Aristotle’s Three Appeals

Some of my colleagues have indicated that my previous post on this subject, “Argument Versus Persuasion: A False Dichotomy,” might not have been entirely persuasive to my audience of teachers.  Too many terms!  Dialectic, argument, rhetoric, and persuasion all mixed up!  What the heck is dialectic anyway?  How did that get in there?  What does an argument between Aristotle and Plato have to do with teaching students today?

Oh my!  I’d better try again.

I will assert again that argument, in the form of logos, is a part of rhetoric and one of the strategies of persuasion.  Aristotle defines the three modes of persuasion as follows:

  • Ethos: the personal character of the speaker.
  • Pathos: putting the audience into a certain frame of mind.
  • Logos: the proof, or apparent proof, of the words themselves.

It is tempting when doing rhetorical analysis to go through a text labeling the parts of it that construct an ethos, the parts that create emotional effects, and the parts that function as part of a logical argument.  However, it is not so simple.  A single element can function in more than one way, and the relationships between the terms can be complex.

For example, a website called “Defenders of Wildlife” has a “Fact Sheet” about the endangered San Joaquin kit fox that features a cute picture of a young fox with the caption, “The San Joaquin kit fox is declining or has become locally extinct in much of the species historic range.  You can help save them.  Adopt a kit fox.”  The name “Defenders of Wildlife” creates a strong, heroic ethos for the writers of the website.  The web page is full of facts about the kit fox and its life, which function both to create the impression that the writers are knowledgeable about the fox (ethos) and to make the argument (logos) that the cute little fox (pathos) is endangered.  Finally, the reader is asked to help save the kit fox by adopting one, a call for action that is based more on pathos than logos, but involves both.

Here is a slightly more complex example.  Rhetoric scholar Sharon Crowley, in a very academic essay calling for a change in the way writing is taught in schools, wants to argue that there are two basic ways to learn a new skill: by doing it (practice) or by learning principles about it (theory).

The Greek word from which theory is derived originally designated a spectator who sat in the furthermost rows of the theater, literally “observing from afar.”  When a teacher sets out to teach any practice, if she chooses not to demonstrate it, her other alternative is to stand back from it and generalize about it.  As Aristotle notes in the beginning of his Rhetoric, people can pick up skill in any practice simply by doing it; but it is also the case that the causes of success in any art can be investigated and reduced to principles.  These principles can then be transmitted to other learners.

When I was growing up in the sandhills of Nebraska, my mother devoted nearly every Saturday afternoon to making cinnamon rolls.  One Saturday, when I was old enough to be interested in such things, I asked my mother to teach me how to make cinnamon rolls.  She obliged me by talking through the procedure while demonstrating it. You take a pinch of this, she said, and add it to a couple of palmfuls of that, knead the result until you’re satisfied that its consistency is about right, let it set until it smells as though the yeast has finished working, and so on.  (Crowley 330) 

Crowley was not successful in learning to make cinnamon rolls in this way.  She needed precise measurements and procedures that did not depend on years of experience to make judgments about such things as when the yeast has finished working.  She concludes that the problem with teaching by example is that when the teacher is absent, the student is on his or her own, but that if the student knows the theory, he or she can re-create the practice.  Fortunately, her sister had written down some measurements and other information, so together they were able to re-create the cinnamon rolls.  They needed both theory and practice.

Crowley is making a logical argument about teaching.  She cites the authority of Aristotle as support for her argument, implying that she is with Aristotle on this point, thus enhancing her ethos.  Then suddenly, she launches into the example of the cinnamon rolls.  This example illustrates her argument, so it functions as part of logos, but it is also a story about working in the kitchen with her mother, and later her sister.  It’s a homey story about family memories, and thus might seem to some readers to be too personal and emotional to fit in as part of an argument in an article in an academic journal.

