More on “Pathos as Inquiry”

Several people emailed me about my previous post on pathos asking “What if the audience is not angry? How should we deal with other emotions?”

Anger is where Aristotle starts his analysis of the emotions in Book 2 of the Rhetoric, which George Kennedy notes in his translation is “the earliest systematic discussion of human psychology” (122). In his discussion of anger Aristotle lays out his basic three-step strategy for dealing with emotions: 1) discover the state of mind of the audience, 2) discover the people toward whom the emotion is directed, and 3) discover the grounds or causes of the emotion. With this knowledge, the speaker can work to create the particular emotional state that is conducive to his or her case.

Aristotle’s List

Aristotle’s list of emotions and definitions is very Greek and not quite what we would produce. In addition to anger and calm, he analyzes “friendly feeling” versus enmity, fear versus confidence, shame versus shamelessness, kindliness versus unkindliness, pity (which he notes could be paired with either indignation or envy as opposites), “being indignant” (which is related to a number of other emotions), and finally envy, which is seen as desiring the good that others have, contrasted with “emulation,” which is also a state of desiring what others have but working to acquire these goods. Thus “envy” is negative and unproductive and “emulation” is a positive striving.

There is quite a bit of overlap and things don’t fit together neatly in the way that Aristotle usually attempts. However, these emotions are all rhetorically useful. Kennedy notes that Aristotle saw the emotions as moods or temporary states that “arise in large part from perception of what is publicly due to or from oneself at a given time” and thus affect judgment (124).

Social Standing and Emotions

The root cause of negative emotions according to Aristotle is disparities in social standing. We are angry if we are insulted by someone we consider a social inferior. We are envious of someone who possesses goods that we think we deserve. We have enmity or hatred toward a person who is from an unrespectable group, such as criminals or beggars. All of these emotions are about a disturbance in the social calculus. Aristotle doesn’t include emotions such as love or sadness, or grief, because unlike Plato, who sees rhetoric as the “art of leading the soul to truth by means of words,” he sees rhetoric mainly as a one-to-many enterprise for persuading groups. Thus emotions that are essentially individual mental states are not rhetorically useful.

Even fear has a social dimension. Aristotle says “If fear is accompanied by an expectation of experiencing some destructive misfortune, it is evident that no one is afraid if he is one of those who thinks he will suffer nothing; people fear neither things they do not think they will suffer nor other people by whom they do not think they will be harmed” (141). Fear is often fear of others, but if social relationships are in order, we have nothing to fear.  Aristotle acknowledges that it may help the speaker’s case to make the audience fearful.

Some who emailed me mentioned states of mind such as indifference or apathy. “Apathy” is literally the absence of emotion. If the audience is in this state, the rhetorical move is likely to be to make them feel something.

A Revised List of Questions

So, how can we help students navigate the range of possible emotions beyond anger? Robby Ching suggested modifying my questions a bit:

Analysis Questions

  • Who is my audience? How do they define themselves?
  • What do they already believe about my topic?
  • What do they value?
  • What do they desire?
  • What is their state of mind? What emotions do they feel?
  • What makes them feel that way?
  • Who makes them feel that way?
  • What are their reasons (arguments) for feeling that way?

Strategy Questions

  • How can I find common ground with this audience?
  • How can I present myself as someone they will listen to? (ethos)
  • If they feel negatively about my argument, how can I make them feel more positively?
  • What emotion would put them in a better state of mind for my purposes? (This is where Aristotle’s threefold analysis comes to bear: state of mind, target of emotion, and grounds for emotion )
  • How can I present my arguments in a way that will make them more receptive?
  • How can I make sure I don’t make them feel even more negatively?
  • How can I be persuasive with this audience without compromising my own beliefs and values?

My analysis here goes a bit beyond Aristotle. Aristotle is basically talking about creating emotional states that are conducive to the speaker’s argument. I am expanding on this idea to include an analysis of the audience’s present state of mind.  The whole process looks like this:

  • What does my audience feel now?
  • Is this emotion conducive or not conducive to the reception of my argument?
  • What emotional state would be more conducive?
  • How can I create that emotional state?

