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Philosophy and Rhetoric 34.3 (2001) 260-274

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Second Thoughts on the Critiques of Big Rhetoric

Edward Schiappa

This note is divided into three parts. First, I explore some answers to the question "How did Rhetoric get so Big?" Second, I review some of the more important criticisms of a "globalized" or "universalized" view of rhetorical studies. Finally, I contend that the critiques of Big Rhetoric do not withstand scrutiny and ought to be dismissed for insufficient evidence. While there certainly are important issues for scholars of rhetorical studies to consider about how to enhance the quality and importance of our work, such issues should not include the concern that rhetoric has grown too "big."

By "Big Rhetoric" I refer only to the theoretical position that everything, or virtually everything, can be described as "rhetorical." I refer to the growth of rhetorical scholarship in communication studies and other disciplines as the "popularization" of rhetorical studies. 1 Theories associated with Big Rhetoric are credited with popularizing or at least rationalizing what Herbert W. Simons (1990) calls the "rhetorical turn" in a variety of disciplines. Within the journals and conventions of members of the National Communication Association (NCA), popularization is often characterized by studies of the form "the rhetoric of X," where X could literally be anything. Outside of the NCA-defined parameters of communication studies, popularization is evidenced by the apparently ever-increasing ranks of scholars who use "rhetoric" as a relevant and important term of art within their scholarship. By either measure, it can be argued fairly convincingly that "rhetoric" has become a widely used construct in scholarship. What I wish to engage is the disputed desirability of broad definitions and the related popularization of rhetoric. [End Page 260]

1. Whence big rhetoric?

There are a number of narratives on the rise of Big Rhetoric already in print in communication studies (Simons 1990; Gaonkar 1990), rhetoric and composition (Berlin 1987; Young and Goggin 1993), and interdisciplinary publications (Roberts and Good 1993; Mailloux 2000; Nelson, Megill, and McCloskey 1987). Many accounts identify the 1960s as a turning point. For better or for worse, there was a confluence of changing rhetorical practices, expanding rhetorical theories, and opportunities for rhetorical criticism. The cultural clashes of the 1960s were felt perhaps most acutely on college campuses. The sufficiency of deliberative argument and public address can be said to have been called into question, whether one was an antiwar activist who hated LBJ's war in Vietnam or a pro-establishment stalwart trying to make sense of the rhetoric of protest and demonstration. Years later, scholars would characterize war itself as rhetorical. What counted as rhetorical practice was up for grabs.

At about the same time, our understanding of rhetorical theory was being expanded. Here we can identify two main strands of thought. For ease of reference I will call one the symbolic interactionist rationale and the other the epistemological rationale. The symbolic interactionist rationale can be boiled down to a syllogism:

All persuasive actions are rhetorical.
All symbol/language-use is persuasive.
Therefore: All symbol/language-use is rhetorical.

Perhaps the two most significant pronouncements of this approach--for my generation of rhetoric scholars, at any rate--are by Richard Weaver and Kenneth Burke. Weaver claims that "language is sermonic" in the sense that whenever we offer a description or label a phenomenon, we are "preaching" a particular way of making sense of it (1970, 201-25). Burke, of course, has two famous (or infamous) statements in Rhetoric of Motives: first, that rhetoric is "the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols" (1950, 43); and second, that "something of the rhetorical motive comes to lurk in every 'meaning,' however purely 'scientific' its pretensions. Wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric. And wherever there is 'meaning,' there is 'persuasion'" (1950, 172). Obviously, such pronouncements serve as encouragement to [End Page 261] those who would define rhetoric broadly, and arguably fueled the popularization of rhetorical studies within the ranks of NCA.

The epistemological rationale is fueled...