Argument Versus Persuasion: A False Dichotomy

The first Common Core Anchor Standard for Text Types and Purposes states that students should be able to “Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.”  Although Aristotle’s three persuasive appeals–ethos, logos, and pathos— have been part of English Language Arts standards for some time, and while persuasive techniques are mentioned elsewhere in the Common Core documents, this statement has been interpreted by many to emphasize the teaching of argument at the expense of persuasion. Let me make this clear from the start: Argument is not opposed to persuasion.  Argument (logos) is a part of persuasion.

In part, this issue goes all the way back to a disagreement between Plato and his student Aristotle about the nature of truth and the role of rhetoric.  In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates gets the sophist Gorgias to agree that rhetoric persuades to belief, not knowledge.  Socrates argues that there is truth, and that one arrives at the truth through the question and answer method called “dialectic,” demonstrated by Socrates in the Platonic dialogs.  He goes so far as to argue that rhetoric is akin to “cookery,” in that just as a cook can make unhealthy ingredients taste good, rhetoric can make unwise ideas seem appealing.  For Socrates, at least in the Gorgias, dialectic is the true art and rhetoric is no art at all.

However, Aristotle disagrees.  He responds in his work on rhetoric by stating that  rhetoric is the counterpart of dialectic, defining rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” Plato is the idealist.  Aristotle is more practical.  It is also important to note that Plato did not win this argument.  Philosophers may still argue about whether there is absolute truth or not, but life, and rhetoric, go on.

In response to Plato’s argument that rhetoric persuades to belief, but not knowledge, Aristotle says that “argument based on knowledge implies instruction, and there are people whom one cannot instruct.”  Aristotle also says that “The duty of rhetoric is to deal with such matters as we deliberate upon without arts or systems to guide us, in the hearing of people who cannot take in at a glance a complicated argument or a long chain of reasoning.”  In other words, the rigor and certainty of dialectic is appropriate for science, for an expert audience, and for particular narrow purposes.  The persuasive techniques of rhetoric are for almost everyone and everything else.

While Aristotle favors logos and logical argument, he admits that appeals to the character of the speaker (ethos) and appeals to the emotions of the audience (pathos) are legitimate and necessary aspects of persuasion.   Ethos and pathos should not be classified as logical fallacies or artifices of deception.

Because most audiences lack the knowledge or inclination to sit through or follow long chains of reasoning such as one might find in a scientific paper, in most speeches and written texts the arguments used are truncated and based on assumed premises or premises based on probability rather than proof.  Aristotle calls arguments of this nature “enthymemes.”  Such arguments are clearly part of the techniques of persuasion.  They are the bread and butter of nearly all reasoned discourse.  This is the kind of discourse the writers of the Common Core are thinking of when they ask that students be able to  “Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.”  We want students to be able to write for all audiences, not just scientific ones.

Thus those who advise teachers trying to implement the Common Core standards to “teach argument, not persuasion,” or classify ethos and pathos as persuasion, but logos as argument, are promulgating fundamental misunderstandings of the nature of both rhetoric and the Common Core.  They are also not helping students learn to write and succeed in college.  Although most students will write a few scientific lab reports in which logos dominates, they will also have to write essays, application letters, proposals, case studies, research papers, emails, and many other types of documents that require the full range of rhetorical ability.  They will also be subjected to advertising, propaganda, partisan political pieces, and other discourse in which they are subject to rhetorical appeals.

Here is a thought experiment demonstrating an inappropriate use of purely logos-driven discourse. Imagine a political leader trying to manage a serious, complicated crisis without using all aspects of rhetoric.  Let’s take as an example the near meltdown of three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan following a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.  Let’s imagine that Prime Minster Naoto Kan appeared on television after the accident and said the following:

Analyses performed as of 1 June 2011 indicate that at unit 1, the loss of cooling caused the temperature of the uranium dioxide fuel pellets to reach melting point (2 800°C) very shortly after the loss of all electrical power. When this occurred, the analyses have predicted that the molten fuel relocated from the core region to the lower reactor pressure vessel (RPV) head early on 12 March. The molten fuel then caused damage (small leaks) to the lower head. When cooling was later resumed, the temperature of the molten fuel dropped and further damage to the lower head of the RPV was prevented. However, the small leaks in the unit 1 lower RPV head require that water continue to be injected into the RPV at a rate higher than otherwise necessary to remove decay heat and to keep the fuel cooled. Updated analyses performed for units 2 and 3 indicate that significant fuel damage occurred, with the possibility that much of the fuel in these units also melted.     (5)

Imagine that he continued on in this fashion to deliver a complete nine-page engineering report on the state of the six nuclear reactors at the plant.  This is the discourse of a nuclear engineer.  It is logos-driven, objective, neutral, and very useful in its place.  However, it is entirely inappropriate for the rhetorical situation we are imagining.  The people of Japan are afraid and perhaps angry.  They want to know that something is being done, that their leaders care and are competent to take care of the situation.  Ignoring ethos and pathos would be a political and social disaster.

Fortunately, the Prime Minister did not give this speech.  This paragraph came from a report on Fukushima by the Nuclear Energy Association (NEA).

The new Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, also has to deal with the Fukushima situation.  In a speech given to the Japanese Diet on October 15, 2013, he says:

Every day at the Prime Minister’s Office, I eat rice grown in Fukushima. It has a flavor that is acclaimed by all. It is my hope that consumers taste Fukushima’s safe and delicious agricultural and fishery products for themselves, without being confused due to radiation-related rumors.

This is clearly an ethos-related move.  He is establishing solidarity with the people of Fukushima, and demonstrating to one and all that he is not afraid of radiation in their products.  Later in the speech he makes a move toward pathos:

I received a letter from a young mother who is from Fukushima. Her letter conveys her love for her child that was born in the year the earthquake disaster happened, as well as her inner thoughts as she anguishes over whether or not to return to her home community of Fukushima. She ended her letter by saying, “My husband and I are now thinking that we will return to Fukushima. We intend to live on that land as a family, the three of us. We decided this because we thought that Fukushima has no future unless the younger generation lives there as we will.”

Can any politician avoid making these rhetorical moves?  Do we really want a generation of students who can only write like engineers?  However, we don’t have to choose between teaching argument and persuasion.  They are not in opposition.

Here is a link to a short article, “Three Ways to Persuade” that can be used to help students understand ethos, logos, and pathos.

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