A Problem with the Aristotelian Appeals

Recently there was a thread on the Writing Program Administrator’s discussion board (WPA-L) in which first year writing instructors at the college level were complaining about receiving large numbers of essays that used ethos, logos, and pathos in ineffective ways. One respondent said that “it seems to have become the new five paragraph essay.” In ERWC, we offer these concepts as a set of analytical tools that allow students to become aware of the claims made on them by the writers of the documents they read. Instead, for some students, the Aristotelian appeals seem to have become a new essay formula.

I asked tutors and instructors on my campus if they were also seeing large numbers of ineffective essays that were framed by ethos, logos, and pathos. They confirmed that they were. One instructor told me that he now routinely says to students “Less pathos! More logos!” This is a recent phenomenon.

In a sense, this is success. Students are acquiring concepts and transferring them to other situations. However, from these reports, some of the transfer is negative and inappropriate. This is a big problem.

The Aristotelian appeals are only a part of a rhetorical approach. Aristotle says that rhetoric is “the art of finding the available means of persuasion.” The most important factors in any rhetorical analysis are audience and purpose. The first questions the student should ask are “Who is the audience?” and “What is the writer trying to accomplish?” not “Where is the ethos?” “Where is the pathos?” and “Where is the logos?”

After audience and purpose, the student needs to explore the issue. How is the issue defined? Who are the parties involved? What is the writer’s position? What are the arguments in favor of it? What are the arguments against it? What are other possible positions? What are the possible consequences? These questions all can be seen as coming under the heading of logos, but the answers may not all be in the text under study. To come up with counter-arguments and alternative positions, the student may have to think outside the text.

Ethos and pathos are also modes of persuasion, not necessary ingredients. Is the text more persuasive because of the way that the writer has constructed his or her ethos? Then we might look at the elements that construct that ethos. Does the writer make moves that invoke the reader’s emotions? We might want to look at how that is done and why the writer did it. However, a writer, such as a scientist, may choose to persuade entirely through facts and arguments and leave character and emotion behind.

In a future post I will explore how the Roman concept of stasis theory might be helpful in analyzing issues. Remember, “Less pathos! More logos!”

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