6 The Rhetorical Appeals and Sociohistorical Context

Shane Abrams; Liz Delf; Rob Drummond; and Kristy Kelly

Shane Abrams
Adapted by Liz Delf, Rob Drummond, and Kristy Kelly

Regardless of the style of argument you use, you will need to consider the ways you engage your audience. Aristotle identified three kinds of rhetorical appeals: logos, pathos, and ethos.

The best argumentation engages all three of these appeals, falling in the center where all three overlap. Unbalanced application of rhetorical appeals is likely to leave your audience suspicious, doubtful, or even bored.

Logos

Logos refers to an appeal to an audience’s logical reasoning. Logos will often employ statistics, data, or other quantitative facts to demonstrate the validity of an argument. For example, an argument about the wage gap might indicate that women, on average, earn only 80% of the salary that men in comparable positions earn; this would imply a logical conclusion that our economy favors men.

However, stating a fact or statistic does not alone constitute logos. For instance, when I show you a graph, I am not yet making a logical appeal. Yes, a graph might be “fact-based,” drawing on data to illustrate a phenomenon. That characteristic alone, though, doesn’t make a logical appeal. For my appeal to be logical, I also need to interpret the graph. Your logic is only complete when you’ve drawn a logical conclusion from your facts, statistics, or other information.

There are many other ways we draw logical conclusions. There are entire branches of academia dedicated to understanding the many kinds of logical reasoning, but we might get a better idea by looking at a specific kind of logic. Let’s take as an example the logical syllogism, which might look something like this:

Fig 6.1 Example of a logical syllogism
Figure 6.1

Pretty straightforward, right? We can see how a general rule (major premise) is applied to a specific situation (minor premise) to develop a logical conclusion. I like to introduce this kind of logic because students sometimes jump straight from the major premise to the conclusion; if you skip the middle step, your logic will be less convincing.

Logical Fallacies

When logic is faulty or misused to manipulate, that’s a logical fallacy. Logical fallacies are part of our daily lives; we have all encountered fallacies like stereotypes, generalizations, and misguided assumptions. You may have heard some terms about fallacies already (red herring, slippery slope, non sequitur).

Fallacies follow patterns of reasoning that would otherwise be perfectly acceptable to us, but within their basic structure, they make a mistake. Aristotle identified that fallacies happen on the “material” level (the content is fallacious—something about the ideas or premises is flawed) and the “verbal” level (the writing or speech is fallacious—something about the delivery or medium is flawed).

It’s important to be able to recognize these so that you can critically interrogate others’ arguments and improve your own. Here are some of the most common logical fallacies:

Table 6.1 A list of the most common logical fallacies with examples
Fallacy Description Example
Post hoc, ergo propter hoc “After this, therefore because of this”—a confusion of cause and effect with coincidence, attributing a consequence to an unrelated event. This error assumes that correlation equals causation, which is sometimes not the case. Statistics show that rates of ice cream consumption and deaths by drowning both increased in June. This must mean that ice cream causes drowning.
Non sequitur “Does not follow”—a random digression that distracts from the train of logic (like a “red herring”) or draws an unrelated logical conclusion. John Oliver calls one manifestation of this fallacy “whataboutism,” which he describes as a way to deflect attention from the subject at hand. Sherlock is great at solving crimes; therefore, he’ll also make a great father. “Sherlock Holmes smokes a pipe, which is unhealthy. But what about Bill Clinton? He eats McDonald’s every day, which is also unhealthy.”
Straw man An oversimplification or cherry-picking of the opposition’s argument to make them easier to attack. “People who oppose the destruction of Confederate monuments are all white supremacists.”
Ad hominem “To the person”—a personal attack on the arguer rather than a critique of their ideas. “I don’t trust Moriarty’s opinion on urban planning because he wears bowties.” Truly, though, bowties are the most suspicious; just look at Eleven. The most sus Doctor.
Slippery slope An unreasonable prediction that one event will lead to a related but unlikely series of events that follows. “If we let people of the same sex get married, then people will start marrying their dogs too!”
False dichotomy A simplification of a complex issue into only two sides. “Given the choice between pizza and Chinese food for dinner, we simply must choose Chinese.”

Pathos

The second rhetorical appeal we’ll consider here is perhaps the most common: pathos refers to the process of engaging the reader’s emotions. (You might recognize the Greek root pathos in “sympathy,” “empathy,” and “pathetic.”) A writer can evoke a great variety of emotions to support their argument, from fear, passion, and joy to pity, kinship, and rage. By playing on the audience’s feelings, writers can increase the impact of their arguments.

