A Few Tools for Analyzing Rhetoric

Featured image is Still Life With a Skull and Medical Book

This post is intended to be a companion piece to this one

This is going to be a nuts and bolts piece, fleshing out a few technical concepts with examples from a sample of texts. It is meant to be a companion to a shorter, more readable piece. I would suggest starting there, and then returning here if you feel the urge to dig deeper.

Contrary to Sam’s point that rhetoric is an extra skill that scientists would have to learn, I want to demonstrate here that scientists live and breathe rhetoric. A scientific paper is a work of rhetoric; the authors seek to persuade their peers in a number of ways beyond simply accepting their conclusion. This is what Deirdre McCloskey has been saying about economics for decades.

My corpus for this exercise will be the following:


Analysis of rhetoric traditionally falls under the branch of linguistics called pragmatics, defined by James Voelz as the study “concerned with the practical purpose and results of linguistic utterances.” Rhetoric is a doing, it is concerned with achieving certain results.

However, Voelz also claims that pragmatics is subordinate to semantics, the study of verbal meaning, or semiotics, the study of meaning more broadly. He argues this because “only one means of achieving a goal with a linguistic utterance exists, and that is the conveying of information.” “Information” being used here in a broad, rather than narrowly technical, sense. I agree with him on this.

What this means is that it is helpful to give some consideration to how we read when attempting to do an analysis of how we do rhetoric. For such an analysis is inescapably a reading. And the practitioner of rhetoric must make several readings themselves; of the situation or of their audience, to name but two that come to mind.

Hermeneutics is the theory of reading and interpretation. It was developed to inform exegesis, the art or practice of interpretation. But in the 20th century it took a more descriptive turn—Heidegger and his students and intellectual descendents turned it into a theory of how interpretation happens rather than a theory intended to form the basis the practice. The most influential developer of this theory was Hans-Georg Gadamer, whose seminal work Truth and Method argued powerfully that hermeneutics could never be a scientific methodology.

That does not mean that hermeneutics cannot inform how we approach texts. Gadamer simply meant that we shouldn’t expect something like a controlled, double-blind experiment, or an optimization formula, or (more trenchantly), a formal logic or equation through which we could reliably decode the meaning of texts.

Aside from these negative remarks, what has hermeneutics contributed?

For the purposes of this post, I will focus on two related concepts: the hermeneutic situation and thrown-projection.

The hermeneutic situation is the context that the reader brings with them. Heidegger, who coined the term, had a particular taxonomy of it, speaking of the fore-structure of understanding. This is because the conditions which enable us to read a text at all are in place in advance; that is, beforehand. You can read up on his taxonomy if you’d like, but I prefer Gadamer’s way of discussing the hermeneutic situation.

For Gadamer, we approach a text with our horizons of meaning, which provide the context that render a text intelligible to us. We can speak of broader or narrower horizons; consider the horizons of the same person at age five and then at age thirty. Not only does the thirty year old have more experience than the five year old, but his horizons encompasses both perspectives. It is analogous to the comparison between an English speaker, a Spanish speaker, and someone who is bilingual. Learning both languages opens up certain possibilities that aren’t available within the horizons of either the Spanish speaker or the English speaker—such as judging the quality of translations.

Horizons ultimately enable any understanding at all, but our prejudices are almost as important. Gadamer uses the term “prejudices” as a provocative term of art, pointing out how in German etymology it used to refer to the provisional judgment rendered by a judge before a final verdict. In its role within our hermeneutic situation, it takes the form of the stance we immediately adopt towards a text (or anything else we might be reading, such as people or situations).

It certainly encompasses the ordinary usage—the immediate expectations we have based on someone’s race or gender or whatever it may be. But Gadamer shows how prejudice is an intrinsic, indeed an important feature of being in the world. Even fairly narrow horizons are still quite big—they cannot be brought to bear in their entirety all at once. Our initial stance towards a text connects it with some specific region of our horizon.

