By Jennifer Fletcher
For a while now, I’ve found myself struggling to say anything new or insightful about the Aristotelian rhetorical triangle. When I get to the slide with this diagram during a presentation or workshop I’m giving on rhetorical literacy skills, I say something about how all these components–text (logos), audience (pathos), and rhetor (ethos)–are dynamic and interrelated, and then move as quickly as I can to the next slide.
I’m not sure why the venerable rhetorical triangle stopped working for me. Perhaps it’s because its very familiarity and ubiquity made its meaning appear so obvious that there was nothing left to say.
But I suspect there’s more to it than this. My present lack of enthusiasm for what has long been a mainstay of my introductions to rhetoric in the professional learning sessions I facilitate likely has to do with my own current needs as a learner. These days, I want to know more about human communication than what the rhetorical triangle can tell me. I want to know what’s behind and underneath this one-dimensional model: what relationships and identities underlie a social interaction, what ways of thinking people bring to the exchange, what sources of knowledge they value, and what communication habits shape what is said (or missaid) and understood (or misunderstood).
The Limits of One-Dimensional Thinking
The traditional rhetorical triangle doesn’t account for obstacles to understanding that often determine the efficacy of rhetorical action. In Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness, Krista Ratcliffe asks questions that can’t be answered by a simple diagram:
Why is it so hard to listen to one another? Why is it so hard to identify with one another when we feel excluded? Why is it so hard to focus simultaneously on commonalities and differences? Why is it so hard to resist a guilt/blame logic when listening? And how do power differentials of particular standpoints and cultural logics influence our ability to listen? (3).
Why and how indeed? What I know about the surface features of rhetorical situations isn’t enough to keep me from falling back on my own biases and defenses when engaged in a difficult conversation.
The Move Toward Dialogue
In writing on “conversational rhetoric” in Victorian literature (an interest dear to my own nerdy heart), my Cal State University colleague Glen McClish identifies dialogic moves that facilitate understanding across differences. These include
- The open exchange of arguments, perspectives, and perceptions
- Mutual respect for participants
- The mandate of sympathy
McClish describes a form of conversational rhetoric “built on listening and collaborative invention” (294). Cooperative inquiry and the co-construction of meaning are hallmarks of this approach. Patience and courage are also defining features (294).
While the questions Ratcliffe asks and the dialogic practices McClish describes might be implicit in applications of the rhetorical triangle, in my experience this one-dimensional model doesn’t encourage a lot of surface scratching on its own. Instead, the triangle is often used to identify, rather than analyze, components of rhetorical situations. The three-sided plane with its equilateral angles furthermore suggests an equivalency of components belied by the varying dominance of elements in particular rhetorical situations.
On the whole, the rhetorical triangle just doesn’t do enough to acknowledge what’s happening inside people or how we show up to conversations.
From Triangle to Pyramid
I guess this is why the rhetorical triangle falls flat for me (pun intended). I want rich, full-bodied ways to understand how humans communicate with each other. And so I’ve started to think in terms of a communication pyramid instead of a rhetorical triangle. The schematic that makes the most sense to me for representing the full complexities of rhetorical action is layered and three-dimensional, expressing both what is explicit and what is hidden…a sort of iceberg. A pyramid represents the multi-directionality of power–how resistance and pressure move both laterally and vertically. As a metaphor for discourse, a pyramid conveys the way a conversation is founded on a history of related conversations and constructed through various ways of being and knowing.
A quick Internet search reveals loads of “communication pyramids” already in existence, although these tend to represent differences in proportion (e.g., frequency of forms of media or percentage of message conveyed verbally vs. nonverbally) rather than depth or visibility. The schema I’m looking for is something more akin to the idea of base and superstructure in critical theory or perhaps deep structure and surface structure in linguistics. What’s the relationship between the underlying sociocultural processes and the resulting rhetorical products? That’s what I want to know.
This is what I’ve come up with to represent these ideas:
You can see that I’m leaning on Stephen Toulmin’s model of argumentation as a way to get at the deeper reasoning that manifests itself in our expressed beliefs. You might also notice that there’s a good bit of criticality in this model, thanks to what I’m learning from scholars like Gholdy Muhammad, Sara K. Ahmed, Kimberly N. Parker, and Lorena Germán. I don’t yet know where I’m going with this new model, but I think it has potential.
There’s another kind of polyhedron that I find intriguing as a model for rhetorical analysis: the prism. Prisms are multifaceted geometric figures with refracting surfaces; they literally and figuratively help us to see things in a new light. While the flatness of the rhetorical triangle oversimplifies persuasion, a prism is simultaneously generative and deconstructive, offering both clarity and distortion. I’m still working out the implications of this metaphor, but I’m drawn to the idea of viewing communication in a way that realizes a full spectrum of interpretive and productive possibilities, including approaches that shift perspectives, disrupt traditional views, defamiliarize concepts, and reposition writers.
This, too, seems to me a good departure from one-dimensional thinking.
The Path Forward
I keep circling back to these ideas out of a troubled sense that I’m not yet where I want to be with my own communication practices. In my personal and professional life, I still fall short of the standards for ethical and effective rhetorical action I value and pursue. Maybe this is just part of being of being human. We are messy and inconsistent and complex–which is why a communication model that more fully captures our whole humanity might move us further toward being our best human selves.
Jennifer Fletcher is a professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school teacher. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JenJFletcher.
Ahmed, Sara K. Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension. Heinemann, 2018.
Aristotle. Rhetoric. Translated by W. Rhys Roberts. McGraw-Hill, 1984.
Germán, Lorena Escoto. Textured Teaching: A Framework for Culturally Sustaining Practices. Heinemann, 2021.
McClish, Glen. “ ‘The Very Breath of Life’: The Conversational Rhetoric of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South.” Journal for the History of Rhetoric, Vol. 25, No. 3, 2022 The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA. https://doi.org/10.5325/jhistrhetoric.25.3.0279
Muhammad, Gholdy. Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. Scholastic Teaching Resources, 2020.
Parker, Kimberly N. Literacy Is Liberation: Working Toward Justice Through Culturally Relevant Teaching. ASCD, 2022.
Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Ilinois University Press, 2005.
Toulmin, Stephen. The Uses of Argument. Updated edition. Cambridge University Press, 2003.