Rhetorical Working Through as Praxis, Process, and Philosophy

Jens E. Kjeldsen

Rhetorical Working Through as Praxis, Process, and Philosophy


Ingår i: Shadows in the Cave. Revisiting Mats Rosengren’s Doxology. Erik Bengtson, Karl Ekeman, Mirey Gorgis, Louise Schou Therkildsen & Alexander Stagnell (eds.), Retorikförlaget 2022.
Artikel s 241-262.


Om skribenten

Jens Elmelund Kjeldsen is Professor of Rhetoric and Visual Communication at the University of Bergen, Norway. 0000-0002-5940-6940



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Introduction: The Great White Shark and the Parlor

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Introduktion – Aristoteles Retoriken
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In many ways the same principle applies to human society. If we stop moving – discussing, debating, and sharing – we will generate no oxygen for the body of society, and we will sink to the bottom. The mistake we sometimes make is assuming that we will arrive – or even have already arrived – at our destination and need to move no further. When we have settled a dispute, resolved a difference of opinion, found the truth, and finally reached what appears to be the best way of life, we tend to think: This is it. It is done. We are here. However, humanity has no endpoint, and by implication neither does rhetoric. The truths and values we hold, the doxai of society and the opinions and emotions of individuals are always subject to change.

Thus, humanity and rhetoric are better understood as an ongoing working through similar to Kenneth Burke’s parlor metaphor. This metaphor is frequently quoted; however, it is still worth repeating in full:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

I consider this as a descriptive fact; however, this entails certain normative implications. I will address these implications at the end of the paper. For now, it suffices to say that while humans intuitively sense that humanity and rhetoric are both ongoing and with­out an endpoint, it is nonetheless difficult for us to live a life without a sense of a solid foundation upon which we may stand. If everything is afloat, then how can we make decisions? Without firm values and beliefs as starting points, how do we steer our lives? Still, history teaches us that our truths, values, beliefs and emotions change – both as individuals and as societies. Like the great white shark, we are constantly moving and draw­ing in rhetorical oxygen into our gills of understanding. Mats Rosengren has put it this way: “A rhetorical philosophy has to assume that all knowledge, all truth, all facts, yes everything we take for granted, may be overthrown or changed.” Rosengren points out that this does not mean that

truth changes in every which way, or that we create our world in a gratuitous fashion: as traditions and habits do not shift overnight, so a doxa does not change arbitrarily. It is constantly reaffirmed by, and incarnated in, our languages and our habits of thought, in the very terms and concepts we use and in the specific ways in which we use them.

We are formed and constrained by our doxai, but we still manage to reform and change these doxai, both consciously and unconsciously. To do so, we engage in rhetorical work: we compare and confront the old with the new, negotiate interests and values, adapt existing beliefs with new knowledge, and so on. As an ongoing communal discourse, rhetoric is the “source of an active public morality” that “drives the formation and development of collective public norms”. Thus, in a world of continuous change we need an understanding of rhetoric that not only includes but also goes beyond utterances and situational inter­action and consider rhetoric as process. To achieve this, I propose we add the perspective of Rhetorical Working Through to our understanding of rhetoric.

Rhetorical Working Through

The concept of working through has its origins in psychoanalysis, in which the subject ­matter is worried over until it is exhausted. In television studies it has been used as a term to describe how television works as a vast “mechanism for processing the material of the witnessed world into more narrativized, explained forms.”

Rhetorical Working Through, as I propose it, is not meant as a psychoanalytical concept. Instead, the concept is based on the rhetorical assumption that humans are entities of rationality (logos), emotionality (pathos) and trust (ethos). It assumes that we involve ourselves epistemologically and socially through these dimensions when we deal with public and personal issues. Thus, it is a perspective that views rhetoric as a form of acting through communication, involving three rhetorical functions: 1. The argumentative: how people think, reason, argue and make decisions in relation to issues. 2. The social: how ­people establish, negotiate and maintain social relations in situations. 3. The constitutive: how ­people form and maintain social and individual identities over time.

Thus, as a praxis rhetorical working through signifies the process of rhetoric as a continuous, open-ended, and active persuasive co-engagement, whereby humans – with different intentions, conflicting positions, and immediate personal goals – engage in rhetorical interactions involving issues, social relations, and identity. This simultaneously influences their views on the issues, their relation to each other, and sometimes even their view of themselves. This process is more than intentional communication and deliberative argumentation. As a human activity, rhetorical working through can be conducted in many ways and involve various forms of expression. It may provide argumentation, establish identification, engender feelings and establish trust, form a basis for action, position people in relation to each other, create orders of importance and significance and clarify personal commitments, provide information and create enlightenment and legitimacy (for people, positions and attitudes, among other things).

