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1.4: Reading for Rhetoric and Reasoning

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    (900 words)

    Adapted from Tanya Long Bennett "Writing and Literature: Composition as Inquiry, Learning, Thinking, and Communication" CC-BY-SA 


    Strategy: Recognize when texts are using rhetorical strategies and reasoning

    Rhetoric the use of persuasive techniques. When you read to understand how writers use rhetoric, you are also reading to understand how you can use rhetoric to be persuasive. (Persuasive, in the rhetorical sense, means bringing someone to your side through means OTHER than through force. Essentially, making someone choose to be on your side). In order to persuade a particular audience of a particular point, a writer makes decisions about how best to convince the reader. Aristotle (the Greek philosopher whose works on rhetoric have best survived to the present) called these decisions "appeals," and he defined 3 main appeals.

    Logos: Appeal to Logic 

    Consider this hypothetical plea from Zach to his father: “Dad, could you loan me money for gas until I get my paycheck at the end of the week? If you do, I’ll be able to haul your junk pile to the dump as well as drive myself back and forth to work. I’ll pay you back as soon as I get my check!”

    Logos appeals to the reader’s intellect. As readers, we test arguments for their soundness. Does the writer make false assumptions? Are there gaps in the argument? Does the writer leap to conclusions without sufficient evidence to back up his claims? A writer's job is to build a solid, well-explained, sufficiently supported argument. 

    What about Zach’s argument above? Essentially, he asserts that a loan from his father would benefit both Zach and his dad. Does the argument seem sound? We do not know why Zach is short on cash this week—his father may be aware that Zach spent most of last week’s check on the newest iPhone, so he does not have enough to cover his gas this week. Thus, there may be factors that undermine Zach’s implication that his request is motivated by responsibility. However, he does offer evidence that the loan will allow him to fulfill his obligations.

    We'll say more about constructing your own logic in a later chapter. For now, it's important to recognize the ways that sources often make claims that supported by combinations of evidence, reasoning, assumptions, and values. 

    Ethos: an appeal based on the credibility of the writer

    Ethos is often generated by the expertise of the writer. A doctor who studies immunology would have more ethos when speaking about COVID-19 than would a radio host. But ethos is also generated by the author’s apparent ethics. If the reader perceives that she shares important values with the writer, the door of communication opens wider than if the writer and reader seem to lack common values. If a reader believes that mask regulations are an example of government overreach, they will be more likely to believe the conspiracy theories of a radio host who has similar views about masks. Reflecting back to Zach’s request for a loan from his father, Zach does remind his father subtly that the loan will allow him to work, both at his job and at home. This respect for work is likely a value held by Zach’s father, so it becomes important common ground for the argument.

    Pathos: an appeal to the reader's emotions 

    Certainly, Zach’s father will be affected by his feelings for his son Zach as he considers whether to loan Zach the money for gas, but what about in a more academic or professional context? Even though the goal of an academic writer is to approach a research topic as objectively as possible, even scholars are people, and people are emotional creatures. 

    When you read to understand a writer's pathos, make sure that you can identify the emotions they try to create in you, and ask yourself why that emotion might be a useful part of their argument. 19th Century rhetorician George Campbell offers an effective explanation of the power of pathos in argument. 

     If the orator would prove successful, it is necessary that he engage in his service all these different powers of the mind: the imagination, the memory, and the passions. These are not the supplanters of reason, or even rivals in her sway; they are her handmaids, by whose ministry she is enabled to usher truth into the heart, and procure it there a favourable reception

    As Campbell suggest with imagery, the passions help us want to get married to an idea. The image makes sense. When people first fall in love, they have strong passions and emotions for the other person. Later, they find other reasons to want to be with that partner. Campbell explains how emotions are use to excite the mind toward the writer's opinion, but the audience is not persuaded unless the emotions are consistent with the logic of the argument. 

    Analysis means looking at how the parts work together

    When you analyze the rhetoric, you should try to identify the Logos, Ethos, and Pathos on their own. But, as Campbell suggests, you should also look at how they work together.

    Logical Fallacies: Treat every choice as a deliberate choice

    A logical fallacy is a faulty argument. Sometimes it is just sloppy or lazy, other times it is deliberately manipulative. If you want, you can start learning more about them in other OER on Libretexts.



    • Think about a time you had to be persuasive. Which appeals did you use? Were you effective? Would you do anything differently now?
    • Do you think Campbell is right about the connection between passion and reason?

    This page titled 1.4: Reading for Rhetoric and Reasoning is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Tanya Long Bennett (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) .

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