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Language is, perhaps, one of the most advancing phenomena, in the true sense of the
word, to be devised and domesticated in human history: it has granted us a communal
medium through which our private ideas can be understood by others as each word we
utter is a manifestation of the ideas we have tied to it. According to Aristotle, rhetoric is
the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion,
therefore making it a powerful means of altering anothers ideas; ergo, if we only know
in the way of ideas, then the ability to warp, modify, and create ideas in the mind of
another through persuasion is to have power over what they know to be true, and,
consequently, their reality. Through the scope of philosophy, this essay will be an
interdisciplinary look into the psychology of language, and the cognitive effects of
rhetoric. The following analysis will examine the nature of rhetoric and how the speaker
employs it through the works of Aristotle and Lanham; the relationship of the speaker and
the audience as depicted by J. L. Austin; the role of our ideas and the cognitive features
of language via Locke and Davidson; and, finally, my evaluation of its effects and
implications in the acquisition of truth.
The design of Rhetoric is to remove those Prejudices that lie in the way of Truth, to
Reduce the Passions to the Government of Reasons; to place our Subject in a
Right Light, and excite our Hearers to a due consideration of it.
Mary Estell (A Serious Proposal to the Ladies)
Rhetoric, which is the use of language to inform or persuade, is very important in
shaping public opinion. We are very easily fooled by language and how it is used
by others.
Ray Comfort
Rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men.

Within the sphere of philosophical discourse, since its infancy, skill in rhetoric
and persuasion could not be valued more. Although it is, definitively, the love of
wisdom, philosophy is not only driven to acquire knowledge and discern truth, but is also
keen to make such truths accessible to others. For a moment, let us revisit early
philosophy and perhaps one of the greatest and well-known thinkers of all time: Socrates.
Although Socrates is possibly the most well-known, it must be noted that he vehemently
opposed notating his lectures and refused payment for them. The reason for this, as
believed by historians, is due to his modesty and habit of impromptu speeches in which
he, supposedly, spoke the truth as it came to him, leaving little to no room for rhetorical
embellishment. The style of the Socratic Dialogue was genius: instead of necessitating
crazy lingo in order to illustrate a complex notion, one would simply give a foreword as
to who/what was involved in the conversation for context and let the dialogue speak for
itself, radiating truth and wisdom from an everyday situation. At the time, it was desired
for ones opinions to be widely heard and understood through use of rhetoric so as to
spread the wealth of knowledge, but, as has been known since the Sophist movement, it
seems as though such noble aspirations tend to get lost in the static of malice and greed.
Being skilled in persuasion meant more bread on the table; if you can employ clever
rhetoric to distort weak arguments as strong, the more you will be sought to purport
others (most likely politicians) agendas.
Unfortunately, it was the same greed and disregard for the value of truth that
inspired Socrates accusers at the trial dictated in Platos The Apology.i The dialogue
begins after the preliminary speech given by Meletos (the plaintiff, so to speak), in which
he illustrates to the jurors what Socrates is indicted of and why he is guilty of those