In Rhetorical Working Through, humans engage in communicative labour in at least three kinds of dealings: We deal with issues by seeking understanding, advancing arguments and responding to counter argumentation. We deal with social relations by adapting to others and incorporating our position on issues into these adaptations. We deal with identity and self by using our dealings with issues and relations to confirm, adjust – and on rare occasions moderate – our self-conceptions. These kinds of working through occur – and can be studied – on at least three different levels: 1. The individual: the internal and external thinking, arguing and emotional positioning of individuals. 2. The situational and social: the direct rhetorical interaction between agents (individuals and groups). 3. The societal and historical: the public, societal and historical rhetorical patterns which the individual and situational working through is based on, reacts to, confirms, challenges, creates, and continuously revises.

Any important issue for humans – be it war, abolition of slavery, women’s rights, climate change, poverty, immigration – has been rhetorically worked through by communicative exchanges in a variety of forms and expressions: from words to visuals and embodiment. In rhetorical exchanges we do more than persuade others or reach agreements; through our common Rhetorical Working Through, we continuously nudge each other, make appeals, acknowledge opponents and positions, sense our emotions and test our arguments – and those of our opponents. Rhetorical Working Through is making sense of the world, ascribing values and emotions, encouraging, carrying out acts as well as acting through communication.

These rhetorical movements and adjustments continuously move society in an unending, constitutive conversation akin to the one Kenneth Burke describes in his parlour-metaphor. Rhetorical Working Through is a society’s ongoing, collective thinking, feeling, and communal action. Such a view is doxological in the understanding we gain from the sophists and described by, among others, Perelman & Olbrecths-Tyteca and Rosengren: Doxai are dominant and shared assumptions, that generally go unquestioned, some are so agreed upon that they are referred to as facts. Rhetorically, doxai form the basis for individual and social attitudes and opinions. A doxological approach to knowledge assumes that: 1) In human matters no one truth or type of knowledge exists, there are many; 2) All types of knowledge are conditioned by the individual, contextual, social, historical, and discursive circumstances wherein they are produced; 3) A doxa includes the whole sphere of human action and thinking, not only discursive knowledge and facts, but also behaviour, materiality, and aesthetics. Any doxological study, thus, will address these assumptions.

These assumptions are also fundamental for the theoretical understanding and study of Rhetorical Working Through. However, even though Rhetorical Working Through is essentially doxological, both as a praxis and as a study and philosophy, it is less about episte­mology and knowledge, and more about praxis and process. As a praxis, rhetorical working through denotes the process humans engage in when they rhetorically come to terms with issues, relations, and identity – both individually and as a community. As a study and philosophy, Rhetorical Working Through denotes the investigation, both metaphysically and empirically, of how humans rhetorically work through issues, relations, and identity as described above. As a scholarly concept it directs attention to the meetings, contestations, and adaptions of doxai, and provides a processual perspective on human thinking and behaviour as rhetorical, both individually and socially. This moves the rhetorical study beyond the personal and situational and helps us to understand rhetorical activity as more than the changing of minds in specific circumstances, allowing us also to see rhetoric as the changing of humans and societies in general and pointing to the moves and mechanics of this process.

In the following, I first discuss the origins of the term working through. I then explain how Rhetorical Working Though as a praxis is both individual and collective thinking; rational and emotional, fluid and multimodal; dialogical and polyvocal; constant situ­ational change; and an open-ended process. Finally, I provide a brief account of some ­consequences the perspective of Rhetorical Working Through has for rhetorical research, philosophy, and praxis.

The Origins of Working Through in Psychoanalysis, Television, and Literature

In psychoanalysis the concept of working through is defined as the “the process by which an interpretation is conveyed to a patient, overcoming the resistance that it has previously generated and enabling the patient to accept repressed ideas or wishes underlying symptoms”. The concept originates from Sigmund Freud’s paper “Remembering, repeating and working through” , where Freud describes it as a technique through which the analyst helps the patients overcome their resistances. This is done by making them aware of such resistances by naming and – more importantly – repeating them:

One must allow the patient time to become more conversant with this resistance with which he has now become acquainted, to work through it, to overcome it, by continuing, in defiance of it, the analytic work according to the fundamental rule of analysis. Only when the resistance is at its height can the analyst, working in common with his patient, discover the repressed instinctual impulses which are feeding the resistance; and it is this kind of experience which convinces the patient of the existence and power of such impulses. The doctor has nothing else to do than to wait and let things take their course, a course which cannot be avoided nor always hastened. If he holds fast to this conviction he will often be spared the illusion of having failed when in fact he is conducting the treatment on the right lines.

As a professor of moving images, John Ellis has applied the term working through to the way television works in society. He distinguishes between three eras of television. The first era is characterized by few channels broadcasting for only part of the day. This era, which Ellis calls the era of scarcity, lasted until the late 1970s. It tended to present “definitive programming to a mass audience”. The second era is the era of availability, where several channels of broadcasting “continuously jostled for attention, often with more competition in the shape of cable or satellite services”. This era, Ellis, argues

presents a diffuse and extensive process of working through. This takes the form of a constant worrying over issues and emotions, dealing with the feelings of witness through the presentation of a riot of ways of understanding the world without ever coming to any final conclusions.

