Rhetoric as cognitive

The claim here is not the shallow one that rhetoric is inescapably cognitive in the sense that all cultural practices are cognitive because they are the products of human minds, or that all disciplines are cognitive because they are intellectual enterprises, and intellect emanates from cognition.

The claim is that rhetoric is cognitive, inescapably cognitive, in the deep sense that some practices, like music and mathematics, have the forms they do because our brains are structured in specific ways, and, further, in the definitional sense that some disciplines, like linguistics and anthropology, investigate patterns of knowledge and behaviour that reflect brain structure. Symbolic inducement, in all its forms, is such a set of practices; rhetoric, in one of its potential forms, is such a discipline.

The machinery of symbolic inducement is guided by the organizational principles and natural affinities of the human mind. No one disputes this for analogy or metaphor, research into which goes back decades in cognitive science (centuries, if we include thinkers like Vico). But it is demonstrably true for a wide range of other rhetorical patterns.

We know, for instance, that words aid in the recall of certain other words, those which share phonological, morphological, or semantic characteristics with them (if you hear "key" you more readily call up words like "cue" and "keystone" and "door"). Lexical priming, the phenomenon is called, and it is often described as a "spreading activation" among related words in neural net models.We know, too, that the brain is particularly attuned to sounds of similar duration and frequency. We know that repetition is critically important for fixing sequences in memory. All of these brain-function facts are utilized by the schemes and tropes of rhetorical theory.

We know that much conceptual patterning is along lines of similarity and difference, lines that run parallel to rhetorical topoi.We know that thought rests heavily on processes of categorization and on the principles axiomatized in set theory, the same processes and principles that underlie reasoning. We know that cognition is spatially organized, the guiding principle not only of topoi (loci) but of rhetoric's fourth canon, memory. Remarkably, however, rhetorical theories of figuration, topoi, argumentation, and memory have rarely been mapped against the fruits of cognitive science, a metadiscipline that is to the current intellectual environment what evolutionary theory was at the turn of the twentieth century. We will begin bringing the relevant multidisciplinary research together in order to map out a theory of cognitive rhetoric.

Why bother?

In a withering attack on literary critics in the late 1990s, Alan Richardson observed that

When the intellectual history of the late twentieth century is written, Anglophone literary theory and criticism will probably come in for a wry footnote or two. Scholars of the future age may well find amusement in the pretensions of one English professor after another to solve the riddles of human agency, subject formation, language acquisition, and consciousness, with little or no awareness of the spectacular developments in psychology, linguistics, philosophy of mind, and neuroscience that form the central story of Anglo-American intellectual life from the 1950s to the present. (1998, 39)

The arch disdain is hyperbolic, or should be. Literary theory has made some impressive gains, especially in plumbing the ways texts and cultures constitute each other, and reconstitute themselves; and it has reached out in various ways to cognitive developments—especially in the heady, early Chomskyan days—achieving so little pay-off and meeting such discourtesy that the resulting bitterness lasted a generation and more. And Richardson's polemic is embedded in his review of Mark Turner's Literary Mind, which has subsequently done a great deal to remediate this failing in literary criticism, helping to engender the field of Cognitive Poetics. But, looking past the provocational excesses, and the able, answering work of literary critics, Richardson's reproof is rock-solid, and it carries far more force for rhetorical than for literary studies. Rhetoric was at least as negligent of cognitive science in the 1990s, and it contiues to be, but, at the same time, it is more broadly concerned with everyday purposive discourse than literary studies.

Formal assent

Consider the implications of Kenneth Burke's notion of formal assent:

[Certain linguistic patterns invite our participation because they] awaken an attitude of collaborative expectancy in us. For instance, imagine a passage built about a set of oppositions ("we do this, but they on the other hand do that; we stay here; but they go there; we look up, but they look down," etc.) Once you grasp the trend of the form, it invites participation regardless of the subject matter. Formally, you will find yourself swinging along with the succession of antitheses, even though you may not agree with the proposition that is being presented in this form. ... [A] yielding to the form prepares for assent to the matter identified with it. Thus, you are drawn to the form, not in your capacity as a partisan, but because of some "universal" appeal in it. (Burke, 1969, p. 58)

Burke shows very clearly here how formal assent (swinging along) lays the table for substantive assent (agreement). In doing so, he opens the question of how it is that minds function when they are exposed to the traditional furniture of rhetoric: broad patterns of reasoning and figuration.

