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Persuasion vs. Argumentation


Dear Dr. D',

Could you please explain the difference between persuasive and argumentative writing…could it be as simple as semantics?

- Gerene

Dear Gerene:

The difference is semantics, but in its most formal sense: the study of the relationship between the structure of a theory and its subject matter. Unfortunately, the semantics of your question is not simple, but I'm going to attempt to simplify the difference between persuasion and argumentation so that we can explain it to our students and parents. First, let me assuage the classical theorists and rhetoricians in the room.

When we talk about persuasion and argumentation, we must first turn to Plato, then Aristotle, then Isocrates, Cicero, Quintilian, the Second Sophistic, and Saint Augustine -- and that only gets us to 400 A.D.! The classical rhetorical theory which these philosophers present is the foundation that precipitates your and everyone else's questions on persuasion and argumentation. As we move forward in history, Hugh Blair and the Belles Lettres, the neoclassicists and epistemologists, George Campbell, Richard Whately, and the elocutionists are the theorists who bring us to the 19th century, and all of them have much more to say on the subject. Discussions of persuasion, rhetoric, argumentation, elocution, propaganda, and many other associated terms abound, and tomes are written on these ideas and their implementation in various areas of our lives.

In what is considered the contemporary rhetorical theory, some of my favorite resources on the subject are I.A. Richards' Philosophy of Rhetoric, Marshal McLuhan's Understanding Media: The Extension of Man; Kenneth Burke's A Rhetoric of Motives, and most recently James Kinneavy's A Theory of Discourse. These later gurus have helped me to understand the earlier ones and have brought the discussion to current day (Note: I have left out many other great philosophers, but if you really want to learn about this incredibly interesting concept, you might begin with some of my go-to people mentioned above, and they will send you even deeper into the material.).

My first master's degree was in Language and Composition, so I studied the material, and I like to start with Quintilian when I introduce the topic of Argumentation. Quintilian defined the orator as "the good man speaking good." No, the second “good” is not a grammatical error. In this case, Quintillian means that “a good man only pleads good causes, and truth itself is defense enough for them without the help of learning” (Russell, Bk. XII, 214-15). I like to talk about citizenry ala Cicero, too. I talk to the kids about "Aristotle's four main reasons for the necessity of rhetoric: (1) it assists in the general triumph of good over evil; (2) it is necessary to influence those incapabile of real instructions; (3) examining both sides of a topic helps to find ou the truth; (4) it is necessary as a means of self-defense against the rhetoric of others" (Kinneavy 224).

All of which leads me to answering your question, Gerene, and here's the down and dirty difference in my humble opinion:

If you know me, you know what a stickler I am about reducing students' stress levels by using common terminology.

I try to simplify this incredibly dense topic by telling them that "persuasion" is about convincing people to "act" differently, even if for a short time. So, much of the time persuasive writing and speaking is rife with emotional appeals (pathos) to derive immediate action. Richards discusses the emotional appeals that underlie the discourse of persuasion, and I like to refer to Aristotle's number 2 reason above as the basis for sophistry and people with inflated egos. I tell the kids, "the masses will “ReAct” when someone gets them "all stirred up," but that action might not last (hence, mob mentality).

Over the past couple of decades, persuasive writing on tests weighed heavily on the side of pathos. When we were asked to teach our students the persuasive essay, we focused on putting forth one side, what the classicists called confirmation. Only one side, our side, was necessary to convince people, and the writing at times was plagued with inflammatory and forceful diction as well as logical fallacies (AP Language curriculum excepted).

But Quintilian's good man theory and Cicero's citizen orator both understood that “pathos” was to be used sparingly, and I believe therein lies the transition of language. Enter Argumentation. And with it a change in expectations. I like to tell students and teachers that "Argumentation" (as opposed to Persuasion), is designed to convince people to "think" differently and, therefore, has a more lasting effect on people's thoughts and actions. This lasting effect is derived from a focus toward ethics (ethos) and logic (logos) and away from emotion (pathos). In other words, ethos is first; logos is second; pathos should be used in very small doses.

We accomplish this feat by acknowledging the other side of the argument (Aristotle's #3 above), even providing validity to the other side in some cases (the concession). We provide the anticipated counter argument from the opposing side, then confute/refute that counter argument. So, now we're seeing the state and national test makers and standards people including concession, counterargument, in the changing state and national standards and student expectations. I think these are the reasons they are calling it "argumentation" rather than persuasion.

The difference is semantics. But, perhaps, it's also a difference of connotation: When we say “argumentation,” we're expecting a more thoughtful, ethical, logical, Rogerian, reflective, objective, Toulmanian, issue-based approach to an issue rather than a forceful, inflammatory, feelings-based approach that we used to call persuasion.

Keep writing,

Dr. D'

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