charges. We are not sure of exactly what Meletos said since it was not in The Apology
itself, but, based off Socrates later statements, one can assume it was a very syntactically
eloquent, rhetorically well prepared, and cleverly executed speech. Meletos has
planted/distorted various ideas concerning Socrates in his speech, and has, thus, changed
the Athenians whole concept of Socrates as well. In response to this, Socrates states:
How you have felt, O men of Athens, at hearing the speeches of my
accusers, I cannot tell; but I know that their persuasive words almost made
me forget who I was such was the effect of them; and yet they have
hardly spoken a word of truth. But many as their falsehoods were, there
was one of them which quite amazed methey certainly did appear to be
most shameless in saying this, unless by the force of eloquence they mean
the force of truth; for then I do indeed admit that I am eloquent. But in
how different a way from theirs! [] You shall hear from me the whole
truth: not, however, delivered after their manner, in a set oration duly
ornamented with words and phrases. No indeed! But I shall use the
words and arguments which occur to me at the moment; for I am certain
that this is right, and that at my time of life I ought not to be appearing
before you, O men of Athens, in the character of a juvenile orator let no
one expect this of me. (Plato, The Apology, c. 360 BCE via Rouser; some
sections omitted)
He, then, asks for the jurys forgiveness for his ignorance concerning the official style
that is used in the courts; pleading that they listen to what he is saying as opposed to how
he is saying it. Socrates humility and use of plain language, however, did not aid him in
trial; he was voted guilty, accepted his punishment, and drank the hemlock. The rhetoric
of Meletos successfully deceived the masses by manipulating their preexisting ideas.
Unfortunately you cannot simply teach an audience a specific view in a situation,
because, many times, they will already have an opinion on the matter. This can make
their reception to anything contradictory, no matter how unsupported or misguided they
may be, an extremely trying endeavor, and even if someone is spouting purely the truth, it
takes an argument to convince others. ii Think of rhetoric as being a one-man courtroom

discourse: representing the plaintiff (their thesis), the defendant (objections to their
thesis), and all the witnesses (reasons for/against propositions). Although the supposed
intention of the lawyer is to solely appeal to logical truths, they, like rhetoric, can be used
to further any agenda, or to make any conclusion (seem to be) true using rhetorical
devices. To be sure, the argument itself is important, because, if all else fails, its
advantageous to have a firm footing in valid logic (judges last say); however, the main
goal of the speaker is to sway and persuade the audience (the jury) through clever speech
and pertinent knowledge.
This does not necessarily mean that a good rhetorician will be able to convince
everybody, not even the best of doctors can heal everybody; just as there are diseases and
ailments that cannot be cured, there are topics in philosophy that cannot be settled. As a
lawyer with a jury, it is the responsibility of the speaker to supply the audience with
sufficient evidence, but it is in the rhetoricians best interests to display and relay the
information in the most effective manner to achieve their means. In the case of Socrates
Apologia, his accusers held a great advantage by distorting truth through precise yet
deceptive rhetoric. In understanding rhetorical devices and how they alter ones ideas
concerning a reality, a skilled rhetorician can construe any evidence (no matter how
ridiculous it may seem on face value) to achieve a certain perlocutionary effect. Truth,
then, is not structured by the validity and soundness of ones logic necessarily, but, rather,
is dependent on the power of persuasion.
In ancient Greece, the most common form of philosophical argumentation prior to
rhetoric was the dialectic, most notably the dialogue (the most famous examples of which
being the great dialogues of Plato). Dialectic is characterized as having two or more

supposed experts supporting the various perspectives of an argument in real time

conversation. Due to the dialectical advantage of having different mouths to argue from
(so to speak), the reader is better able to understand the thought process of the discourse
and gives the illusion of a thoroughly examined argument (though, like most
philosophical accounts, it rarely is in the end). The goal here is ease: if an argument is
not clearly demonstrated, there is no chance for proper reception. In dialectic, the
characters demonstrate the argument as being distinct from the audience; not that the
audience is disregarded necessarily, but their role is of a third-party, an onlooker.
Because of this, dialectics, though still impacting, cannot best tailor their discourse to suit
all audiences, so it tends to remain a discussion amongst the elites in the ivory tower.
Without being able to directly relate to an audience, you are left to assume their
reception, and the persuading power of the argument itself is bound to suffer.
Rhetoric was developed as a sort of counterpart to dialectic- I like to consider rhetoric as
the love child of dialectic and the study of character- in which a lone speaker takes on all
the responsibilities of a dialogues characters within his discourse to convey (tailored)
truths to the ignorant. The speaker must tell what would be shown, or even presumed in
a dialogue like the context of the argument and the flow of its presentation. Consider the
comparison in sales pitches between a cars developing team and a car salesman: if you
talk to the developers of a certain car, theyll tell you all about it in hopes that youll buy
it, but, unless youre fluent in carspeak, much of it will probably go over your head; the
car salesman, conversely, can study you, assume what you want to hear, and cater his
pitch to make a sale. Ironically, since what they pitch is generally too good to be true,
theyll do anything to have you drive off in that sexy new convertible today, even if that