This development, Ellis points out, is accidental rather than planned. It is an era that moves us away from encountering and understanding channels, programmes and stories as discrete and demarcated entities. In news broadcasts, for instance, “each bulletin can only bring the latest fragment of a running story.” In this era, we may add, it becomes more obvious that not only are news reports/items ongoing, so are debates and controversies. In the era of avail­ability, not only television, as suggested by Ellis, but also society in general, is more process than product. For Ellis television news is not simply about current events. Instead, the news and television in general “performs an important social function in trying to come to terms with the uncertainties of the future”.

Attempting to come to terms with the uncertainties of the future is one of the most important roles of rhetoric – both as a praxis and as a field of research. The ability of rhetoric as a praxis – and as a field of research – to help humans cope with uncertainties of the future also points to the normative aspects of rhetoric. However, as I shall elaborate on below, this normative potential in rhetoric is not concerned with evaluating the effect of individual instances of utterances, but instead with evaluating communal and societal working through performed by humans in a debate, a genre, a narrative, a dominating discourse, or an ongoing uncertainty or disagreement. As Ellis points out: “Television news is merely one moment in a far larger process of working through.”

In television every kind of genre may offer an instance of working through. Ellis mentions news, soap operas, documentaries, and comedy. However, among the genres he does not mention are discussion and debate programmes. From a rhetorical point of view, this is remarkable, because these genres offer the most obvious instances of (rhetorical) working through. In debates the participants are actually using their arguments, their credibility and the emotions of the audience to work through the issue at hand.

However, what the kind of rhetorical working through that I aim to explore shares with television, and its soap operas, is that it comes to no final conclusions:

It renders familiar, integrates and provides a place for the difficult material that it brings to our witness. It exhausts an area of concern, smothering it in explanations from almost all and every angle. This process of non-totalizing speculation is a crucial activity in an information-rich ­environment.

One rhetorical utterance, a speech, or an article, for instance, does not allow such a non-totalizing kind of speculation. This is not even possible in a debate with several participants.

However, if we think of all the voices participating in rhetorical interactions about certain issues – in public as well in private, we see that all these voices come together in an ongoing rhetorical conversation akin to Burke’s parlor: a rhetorical working through. The events represented on television, Ellis argues, “demand explanation, they incite curiosity, revulsion and the usually frustrated or passing desire for action. We need in other words, to work them through.” Burke points to the same kind of working through in his description of literature as “equipment for living”. Burke describes proverbs as “strategies for dealing with situations” and argues that the same can be applied to lite­rature in general. We use literature to understand and deal with the world and ourselves. In this way, literature and art forms can “be treated as equipment for living, that size up situ­ations in various ways and in keeping with correspondingly various attitudes.” The same can be said about television and other phenomena of popular culture.

Such working through will never exist as a final act; it will never reach completion, because television – as with literature and rhetoric – cannot offer completeness, and even if it could, it would escape any single viewer. Television is “at once both continuous and incomplete”. The era of availability, the age of uncertainty, and the digital world, render Kenneth Burke’s concept of identification more important than ever, since division – fragmentation – seems to be more prevalent than ever. Precisely because humans are individuals, divided, we need rhetoricians to assert our unity. Ellis’ diagnosis of television and society points to this in a paragraph similar to Burke’s parlor metaphor:

No longer the agent of a standardizing notion of national unity, public service broadcasting can provide the forum within which the emerging culture of multiple identities can negotiate its antagonisms. This is in many ways the opposite of its former role: instead of providing displays of national unity, it deals in displays of national disunity, the better to bring about ways of resolving them. Instead of establishing a national form of standard speech, it increases the range of accents and forms of speech that can be universally understood. The new public service broadcasting is no longer concerned with imposing consensus, but with working through new possibilities of consensus. It is concerned with exploring diversity rather than trying to divide social exchange into the typical and the minority.

As a human activity, rhetorical working through helps create unity – often through opposition and battle. As rhetorical minds, we work through issues and positions both individually and communally: We argue about what to do (deliberative), we judge acts already committed (forensic), we praise and criticize, and we establish our common values (epideictic). In our individual thinking, our conversations, discussions, and debates, in all our rhetorical exchanges, more is happening than just solving a problem, persuading a person, or reach­ing an agreement. What is taking place is a kind of rhetorical working through where we move each other around, assess other, associate, and disassociate ourselves with others, test our arguments – and test other people’s arguments. These are the continuous rhetorical movements that keep the white shark of society moving. It is an ongoing, constitutive conversation that has no endpoint, because the “conversation” never stops. This rhetorical working through characterizes both individual and collective think­ing and discursive action. It is performed through many different forms of expression, it is done both emotionally and rationally, and it is an open, never-ending process.

