The definition of rhetoric has taken many forms throughout history and despite its unclear and mysterious character that continues to be debated, its value as a continuing field of study remains due to its dealings with that which is entirely human in nature. If it were required, however, to choose one theory of rhetoric to be taught to students, a Burkean approach would not only be most suitable to the ideas of a liberal arts education but would also be of most value within the context of modern society.
Burke’s dramatist conception of rhetoric focuses on the manner in which individuals function within a society through the use of language “as a means of inducing cooperation,” using “symbolic action” as a means to live by replacing inherent divisions with identification that fits into a culture. It is language that allows humans to view and understand the world and it is rhetoric that serves as an instrument of socialization that shows how we communicate with one another. He defines rhetoric as “the use of words by human agents to form attitudes or induce actions in other agents,” both a product and a process. He acknowledges the inevitable existence of rhetoric in every thing that we do, whether in the form of speech and composition, in nonverbal actions we make such as the clothing we choose to wear, or any other “discourse” form found in everyday situations. He says that “wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric, wherever there is meaning, there is persuasion,” suggesting the inherent rhetorical nature in the core of all that we know to exist.
But why should his conception be taught above others? Burke’s theory of rhetoric suits the idea of a liberal arts education not only in its interdisciplinary nature, but in its ability to be used to carry out the values upon which its concept is grounded: “learning how to think” and developing what Allegheny’s own Communication Arts department calls “habits of engaged citizenship” as achieved through scholarship that takes on public issues and encourages us to act towards a betterment of human relations and therefore, of the human condition as a whole. It supports the idea of the responsibility of an individual citizen to draw upon that which he or she knows to act in the best interest of the community in making decisions in situations in which absolute standards or certain knowledge cannot be used. It similarly recognizes the need to be able to detect those elements in a situation which could be potentially threatening to society so “we may know with better accuracy, what to guard against” and take action against it in defense. This attention paid to one’s role as a citizen in upholding what is better for the greater good transcends beyond the scope of our obligation to the state but to the global human community as a whole, a concept that is undeniably humanistic and progressive. Further, “learning how to think” as Burke would have it, would entail questioning the manner in which we have come to legitimize that which we hold for ourselves to be true. His theory encourages that we examine ourselves as we act, analyze the role of perspective and dismantle and reconstruct windows of perception through which to view, so as to know what we have learned mindful of the context from which we came to learn it.
Beyond its appropriateness to the concept of a liberal arts education, Burke’s theory of rhetoric is valuable to human society as a whole because it is progressive in nature and allows for change to occur in a constructive manner as opposed to that which, upon a situation’s complexity growing beyond the confines of a structure given, would force society into a state of destructive chaos and crisis. As language is that which constructs our realities and rhetoric is that which is “rooted in an essential function of language itself, a function that is wholly realistic, and is continually born anew,” it can be said that rhetoric, upon being inclined to change itself, plays a conducive part in bringing about change in our realities. It is not only allowing of change, but encourages it and assists in its coming to be. Burke’s concept of rhetoric is most valuable because it is a theory of how we bridge the divisions that exist for us on an immediate personal level as well as the division that exists within the greater scope of humanity, which upon understanding, enables us to better function in society, of tackling that “difficult task” of “getting along with people” and to coexist, mediating conflict in a manner that is in the best interest of society as a whole.