The most important feature of all this analysis, however, is to help students think more deeply about their audiences. In many ways, the audience is an important writing partner that helps us know what to say and how to say it. The audience is an essential part of the creative process.

Pathos as Inquiry and Strategy

In a previous post I argued that logos was impossible without pathos and that considering this relation was a step toward a rhetoric of knowing the other. In this subsequent post I argue that the first step in practicing a rhetoric of knowing the other is to analyze the audience.

In Book 2 of the Rhetoric, Aristotle notes that it is necessary to go beyond the discussion of argument because arguments are heard differently by people who are friendly or hostile, or angry or calm. It is therefore necessary for the speaker to put the audience in the right frame of mind to hear the arguments. To do this, we must know which emotions produce pain and which pleasure and how to create them. Of anger, for example, we must know three things:

  • We must know the state of mind of angry people.
  • Who the people are angry at.
  • On what grounds they get angry.

Note that there is a research project implied in this list. If we do not know these things about our audience, we have to find out. Aristotle organizes his discussion of the emotions in terms of oppositions. The opposite of anger is calm, which he defines as “a settling down and quieting of anger.” Aristotle tends to see the source of anger in slights and insults committed by perceived social inferiors. He argues that we become angry at those who belittle us, but will be calm toward those who do not seem to be belittling us and instead regard us as we ourselves do. Repenting past actions against us and apologizing can also bring about calm.

This approach is clearly relevant to the politics of our times. Before we even begin to craft our arguments, there are questions that we should be asking:

Analysis Questions

  • Who is my audience?  How do they define themselves?
  • What do they already believe about my topic?
  • What do they value?
  • What do they desire?
  • What is their state of mind? What emotions do they feel?
  • If they are angry, what makes them angry?
  • Who are they angry at? Are they angry at people like me?
  • On what grounds are they angry? What arguments do they make?

Strategy Questions

  • How can I find common ground with this audience?
  • How can I present myself as someone they will listen to? (ethos)
  • How can I calm their anger?
  • How can I present my arguments in a way that will not cause more anger?
  • How can I be persuasive with this audience without compromising my own beliefs and values?

Asking these questions about the audience, whether they be about anger or some other emotion, is likely to change the speaker too. If we know why the people we are trying to persuade are angry, we may become more sympathetic and may see our own position in a different way and make different arguments. As we become more open to the arguments the other makes, dialogue becomes more possible and we may become more persuasive because of it.

Ethos, Logos, and Pathos: Heidegger on Aristotle

I have been reading Deep Rhetoric: Philosophy, Reason, Violence, Justice, Wisdom by James Crosswhite in preparation for teaching it next quarter in my “Composition Theory” seminar. I have taught Crosswhite’s earlier book, The Rhetoric of Reason, for many years. In that book, Crosswhite articulates a theory based on Chaim Perelman’s The New Rhetoric that the validity of an argument depends not on true premises, sound logic and justifiable conclusions, but on the quality of the audience that will accept it. One of the interesting conclusions of this book was that most logical fallacies have to do with a particular audience mistaking itself for a universal one. Interesting stuff! In the new book, I was expecting an updated version of the same theory. In fact, there is much more and it is quite different.

Back in the early ’90’s, when I was at Cal State L.A., I did a writing workshop for the philosophy department. A member of the faculty, Henry Mendell, told me that philosophers read every word that Aristotle wrote, except the Rhetoric. I was a bit stunned because the Rhetoric was dear to my heart. I defended the Rhetoric, and finally he said, “Well, maybe Californians have to read the Rhetoric, but New Yorkers don’t because they know how to argue.” Recently I met Henry again and I reminded him of his remarks. He looked chagrined and said that he had changed his mind and that Aristotle’s Rhetoric was now read carefully. This may be because although Heidegger lectured on the Rhetoric in 1924, the lectures were not published until 2002, long after my first conversation with Henry.

