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The OCR Glossary

Rhetorical Theory

Øyvind Ihlen

Rhetorical theory deals with the use of symbols. Rhetorical theory can be applied by corporations in their quest for a better reputation and also by scholars who want to understand corporate communication in all its forms. All corporations communicate and produce text in one way or another, including webpages, press releases, annual reports, tweets, newsletters, op-eds, letters, and advertisements. Text can also be thought of in the wider sense as including all the visual communication of the corporation, including its logo, the corporate building, office furniture, uniforms, and the dress code. Several theoretical disciplines—for instance, discourse analysis—offer perspectives and tools to analyze such texts.

Rhetorical theory sets itself apart from these other disciplines by tracing its tradition back to ancient times and by harboring a normative and practical ambition. Rhetorical theory can help analyze the reputation of a corporation, but it can also provide help when the goal is to strengthen reputation. Rhetoric can serve as a reputational tool. Notions like ethos and identification are important in this connection, but the rhetorical tradition also offers an epistemology that is helpful to understand how knowledge is generated. This entry first discusses the Western canon of rhetoric and the epistemology of rhetoric. It then discusses the roles of proofs and of identification in rhetorical theory.

The Western Canon

Several of the ancient societies, like China and Egypt, have rhetorical traditions, but this entry focuses on the Greek-Roman tradition. Around 500 b.c.e., in a colony in Sicily, a system for making speeches was developed for ordinary citizens who had to present their own cases in court. The system pointed out how a speech should contain an introduction, a presentation of proofs, and a conclusion. Similar systems were later developed in the Greek mainland, and lectures in rhetoric were also offered.

The most important of the ancient rhetoricians were Aristotle and Isocrates in Greece and Cicero and Quintilian in Rome. Aristotle defined rhetoric as “an ability, in each [particular] case, to see the available means of persuasion” (Aristotle, 2007, 1.2.1). Isocrates, for his part, highlighted the epistemic quality of rhetoric, as he stated that “we use the same arguments by which we persuade others in our own deliberations” (Isocrates, 2000, 15.256). Thus, there is a link between understanding and communication. To understand, we have to use rhetoric. To use rhetoric, we have to understand. Rhetoric concerns attempts to influence others, but building on performative perspective, it can also be seen as having a much wider role—namely, that of constituting organizations and society as such.

The ancient rhetorical system devised five stages for the preparation of a speech: (1) invention, (2) arrangement, (3) style, (4) memory, and (5) delivery. In each of these instances, rhetorical theory has ideas for how to proceed. Later, however, the ancient tradition became misrepresented as rhetoricians became preoccupied with style and delivery at the expense of the other parts of the system. René Descartes, a key philosopher in the 17th century, also attacked rhetoric for including appeals to emotions when he argued that clear logical arguments should take precedence.

In the 20th century, writers such as Kenneth Burke and Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969/1971) helped in renewing the interest in rhetoric. A particular misgiving was that rhetoric as an academic area had neglected to discuss its basic philosophy since the days of Aristotle. The so-called new rhetoricians not only helped in rediscovering and restoring rhetorical elements but they also developed new rhetorical theory as more than 2,000 years had passed since the principles of rhetoric were first formulated. The new rhetoricians expanded the scope of rhetoric to include all forms of symbol use, including mass media use. The space and time dimensions in these media are radically different from the typical public address delivered in front of a live audience, where the rhetor has opportunities to correct and adjust the rhetoric during delivery. The new rhetoricians also renewed the epistemological discussion regarding rhetoric, leading it away from naive realism.


Rhetoric has been criticized since its inception for seemingly not caring about the truth. Ancient philosopher Plato was troubled by how the knowledge of rhetoric could outweigh the knowledge presented by experts. His chief target was the Sophists, who pointed out how truths were established by rhetoric and could change accordingly. Plato, however, only saw rhetoric as legitimate if it supported the truths that philosophy had established.

Later thinkers have, however, largely supported the notion that all language use is rhetorical and that our knowledge of reality is formed by rhetoric. This type of epistemology has been called the rhetorical turn in social science and humanities. Many positions can be found under this umbrella, ranging from radical relativism or intersubjectivity (there is no reality outside rhetoric) to rhetorical objectivism or critical rationalism (rhetoric helps discover objects of knowledge that existed prior to rhetorical encounters). In the middle ground is the position that rhetoric creates and is created by society. Still, modern rhetoric has no fully confident or generally accepted epistemological stance that articulates the relationship of the knower and the known.

While some argue that rhetoric is epistemic—that is, it creates knowledge—others claim that rhetoric is doxastic. Certain knowledge is not obtainable, and the province of rhetoric is thus opinions (doxa). The knowledge of today might look different tomorrow. What is epistemic is itself a doxa, and furthermore, the establishing of something as a fact does not give much meaning in itself. We need rhetoric and our doxa for meaning to be formulated.

Nonetheless, these epistemological perspectives have direct relevance for the discussion of image, identity, and reputation, as these notions are constantly negotiated and changed in a social context. Rhetoric is key in such negotiations as facts and sentiments are being conditioned by social agreement. Such epistemological perspectives should lead to the acceptance of how there are many truths, also relating to identity, image, and reputation.


In the invention phase mentioned earlier, the rhetor is advised to identify what proofs are at his or her disposal, which in turn can persuade the audience. The proofs are often said to be appeals to why the rhetor should be trusted (ethos), appeals to reason (logos), and appeals to emotions (pathos). These types of proof are linked to the message, the audience, and the rhetor, respectively. Ancient rhetorical theory introduced perspectives and tools in this regard and, importantly, argued that all appeal forms should be present and considered equally legitimate.

