…what is rhetoric?

Asking and responding to the question “What is rhetoric?” has probably taken up at least half of the work that gets billed as rhetoric (i.e. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Ramus, et al). Lots of great reasons to never actually answer the “what is” question, but rhetorical texts are filled with responses to it. While most work on rhetoric cannot be reduced to pithy, concise definitions of what rhetoric is, works about rhetoric often include just that. We often to return to our favorite pithy and concise definitions to help refine research projects and hone pedagogical practices.

For instance, here’s a few definitions I’ve assembled already:

Jacques Derrida 

“Rhetoric doesn’t consist only in the technique of tropes, for instance. First, rhetoric is not confined to what is traditionally called figures and tropes. Secondly, rhetoric, as such, depends on conditions that are not rhetorical. In rhetoric and speaking, the same sentence may have enormous effects or have no effects at all, depending on conditions that are not verbal or rhetorical. I think a self-conscious, trained teacher of rhetoric should teach precisely what are called “pragmatics”; that is, the effects of rhetoric don’t depend only on the way you utter words, the way you use tropes, the way you compose. They depend on certain situations: political situations, economical situations—the libidinal situation, also.”

Source: Jacques Derrida, “On Rhetoric and Composition: A Conversation.” JAC 10 (1990): 15-16.

Jacqueline Jones Royster 

“For African American women, rhetorical expertise can be significantly defined by their abilities to use language imaginatively, creatively, and effectively in their efforts to assume a subject position. An enabling strategy with these rhetors has been to place themselves in a position, not always to act on their own, but more often than not to influence the power, authority, and actions of others. For them, rhetorical prowess has been intertwined historically with the artful ways in which they have participated as agents of change in community life.”

Source: Jacqueline Jones Royster, “To Call a Thing By Its True Name: The Rhetoric of Ida B. Wells.” Reclaiming Rhetorica: Women in the Rhetorical Tradition. Ed. Andrea A. Lunsford. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1995. 176.

Peter Ramus 

Rhetoric is the theory of expressing oneself well, as is evident from the origin of the name; for heirēkenai, from which derive rhētor and rhētorikē, means to speak and be eloquent.

Source: Quoted in Peter Ramus, Arguments in Rhetoric against Quintilian. Ed. James J. Murphy. Trans. Carole Newlands. Dekalb: Northern Illinois UP, 1986. 27.


The supreme orator, then, is the one whose speech instructs, delights, and moves the minds of his audience. The orator is in duty bound to instruct; giving pleasure is a free gift to the audience, to move them is indispensable.

Source: Cicero, De optimo genere oratorum. Trans. H. M. Hubbell. De inventione/De optimo genere oratorum/Topica. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1949. 1.3-4.

A meshed network of names of rhetorical figures, most notably. Kenneth Burke, Richard Weaver...

A rough, quick visualization of definition frequency provided by Daniel Carter, a PhD candidate in the School of Information at the University of Texas-Austin

I’m looking to crowdsource many more of these definitions of rhetoric with an aim to compile and, eventually, share an interactive “what is rhetoric” database. As the examples above show, the definitions might be indirect or very direct, but it should read as at least a loose definition. By relying on scholars in and around rhetorical studies, I hope to assemble a workable, curated set of definitions for analysis/visualization. So, this is not a big data project, but a finely selected data project. It’s boutique data, if you will.  For example, the image in this post is a visualization (thanks again Daniel Carter) from a preliminary set of definitions ( about 100 pages of definitions). For those in rhetoric, it’s obvious that the frequency of the definitions sway towards those figures associated with New Rhetoric, so it would be helpful to gather more definitions from as many perspectives as possible. 

Toward this end, I have created a form wherein those with easy and ready quotes (from their own work and others) can contribute to the What is Rhetoric? Database. No definition is too small or too obscure, nor is any definition too large or obvious. Please include your own definitions from your published work but also others’ from work you rely on (and/or detest). It should be obvious that in building a database of definitions that we are interested in a plurality of sources, so please also include as many sources outside of the “traditional” canon of Western rhetoric.


If you would like to contribute a definition of rhetoric, please fill out the form here.


Thank you.


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