Deep Rhetoric

Crosswhite’s earlier book is an attempt to reconcile rhetoric with certain branches of philosophy, especially those dealing with logic and argumentation. The new book is an exploration of what a “deep rhetoric” might be, a project that is also an attempt to reconcile philosophy and rhetoric, but on a more fundamental scale. This project is largely informed by two sources: Plato’s concept of rhetoric, expressed in the Phaedrus, as an art of leading the soul to truth by means of words, and Heidegger’s reading of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, expressed in the aforementioned lectures from 1924. Crosswhite defines a “deep rhetoric” thusly:

Rhetoric is a form of human transcendence, a way we open ourselves to the influence of what is beyond ourselves and become receptive, a way we participate in a larger world and become open to the lives of others, a way we learn and change. Rhetoric is also a way the world and others become open to us, open to our giving and our participation; it is a way we teach, a way we change our common conditions, a way we form relationships and bear the lives and experiences of other people. (Crosswhite 17)

Logos

Crosswhite’s definition is a very broad definition of rhetoric. This is not Aristotle’s art of “finding the available means of persuasion.” Crosswhite uses a lot of Heideggerian terminology to expand and comment on this definition, terminology which I will try to avoid here. However, the key term above is “transcendence,” the ability to transcend our selves and know others and the world. Our ability to do this is given by logos, which provides structure and makes the world intelligible. Language is logos, but logos goes beyond language to other ways of communicating and understanding.

Pathos

In this model, logos provides structure and intelligibility, but pathos provides motive and energy. Crosswhite says, “There is no understanding without pathos” (183). Logos and pathos are inextricably linked.

For example, if I am going to say something to someone about something, I need to be interested in that something and in that person. Interest, engagement, caring, are all forms of pathos. And to attend to it, the audience has to also engage. Without pathos, nothing happens, no speech, no action.

Ethos

What about ethos? In this model, ethos does not appear to have a primary role in constituting transcendence, perhaps because the Aristotelian concept is about constructing a self, rather than going beyond the self. However, ethos functions as a complement to pathos. Crosswhite says,

What is essential for a deep rhetoric is that when it comes to being a speaker, one is a speaker as such because an audience has given this attention and the speaker has received it. That is, the being of the speaker is given by an audience. The speaker’s being circulates, is, in this process of giving and receiving between the audience and speaker. (287)

In this model, ethos is a two-way street, not just a construct crafted to persuade an audience. To an extent, the audience creates the speaker.

Pedagogical Implications

What are the pedagogical implications of this view of ethos, logos, and pathos? Well, clearly logos and pathos are not separate tools to be pulled out of the rhetorical toolbox as needed. It is also clear that pathos is not some kind of fallacious appeal to be used in dire necessity with an ignorant audience. There is no logos without interest, caring, and engagement. There is thus no understanding without pathos. We have to consider both structure and motivation.

If ethos is a two-way dynamic relationship between a speaker who receives speakership from an audience, our concept of ethos is much richer and less contrived. The question becomes not “What kind of speaker do I need to be to persuade this audience?” but “What kind of speaker will this audience cause/allow me to be?”

However, the most important shift in this model, in my view, is from defining rhetoric as an art of persuasion to seeing rhetoric as an art of knowing the other. I have felt for some time now that Aristotelian rhetoric was insufficient to deal with our media and our politics. In an age of media echo chambers, information bubbles, political silos, and tribalism, an art of knowing the other appears to be just what we need.  It may even save us from ourselves.

ERWC Leadership Event 2017: Speech

We have just completed our ERWC Leadership Conferences for 2017.  The Sacramento event was held at the Hilton Sacramento Arden West Hotel, June 20-21.  Unfortunately, the hotel’s air conditioning system failed at about 11:00 am, so the first day sessions were conducted under less than ideal conditions and the second day sessions were curtailed.  The Los Angeles event, at the Westin Los Angeles Airport June 27-28, ran much more smoothly.  I would like to thank the presenters, the support staff, and the participants for a wonderful event.

I will post on other aspects of the conferences and ERWC 3.0 in the next few days, but today I want to post the speech I gave at both events.


I am sorry I missed the leadership events last year. I had a scheduling conflict. I was in London. My wife and I had been invited to visit her brother, who is an executive in a large scientific instruments company, while he was temporarily stationed in the U.K. The company had rented a lovely home for him in Beaconsfield, an upscale suburb, where we were invited to stay. As it happened, we were in London just before the Brexit referendum and returned from the continent just after it.