So if we start a book expecting it to follow certain science fiction conventions, but it turns out to follow romance novel tropes more closely, we will have to revise our stance. We will draw on the region of our horizon that provides the context for those sorts of tropes. If that region is fairly thin, our horizons may be broadened. In fact, any surprise can broaden our horizons—and there will always be surprises, big or small. Otherwise we’d already know what was in the text before we read it (something akin to which we can certainly experience if we’ve heard a summary and are very familiar with the genre).

So our prejudices give us certain expectations that we bring to a text when we begin to read it, and our horizons encompass what we could have expected. Together they make our hermeneutic situation, the standpoint from which we can view a text or anything. None of these things stand still; our prejudices especially are constantly revised by new experience, and our horizons can broaden or narrow. Our overall hermeneutic situation can therefore shift, as we learn, or as we embrace an organizing ideology which causes us to discard much of what cannot be made intelligible within the framework.

The notion of expectations or anticipations brings us to Heidegger’s concept of thrown-projection. Throwness is the characteristic of human life where we are always in situations with context—including social obligations and such. As Heidegger puts it, we are “always already” in a situation, or as Stanley Fish echoes, we are “never not” in a situation. This is akin to saying we are never outside of a standpoint; the objectivist dream of the view from nowhere cannot be achieved. Even a view from above is a view from somewhere.

For Heidegger we always already have a hermeneutic situation, for Fish we are never not within an interpretive community which gives texts their sense, and for Gadamer we are always already in a tradition which has affected our horizons and prejudices. Rather than piecing together meaning from first principles, people are hurling through life, encountering things they cannot help but see as meaningful from their specific standpoint.

Projection is the other side of the coin, the anticipating of possibilities. This is the manner in which we are open, to the extent that we are. To go back to our novel, we originally projected the conventions of a science fiction novel when we picked it up, but upon reading a little ways we changed course and began to project what little we knew of romance novel conventions. Thrownness bounds not only the possibilities we see as viable, but what we are currently capable of seeing as possibilities at all. As we project ourselves out, and encounter something we either expected or did not, we find ourselves in some new situation which we must quickly take stock of.

The hermeneutic situation and thrown-projection are basically the same thing, viewed from a different perspective. What we are thrown into is not some objective situation, but a hermeneutic situation. Our prejudices project possibilities before we have even given the matter any thought.

All right, that’s quite enough exposition on the matter. Let’s apply this to some of our texts.

In Happyism, Deirdre McCloskey sets the scene with a cultural reference:

IN THE FIRST PANEL of a Peanuts strip—the preceding ones had been about Lucy scolding her little brother, Linus, for not being a good brother—Lucy asks what Linus is offering her: “What’s this?” “A dish of ice cream.” Then Linus explains: “I brought it to you in order that your stay here on Earth might be more pleasant.” She smiles genially, and uncharacteristically: “Well, thank you … You’re a good brother.” In the final panel, Linus walks away smiling: “Happiness is a compliment from your sister!”

So much is taken for granted in this one paragraph. That we know what a comic strip is and how it is structured, and that we know Peanuts in particular. The typical American reader will be thrown into a situation they are quite familiar with. And McCloskey works her way to her argument by pulling in as much familiarity as she can manage:

That about sums it up. Pleasure is to be achieved by things like dishes of ice cream. Psychologists have shown rigorously that people are most pleasured exactly as you might have thought if you are a human being: when eating, say, a heaped pastrami on rye at Manny’s Deli off Roosevelt Road in what was once the garment district of Chicago. Happiness, by contrast, is more complicated, though it can also be pursued at Manny’s. It is the pleasure of kosher comfort food, down to the diminishing marginal utility of that last bite—but it is also expressing one’s urban identity and Chicago-ism, even at the costs of the considerable inconvenience in getting to Manny’s and braving the insults of the countermen. It is introducing your friend, a naïve gentile, to the Jewish side of the City of the Big Shoulders, affirming thereby your philo-Semitism. It is participating in the American democracy of a 1950s cafeteria. It is facing, too, the cost of a little addition to the love handles. And it is a compliment from your sister. Pleasure is a brain wave right now. Happiness is a good story of your life.