What, that is, are the sources of the "universal" appeal that Burke identifies? Or, put in the terms of a highly rhetorical, ubiquitous contemporary praxis, why does that chocolate-bar jingle stay with you endlessly, despite your lack of interest in the chocolate bar, despite even your active dislike of the jingle? The intuitive answer is that there is something in the way your brain operates that allows the jingle to exploit it, colonize it, set up shop. And the intuitive answer is surely right. Your brain functions along principles of rhythm, repetition, similarity, and difference (among others). The jingle is rhythmic, repetitious, and contains patterns based on similarity and difference (rhyme, assonance, alliteration, ...); indeed, rhythm itself is a function of repetition, similarity and difference. The jingle, in short, insinuates itself into your consciousness by exploiting the submerged processes from which your consciousness emanates.

Look again at the three antitheses Burke offers:

It is quickly clear that antithesis is not the only figure at work here (figures very frequently work in concert). Other formal patterns in the passage include isocolon (parallel syntax), anaphora (clause-initial lexical repetition), and mesodiplosis (sentence-medial lexical repetition), all of which contribute to the "collaborative expectancy" Burke's example builds, and all of which partake of the same universal character.


Figuration is linguistically ineluctable. Figures are omnipresent in language, communicating intentions and desires, coding information and attitudes, propagating belief and knowledge. There is no degree-zero, purely literal language. Language cannot but be figured; it flows in what Edward Sapir figured as "well-worn grooves of expression" (1921, 89). These grooves can be used or abused, optimized or overblown—which is where formal theories of figuration come in—but there are no other grooves. So, when we look to figuration, we look to primal organizing patterns of language use.

Figuration reflects the way our brains percolate and process. This reflection is perhaps most evident in the overtly purposive use of figures. The traditional literary purpose, generating aesthetic pleasure, is best known. But mnemonic formulas ("i before e except after c"), proverbs ("a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush"), oral traditions ("rosy-fingered dawn"), children's literature ("I meant what I said and I said what I meant / an elephant's faithful, one hundred percent")—in short, any linguistic configuration serving purposes in which cognitive functions like attention, learnability, and recall are at a premium—takes a form that rhetorical theorists in the classical and early-modern periods identified as a figure. It is this insight, coupled with the high degree of overlap between the organizing principles of cognition and the organizing principles of figuration (similarity, contrast, balance, repetition, and the like), that motivates cognitive rhetoric.

Beyond figuration

But cognitive rhetoric does not end with figuration, which is largely concerned with relatively small bits of language. It extends to larger patterns of suasion, to arguments. We argue because we are social animals. Arguments allow us to distribute and negotiate our beliefs, plans, and strategies. They induce assent (or fail to) because we need to know, or at least strongly to suspect, what is the case before we can act to our advantage, and to the advantage of our kin and confreres. As rhetoric has always noticed, some patterns of argumentation are more successful than others. In William James's terms, these patterns got their power from the attempts of "our ancestors ... to get the chaos of their crude individual experiences into a more shareable and manageable shape." The cognitive evolutionary success of these patterns has made them

a part of the very structure of our mind. We cannot play fast and loose with them. No experience can upset them. On the contrary, they apperceive every experience and assign it to its place ...[t]hat we may have a cleaner, clearer, more inclusive mental view (1904, 461).

There are symbolic arrangements, that is, which play better to the structure of our minds than others—figures, for one, but also the larger conceptual patterns James has in mind here. Denkmittel, he sometimes calls them, (e.g., 1907); ways, or forms, of thinking. Rhetoricians know them as topoi, which Aristotle glosses as stoicheia tôn enthumêmatôn (Rhetoric 1396b)—usually translated as "lines of argument," but "lines of thought" would be equally apt, since enthumêma has a decidedly cognitive cast to it; Liddel-Scott-Jones defines it as "a thought, piece of reasoning, argument."