The difference was palpable. The city we had left was a vibrant, optimistic, multicultural metropolis. The city we returned to was downcast, confused, stunned. My brother-in-law said he canceled several multi-million dollar deals the day after Brexit, and six months later he was working from Shanghai. The United Kingdom is still in turmoil and the future is difficult to predict.

How did this happen? I would say that it was largely a matter of rhetoric.

The city of London voted largely to remain in the European Union (though I did see “Leave” signs even in Beaconsfield) as did Scotland, Northern Ireland, and most young people, who saw the right to freely travel and live in Europe as a path toward adventure, education and jobs. The rest of England and Wales voted to leave.

I happened to talk to some Welsh soccer fans in Paris, who kept reminding me that they were Welsh, not English. They said that they had voted Leave because of immigrants, whom they felt were getting benefits they had not earned and did not deserve. Membership in the E.U. and the required free movement of people from any E.U. member country to any other has brought lots of Polish and Eastern European people to the U.K. to work in service jobs and to harvest agricultural products. Many British people feel that immigrants from elsewhere in the E.U. are taking away jobs, getting undeserved benefits, diluting British culture with foreign ways, and committing crimes. Sound familiar? So the solution is to exit the E.U. But that also means giving up free access to the European market, which is the foundation of most economic activity in the U.K.

The following image represents two of the main arguments that Boris Johnson, former Mayor of London and a leader of the “Leave” campaign, made to support Brexit:

3000

The slogan on the sign sounds like a simple way to improve the National Health Service, but it ignores all the other benefits that might accrue from E.U. membership. The url on the podium, voteleavetakecontrol.org, makes another simplistic argument that focuses on immigration, but simply ignores the issue of the free market. Johnson, a flamboyant and popular leader, also argued that the U.K. could “Have our cake and eat it,” implying that Britain could negotiate a deal to control immigration and still have access to the free market. He never explained why the E.U. would agree to that.

The arguments for “Remain,” on the other hand, were mostly economic, cast in terms of currency fluctuations, trade figures, economic forecasts. Many arguments sound like this paragraph from an article in the Business Insider:

If the pound is weak, again, it will make it more expensive for us to trade. Equities are already tumbling because extra costs will hurt not just Britain’s biggest companies’ pockets, but also how they can afford to pay staff. Morgan Stanley points out that a Brexit would devastate a number of markets within just six months.

From Here is an avalanche of reasons why Britain should stay in the EU, Business Insider Jun. 16, 2016

The average citizen without a corporate job or any investments in stocks would be unmoved by this rhetoric.

Aristotle says, “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 persons who cannot take in at a glance a complicated argument, or follow a long chain of reasoning.” In other words, rhetoric is for matters about which we cannot have certainty, and for audiences who would not understand the proofs we might give if we had them.

Boris Johnson and the rest of the Leave campaign were clearly more persuasive to the electorate in this regard, providing a simple, appealing logos for people who were disinclined to follow complicated arguments. And notice how this logos appeals to both a simple logic and a nationalistic pathos: “Let’s stop giving money to foreigners and spend it on our own health care! Let’s take control of our borders and keep the foreigners out!” On the other hand, the message from the Remain campaign is coldly logical: “If we do this, we will lose money.”

And here we come to my main point in discussing Brexit: the speaker who masters the art of understanding the audience and the rest of the rhetorical situation, and in crafting a message that moves both the emotions and the intellect of this audience in this context, is the one who will be most persuasive. Too often, we are tempted to see Aristotle’s three appeals as discreet elements that can be recognized and sorted into boxes. In fact, they work together seamlessly and harmoniously. Logos alone is rarely persuasive in a public forum.

In your packets you will find a new version of my rather ancient article “Three Ways to Persuade.” In this revision, I have attempted to connect the appeals together, mostly through the conduit of audience. In the updating and re-envisioning of ERWC that is currently ongoing, this is one of the main themes. We want to provide students and teachers with a more subtle, flexible, and useful set of rhetorical tools, for both analyzing and writing texts. Even after 14 years of growth and success, this is an exciting time to be involved in ERWC. And now I want to turn things over to my colleagues Meline Akashian and Nelson Graff for an introduction to more of these rhetorical tools.

