Rhetoric: A Communications Technology


Gorgias, in his On Nature or the Non-Being, demonstrates using logic why he believes that communication is frivolous. He claims that nothing exists, and even if it did nothing can be known about it, and even if it did, it could not be communicated to others, and if it could be it would not be understood. The key to understanding Gorgias’ position is in his explanation that words do not represent reality but rather logos, which can be applied many ways but generally means the foundation of one’s argument. Logos then is not the premise necessarily, but the way in which that premise is expressed. Logos has thus loosely come to stand for rhetoric and discourse, as they are applications of logos.

Gorgias wrote there, “logos is not evocative of the external, but the external becomes the revealer of logos.” I contend that this single statement is the core and foundation of Gorgias’ logos. In context to other words in the aforementioned text, Gorgias seemed to express that words cannot be a true reflection of reality. In other parts of this text, Gorgias explains that all one must do to know the truth of reality is look and listen to the external world.

The ideas of Gorgias are critical of the rhetoric employed by other thinkers of his time, and many may not venture so far as to consider communication impossible. After all, those same people made their great attempts at communicating, and Gorgias himself has been remembered and studied for a length of history unto the present day, but are students of Gorgias actually understanding him? Is Gorgias himself an accurate reflection of reality, or is the denial of any accuracy to reflection a self-defeating, and baseless approach to planning for failure?

Whether or not Gorgias is technically correct may be never known, which might appear to confirm his bias, but represents the sort of uncertainty that rhetoricians delve into to find the truth of reality and to pose their own reflection of it, for comparison with the external world and the reflections of others. Whether a rhetorician has ill-motive or intent may be impossible to know, but it may just be that someone with a heart of gold might appear, having no motive of profit, who uses rhetoric effectively to reflect reality accurately. While it may be impossible to know by the rhetoric alone, whether such a reflection is accurate, people do in fact have the ability to take what they have heard and to look at the external world to decide whether it matches the patterns they recognize there.

A person’s ability to recognize patterns of great magnitude may be what holds them back from understanding completely, the nature of things, but in our modern times it is not impossible to imagine that a human may actually become capable of recognizing all the patterns required, to in fact confirm or deny at least some rhetoric. Furthermore, through the use of artificial intelligence it should be possible to design permutations to go beyond human capabilities, in confirming or denying the nature of reality. On the other hand, to be possible to confirm or deny a pattern that has existed in the past, one cannot look into the modern or future world for proof. One would have to have saved the state and behavior of the world at every  point of existence in question to truly capture proof, and until that happens perhaps Gorgias will have given us the most accurate reflection of reality that we have to date. On the other hand, saving the state and behavior of reality at a point in time is what the human brain does. So perhaps the human brain is all one needs, to know reality at a basic or even complex level.


Plato was either the Scribe of Socrates, or invented Socrates as a means to demonstrating ideas. While historians disagree and argue over this basic fact, what is evidently true is that Plato was a writer that has been considered one of, if not the greatest philosophers of all time. It depends on who you ask. In Plato’s Theaetetus, Socrates is told that a young Athenian man exists who is a lovely orator and a fine liberal. Socrates wishes to speak with this young man, and begins to ask if he is a poet or a musician, which seems to imply that Socrates valued these as a use of rhetoric. Socrates asks what the definition of knowledge is, and whether it is different or the same, as wisdom. This gets a conversation going between himself and Theaetetus.

Socrates explains that it is possible for Theaetetus to know the answer to his question, with the help of God. This seems to imply that according to Socrates, Theaetetus would have to see past some part of himself, to know the truth as God sees it. Again this appears to imply that Socrates believes the process of seeing truth as God sees it, is possible. In conversation the two orators determine first that knowledge is perception. Then Socrates reveals a secret enveloped by the covers of books found in history. He says that Protagoras wrote “his truth” in his book, but that he told “the truth” to his disciples in secret. Socrates and Theaetetus then come to agree by reference to Homer that “all things are the offspring of flux and motion,” though Theaetetus admits he is unsure ultimately. Finally, Socrates concludes that knowledge means, “Right opinion with knowledge.”

The demonstration of the written conversation between the characters Socrates and Theaetetus show that Plato was expressing the possibility of conveyance of objective truth. Though he admits truth comes in the form of opinion, he credits the opinion that has a foundation of knowledge. This use of the word knowledge to define knowledge itself is problematic, and presents a circular logic. To guess at the meaning of knowledge, within Socrates’ definition of knowledge, it appears the use of the term implies that a person with an accurate picture of the world can in fact convey that pattern accurately. The very fact that modern people cannot confirm or deny the existence of a man named Socrates demonstrates the uncertainty of the basis of knowledge itself.