Rhetorical Working Through is Both Individual and Collective Thinking

Thinking is a kind of talking, talking is a kind of thinking. This has been a rhetorical insight since the ancient rhetorical treatises. In Plato’s dialogue The Sophist, the Eleatic Stranger says: “Thought and speech are the same: only, the former, which is a silent inner conversation of the soul with itself, has been given the name of thought.” Isocrates expresses the same idea in his speech Antidosis: “We use the same arguments by which we persuade others in our own deliberations; we call those able to speak in a crowd ‘‘rhetorical’’ (rhetorikoi); we regard as sound advisers those who debate with themselves most skillfully about public affairs.” Thinking is an internal kind of discussion and debate, and public debate and discussion is a kind of collective thinking. Watching people discuss, debate and argue is to watch how a society thinks. Paying attention to how discussion, debating, and arguing are conducted is to witness how a society rhetorically works through the issues under discussion.

As a scholarly endeavour, Rhetorical Working Through aims to capture the human acts of rhetoric both as communication – talking, writing, showing – and as thinking and feeling. It considers the practical rhetorical working through as active on two connected levels: the internal thinking and feeling of individual orators and the external, collective thinking and emotions of public society.

On both these levels the perspective of working through sees humans as being capable of flexible and dynamic reasoning in the sophistic tradition of Protagoras’ maxim that there are always two sides to every question. This maxim, as Michael Billig reminds us, “draws attention to the human capacity for critical thinking. […] We possess the capability to resist arguments by inventing the counterarguments which constitute the inevitable other side to each question.” Ancient textbooks such as Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria and Pseudo-Cicero’s Rhetorica ad Herennium demonstrate the skills of negation and the invariable potential for a counterargument. Because there is always another side to every question, then “arguments are potentially infinite.”

This sophistic view is clearly expressed in the ancient notion of “dissoi logoi”. “Dissoi logoi” literally translates to “different words” or “separate words”. In ancient Greece it was a rhetorical progymnasmata exercise teaching students to argue both sides of an issue. The sophistic treatise Dissoi Logoi explores many cases of arguing for and against the same proposition, thereby illustrating the fact that there always is at least one other side to every issue. In The Promise of Politics Hannah Arendt argues that:

If the quintessence of the sophists’ teaching consisted of the dyo logoi, in the insistence that each matter can be talked about in two different ways, then Socrates was the greatest sophist of them all. For he thought that there are, or there should be, as many logos as there are men, and that all these logoi together form the human world, insofar as men live together in the manner of ­speech.

It is when the individual logoi interact with each other that we create our common world. When it comes to virtue and morality, for instance, Celeste Michelle Condit points out that public morality is rhetorically “constructed, implemented, and improved through public argument.”

So, if there are as many logoi as there are citizens, then it becomes a democratic necessity that as many of these voices are heard. It is not the number of voices that is important, it is making sure that every viewpoint is taken into consideration. It is also important for any democratic society to connect the internal working through of individuals to the external collective working through in society. To be able to think with the collective, engage in and create common doxai, individuals must be connected to the public debate. To make this public debate a valuable collective exploration and inquiry, it is imperative that people are able to externalize their internal working through and that they allowed and able to participate in the rhetorical collective. In short: democratic rhetorical working through requires and creates rhetorical citizenship.

Rhetorical Working Through is Rational and Emotional, Fluid and Multimodal

The rhetorical working through of deliberation in the public sphere appears as the most obvious kind. Gerard Hauser and Robert Aasen have both argued for a broader rhetorical understanding of public sphere, public opinion, and citizenship. Aasen considers citizen­ship “a mode of public enactment.” It is a “fluid, multimodal, and quotidian process”. In his explorations of vernacular rhetoric Hauser argues that the discourses by which public opinion are expressed, experienced, and inferred include:

the broad range of symbolic exchanges whereby social actors seek to induce cooperation, from the formal speech to the symbolically significant nonverbal exchange and from practical argument to aesthetic argumentation.

These exchanges are part of an ongoing dialogue in which an active society critiques, negotiates, associates, and ultimately constitutes its interests and opinions on the issues confronting them. Each contribution speaks to the claims of difference and affiliations that allow us to recognize, discriminate between, and interpret meanings within the socially negotiated limits that define social membership.

This is an accurate description of working though in rhetorical deliberation. However, as mentioned, the rhetorical work is not finished when a political decision has been made. Rhetoric is still needed to allow people live with the decision – and one another. In this way, working through also entails the negotiation of social relations and identity. Impression management and face-work, for instance, affect how we interact with others when discussing deliberative matters. We may want to persuade, but we also want to project a posi­tive impression of ourselves and avoid face threats to other people.

So, rhetorical working through is process. It is individual and collective thinking. It is emotional and rational. It is discursive adaption and rhetorical action carried out in many different modes and forms of expression. Some genres, such as political speeches, debates, and discussions, function as institutionalized formats of deliberative working through.