 

Revisiting “Three Ways to Persuade”

My short article, “Three Ways to Persuade,” has been a part of ERWC since the early days.  It is included in my first ERWC module, “The Rhetoric of the Op-Ed Page,” but many teachers extracted it and used it earlier in the course.  It was designed to be a simple introduction to Aristotle’s three appeals: ethos, logos, and pathos.  It has been uploaded by teachers to various websites and many teaching websites link to it. It hasn’t exactly gone viral, but it is quite popular.

The earliest version of the article was written as a handout for a First Year Writing class I was teaching as a T.A. at the University of Southern California, probably in 1990.  At that time, the former Yugoslavia was breaking apart and I drew some of my examples of pathos from the conflict between Serbians and Croatians and the practice of “ethnic cleansing.”  Once the article became widely available on the internet, I started to receive complaints from Serbs that my otherwise very useful article was biased against them.  I considered their arguments and decided that I was not an expert on the former Yugoslavia, that my purpose was not to write about Yugoslavia, and that I did not need those specific examples.   I revised the piece.  One of my correspondents about this matter took it upon himself to contact every site that linked to the article and encourage them, quite persuasively I am sure, to upload the revised version.

As I have noted in other blog posts, a couple of years ago instructors in First Year Writing courses in colleges and universities began to complain about receiving large numbers of overly simplistic rhetorical analysis essays that combined ethos, logos, and pathos with the five-paragraph essay.   In a typical example, the writer claims in the introduction that the author of the text under analysis “uses” ethos, logos, and pathos, writes a body paragraph about each appeal with examples from the text showing the “use” of the appeal, and then writes a conclusion that repeats the claim about “using” ethos, logos, and pathos, as if that were an important thing to prove.  It is all quite neat and tidy.  It does show that the student writer has some understanding of the appeals and is able to recognize elements of the text that might function in this way.  However, such an analysis ignores more important concerns such as audience and purpose.  This is akin to naive birdwatching–identifying and checking off birds on a list without thinking about the whole ecosystem and why this bird is in this context at this moment.

I first heard about this problem on the Writing Program Administrators listserv, but when I asked instructors on my own campus about it, they agreed.   There are lots of potential causes for this, including the new emphasis on persuasion and argumentation in the Common Core standards, but I wondered if my semi-viral article was in part responsible.  I started thinking about revising it again.

This issue resulted in lots of discussion in the ERWC committees about the utility of the three appeals, whether we should present Aristotle as Aristotle or try to modernize him, and whether the problems created by this simplistic use of the appeals were inherent in the appeals or a matter of instruction.  One point of contention was Aristotle’s conception of logos.  Aristotle favors arguments from probability, which he calls “artistic proofs,” and distrusts “inartistic proofs,” arguments based on eye witnesses, documents, and other elements that we would call “evidence,” because he thinks witnesses can be bribed and documents can be forged. I think this is why textbooks that are very much based in classical rhetoric, such as Andrea Lunsford’s Everything’s an Argument, bring in Stephen Toulmin’s system when they get to logos.

After all of this discussion, I created a revised version of the piece, which is now called, “Three Ways to Persuade: Integrating the Three Appeals.”  I decided to remain true to Aristotle, but connect Aristotle to more modern rhetorical concepts.  This version makes it clear that the three appeals work in concert together. I reordered the appeals so that I could use Kenneth Burke’s concept of “identification” as a bridge between ethos and pathos and use the psychological concept of “desire,” and the rationalization of desire, as a bridge between pathos and logos.  I have also included a paragraph describing the difference between Aristotle’s syllogistic arguments from probability and evidence-based arguments such as one gets from Toulmin.

It is still only four pages long.  I hope that the additional conceptual material does not confuse students, but helps them use these concepts in a more productive and useful way.  See what you think.  Please post a comment if you have responses or suggestions.