John Locke

John Locke might be described as having studied the field of rhetoric, and having expanded the field of discourse. However, some modern scholars like Edward P. J. Corbett have argued that Locke advanced rhetoric as well. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Locke is famous for his ideas about ideas.

Locke gives a vast view of the notions of ideas and their origin, both simple and complex, of perception and retention, on discernment, the use of the mind, modes of thinking, and of relation, cause, and effect. He gave contrast between adequate and inadequate, and of true and false ideas.

Locke is significant for his contribution to the study and conveyance of rhetoric as an art, and the study of him has been seen as irreplaceable for any modern rhetorician.

Rudolph Carnap

Rudolph Carnap demonstrated flaws in the pursuit of physics and science, that he claims are fundamentally syntactical. He writes about the dangers of speaking philosophically, and advocates for the replacement of that with scientific logic and syntax. Carnap concludes that to observe something with clarity requires the proper language or syntax.

In a way all rhetoricians owe Carnap a great deal of credit, for building a comprehensive approach to whatever method may be employed by them. By expressing the very foundation of language as syntax, he offers a point of view which increase one’s ability to employ language syntactically, which involves the compartmentalization of each word, and an obsession in ensuring the accuracy of each, and the way they are strung together. Carnap, at the turn of the 20th century, treated words as DNA and used CRISPR-like techniques to break down language into an arche that can be utilized by any person at any time- a mathematical, universal language.

If Gorgias could read Carnap’s work, he might balk at the attempt to define words, when in the end the use of such words may never convince any other person. Still, if Carnap is right that philosophy must be replaced by science, and that scientific syntax be adopted as a standard for expression on truth, then the scientists who correctly adhere to his approach may, in the conception of their own models, attain an ideal that results in a finality of expression on truth, finally. On the other hand, if the logic of philosophers carry any weight, the possibility that truth may change, in the time it takes to sort it out, presents a conundrum that it’s unclear if Carnap has even sought to answer.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche in On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense, criticizes philosophers who claim to have knowledge. He claims that when put to the test of real knowledge, it would not compare. This is, in spite of his aforementioned claim that even he himself has no such conception of such knowledge, ironically. He explains this is so, because of his view of humans as using whatever convenient truth they needed, to survive. Perhaps Nietzsche is projecting here. Nietzsche questions the nature of truth, and is critical of any who claim to know it, since the words we employ to express it are mere illusions that we forgot were illusions, and those get worn out and replaced with new illusions. He believes that at best, man can only achieve assimilation by what is.

Nietzsche’s contribution to rhetoric is that he pushes the reader to accept the fact that the truth is far more elusive than we believe, so elusive perhaps that it is impossible to know or to convey. Nietzsche’s contribution is not dissimilar to Gorgias, and his reason for being so critical of rhetoric is in the notion that people can only see the world in relation to themselves, but not as it is by itself alone. Gorgias may even disagree with this sentiment, because he appeared to have believed that people cannot even see the world in relation to themselves clearly, or that if it were possible, it would be impossible to communicate or to understand from the point of view of another.

Kenneth Burke

Kenneth Burke was a Pragmatist who sought an answer to what he viewed were problems in modern thought. Working off of Pragmatists like Dewey and James, Burke saw the use of words as practical for achieving various ends, but not as a means of conveying some great picture of a universal truth. Burke saw words as being beautiful, but only in the eye of the beholder.

One might see Burke’s work as trivial in itself, because at first glance it may appear to offer no tangible solution, but that is the strength of his subjectivist approach. Through embracing the changing nature of reality, Burke explains the many ways that language can be useful to those that use language. In a world where many are wrapt in a search for the most true truth, Burke offers them a way to ensconce themselves within the practicality of using speech to accomplish actions.

From his mentors, Burke learned to value Aristotle’s pragmatic use of knowledge, to solve the problems of everyday living, for the living. Aristotle, renowned as the greatest philosopher of all time by many, used a technique of walking to and fro to beget others’ minds towards an academic pursuit. Burke seems similar to Aristotle, in that both of them employ language to some end. Burke’s work was a reflection of those before him, but in a way the whole of the parts he placed together were greater than the sum of them. As such one might venture to say that Burke truly advanced meaningfully on the traditions of Aristotle and rhetoric.

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