Others are not as clearly deliberative because we also influence people by encouraging them to understand, experience or consider something. One example of such rhetorical working through is offered by Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites’ book No Caption Needed (2007, 18) which argues that

photojournalism is an important technology of liberal-democratic citizenship. From this per­spective, one can consider how any particular photo equips the viewer to act as citizen, or expand one’s conception of citizenship, or otherwise redefine one’s relationship to the political community.

During the refugee crisis in Europe in 2015, for example, a photograph of a Danish man spitting at the arriving immigrants became a central topos of the public debate on immigration. The photo challenged a dominant doxa of Danishness and offered a way to work through what it means to be Danish, while simultaneously dealing with a difficult political issue. The photograph itself, the verbal debates, and not least a wide range of visual ­appropriations on social media invited the Danes to contemplate on who they were and how they should treat other people. Thus, the image enabled a national negotiating not only of the immigration policy but also of what the Danes have become and who they are. Internationally, the photograph of the dead toddler Alan Kurdi allowed for the same kind of multimodal working through.

Hariman has provided a similar argument about political parody, arguing that parody contributes to “the ongoing, substantive articulation of political thought”. Parody externalizes, introduces ambiguity, and invites us to view agreed-upon doxai in new ways, thus functioning as “resources for sustaining public culture.”

Parody and political comedy are levellers turning the serious into the silly, kings into fools and fools into kings. In other words: parody is a dissoi logoi that introduces the other side of an issue, thereby performing a rhetorical working through of the issue. It not only offers a working though of issues but also of our views of democratic society and ourselves.

Genres such as parody – as with many other kinds of visual and multimodal forms – show that things could be otherwise, it introduces a multiplicity of discourses into society, thereby not only providing different viewpoints but also displaying the possibility and actuality of a dialogic rhetoric and a polyvocal public culture.

Rhetorical Working Through is Dialogical and Polyvocal

Generally, rhetoric has been considered a monological praxis – especially by antagonists of rhetoric. Considering the sophistic tradition of Protagoras, Isocrates, and the dissoi logoi, however, it is evident that rhetoric is fundamentally dialogical. There is a long tradition of considering rhetoric a dialogical or dialectical art. The founding father of modern rhetorical studies in Denmark, Jørgen Fafner, considers rhetoric a “reversible process”, and regards the conversation as the fundamental rhetorical situation from which all other rhetorical situations must be understood. The distinction between rhetoric and dialectic, he argues, is no longer valid. We find similar views of the dialectical character of rhetoric in Billig, Tindale, and researchers drawing on the work of Bakhtin. Bakhtin’s description of human communication in The dialogical imagination, is strikingly similar to Burke’s parlour:

The word is born in a dialogue as a living rejoinder within it; the word is shaped in dialogic inter­action with an alien word that is already in the object. A word forms a concept of its own object in a dialogic way.

                        But this does not exhaust the internal dialogism of the word. It encounters an alien word not only in the object itself: every word is directed toward an answer and cannot escape the profound influence of the answering word that it anticipates.

                        The word in living conversation is directly, blatantly, oriented toward a future answer-word: it provokes an answer, anticipates it, and structures itself in the answer’s direction. Forming itself in an atmosphere of the already spoken, the word is at the same time determined by that which has not yet been said but which is needed and in fact anticipated by the answering word. Such is the situation in any living dialogue.

                        All rhetorical forms, monologic in their compositional structure, are oriented toward the listener and his answer. This orientation toward the listener is usually considered the basic con­stitutive feature of rhetorical discourse. It is highly significant for rhetoric that this relationship toward the concrete listener, taking him into account, is a relationship that enters into the very internal ­construction of rhetorical discourse. This orientation toward an answer is open, blatant, and concrete.

Every utterance, every rhetorical movement, can be seen as a response to previous movements, offered in anticipation of future movements, evoking new movements that work in the same way, thus creating a never-ending stream of thinking and argumentation, movements and emotions, which ties people together in a continuous conversation performed with a variety of expressions. This thought is elaborated by Bakthin in Speech Genres and other late essays:

There is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and the boundless future). Even past meanings, that is, those born in the dialogue of past centuries, can never be stable (finalized, ended once and for all)— they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent, future development of the dialogue.

The dialogical character of rhetoric and argumentation means that these phenomena and the utterances in which they manifest themselves can only be understood in context.

Furthermore, expressing an attitude or an argument is simultaneously both an individual and a social act. Whenever we express our personal beliefs, we necessarily “locate ourselves within a public controversy”, we refer not only to our own beliefs but also to “those other positions in a public argument to which we are opposed.”