There are two especially effective techniques for cultivating pathos:

  1. Make the audience aware of the issue’s relevance to them specifically—“How would you feel if this happened to you? What are we to do about this issue?”
  2. Tell stories. A story about one person or one community can have a deeper impact than broad, impersonal data or abstract, hypothetical statements.

Consider the difference between “About 1.5 million pets are euthanized each year” and “Scooter, an energetic and loving former service dog with curly brown hair like a Brillo pad, was put down yesterday.” Both are impactful, but the latter is more memorable and more specific.

Pathos is ubiquitous in our current journalistic practices because people are more likely to act (or at least consume media) when they feel emotionally moved. Consider, as an example, the outpouring of support for detained immigrants in June 2018, reacting to the Trump administration’s controversial family separation policy. As stories and images surfaced, millions of dollars were raised in a matter of days on the premise of pathos, resulting in the temporary suspension of that policy.

Ethos

Your argument wouldn’t be complete without an appeal to ethos. Cultivating ethos refers to the means by which you demonstrate your authority or expertise on a topic. You’ll have to show your audience that you’re trustworthy if they are going to buy your argument.

There are a handful of ways to demonstrate ethos:

By personal experience
Although your lived experience might not set hard-and-fast rules about the world, it is worth noting that you may be an expert on certain facets of your life. For instance, a student who has played rugby for fifteen years of their life is in many ways an authority on the sport.
By education or other certifications
Professional achievements demonstrate ethos by revealing status in a certain field or discipline.
By citing other experts
The common expression is “Stand on the shoulders of giants.” You can develop ethos by pointing to other people with authority and saying, “Look, this smart/experienced/qualified/important person agrees with me.”

A common misconception is that ethos corresponds with “ethics.” However, you can remember that ethos is about credibility because it shares a root with “authority.”

Kairos and the Sociohistorical Context of Argumentation

“Good” argumentation depends largely on your place in time, space, and culture. Different cultures throughout the world value the elements of argumentation differently, and argument has different purposes in different contexts. The content of your argument and your strategies for delivering it will change in every unique rhetorical situation.

Continuing from logos, pathos, and ethos, the notion of kairos speaks to this concern. To put it in plain language, kairos is the force that determines what will be the best argumentative approach in the moment in which you’re arguing; it is closely aligned with rhetorical occasion. According to rhetoricians, the characteristics of the kairos determine the balance and application of logos, pathos, and ethos.

Moreover, your sociohistorical context will bear on what you can assume of your audience. What can you take for granted that your audience knows and believes? The “common sense” that your audience relies on is always changing: common sense in the US in 1950 was much different from common sense in the US in 1920 or common sense in the US in 2022. You can make assumptions about your audience’s interests, values, and background knowledge, but only with careful consideration of the time and place in which you are arguing.

As an example, let’s consider the principle of logical noncontradiction. Put simply, this means that for an argument to be valid, its logical premises must not contradict each other: if A = B, then B = A. If I said that a dog is a mammal and a mammal is an animal, but a dog is not an animal, I would be contradicting myself. Or “No one drives on I-84; there’s too much traffic.” This statement contradicts itself, which makes it humorous to us.

However, this principle of noncontradiction is not universal. Our understanding of cause and effect and logical consistency is defined by the millennia of knowledge that has been produced before us, and some cultures value the contradiction rather than perceive it as invalid. This is not to say that either way of seeing the world is more or less accurate but rather to emphasize that your methods of argumentation depend tremendously on sociohistorical context.

Discussion Questions

  1. Identify a rhetorical situation (audience, genre) where pathos is the primary appeal. How about logos? Ethos?
  2. What is the value of learning about logical fallacies?

Activities

  1. Choose an op-ed or a TED talk and analyze its use of rhetorical appeals. How does it use logos, ethos, and pathos to appeal to its audience? Are these effective rhetorical choices or not?
  2. Watch a Super Bowl ad and analyze its use of appeals. Pay particular attention to pathos, ethos, and kairos. Logos is often in short supply in advertising. Why is that?
  3. Imagine that you want to argue that your town should build a new park over a downtown parking lot. Consider how you would develop the logos, ethos, and pathos of this claim for each of these potential audiences: (a) downtown business owners, (b) city council, and (c) citizens.
  4. Scroll through an opinion section on a new site and identify the kairos of three different op-eds. Why are they making this argument now? How does it tie to current events or current cultural attitudes?

Works Cited

Wetzel, John. “The MCAT Writing Assignment.” WikiPremed, Wisebridge Learning Systems, 2013.

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The Rhetorical Appeals and Sociohistorical Context Copyright © 2022 by Shane Abrams; Liz Delf; Rob Drummond; and Kristy Kelly is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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