Conceptual Representation for Learning

In a recent post on her blog, Rhetorical Thinking, Jennifer Fetcher raises some important issues about the utility of the rhetorical triangle she says,

These days, I want to know more about human communication than what the rhetorical triangle can tell me. I want to know what’s behind and underneath this one-dimensional model: what relationships and identities underlie a social interaction, what ways of thinking people bring to the exchange, what sources of knowledge they value, and what communication habits shape what is said (or miss-said) and understood (or misunderstood).

My initial response, which I posted as a comment, was this:

Well, Aristotle doesn’t have these terms arranged in a triangle. I think James Kinneavy was the first to do that, in Theory of Discourse. If we see ethos as speaker, pathos as audience, and logos as the world, we have a speaker speaking about the world to an audience, but both audience and world influence what is said and how it is said. And audiences can speak back. And words frame the world in different ways. It is too dynamic to be captured in a triangle or a pyramid, except as a frozen simplification (which can be useful). M. Jimmie Killingsworth makes a similar point in Appeals in Modern Rhetoric. For me the individual appeals can be seen as nodes spinning in a sort of a magical vortex; you can catch one for a moment and look at it, but it won’t give you the whole picture.

However, I felt there was more to these questions than offering a different metaphor would answer. Let’s start out with these assertions:

  • Making a representation or model of a concept is a rhetorical act in itself
  • As a rhetorical act, such a representation has an audience and a purpose
  • All representations are a simplification of the actual phenomenon, though some are simpler than others
  • There is no final, most true representation; the final representation is no representation at all, but the actual living phenomenon.

Aristotle’s Argument with Plato

Much of Aristotle’s Rhetoric is a response to Plato’s argument in the Gorgias that rhetoric is not an art, but a kind of artifice that can make the better appear the worse and the worse appear the better. For Plato, rhetoric is a tactic for trickery and deception. Aristotle argues that rhetoric is indeed an art because some speakers are more effective than others and we can systematically analyze why. He acknowledges that rhetoric can deceive, but also argues that rhetoric can defend the truth against lies.

However, there is a problem. Aristotle believes that logic is the best path toward truth, but when analyzing the most effective speakers he finds that people are often more strongly persuaded by the perceived credibility of the speaker or their own emotional reaction to the speech. Many audiences are neither informed enough nor patient enough to follow a long chain of reasoning. He prefers logos, but allows ethos and pathos into his analysis of the art of rhetoric. He also presents the concept of the “enthymeme,” the argument with some of the premises suppressed or assumed. Such hidden premises relieve the audience from the need to follow chains of interlocking arguments, but also can be a tactic for deception.

Those are the basic concepts of Aristotelian rhetoric. They are useful for understanding many aspects of politics, business genres, family arguments and other interpersonal communication. How do we operationalize them for teachers and students?

Conceptual Representation

This is where the idea of what I am calling “conceptual representation” comes in. All models, metaphors, analogies, outlines, descriptions, and definitions have advantages and disadvantages. Simple models are easier to grasp, but hide complexity. Complex models may provide a more sophisticated representation, but may also be confusing. Every model has a purpose and should be designed to fulfill that purpose. As noted above, there is no true model that represents all of the complexity of the actual phenomenon. What Jennifer is noting in her blog post is that the rhetorical triangle is not effectively representing these concepts for her or for her students. It is not serving its purpose. We need something new.

Of course a simple model poorly used can also cause confusion. This is what happens when the ethos, logos, pathos model is used as a set of pigeonholes in which to categorize specific elements of a text under analysis. In fact, the same element in a text can simultaneously function as part of a logical argument, influence the speaker’s credibility, and create an emotional effect. It is better to ask, “How does this element in the text function to create rhetorical effects.”

Jennifer’s question about how to represent the dynamism of the interaction between these three elements is an important one. I want to discuss it in the context of some recent events in the social media universe.