means hiding dings, turning back the odometer, and omitting a few minor accidents. By
these means, the speaker and the audience are in direct contact with one another; the
speaker is discoursing with the audience instead of discoursing for them, making it,
therefore, dependent on successful communications (understood utterances) between the
speaker and listener.
In J.L. Austins How to Do Things with Words, he outlines his theory on speech
acts and the performative power of utterances; more importantly, (for the purpose of this
paper at least) he illustrates the implicit and explicit relationship between a speaker and
their audience. According to Austin, there are three social components in any given
utterance: the locutionary, the illocutionary, and the perlocutionary. The locutionary act
is what is said itself, a purely literal (or I should say conventional) interpretation of a
grammatically correct statement. When I cry, Wolf, semantically speaking, it is
generally understood that I have seen a wolf with no further implications. Underlying
that which was said, however, are the speakers intentions behind the speech act, or what
they were trying to get across in their utterance. Perhaps when I cry Wolf, my intention
is not to warn the other villagers that there is, indeed, a wolf rampant in the village, but
rather that Im just seeking attention. This leads, then, to the aspect of an utterance out of
the speakers control, the listeners interpretation of that which was said, or the
perlocutionary effect.
As fluent language users, we have a general knowledge of the ideas that typically
constitute a specific utterance and have learned socially accepted conventions that are to
follow them. However, according to Charles Bazerman (a leading expert on writing and
genre studies), the listeners,

will take into account what they thought I was doing, and not
necessary what I thought I was doing, or even what I literally saidTo
make the issue even more complicated, listeners may not be happy or
cooperative with what they understand me to be doing, and in their further
utterances and acts they may not go along with it (Bazerman, 2004).
If I continue to cry, Wolf, after a few times the villagers will catch on that Im lying.
So, if a wolf actually does come and I start shouting, Wolf, in a serious attempt to warn
villagers, the conventional perlocutionary effect will no longer apply. Because of past
experiences, their ideas concerning my character in relation to the utterance will change,
and they will ignore what they believe to be my cries for attention without knowing that
my intentions are different. The three-tiered speaker/listener relationship then crucially
lies on the private ideas of each party and how they how they interact once on the same
plane. Once in the verbal medium, the words we have chosen to communicate our ideas
reach the audience, which they then relate to their own ideas and understandings. The
process of communication (and consequently truth) becomes a matter of mutual
understandings between the participants in a given conversational/linguistic setting.
A community of language users functions through their employing words with the
same intentional meaning. The learned conventions of language provide ground for us to
signify one anothers common ideas, and, if we can follow the others thought process,
we are able to communicate with and understand the workings of a mind distinct from
our own. Although the concept of language is, indeed, a communal phenomenon, as it
allows us the ability to not only share our private thoughts and ideas with others, but to
also have our thoughts and ideas stretch through time via written works; John Locke (in
his work Of Words from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding) developed a
theory of meaning illustrating the privacy of language with a simple logical syllogism: all

