Rhetoric and Dialectic Essay

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Rhetoric and dialectic are closely related theories of (and trainings in) persuasion. They have some distinct bodies of doctrine (e.g., the topics of invention belong to dialectic; the figures of speech to rhetoric). For Plato dialectic meant the training in philosophy acquired through dialogue and argument.

 Aristotle says that rhetoric and dialectic are counterparts because they are both concerned with questions that cannot be resolved scientifically. For much of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages it was usual to study rhetoric and dialectic together in the cycle of seven liberal arts. Rudolph Agricola’s De Inventione Dialectica (1479) treats dialectical invention as the key element in the composition of texts. Agricola rewrites the topics of invention so as to put more emphasis on the nature of the argumentative relationship defined and, on its use in practical arguing.

In effect Agricola’s work proclaimed the new technique of dialectical invention to be the core of the composition of literary, technical, and persuasive works. Erasmus combined techniques from both subjects under the umbrella of variation and rhetorical amplification of an existing text in his highly successful De Copia (1512). Philipp Melanchthon emphasizes the close relationship between rhetoric and dialectic.

Peter Ramus adopted a different approach to the problem of combining rhetoric and dialectic. He always expected that rhetoric and dialectic would be taught together and that the theoretical training offered by manuals of the two subjects would be complemented by readings in classical literature and oratory. Reactions against the abstractness and lack of application of formal logic have caused some recent philosophers to attempt to formulate rules for practical arguing. Toulmin’s The Uses of Argument (1958) develops a theory that allows people to assess the strength of arguments in practical life. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1958) incorporated theories of argumentation, topics of invention, and persuasive principles taken from rhetoric.


  1. Mack, P. (2011). A history of Renaissance rhetoric 1380–1620. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  2. Perelman, C. & Olbrechts-Tyteca, L. (1958). Traitu de l’argumentation: La nouvelle rhutorique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. [The new rhetoric: A treatise on argumentation, trans. J. Wilkinson & P. Weaver. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969).]
  3. Toulmin, S. E. (1958). The uses of argument. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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