Rhetorical working through, then, is fundamentally dialogical, and this rhetorical dialogue works both internally in the individual as thinking, and externally in society as debate and discussion between citizens. We find these thoughts in the works of Michael Billig, Michail Bakhtin, Christopher Tindale, and Kenneth Burke, who all point to the two-sided and open-ended in rhetoric. In his studies of rhetorical argumentation, for in­stance, Christopher Tindale emphasizes the consensual nature of Bakhtinian discourse and argumentation. In an analysis of Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, he illustrates how dialogical argumentation “aims at agreement, required to move it forward maintains its flow.” Such agreement is often sought by participants, but it is not necessary for rhetorical working through to occur. Antagonism and agonism, critique and harsh debate may be uncomfortable, but it is a form of rhetorical working though, nonetheless. Sometimes parties in rhetorical interactions retain a clear distance between themselves, and do not consider themselves working together. Such a conversation is not “genuinely interactive,” Tindale argues and calls it a “distanced dialogue.”

The dialogue Euthyphro is an example of a distanced dialogue. Socrates and Euthyphro set out to discover what “piety” (or the “holy”) is, but they fail in establishing a definition. This has led commentators to view the conversation between Socrates and Euthyphro as unsuccessful. However, as Tindale argues, much else has happened, because “the parti­ci­pants have been transformed”:

Socrates has become Euthyphro, has lived through his words and experience the failure of those words to deliver the knowledge claimed. Euthyphro, who claimed he knew, has discovered himself to be one who does not know – the position Socrates has always claimed for himself. He has ­be­come Socrates. This is not a simple shift of roles between them. Rather it is the reaching for a commonality. They both come to understand what it is that they do not know, and thus need still to learn.

 When making an argument, the proponent (arguer) not only articulates it for an audience, but also for him or herself. One may attempt to sway an audience but as Tindale points out, argument is “the occasion of change, not just in the audience but also, and perhaps foremost, in the arguer.” When we articulate our positions for an audience, we simultaneously articulate them for ourselves.

It has been pointed out that rhetoric is not suited to deal with modern political life and its democratic society, which is very different from the rhetoric of ancient times where one orator monologically addresses a crowd. However, when seeing rhetorical utterances and activity as part of a rhetorical working through, it becomes evident that rhetoric is both dialogical and polyvocal. Firstly, rhetoric is dialogical in the sense that every utterance will necessarily be a response to utterances that have come before, and expected subsequent utterances. Any rhetorical utterance, then, is inherently dialogical. Second­ly, the dialogical and polyvocal nature of rhetoric becomes evident when rhetorical utterances are viewed historically. The constant and never-ending rhetorical discussions, captured in Burke’s parlor metaphor, is the depiction of rhetoric as working through. This, however, should not be taken as an understanding of a direct, chronological, and linguistic call-and-response dynamic. Reactions and responses may be both indirect and generative, evoked by either materiality, communication, or both. Rosengren describes such dynamics as a marshland, where the water “flows to and fro, currents are created, grow in strength, diverge, concord, diminish and disappear.” Like in Burke’s parlor, there is constant change, but not a change that has unavoidable causality or predetermined directions.

Rhetorical Working Through Is Constant Situational Change

Since the sophists and Aristotle, rhetoric has been aware of the essential importance of the situations. Lloyd F. Bitzer’s paper on “The rhetorical situation” still has more explanatory power than many later theories. This has been evident, I suggest, in the recent pandemic, where the theory has proven effective in understanding the actions of health authorities and reception of the public. Nevertheless, as pointed out by, for instance, Edbauer, it is also true that: “the problem with many takes on rhetorical situations is their tendency to conceptualize rhetoric within a scene of already-formed, already-discrete individuals”. Edbauer’s work is inspired by Biesecker. Both point to an understanding of rhetoric and situations as something that is constantly changing. In this sense rhetorical thinking and interaction is an ongoing Rhetorical Working Though.

Although such rhetorical working through may seem to pause for a while, when a consensus is created, for instance, the discussion can always begin anew. Thus, the situational rhetorical working through of issues, relations, identity, or other phenomena, does not lead to finality. A European country, for instance, may discuss whether to join the European Union. The discussion may “end” with a referendum determining whether the country should join or not. However, that does not end the rhetorical working through of this issue, neither for the individual citizens nor for the country. After the vote the country now must live with the decision and adapt to the emotions and views of the side that did not prevail. Furthermore, at some point the debate may arise again and a new referendum may take place, as has been the case with the EU debate in Denmark, for instance.

As already mentioned, such a discussion happens in at least three connected levels of rhetorical working through: individual, situational, and social. The rhetorical working through of individuals leads to rhetorical manifestations in rhetorical situations, and all these situations form the common social and public working through. The rhetorical engagement on the individual and situational level, the attempts to argue and persuade, forms society’s rhetorical working through on a social and historical level.

Situations, however, are where the rhetorical working through can be empirically observed. According to Lloyd F. Bitzer, the situational perspective seeks to “discover the fundamental conditions of rhetoric – of pragmatic communication – in the interaction of man with environment”. As a matter of course, this interaction changes as the human and the environment change. Like the constantly swimming white shark, humans continuously adapt to the surroundings.

