Rhetoric, Argument, and Persuasion Essay

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Rhetoric, argument, and persuasion come together in the study of argumentation (van Eemeren et al. 2014). Argumentation is advanced to defend a standpoint to people who (are assumed to) doubt its acceptability. They are to be convinced by making an appeal to reasonableness.

The study of argumentation includes not only philosophical and theoretical investigations of the concepts of reasonableness inspiring the various models of argumentation, but also empirical and analytic research aimed at explaining argumentative reality and reconstructing it from the perspective of these models, and practical research aimed at tackling argumentative practices. The research program serves the analysis, evaluation, and production of argumentative discourse. The state of the art is characterized by the coexistence of a variety of approaches. Some, especially those having a background in discourse analysis and rhetoric, have a descriptive goal. They are aimed at making clear how speakers and writers use argumentation to convince or persuade others. Other approaches, inspired by logic and philosophy, study argumentation for normative purposes. They are aimed at developing soundness criteria for reasonable argumentation. Most argumentation theorists agree that the study of argumentation has a normative as well as a descriptive dimension.

All modern approaches are strongly affected by the perspectives on argumentation developed in antiquity. Dialectically oriented approaches put an emphasis on maintaining reasonableness and focus on the quality of argumentation in regulated critical dialogues. Rhetorically oriented approaches put an emphasis on the effectiveness of argumentation, viewing effectiveness as a matter of ‘entitlement.’ Effectiveness in the sense of actual persuasiveness is at issue in empirical persuasion research.

Reacting against the logical approach, Toulmin (1958) presented a model of the steps that can be distinguished in the defense of a standpoint. In his view, the soundness of argumentation is determined by the degree to which the warrant, which connects the data adduced with the claim defended, is acceptable or made acceptable by a backing. This ‘procedural form’ of argumentation is field-independent, but the evaluation criteria are field-dependent, because what kind of backing is required depends on the field to which the claim belongs.

In their new rhetoric Perelman and Olbrechts- Tyteca (1958) regard argumentation as sound if it adduces (more) assent with the standpoint among the target group: a “particular audience” or the “universal audience” that embodies reasonableness. Apart from the elements serving as point of departure of argumentation, such as facts and values, they discuss the argument schemes that can be used. Since the 1970s in Canada a movement called informal logic has been promoted that covers a collection of normative approaches which remain closer to argumentation in ordinary language than formal logic (see Tindale 2004, for a rhetorical approach). The norms proposed for interpreting, assessing, and construing argumentation include premise acceptability, relevance, and sufficiency.

Formal dialecticians develop procedures for resolving differences about the tenability of standpoints. According to Barth and Krabbe (1982), the dialectical rules must be “problem-valid” in the sense of optimally serving the purpose for which they are designed and “conventionally valid” in the sense of being intersubjectively acceptable. Building on dialogue logic, they present a regimented dialogue game between a proponent and an opponent of a thesis who try to establish whether the thesis can be defended.

Van Eemeren and Grootendorst’s pragmadialectical theory of argumentation combines a dialectical approach with a ‘pragmatic’ approach inspired by speech act theory, Grice’s logic of conversation and discourse analysis. In their model of a critical discussion four stages are distinguished in resolving a difference of opinion on the merits, the speech acts that can play a constructive role are identified, and the discussion rules for non-fallacious testing of the acceptability of standpoints are formulated.

In the past decades the sharp division between rhetoric and dialectic is weakened. Van Eemeren (2010) argues that the reconstruction of argumentative discourse can be made more precise if allowance is made for the arguers’ strategic maneuvering to keep their dialectical and rhetorical pursuits in balance. For this purpose he integrates insight from rhetoric into the pragmadialectical theory.


  1. Barth, E. M. & Krabbe, E. C. W. (1982). From axiom to dialogue: A philosophical study of logics and argumentation. Berlin: De Gruyter.
  2. Perelman, C. & Olbrechts-Tyteca, L. (1958). Traitй de l’argumentation: La nouvelle rhutorique [Treatise on argumentation: the new rhetoric]. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
  3. Tindale, Chr. W. (2004). Rhetorical argumentation. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  4. Toulmin, S. E. (1958). The uses of argument. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  5. van Eemeren, F. H. (2010). Strategic maneuvering in argumentative discourse. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  6. van Eemeren, F. H., Garssen, B., Krabbe, E. C. W., Snoeck Henkemans, A. F., Verheij, B., & Wagemans, J. H. M. (2014). Handbook of argumentation theory. Dordrecht: Springer.

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