meanings of words are ideas; all ideas are private; ergo, the meanings of words are
private (and, thus, arbitrary by nature).
We have learned to recognize the strings of sequential letters and their
corresponding sounds as representations of other things, namely collections of ideas
remembered from experienced phenomena. As infants, we begin perceiving, forming,
and cataloging ideas of what our reality consists of via our sensual experiences; leading
us to form individualized, particular ideas about said experience, how imperfectly
soever or carelessly those ideas are collected from the things which they are supposed to
representiii (Locke via Martinich, 2013). We then learn to replicate the strings of sounds
which, when combined, audibly express our ideas that can be heard and made sense of by
others. The words uttered are received by the listener, whom interprets the words in
accordance with his unique set of ideas he has ascribed to the words meaning. This is
when things get cool: because no two individuals (even identical twins) have had the
exact same experiences of the world (and hold different levels of understanding), no two
individuals will hold the same ideas concerning the myriad things and abstract concepts
contained within it.iv As Locke stated, the [words], in every mans mouth, stand for the
ideas he has, and which he would express by them (via Martinich, 2013). This not only
means that language is, thus, extremely subjective, but also implies that the sets of ideas
we form based off our unique interpretations of our individual life as lived, therefore,
constitute the present state of our reality. v Following this, because our ideas are directly
signified through the words we use, how words are used can directly affect our ideas
concerning the nature of reality and subsequent experiences.

Tropes, as described by Richard A Lanham (an expert in prose stylistics and

Classical/Renaissance rhetoric studies), are rhetorical devices aimed at playing with the
meanings of words (and therefore the ideas a person holds regarding them). When
properly employed, the alterations provided by rhetorical devices can achieve specific
perlocutionary effects in accordance with the desires of the speaker. Considering this,
Aristotle believed the most valuable rhetorical device in persuasion to be the enthymeme,
rhetorics logical proof. Greek for thought, piece of reasoning, the enthymeme is
defined by Lanham as maintaining the truth of a Proposition from the assumed truth of
its contrary (Lanham, 1991). Basically, an enthymeme is a condensed, not-quite-airtight syllogism starting with a premise that is generally accepted to be true, but which,
through means of plausible implications, the speaker is able to make his conclusion seem
to be undeniably true. In this way, the enthymeme also helps in establishing a speakers
credibility, because it is a means of easing the audience into a different, perhaps shaky,
concept by appealing to their level of understanding on the matter and continuing on from
A proper enthymeme, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, goes
as such: Given that the target persons form their beliefs in accordance with rational
standards, they will accept q as soon as they understand that q can be demonstrated on the
basis of their own opinions (Rapp, 2012). For example, imagine that I am trying to
convince Marty McFlyvi to take his own mother to the Fish Under the Sea dance; I might
say, Are you not going to take your mom out and get your parents back together? What
are you, McFly- chicken? The hidden, implied premise is that if he doesnt take his
mother to the dance he will be a chicken regardless of whether or not it actually does. To

be sure though, Mary McFly does not like to be called chicken, and would be thoroughly
swayed to act as I wish. This is why the enthymeme is such an effective trope in
persuasion: if something appears to be proven from logical premises and solid
argument, its hard to oppose.
Metaphors are another very effective trope for the purpose of persuasion, as it is a
means of altering ones ideas concerning something by characterizing the primary subject
in terms of ones ideas of the secondary. Concerning metaphor, Aristotle emphasizes in
Rhetoric, III:
we all naturally find it agreeable to get hold of new ideas easily: words
express ideasNow strange words simply puzzle us; ordinary words
convey only what we know already; it is from metaphor that we can best
get hold of something fresh (Aristotle, 350 BCE).
Now, we may be quick to say that metaphors, like similes, are employed to show
similarities between two things without using like or as, but, because metaphors gain
power when their subjects are more dissimilar than alike, it is safe to say that metaphors
do much more than illustrate commonalities. Suppose I say Juliet is the Sun, and you
have no idea who Juliet is. It is a reductio ad absurdum for this to be interpreted as my
saying that Juliet is a ball of flaming gas, or that my ideas of Juliet and the Sun are
similar, rather I am encouraging you to establish specific ideas of Juliet through an
analogical extension of (what I believe to be) your preexisting ideas of the Sun.
Metaphors are, then, a transference of identity: Our deployment of language takes place
as if primary subject and secondary subject were one and the same; or as if the primary
subject were an instance of the secondary subject (Hills, 2011). Donald Davidson (a
renowned philosopher of linguistic studies) refers to this action in metaphor-ing as the

