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Rhetorical theory is the theory which examines rhetoric in terms of its linguistic, cognitive, cultural, and philosophical implications and effects. There are many different branches of rhetorical theory, but they are all united by their focus on rhetoric itself and the ways in which it can be used and applied to different situations. The first recorded studies of rhetorical theory come from ancient Greece, where philosophers split rhetoric into logos, pathos, and ethos. Distinguishing between rhetorical theory and rhetoric itself can be difficult, but the key difference is that rhetorical theory is more concerned with the effects of rhetoric than the practice of it.
The simplest distinctions in rhetoric and rhetorical theory are pathos, ethos, and logos. These distinctions are essentially ways in which rhetors aim to persuade people who listen to them. Pathos focuses on the ways in which speakers can appeal to emotion. Ethos focuses on the perceived appeal of a person’s character or expertise. Logos is the study of logic, and includes how arguments can be deconstructed and created.
Students of rhetorical theory are primarily concerned with how the various skills in rhetoric affect the listener or reader. Pathos is the process of appealing to emotion, and can be analyzed linguistically. The words a rhetor uses to discuss a subject can be emotionally neutral or emotionally charged. For example, an event could be described as “a chance event with unfortunate consequences” or “a travesty, borne out of an uncaring government and reckless abandon with regards to the public’s safety.” While these two statements may be discussing the same issue, the latter uses emotionally charged terms such as “reckless abandon” to appeal to listeners’ emotions.
Ethos is one area in which speakers aim to establish either a moral or intellectual superiority due to their past experience or character. The effect that somebody with a perceived moral superiority, such as a charity worker, has on an audience can be wildly different from the one a convicted murderer would have. Politicians commonly try to use ethos to add value to what they are arguing, because the character of the speaker affects the audience’s perception of what is being said. This is why there is often a loss of support if a politician is caught in a scandal.
The final major aspect of rhetorical theory is logos, or logic. The aim of logic is to construct or deconstruct arguments based on the lines of reasoning behind them. In many ways, flawless logic can have a profound effect on the listeners’ cognitive understanding of what is being said. Likewise, flawed logic, correctly identified by an opponent, can have a negative effect on the listeners’ opinion of the argument put forwards. Interestingly, logic aims almost specifically to strip away all of the layers of irrelevant information produced by both pathos and ethos.