In addition to supporting the point about two different kinds of learning, the cinnamon roll story creates emotional effects that are clearly designed to affect the reader.  However, different readers will have different sorts of emotions.  Some will remember their own cooking experiences with their mothers and identify with the author.  Some will think that it is a brilliant illustration of a difficult concept.  Others may react in surprise, maybe even disgust.  “Cinnamon rolls!  My word! What kind of scholarly article is this?”  Some readers might even become hungry and start thinking about lunch.  Conflicting reactions from the audience are part of the risk of using pathos as a persuasive strategy.

However, it is also clear that both the type of ethos that will be effective and the type of emotional response that the writer will get from the audience both depend on the type of audience the writer has.  Ethos and pathos are not static categories, but are in a relationship.  They affect one another.

Let’s say that ethos refers to the perspective of the writer, including all of the strategies he or she uses to construct a particular impression of his or her character and abilities, as well as the persona that is created by these strategies.  Pathos refers to the perspective of the reader, to all the effects the text has on the reader, especially emotional responses, and the strategies used to create those effects. However, the reader may experience an emotional response—suspicion, distrust, admiration, hatred, or even love—that is created in part by the ethos constructed by the writer.   It is also possible that a writer like Crowley might use the effects of pathos to select or reject certain kinds of readers.  She may want the kind of reader who appreciates a connection between the classroom and the kitchen, and not want the reader who thinks cinnamon rolls don’t belong in a serious article.

The writer and the reader have a strong relationship that is “mediated” by the text.  The text is in the middle, so it “mediates” the relationship, creating it, channeling it, controlling it.  The writer has an audience, a group of readers, in mind, and a purpose for writing.  He or she writes a text that serves that purpose and meets the needs of that audience.  However, the writer cannot anticipate every reader or every response.  Readers are individuals who question and talk back to a text.  The relationship is not a one-way street.

Now what about logos?  It is tempting to limit logos to logical arguments.  After all, the Greek word logos, which actually means “word” or “words,” is the root of our word “logic.”  However, even Aristotle thought that rhetorical arguments were different from the kinds of arguments you find in science.  He called rhetorical arguments “enthymemes,” and noted that they contained unstated premises or assumptions that were generally accepted by both the speaker and the audience.   These assumptions were rooted in the world view of the culture, shared beliefs and values that generally went unquestioned unless someone like Socrates was around to question them, or when the society encountered people from a different culture.  For example when a U.S. President talks to the American people about “freedom” there are shared assumptions that the sources of freedom are in certain forms of democracy and a capitalist economic system.  Similarly, an advertisement for a particular car will probably not present arguments about the advantages of car ownership.  Everyone already knows what they are.  These arguments do not need to be spelled out.

We all live in both a physical world and a social world, which is a world of values, beliefs and practices.    The arguments of logos can be seen as representations of the nature of the physical or social world and the relationships between things or individuals in those worlds.   The writer and the reader live in a shared world, but they may see it differently.  One of the main purposes for writing is to get the reader to see the world in the same way the writer does.

The three terms can thus be seen as positions in a three way relationship between the writer, the reader, and the world, mediated by the text.   Rhetorician James Kinneavy places the terms in what he calls the “communication triangle” and updates Aristotle’s language with terms from information theory.  He says, “Basic to all uses of language are a person who encodes a message, the signal (language) which carries the message, the reality to which the message refers, and the decoder (receiver of the message)” (Kinneavy 19).  From this point of view, Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion become a larger more abstract model of the communication process itself.  Combining Aristotle’s terms with Kinneavy’s insight, we might draw the communications triangle something like this:

communicationa triangle

Click the image to enlarge

From this model we can see that every act of communication contains all three appeals. Some texts, from the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) for example, emphasize logos and minimize ethos and pathos.  However, every text has a writer and a reader and refers to a world.  All texts have all three appeals, to varying degrees.

Works Cited

“Fact Sheet: San Joaquin Kit Fox.” Defenders of Wildlife. Web. 22 Dec. 2012. Web.


Crowley, Sharon. “A Plea for the Revival of Sophistry.” Rhetoric Review, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Spring, 1989), pp. 318-334.

Kinneavy, James L. A Theory of Discourse. New York: Norton, 1971. Print.

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