn’t everyone adapt to the people in their audience?), if “human motives are shaping” the speaker’s words (I think this will always be true as long as we’re human…), if the speaker is “responding to a situation”, if they are “seeking to persuade”, and (sixth characteristic, I guess?) if the speaker in question is “concerned with contingent issues” (Herrick 8).

Herrick’s take on rhetoric, I believe, extends the definition of rhetoric presented in “In Defense of Rhetoric: No Longer Just for Liars.” It seemed that just about everything he claimed rhetoric to be was similarly addressed and discussed in the video from my previous blog post. His idea of rhetoric is that it isn’t just used for deception as in the case with politics, but that it is also used for the greater good. Well, in the video they were kind of against even saying the rhetoric could simply be a means of persuasion for self-gain, in fact they argued pretty hotly against it, but I think we all know that anything can be used for great good or for great evil. That includes rhetoric.

Herrick says, “rhetoric stresses commonality between a rhetor and an audience, something rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke termed identification. Such identification is crucial to persuasion, and, thus, to cooperation, consensus, compromise, and action” (9). You need to be able to understand your audience when you are standing right in front of them in order to identify with them and succeed in presenting evidence or, according to Herrick, so that you may be able to use the proper symbols in order to get your audience right where you want them. Without there being some common ground – that pertains to the conversation – between the speaker and the listener, it could potentially be impossible to achieve a mutual understanding and agreement.

When the art of rhetoric isn’t being severely misused in order to deceive and is instead applied by ethically grounded rhetor, as Herrick puts it, then there are six functions of note, “ideas are tested, advocacy is assisted, power is distributed, facts are discovered, knowledge is shaped, and communities are built” (16). Indeed, this sounds as though it is certainly a less harmful means of going about using the art of rhetoric, but in my opinion, even if a person is ethical his motives are still always going to be fueled by his perspective as a human being and thus, rhetoric can never be as benign as Herrick attempts to suggest that it can be.

Source: “James Herrick’s Overview of Rhetoric”.

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