An author’s specific familiar examples are probably more familiar to her than to the typical reader she could reasonably expect. This is especially the case here when “diminishing marginal utility” is tossed in alongside references to Chicago experiences. Though The New Republic reader is likely educated, that’s no guarantee they’re familiar with economics jargon.

Nevertheless, this piece’s opening positively invites most readers in. The jargon is thrown in so casually and in such isolation from any other, that those who do not understand it can gloss over it without missing much, or approximate it from the immediate context. Most people have had experiences they can see in analogy with McCloskey’s specifically Chicago-based ones. She is comfortably within their horizons, and only slowly builds her claims so as to minimize the initial amount their expectations need to be revised. This, of course, is to set them up for big demands later on; much like one seeks to butter up a partner in negotiations before attempting to extract a big concession.

Jacob Levy’s Toward a Non-Lockean Libertarianism does not butter his readers up in this manner. After five pages–a quarter of the paper—describing the role of Locke’s thought in classical liberalism and American culture, he announces “In the remainder of this essay I will offer reasons that this pervasive Lockeanism is a problem for (both academic and popular) libertarianism.” Before this point, were it not for the title of the paper, the reader could be forgiven for being unable to anticipate what he was building towards.

But anticipation—that is, projection—is the name of the game, of course. And though we have been speaking of the reader’s anticipations, this is all intended to be used in the service of an analysis of rhetoric. So let us take a look at how Levy’s own hermeneutic situation comes into play in the way he wrote the piece. Of course, as I am not him, and have not lived his life, I can only flesh out a partial picture of this which is prone to errors (though we are also quite capable of making errors when describing our own standpoint). Analysis of this sort is essentially a reading of the author’s reading, which certainly has its pitfalls.

But as someone with some experience in Levy’s interpretative community, I believe there’s enough overlap in our horizons for me to make a go of it. And in any case, my only goal here is to show how this sort of analysis can be done, not to be completely accurate in my specific examples. (Notice how I am projecting possible responses?)

After Levy announces what he will be doing for the rest of the paper, he immediate forestalls certain classes of objections:

These are something much less than a refutation; the various configurations and adaptations of Lockean ideas in various versions of libertarian and classical liberal thought overlap but are far from identical, and it would be implausible that they could all be disproven in one fell swoop. And some of these adaptations of Lockean ideas are very sophisticated and rich accounts of political philosophy; I don’t believe that such accounts tend to be susceptible to simple disproofs.

Levy has without doubt read many papers that claim to decisively disprove a particular framework, as well as papers that claim to do so by only addressing specific versions of those frameworks. Moreover, philosophy is full of authors who are simply disrespectful to the great thinkers and their followers that are the object of their criticism. Levy can set himself apart from such approaches precisely because he anticipates his reader has seen them all too often, and the Lockeans in particular have quick responses on hand. He therefore hopes that these two sentences will help avoid rehashing old arguments that have proven fruitless. At the same time he is inviting Lockeans to give his arguments a chance, since they can expect to find a respectful but critical engagement in what follows.

The point is that we can see Levy’s hermeneutic situation, and thrown-projection, in play here. In what he takes for granted, and in the particular possibilities he anticipates.

Rhetoric is aimed at achieving an effect, but this “aiming” is a sort of projection, and it relies on our hermeneutic situation for calibration. As Gadamer put it in the context of art:

Now as before, the choice of material and the forming of it still do not proceed from the free discretion of the artist and are not the mere expression of his inner life. Rather, the artist addresses people whose minds are prepared and chooses what promises to have an effect on them. He himself stands in the same tradition as the public that he is addressing and which he gathers around him.