Thus, Vatz’ demand that we must choose between the rhetorical perspective (Vatz’ own) and the situational perspective (Bitzer’s) places a patch over one eye and and diminishes our insight. Not even Bitzer, I claim, considers rhetorical situations as isolated, delimited events, and the account in his 1980 text “Functional communication,” shows a non-static view of the situation. Thus, I suggest, we should pay more attention to constantly changing situationality, which forms the basis for rhetorical communication.

I agree with rhetoricians such as Vatz, Scott Consigny and Barbara Biesecker, who remind us that rhetorical situations are indeterminate and unlimited and that it is not always possible to find an obvious causality between speaker and situation. Rhetors are continuously thrown into indeterminate situations. In their attempts to make the incomprehensible comprehensible, rhetors participate in creating new situations. To gain a general understanding of what a rhetorical public is and how it works, we must acknow­ledge the indeterminate, fragmentary, and constantly changeable character of rhetorical situations.

But at the same time, we must acknowledge that even the seemingly accidental, random and uncontrollable occurrences always have some structured, reproducing evolution of social practices and situational circumstances.

If we appreciate both the situational changeability and indeterminacy, and the structuring duality between the agency of the speaker and the constraints of the situation, we are not forced – as Vatz insists on – to choose between Bitzer and Vatz, between situation and speaker. These two perspectives work best when understood jointly. In the real world we do not deal with isolated, demarcated situations, but with continuous movements and ­situations reformations.

A situation arises and creates exigencies, rhetors respond and create – define – with their rhetoric, new situations, which in turn create more rhetorical exigencies for other rhetors to address. Think, for instance of 9/11, 2001. This was undoubtedly a situation “located in reality”, with “objective and publicly observable historic facts in the world we experience”. The USA clearly encountered some very important exigencies, and with a high degree of certainty we could have predicted how the president would respond. It is also clear that some responses would have been appropriate and some inappropriate. At the same time, of course, the situation was open to both rhetorical interpretation and demarcation. The attacks could have been defined as an acts of terrorism, but as we know, President George Bush chose to define them as acts of war. Thus, he contributed to creating a new situation. Of course, the president’s words could not bring back the dead or raise the buildings, but he still had the creative freedom and the moral responsibility to define events, which Vatz argues, there is no room for in Bitzer’s theory. However, the assumption that we are forced to choose between Bitzer and Vatz arises because we think of rhetorical situations as separated, isolated, and demarcated incidents.

If we instead think of this phenomenon as a continuous, changeable rhetorical situationality, a marshland of opportunity, we can unite these positions and achieve a more complete understanding of how rhetoric arises and develops. In light of this, we may reformulate the theory of the rhetorical situation and say that: rhetorical communication creates and is itself created by rhetorical situations, and rhetorical situations create and are themselves created by rhetorical communication. This situational changeability then perpe­tuates ad infinitum. The water ebbs and flows in the marshland, and the shark in the ocean keeps swimming, continuously adapting to new environments.

Rhetorical Working Through an Open-ended Process

The perspective of rhetorical working through, as it has become apparent above, has a so­phistic and doxological view of knowledge and communication, which stands in contrast to the traditional Platonic view. While Plato accepted disagreement between people, he nonetheless believed that behind such disagreements, truth could be found. Rhetorical working through is the work humans do when coming to terms with a “doxic reality”, which, in the words of Rosengren, “is a procedural reality in constant motion”.

For the ancient sophists no underlying, eternal, and unalterable truth or reality exists: There is always another side to every issue, which means that our world is necessarily a world of ongoing negotiation, uncertainty, and mutability. This, of course, caused Plato to call the sophists and their followers “doxophilists”, since he considered them not lovers of truth, but only of opinion (480a). The Platonic desire is to go beyond disagreement and super­ficial opinions to reach the firm basis of truth. Finding the truth will once and for all halt the perpetual whirl of opinions and standpoints for and against every issue and deliver us the final word. However, since a legitimate contrary viewpoint is always possible, we can never escape opinions, rhetoric, and argumentation – these are constitutive features of humankind.

In the sophistic rhetorical view, a final word can never be reached with absolute certainty. While it may be true that some mathematical or logical problems can be described as possessing a finite structure, the vast majority of “everyday problems which perplex people in ordinary life possess no such finite structure.” Problems of ethics, politics, assessing the character of others, or determining what to do with our lives, entail a loose, and infinite structure:

There need be no final arbitration to settle the meanings of contested words, for any attempted arbitration will depend on further words, whose ‘true’ meaning can be a matter of further controversy. At any stage, as Protagoras appreciated, there is always another side to the question and another argumentative countermove which can be made.