framing effect: in framing your idea of Juliet and transferring upon it your idea of
the Sun one is establishing a new connection in the others web of ideas.
According to Nietzsche, metaphors are the cornerstone of human intellect because
they are a means for negotiating meaning from our ideas of subjective experiences. This
concept greatly expands when considering the ideological effects a carefully formed
metaphor possesses, as it allows for the possibility of forming an idea in a mind distinct
from your own. Following this line of thought, however, reveals the flawed nature of
truth: it is a fragile web of arbitrary connections conforming to societys preexisting
metaphorical representations; nothing relates to a things true essence. Language is
malleable and subjective through use of rhetoric; our ideas are subjective and malleable
through use of language; our ideas of truth, and therefore the reality of truth, are
malleable and subjective through use of reason.
We must remember that each work we write is a representation of our own ideas
manifested in a timeless form that could, potentially, be read by the masses. As an
extension of ourselves frozen in immortality, our works are our means of communicating
with others indefinitely and will serve as a lasting impression of our person. Our words
will continue to affect the ideas of others, and, personally, I want to maintain pride in
mine without deception or pageantry. Philosophy is not an illusion of rhetoric, an act of
magic making the unreal real, but a love of wisdom, an insatiable curiosity. As
philosophers, and therefore purveyors of truth, it is our duty to ensure that each work is
truly an extension of our self and a true account of knowledges acquisition; it is our
moral responsibility to remove the distorting rose-colored glasses from others, bringing
them out of the cave and into truths light.

Austin, J. (1962). How to do things with words. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Bazerman, C. (2004). Chapter 11: Speech Acts, Genres, and Activity Systems: How Texts
Organize Activity and People. In What writing does and how it does it an
introduction to analyzing texts and textual practices. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence
Erlbaum Associates.
Davidson, D. (1978). On Metaphor (pp. 29-46) (S. Sacks, Ed.). Chicago: Chicago
University Press.
Hills, D. (2011, August 19). Metaphor. Retrieved December 11, 2014, from
Lanham, R. (1991). A handlist of rhetorical terms (2nd ed.). Berkeley: University of
California Press.
Locke, J. (2013). Of Words. In A. Martinich & D. Sosa (Eds.), The Philosophy of
Language (6th ed., pp. 656-660). New York City: Oxford University Press.
Lycan, W. (2000). Philosophy of language a contemporary introduction. London:
Rapp, C. (2002, May 2). Aristotle's Rhetoric. Retrieved December 10, 2014, from

i The Apology, is said to have taken place in 399 BCE (Socrates was 70), and, it is
important to note that, contrary to what is implied in the title, the work is not an
apology by Socrates, but rather his defense against the Athenian courts who
threaten the death penality for impiety and the corruption of Athenian youth.
ii Think of how many people throughout history whom have had to fight to prove
theyre right about something like Copernicus or Galileo. They had all the math
and logic to back up a heliocentric model, but the church was much more
convincing, or threatening (whichever way you look at it).
iii Think of tattooing (with controlled variables for the sake of exemplum): two
friends get the same best-friend tattoo; the first doesnt think it was too bad,
while the other found it excruciating. Two people may receive the same stimuli,
but will interpret the sensual occurrence differently, and, thus, have different
ideas concerning the experience as a whole in their mind for future reference.
iv Think of it like the psychoanalytic practice of Free Association; the words we
relate to other words are considered to be insights into our subconscious.
v Consider the Red Panda, an adorable little Asian creature that, you guessed it,
looks like a red panda. Whats interesting though, is that, once you get over its
cuteness, you acknowledge that it doesnt really look like a panda, and, indeed,
looks and is much more closely related to the common raccoon than pandas.
However because raccoons are native to North America, those whom named the
Red Panda had no ideas of past raccoon experiences in their mind, only pandas;
leading their initial perception of this critter to recall ideas of panda and red,
hence the name.
vi Marty McFly (Michael J Fox) is from the 1985 film series Back to the Future.