Let us finally turn to rhetoric itself, then. We could do worse than to begin with Aristotle:

Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself. Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided. This kind of persuasion, like the others, should be achieved by what the speaker says, not by what people think of his character before he begins to speak. It is not true, as some writers assume in their treatises on rhetoric, that the personal goodness revealed by the speaker contributes nothing to his power of persuasion; on the contrary, his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses. Secondly, persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions. Our judgments when we are pleased and friendly are not the same as when we are pained and hostile. It is towards producing these effects, as we maintain, that present-day writers on rhetoric direct the whole of their efforts. This subject shall be treated in detail when we come to speak of the emotions. Thirdly, persuasion is effected through the speech itself when we have proved a truth or an apparent truth by means of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question.

This is his classic taxonomy of ethos (character), pathos (emotion), and logos (reason or logic). I do not think that Aristotle would deny that how one’s character is perceived prior to the speech influences how the speech was received. He was simply focusing on the way in which the speech itself attempts to persuade an audience of the speaker’s credibility in certain ways.

Consider the starting passage of the McCloskey essay, quoted above. A kind of person—what later literary critics will call an implied author—is projected by the passage. Someone familiar with Chicago and particular ways of being in that city, but also with certain ways of life in general. Also someone who is familiar with “diminishing marginal utility.” McCloskey’s credibility as a social scientist will be important for making the case she wants to make in her essay.

Pathos should surprise no one—of course we appeal to people’s emotions in order to sway them. That’s how marketers are able to get us to behave irrationally, or so the argument goes. But Aristotle had a very sophisticated theory of emotions. In his view, they have what philosophers today call intentionality; that is, directedness. They are about something. His ethic rests on creating a harmony between emotion and reason, where the latter is not simply master but they are equal partners.

Whatever your beliefs about the nature of emotions, few would deny their importance in persuasion. We can see pathos aplenty in the Gizmodo piece; the very title (Apple Tablet Will Restore Comic Books To Former Glory) is meant to stir the emotions of comic book fans.

“What is it in France they say? ‘America contributed three things to culture: jazz, musical comedy and comic books.'” You can already buy two on iTunes. And if things pan out, you’ll be get the third on the Apple tablet.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been talking to people within the comics industry to try to sniff out Apple’s plans, including Neal Adams, developer of an upcoming motion Astonishing X-Men comic on iTunes, who also told me the French saying. Everyone in Adams’ line of work is buzzing about the tablet and what it can do for their masterpieces.

It is difficult to appreciate the impact these lines had at the time if you are not aware of just how feverish, even frantic, the mood in the tech press had become in the months leading up to the announcement of the iPad. Will the Apple Tablet be good for education? For government efficiency? For enlightened self-fulfillment?

The quoted passage gives some sense of how the excitement had spread, and invites—along with the title of the piece—the reader to join in, especially if the reader likes comics.

It’s only a few paragraphs down that the some cold water gets splashed on things:

One problem: Several sources I spoke to over the last couple of weeks, including top-level executives at giants like Marvel and DC, have said they’ve not heard a whisper from Apple—despite a nearly desperate hope that Apple would come a-courtin’. One executive said to me, when I mentioned the possibility of putting his comic books on the Apple tablet, “If you’ve heard anything from Apple, please tell them I’m ready to do it.”

It’s important to see here that all three elements of Aristotle’s taxonomy work together; they are not usually distinct pieces of the text (this is the reasoning part, this is the emotional part, this is the part where I show I’m credible). The receptivity of the comic book industry to working with Apple is described and defended with reasoning, but laid out and worded in such a manner to achieve an emotional effect. And referring to his sources as part of his evidence can provide the author some credibility as someone with inside connections who know things the typical reader would not.

The Washington Post article They wanted to rob the pizza guy. They did not expect a 250-pound, ex-NFL linebacker to deliver the pie is very comparable to the older Gizmodo piece. Again, the title works hard to achieve certain emotional results. And the piece itself is no boring accounting of the facts; it contains many statements like the following: “The narrative, to hear Howard tell it, unfolded like the recap of a superhero comic.”