Rhetoric as working through offers a perspective that helps us go beyond the misconstrued  view of finality in rhetorical matters. In Arguing and Thinking, Billig explains that every utterance, every logos can be matched by a counter-utterance, an anti-logos. Should the anti-logos become a dominant logos, a doxa, it may very well be challenged by a new anti-logos. The practice of sophistic rhetoric, Billig argues,

was designed to ensure that, far from logos being a powerful master, it would always be opposed by a rebellious anti-logos. If by chance, the anti-logos managed to usurp the logos, in order to become the new ruling master, it too would be likely to face the revolutionary uprising of the anti-logos, eager to tear down the authority of the powerful logos”

In the realm of rhetorical working through, the term anti (in anti-logos) should be con­ceiv­ed in a non-dichotomous way. The counter-utterance need not be a contradiction, but rather simply a different perspective, as we know from the art of topoi in its heuristic dimension. In the theory of rhetorical argumentation this has been referred to as “multi-dimensionality” and “value pluralism”. Christian Kock puts it this way:

We may argue that a choice is morally good, but someone might counter that it is a bad choice in regard to expediency or cost, or that it is unfeasible or risky or even illegal, or that it prevents us from making other even more urgent choices in regard to other issues.

Thus, we work through issues, relations, and identities, by constantly testing different dimensions, values, and choices against one another.

The sophistic, rhetorical view requires us to always view communication in context, because rhetorical utterances only make sense in relation to the counter-positions they react to and the situation they are embedded in. However, the sophistic view also allows for a processual understanding of communication that goes beyond concrete situations. We may, for instance, rhetorically work through political issues in the confined space of a speech or a television debate. However, merely viewing the situation of the speech or debate, will miss the fact that the issues have been worked though before and will be worked through after these events. We will always be downstream in our negotiation of actions, values, and life. There are some questions humans will never cease working through rheto­ri­cally, because their rhetorical exigences have not – perhaps cannot – be modified or solved. This is what Bitzer points to when he writes that some rhetorical situations persist.

Thus, conceiving of rhetoric and argumentation as something stretching beyond speci­fic utterances and situations, approaching it as process, is to understand it as collective rhetorical working through. This is not only the case for issues and controversies, but also for individual and group identities. The “people” as Michael McGee argues, is more “process” than “product.” In the same way, constitutive rhetoric and identity rhetoric makes the argument that groups and identities are constantly in development. Tindale makes a similar point, by saying that “argumentation might not always be expected to achieve agreement or even the resolution of disagreements, but the maintenance of diversity in consensual reasoning”. Attitudes and opinions, positions and identities, meanings and arguments are always in the making.

This is probably an important reason why antagonists of the sophists are so angry with the sophists: sophists never admits that the discussion is finished, and always come up with new perspectives and arguments. As we know from the art of topoi and as pointed out in the theory of rhetorical multidimensionality in argumentation, we can always point to another position. The antagonists of rhetoric and sophism expect there to be a final word and do not want to live in uncertainty. They want the shark to stop moving.

Moving while Standing Still – Working Through the World

I have argued for a doxological and processual view of rhetoric as continuous working through of issues, relations, and identity. I have proposed that such a working through should be examined as both individual and collective thinking; as simultaneously rational and emotion, fluid and multimodal; as dialogical and polyvocal; and as constant situational change in an open-ended process. This, I suggest is how people deal with issues and argumentation, with the relation between the individual and society, with values, emotions, and identity, and – in general – with the discursive construction of our common world.

Rhetorical Working Through is not primarily about epistemology, even though that is also the case. Rhetorical Working Through is more about how we deal with not knowing. I do not mean dealing with ignorance in the sense that we do not have certain types of information; rather, I mean not knowing in the sense that we are constantly adjusting ourselves to others, establishing opinions and attitudes, beliefs, and values, and figuring out who we are. Because the world, and our lives are constantly moving, we are in a perpetual phase of not knowing. Still, we act as though we know, or rather, we act on the transitory platform of knowledge we stand on at any given moment. These are not eternal truths, but temporary doxai. Nonetheless, they allow us to momentarily fix our understanding of opinions on issues, establish our emotions and relations, and provide us with a stable sense of identity.

Thus, Rhetorical Working Through offers a perspective that helps us go beyond the view of finality in rhetorical and human matters; however, it also avoids the trap of relativism where agreement and action become impossible. Instead, the scholarly and philosophical perspective of Rhetorical Working Through considers doxai as both actuality and potentiality. We know from history that doxai may change, but as humans acting in vita activa, we may nonetheless rightfully relate to the doxai of our time as our platform for thinking, feelingv and ­acting. At the same time, our rhetorical working through of logos and anti-logos continues on this platform, opening the possibility for yet new doxai. The white shark swims on.


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    Thank you to the many people who have discussed Rhetorical Working Through with me during the several years I have been thinking about this concept. A special thanks to my colleagues at the Section of Rhetoric at Copenhagen University, where I presented this paper during my research stay in the spring of 2022.

Author profile

Jens E. Kjeldsen är professor i retorik vid Bergens universitet.
Redaktør på RetorikMagasinet 1991-1994. Redaktør på Rhetorica Scandinavica 1997-2010.

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