Ethos is considered as the most authoritative form of persuasion and of special importance for discussion of reputation. It is considered the building block of persuasion. The rhetor who wanted to come across as trustworthy should exhibit practical knowledge of the subject matter, point to the excellence of his or her character, and exhibit goodwill toward the audience. The ancients differed in their views of whether ethos had to be established in the discourse or whether prior reputation also should be included. Some have thus differed between initial ethos, derived ethos, and terminal ethos. What is certain is that ethos increasingly has been tied to authenticity.

In making appeals to reason, rhetorical theory showed how a rhetor could use inductive and deductive reasoning in persuasive ways. Inductive reasoning in rhetoric highlights the single, good example, in contrast to scientific induction where one seeks to generalize using scientific sampling and statistical methods. Deductive reasoning in rhetoric primarily relates to the use of enthymemes, where the audience has to supply a missing premise to reach a certain conclusion. This has often been considered as the quintessential rhetorical operation, as the rhetor has to rely on his or her knowledge of the audience members and what they accept to be true. Since the audience has to take an active part, the rhetor in a sense expressed confidence in the audience, thus flattering it too.

Rhetoric also acknowledges that for humans emotions play a big part. Thus, rhetors should match emotional appeals to the situation and use them accordingly. Ancient rhetorical theory advised that it is important to know what the audience fears, what it loves, and what it desires. Through a good knowledge of the audience, an efficient rhetor could thus inject sufficient emotional appeals.

The above insight also points to what is considered a prime rhetorical goal—that of formulating a fitting response. Rhetoric strives to tell us how everything in an utterance should be in the context of the text—the opportune moment. The skilled rhetor will orchestrate his or her proofs to come up with a response that fits the rhetorical situation: the rhetorical problem, the audience that can solve the problem, and the constraints and possibilities provided by the context. A rhetor will, for instance, be bound by the discourse tradition that he or she operates within as this produces the conditions for its own continuation, recirculation, and reproduction. This is of particular importance for ethos, as this is situation bound; it concerns the judgment of a rhetor’s character at a specific time.


Identification was singled out as a prime human motive by Burke (1950), as he claimed that everyone wants to identify with someone and something. Rhetorical theory often points to how the key to persuasion lies in knowing the audience. Burke equated persuasion with identification in the sense that people can only be persuaded if the rhetor can communicate with speech, gestures, tone, ideas, and attitudes that which the audience can relate to and identify with. In short, the rhetor must identify his or her ways with those of the audience.

Rhetoric has been accused of pandering to the audience, as Burke and others argue that the rhetor has to yield to the audience’s opinions to achieve persuasion. The counterargument is that if there is no meeting ground between the rhetor and the audience, communication becomes impossible. Furthermore, total identification is impossible given that humans will always be separate physical entities. This, however, is also precisely why rhetoric is needed and what Burke called the paradox of substance.

George Cheney (1983) showed how corporations typically attempt to create identification by the use of three techniques:

  1. The common ground technique (“We are all in this together”): The management might rely on an associational process and highlight the contributions made by individuals or groups. The common ground technique has a parallel in the argument that corporations need to create mutual dwelling places for themselves and the stakeholders.
  2. Antithesis (“Our competitor is threatening our livelihood”): This has also been called a strategy of congregation by segregation, as the audience is urged to rally behind the organization in order to overcome the threat.
  3. Use of the transcendent “we” (“We need to step up our joint efforts in this situation”): Here, identification is taken for granted through the use of a personal pronoun. This technique is often used in combination with the other two.

To foster identification is to encourage stakeholders to think that things are a certain way and, not least, to make them believe that this is the way the stakeholders want them to be. To create identification can thus be a fundamental way of creating a strong reputation, where customers see themselves as a part of the brand and take it on themselves to defend it.

Aristotle. (2007). On rhetoric: A theory of civic discourse (G. A. Kennedy, Trans.; 2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Bitzer, L. F. (1968). The rhetorical situation. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 1(1), 1–14.

Burke, K. (1950). Rhetoric of motives. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cheney, G. E. (1983). The rhetoric of identification and the study of organizational communication. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 69(2), 143–158.

Cheney, G. E. (2004). Theorizing about rhetoric and organizations: Classical, interpretive and critical perspectives. In S. K. May & D. K. Mumby (Eds.), Engaging organizational communication theory and research: Multiple perspectives (pp. 55–84). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Cheney, G. E., Christensen, L. T., Conrad, C., & Lair, D. J. (2004). Corporate rhetoric as organizational discourse. In D. Grant, C. Hardy, C. Oswick, & L. L. Putnam (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of organizational discourse (pp. 79–103). London: Sage.

Ihlen, Ø. (2013). Relating rhetoric and reputation. In C. E. Carroll (Ed.), The handbook of communication and corporate reputation (pp. 249–261). Oxford: Blackwell.

Isocrates. (2000). Isocrates I (D. C. Mirhady & Y. L. Too, Trans.). Austin: University of Texas Press.

Perelman, C., & Olbrechts-Tyteca, L. (1969/1971). The new rhetoric: A treatise on argumentation (J. Wilkinson & P. Weaver, Trans.). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame.

See Also

Ethics of Reputation Management; Ethos; Framing Theory; Rhetorical Profiling; Source Credibility

See Also

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