Contrast with the other Washington Post article, Are retailers in for a good holiday season? Here’s what we know so far. The tone is much more muted. The authors of the piece might say that they want to stick to the logos, so to speak, while minimizing the pathos.

But that is not the reality. It’s just that there are other, more muted ways of appealing to people’s emotions. One need not get someone excited, or entertain them, in order to achieve pathos. You can appeal to the satisfaction one gets from seeing a sober and well reasoned analysis, or from doing their own due diligence by reading such an article. When I read this:

Forecasters think this year will be better than 2015. Deloitte, a consulting firm, predicts sales will grow this holiday season between 3.6 and 4 percent. Another consultancy, AlixPartners, estimates the industry’sales will tick up between 3.3 and 4 percent.

That kind of performance would stack up favorably to last year, when the National Retail Federation reported that the industry notched 3 percent growth. That figure wasn’t terrible, but it was sharply below the 3.7 percent the group had forecast at the time. The industry chalked up its troubles in the 2015 season to a variety of factors: Promotional activity was high, and weather was unusually warm in broad swaths of the country, potentially making it less enticing to buy items such as boots and gloves.

This year, analysts are noting that the economy has broadly continued to improve, and that should encourage people to shop.

I can see the reasoning from evidence, but also the way in which the reader is being offered cautious reassurance. Most of all, I see the credibility of the author being established by recourse to so many sources—here’s someone who does their due diligence! Or so the passage invites us to believe.

With what we have covered so far, we can read my piece on scientific rhetoric in the following light: there are some effects of rhetoric which are not necessarily in the text. In fact, as the section on hermeneutics above implies, none of it is in the text. All of it is given sense by a hermeneutic situation, embedded in an interpretive community. So while textual evidence is helpful, it is not the final word by any means. In fleshing out the institutional situation into which Charles Murray’s work was received, I wanted to say something like: Murray’s work excited (pathos) those eager to embrace the ideal of meritocracy but also to discard the conventions of political correctness. The effect was produced because of the hermeneutic situation of his alt right readers, a scenario that Murray could easily have projected given his horizons at the time.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.


In this section I’d like to discuss J. L. Austin’s distinctions between the locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary force of a statement. You can think of these, loosely, as the surface meaning, function, and effect of a statement. As an example, I recall a friend of mine describing a common scenario in his household: he would get ready to go out, and once he was ready, his wife would say, “Oh, you’re going in that?”

The locutionary force of the statement is the question as to whether or not that is the outfit my friend was going to wear on their outing.

The illocutionary force, which is what the statement is “doing”, is to chastise his choice and advise him to change it; to register her displeasure.

He typically responded, “Well, I’m not now,” and went to change into something else. The perlocutionary force, then, was to push him to change into another outfit. That was the effect of the statement, in other words.

Consider the abstract of an academic paper, in this case Vlad Tarko’s:

The Austrian School of economics has gradually developed a coherent and unitary theory of social-political change melding together four elements: (1) praxeology as a universal and culture-invariant account of how a given structure of incentives generates outcomes, (2) ideas as a distinct realm from incentives and subjected to cultural evolution, (3) social and political entrepreneurs as self-interested drivers of institutional change constrained by knowledge problems, and (4) institutions understood as a complex mesh of formal rules and private governance mechanisms. The paper discusses the key elements of this theory and highlights the connections to public choice (especially the Virginia School) and new institutional economics (especially the Bloomington School). Two practical applications are explored: understanding the relative importance of intellectuals, public opinion, and rent-seeking in determining policies in advanced democracies; and the role of social entrepreneurship in development economics.

Most people see a locutionary force straightaway, I think: the content of a summary. And its function as summary is certainly illocutionary, but I think we can also speak of it as a promise. Vlad is promising us a piece that covers all the listed elements—which is quite a few, in this case! Any abstract writer also has particular perlocutionary effects in mind: namely, getting people to actually read—and in the best case, cite—the paper.