Teaching Arguments: Rhetorical Comprehension, Critique, and Response

I first met Jennifer Fletcher when she joined our ERWC Task Force as a high school representative. At the time she was Chair of English at Buena Park High School, but she was working on a Ph.D. at UC Riverside (and raising two kids!). Soon she surprised us by taking an English Education position at CSU Monterey Bay. Jennifer has an amazing resume: high school teaching, chairing a department, scholarship, and publications. She is quite agile in moving from theory to practice. And she lives and breathes ERWC.

So it was no surprise to me when she published this wonderful and timely book, Teaching Arguments: Rhetorical Comprehension, Critique, and Response.

teachingargumentscover

The book synthesizes concepts from classical rhetoric, modern rhetoric, Common Core State Standards, and Jennifer’s teaching experience and wisdom. It manages to be both academic and personal, with practical teaching strategies on every page. As Jennifer herself says in the introduction:

This book is about opening doors to deeper learning for all our students through a rhetorical approach to arguments—an approach based on situational awareness and responsiveness instead of rules and formulas. Throughout the chapters, you’ll find detailed examples of activities, such as the rhetorical précis, descriptive outlining, and the doubting and believing game, that show students how to move beyond a superficial response to texts (xiv).

A bit later she offers a justification for teaching rhetorically:

Rhetoric targets the conventions and processes of high academic literacy, including the sophisticated responsiveness to context that characterizes college and workplace writing. Writing rhetorically means writing with attention to argument, purpose, audience, authority, and style demanded by academic texts (xv).

The first chapter is about “open-minded” inquiry. It begins with activities for closely attending to the features of a text, even a visual text such as a painting. Then Peter Elbow’s “believing game” is introduced (the “doubting game” will appear in the next chapter) along with checklist questions for facilitating the activity. This is demonstrated through a detailed analysis of an op-ed by David Brooks, followed by a section on “Discovering the Question at Issue” which is built around the Ciceronian concept of stasis. Stasis theory is presented with lots of examples and sample questions, making it clear how it might be used with students. Though the theories deployed span centuries, everything is tied together by the focus on the classroom and the students and by the author’s personal experience.

Subsequent chapters discuss critical approaches to text, modern application of the ancient Greek concept of Kairos (timeliness and appropriateness), audience, purpose, and the three appeals–ethos, pathos and logos. The chapter on the appeals is especially useful because it goes deep into each appeal rather than engaging in the checklist sort of approach that many teachers fall into. Every rhetorical concept is described, contextualized, demonstrated, and explained, often with charts, handouts and other activities that can be used directly in class, with more available in the appendix.

The final chapter is called “Aristotle’s Guide to Becoming a ‘Good’ Student,” but it is really Jennifer’s guide. It focuses on habit, identity, confidence, self-perception, performance, insiders versus outsiders, modeling, mentoring, teachable moments, imitation, and flow. Obviously these concepts go far beyond Aristotle. Reading this book is like accompanying the author on a personal intellectual journey through rhetoric and teaching, a journey on which you learn, grow, and pick up handouts that you can use on Monday morning. I recommend it highly.

Fletcher, Jennifer. Teaching Arguments: Rhetorical Comprehension, Critique, and Response. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse, 2015.

Enthymemes!

Aristotle begins his work on rhetoric by noting that the framers of previous treatises on rhetoric “say nothing about enthymemes, which are the substance of rhetorical persuasion,” but instead deal mostly with with non-essentials, “such as what must be the contents of the ‘introduction’ or the ‘narration’ or any of the other divisions of a speech.” For Aristotle, arrangement is not the essence of persuasion. The big new concept in his rhetoric is the enthymeme.

Aristotle considers rhetoric to be a counterpart of dialectic, which is the art of discovering what is true through syllogisms and inductive arguments.
Rhetoric is a parallel art which deals with the “apparently true” through enthymemes and examples. He defines the enthymeme as “a sort of syllogism,” but perhaps with fewer propositions because

If any of these propositions is a familiar fact, there is no need even to mention it; the hearer adds it himself. Thus, to show that Dorieus has been victor in a contest for which the prize is a crown, it is enough to say ‘For he has been victor in the Olympic games’, without adding ‘And in the Olympic games the prize is a crown’, a fact which everybody knows.

