Rhetoric & Argumentation

28 Contextualizing the Limitations of “Argument”

Kate L. Pantelides

It may feel that every utterance and composition is an argument of sorts. In fact, there is a popular writing textbook entitled, Everything’s An Argument. And in some ways this claim is true. All compositions have a purpose (though it may not be the one originally intended), and all compositions elicit a response from readers (though readers may not physically “do” anything in response to a text).

Thinking of everything as an argument can certainly be a helpful take on rhetoric, as it may lead to you being more analytical of the attempts at persuasion with which you are routinely surrounded. However, it can also be helpful to examine composition through a different lens, one that doesn’t reduce everything to argumentation. Because rhetors aren’t always just trying to persuade someone to agree with them. In fact, a study of rhetoric, as noted in our textbook section dedicated to rhetoric, is useful to help us examine the nuances of communication.

There are a few approaches to rhetoric and argumentation that demonstrate how multi-faceted composition can be and why we should not focus on merely making or perceiving a traditional notion of “argument.” Although it can be tempting to boil down writing and reading to its component points and express it as a simple equation (rhetoric = persuasion; writing = argumentation), this is not how writing and argumentation function broadly.


Invitational Rhetoric

Invitational rhetoric, for instance, approaches communication as collaborative rather than argumentative or combative. It acknowledges differences in perspectives of rhetors, but it invites participants to share ideas and broaden understanding rather than persuade or change. Articulated by Sonja K. Voss and Cindy L. Griffin, invitational rhetoric responds to associations of argumentation as hostile and aggressive, offering a different purpose for and examination of composing practices. The Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative sums it up as follows: “The utmost objective of invitational rhetoric is to share one’s views so that other participants’ views may be broadened, and vice versa. It is an educational experience in which no one person is thought to be more valuable.”


Rogerian Argument

Rogerian Argument is similarly devised to build understanding amongst rhetors, particularly those who believe differently. This form of argumentation is named after psychologist Carl Rogers who, in 1951, developed this argumentative structure so that people on different sides of an issue would have the experience of believing counterarguments. A Rogerian Argument should include the moves/parts listed below:

  • “a discussion of the problem from both points of view that uses value-neutral language
  • a discussion of the writer’s opponent’s point of view and a selection of facts or assertions the writer might be willing to concede to his opponent
  • a discussion of the writer’s point of view and a selection of facts or assertions the writer’s opponent might be able to accept about his point of view
  • a thesis that establishes a compromise between these two points of view and represents concessions from both the writer and his opponent” (Moxley).

Joseph Moxley at Writing Commons describes the purpose of such an argument as an opportunity to “listen with understanding.” By this, [Rogers] meant that people should not only try to understand that someone holds a particular viewpoint but also try to get a sense of what it’s like to believe that.


Play the Believing Game

Peter Elbow’s admonition to “Play the Believing Game” grows from a similar interest. Elbow developed this idea in the early 70s and alternately calls the technique a “game” and a method – methodological believing. Ultimately it boils down to something that sounds easy, but is very difficult in practice: “the believing game is the disciplined practice of trying to be as welcoming or accepting as possible to every idea we encounter: not just listening to views different from our own and holding back from arguing with them; not just trying to restate them without bias; but actually trying to believe them” (1). Elbow describes this practice as counter to the doubting game: “The doubting game represents the kind of thinking most widely honored and taught in our culture. It’s sometimes called ‘critical thinking.’ It’s the disciplined practice of trying to be as skeptical and analytic as possible with every idea we encounter” (1). The purpose of the believing game isn’t to believe everything we hear, but rather to bring an orientation of openness to new ideas and to identify points of agreement that we might not otherwise, had we simply been critiquing.


Focus on Rhetorical Invention

Ultimately, a focus on rhetorical invention, rather than rhetorical delivery can also change our expectation of writing to be purely about argument. You may remember the five canons of rhetoric from the textbook section on rhetoric: Invention, Style, Arrangement, Memory, and Delivery. Invention is just like it sounds; it focuses on the beginning of the writing process—that exciting time when you don’t have to worry so much about whether your ideas are “good,” your writing is polished, or whether or not you’ll be able to fully flesh out the thoughts you’re working through. Delivery is equally important. It’s often the last part of the writing process, and it addresses how the composition you’ve created ultimately gets delivered to an audience. Delivery might take the form of a digital image, a written paper, an audio podcast, a video, a poster, etc (See Rhetorical Forms & Delivery). However we sometimes spend so much time talking about delivery that we forget to really engage in invention, when we’re often not as wrapped up in convincing, persuading, or arguing. When we truly engage in the invention stage we often spend more time asking questions, learning, or potentially changing our mind about what we had initially set out to argue. And we often find that we truly enjoy the writing process.



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Contextualizing the Limitations of "Argument" Copyright © 2021 by Kate L. Pantelides is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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