Let us return to McCloskey:

Bruno Frey is a cultivated Swiss and a brilliant insider critic of economics, but he has the usual longing among economists to count the golden sands of life. In his book Happiness: A Revolution in Economics, he acknowledges in a lone sentence that philosophers at least have had some thoughts about the matter: “For centuries, happiness has been a central theme of philosophy.” He attaches to the lone sentence six citations—six citations and no further discussion out of more than 600 items in his bibliography from this usually thorough scholar. But the six philosophers are merely the officially recognized sort, as though Frey supposed that The Rubaiyat or Sense and Sensibility or for that matter Groundhog Day had nothing to say about human happiness.

A locutionary reading of this might be that it is simply a description of a bit of a book by Bruno Frey, with the inference that Frey does not put much stock in philosophy or art. But the tone of the passage, and its context within the larger piece, make it clear that the illocutionary force is that of a criticism. And McCloskey is hoping her perlocutionary effect will be to increase the prestige of the humanities and hurt the prestige of happiness research.

At this point I must distinguish between what an author intends and what a piece means. In fact, meaning is created by larger contexts; intention can be the smallest part of how it comes about. Intention, when you can even approximate what it was, only tells you what the author was aiming at. What they accomplished is a separate (and more important) question.

Perlocutionary force is the most obvious case; we want to persuade people to do things but often end up convincing them to do the opposite. Partisans of happiness research, or even people undecided on the matter, may decide that her arguments are so weak, there must be something to the other side. Or Levy’s arguments against Lockean libertarianism may unintentionally shed a light on the dangers of doing so, for a particular reader.

Putting It Together

My previous critique of Charles Murray, referenced above, can now be summarized as follows: given Murray’s hermeneutic situation, it should have been very easy to see the perlocutionary force that his rhetoric could have on a group like the alt right (or even more precisely, on people who have hermeneutic situations similar to the current alt right). Given Murray himself has found political correctness irritating, it wouldn’t have been hard to see how his work could emotionally resonate with such people, as well.

But enough about Murray. In hindsight I should not have pursued the critique that I did without lengthy excerpts from his works to serve as examples.

A far easier text to quote in full is the tweet that got political blogger Glenn Reynolds suspended from Twitter for a day:


Reynolds has defended himself by pointing to his prior positions (attempting to bolster his credibility) and adding nuance upon nuance about what he meant. But a widely read writer saying “run them down” in a public and highly visible place during a riot is recklessly irresponsible. It’s bad enough rhetoric under normal circumstances (who knows what the perlocutionary force of such a thing will end up being?) But in a situation where panic is already setting in and people are becoming unhinged, the pathos element of his statement is also quite irresponsible.

It is my belief that people ought to think carefully about how they choose their words in public settings. You never know when you’re suddenly going to get a lot of attention, especially in this day and age. And this goes tenfold for people who already have large audiences.

It’s surprising to me that this is a controversial position.

Practice and Theoretical Toolkits

I have provided a few tools in this post. Hermeneutics and rhetoric are huge areas of analysis, going back hundreds and thousands of years. Aristotle’s simple taxonomy was superseded by others in the classical and medieval period which integrated it. Austin’s formulation has been tinkered with from day one, and has been subject to several deconstructions, from Stanley Fish’s to Jacques Derrida’s. But in general the distinctions here are useful, if used thoughtfully.

I think Sam read me as saying that scientists ought to learn this sort of thing. It couldn’t hurt, but that is not really what I’m saying. Scientists already practice rhetoric; I hope this piece has helped to show that. They are already implicitly taking the things in this piece into account. But they are often myopic in what they care about—they focus on how they’ll be received by peers, and whether they gain acclaim outside of academia. They often do not think seriously enough (I would argue) about the effect of their rhetoric once they engage the a broader community than their academic silo.

But I will leave the details of that argument to the main post.

One thought on “A Few Tools for Analyzing Rhetoric

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s