The Three Appeals on Social Media

I have had a Twitter account for several years, ever since I participated in a CSU English Council workshop on how to use it. I didn’t post or access the account much until I started using it this year to follow the Ukraine war. For a while I was addicted. There was always something new. When I got to the bottom of the feed, there were more tweets at the top of it. There were military experts, mapmakers, soldiers in the field, videos of things blowing up, clips from Russian television, memes (lots of memes), trolls, bots, idiots, the whole range. I learned to sort the real from the false according to my own sensibilities and judgment. I felt like I was always about two days ahead of the mainstream news sources, but I also realized that the journalists were reading the same tweets I was reading.

Deciding who is credible on Twitter is an ethos call, but that call is based on the arguments they make and how they are supported (logos), and on the responses of other people (pathos). The responses of others are also judged according to the same pattern, so pathos leads to logos to ethos in a never-ending spiral.

Argument on Twitter unfolds in a Toulmin-like pattern. A claim is made, say “A Russian Ka-52 helicopter was shot down yesterday.” A video is produced to verify the claim. Someone asks, “Is that really a Ka-52?” Someone with technical knowledge of Russian military aircraft will verify. This is a warrant based on backing in knowledge of helicopter design. “Was that really yesterday? Isn’t it old footage?” The video will be geolocated and people familiar with Ukraine will discuss the weather and even the foliage in the trees. The pattern of claim-evidence-warrant-backing repeats over and over.

Why Do People Post?

I understood why I was reading Twitter, but I felt no desire to post anything. And I wondered, “Why are all these people posting?” Some had clear political purposes, especially the Ukrainians trying to get resources to defend their country. But others seemed to be cheerleading, spectating, or just trying to be witty.

Because of recent changes in the ownership and policy practices of Twitter, many people are exploring other social media possibilities. One of these is Mastodon, an open source non-corporate communications platform. In joining Mastodon, one joins a specific instance, which often has a particular focus, but that instance is part of a “federation” of Mastodon servers, so one is part of a small group that is also part of a much bigger group. I joined an instance called “social.linux.pizza,” for two reasons: 1) the big popular general instances of Mastodon were overwhelmed by Twitter refugees and not accepting new users, and 2) my computer runs Linux.

On Twitter, your feed is governed by who you are following and who they follow, plus some Twitter algorithms, and more recently by whims of the new owner. On Mastodon, you have your home feed of people you follow, plus a local feed of things posted on your particular instance, and a “federated” feed of popular posts from the whole federation, whether you are following them or not. You can choose which feed you want to view at that moment.

Audience and Self

This multiple feed creates audience problems, leading a lot of Twitter refugees to be puzzled by Mastodon. One said, “I don’t know what to post because I don’t know what you folks like.” I felt the same way, but I didn’t know what to post on Twitter either. However, I think this post is interesting because it shows that the poster wants to please the audience, but doesn’t know that audience yet. I might rewrite this to say, “I don’t know who to be because I don’t know who you are.” This is an instance of the audience potentially defining the self, pathos working backwards toward ethos. And indeed, constructing a self seems to be a major impetus to posting.

In Conclusion

In my initial response to Jennifer’s post I suggested ethos-logos-pathos as a magical vortex from which could pluck a particular perspective. That is a nice image, but probably not helpful as a conceptual representation. Perhaps a turning wheel would be better, or three electrodes from which sparks shoot from one pole to another as discourse progresses. I do think, however, that these are useful terms, however we represent them to ourselves and our students.

To finish off this very long post, I would say that we probably make a mistake when we try to get students to analyze op-ed pieces in terms of Aristotelian categories, at least as an introduction to these concepts. It might be better to ask:

  • What social media do you use? What influences your choices?
  • How do you determine who is trustworthy and who is not? (ethos)
  • What feelings do you experience when you read and watch social media? (pathos)
  • Why do you post to social media? What are you trying to do? (purpose)
  • When someone makes a claim that you disagree with, do you respond? How do you support your view? (logos)

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