The most famous example of a syllogism is this

  • All men are mortal.
  • Socrates is a man.
  • Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

However, the premise, “All men are mortal” is known by all, and could be omitted, bringing this syllogism closer to the status of an enthymeme.

Enthymemes are based on probable truths, not certain ones, because we are usually deliberating about future actions, the outcome of which is never certain. Thus rhetoric is the art of speaking logically about probabilities and uncertainties.

Aristotle’s observation that in an enthymeme (which he also calls a rhetorical syllogism) we can leave out a premise that everyone knows has lead to some controversy and confusion. Sometimes we leave it out because people will assume it, even if it is unexpressed. However, Aristotle also connects this practice to audience. He says

Before some audiences not even the possession of the exactest knowledge will make it easy for what we say to produce conviction. For argument based on knowledge implies instruction, and there are people whom one cannot instruct.

To summarize:

  • Enthymemes are based on probable truths or contingencies.
  • Enthymemes may have assumed or omitted premises that everyone already knows.
  • Enthymemes may also leave out premises because an audience is either incapable or unwilling to be instructed.

Could a devious rhetor leave out premises that would be uncomfortable or disagreeable to an audience if expressed? Do different audiences make different assumptions and believe different things to be probably true? Do shared but hidden assumptions make an argument more persuasive to the audience? Aristotle does not deal with these possibilities directly, but the answer to all three questions is clearly yes, though one does not have to be devious in order to use enthymemes. That means that an important part of a rhetorical analysis is ferreting out and evaluating hidden assumptions. Let’s look at some examples.

Here is President George W. Bush, in a White House statement delivered on Feb. 24, 2004

THE PRESIDENT: Good morning. Eight years ago, Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage for purposes of federal law as the legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.

The Act passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 342 to 67, and the Senate by a vote of 85 to 14. Those congressional votes and the passage of similar defensive marriage laws in 38 states express an overwhelming consensus in our country for protecting the institution of marriage.

In recent months, however, some activist judges and local officials have made an aggressive attempt to redefine marriage. . . . Unless action is taken, we can expect more arbitrary court decisions, more litigation, more defiance of the law by local officials, all of which adds to uncertainty.

Often a single word implies an argument. The word “defense” implies an argument such as this:

  • The institution of marriage is in danger.
  • Re-defining marriage threatens marriage.
  • Therefore, marriage should not be re-defined.

The word “arbitrary” implies something like the following:

  • The majority view is that marriage is between a man and a woman.
  • Decisions that do not reflect the majority view are arbitrary.
  • Therefore, marriage needs to be defended from arbitrary decisions.

Lets look at another example.  Earlier this month (August 4, 2016), President Barack Obama published an essay about feminism in Glamour magazine. He writes

Growing up without a dad, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who I was, how the world perceived me, and what kind of man I wanted to be. It’s easy to absorb all kinds of messages from society about masculinity and come to believe that there’s a right way and a wrong way to be a man. But as I got older, I realized that my ideas about being a tough guy or cool guy just weren’t me. They were a manifestation of my youth and insecurity. Life became a lot easier when I simply started being myself.

There are lots of assumptions operating here. First

  • Dads are role models for young men.
  • Without a dad, young men learn how to be men from social messages.
  • Society teaches men to be tough and cool.
  • Therefore, Obama tried to be tough and cool.

But a more subtle assumption is present too. It’s called “being yourself.”

  • Every person has a a true self.
  • Society pressures us to be different from our true selves.
  • Youth and insecurity cause us to succumb to social pressure.
  • Being your true self is better than succumbing to pressure.
  • Therefore we should reject society’s norms and be ourselves.

Imagine a world in which everyone simply did their own thing without adapting to any social norms. Would you want to live in it? Most of us would prefer to live in a society that balanced the needs of the individual and the needs of the group. But there I go making assumptions about my audience!

However, as Aristotle notes, it is not wrong to use enthymemes. They are necessary. It is just that it is sometimes instructive, even necessary, to make the assumptions explicit in order to understand the whole argument.

(Quotations from Aristotle’s Rhetoric are all from Book I available online in the the Internet Classics Archive at M.I.T.)