Rhetoric and Sophistry (Part 2): The Cradle of Communication Theory?

This is not a blog post. It’s a long-winded term essay which was meant to be only 8 pages long but … I guess I got carried away. Here’s hoping I got the point. 

The Emergence of Communication Theory From the Pre-Christian Era to Modern Times


Communication is deeply rooted in the function of all living beings. When defined as the transmission of information or “Who says what in which channel to whom to what effect (Lasswell, 1948)”, it can be said that communication occurs continuously in all organisms, through a broad range of verbal and non-verbal systems, whether in single-celled bacteria, plants or humans, within and between both their internal and external environments (U. Segerstrale & P. Molnar (Ed.s), 1997). For this reason, it is difficult to establish a clear definition of exactly what communication is, even when focusing on human communication alone.

Theory is a form of explanation for a class of observed behavior. The fundamental goal of communication theory is to define communication and thereafter demonstrate how it affects human behavior. Like any other human behavior, communication has evolved over the centuries. New models of communication emerge continually as new technologies arise, but can be dated to the beginning of oral and written language, centuries ago. There are countless models of communication and therefore several variants of conclusions regarding these models.

In this paper I speculate that, as far as Western communication theory is concerned, most ideas still fall on either side of the narrowly different yet antagonistic theories on the objectives and power of communication that existed between the Rhetoricians and the Sophists of Ancient Greece. For clarity, I refer to rhetoric purely as the skill of saying things with a combination of style and / or flourish and an emphasis on the truth. Sophistry on the other hand I refer to as a pragmatic stance where logical argument, whether truthful or not, is the means to persuading an audience.


Adam and Eve depicted in mural of Abreha and Atsbeha church. Image from: http://www.traveladventures.org

It is possible to introduce the development of communication theory from the beginning of time itself. For example, according to the Old Testament, communication preceded time. God declares, speaks, and only then did the creation of the universe begin. In the book of Genesis, God communicated with man and man had the ability to communicate with Him and with each other. It is no wonder then that other writers of the Bible theorize about communication. The Psalmist in Psalm 16:21 (NASB) says: “… sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness…” whilst in the book of Proverbs 16:24 (NKJV) it is said that “Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body”. This statement is a concise response to a common question in communication theory; how is meaning generated (Whitehead, 1999)? More importantly, it represents an understanding of communication methods, namely the use of language and vocabulary (Linguistic theory), as well as a mastery, demonstrated throughout the Old and New Testaments, of the use of a major tool of communication; the metaphor. The concepts of metaphor use in communication and conduit metaphor, which refers to any figurative expression used when discussing communication itself (for example, “her feelings came across very vaguely”) have themselves been subject to heated theoretical debate over history, in particular the question of how “apt” (good, pleasing and appropriate) a metaphor is (Katz, Paivio, & Marschark, 1985).

Whilst studies of communication dating back at least two centuries before Christ can be found in the Old Testament, Western communication theory attributes its origins to classical Greek philosophical approaches. Moving beyond religious mythology which was already setting the conceptual stage for existential speculation, the views of Greek thinkers and philosophers (especially Pre-Socratic, Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy) concerning communication are some of the earliest recorded examples of communication theories (History of Wine in Ancient Rome, 2012). In his translation of Aristotle’s On Rhetoric, George A. Kennedy states that Rhetoric, in its simplest form, can be regarded as “a feature of all human communication, even of animal communication (Kennedy, 2007)”. Isocrates, who established the earliest institution of higher learning in Ancient Greece (shortly before Plato opened the Academy), sought to create a systematic approach to essay writing and oratory skills, which would come to be called rhetoric. In his most famous essay Against the Sophists, Isocrates stresses that the objective of rhetoric is persuasion, and that it should be used for human betterment, rather than simply for the purpose of winning a debate, or self-praise and subsequent acquisition of money, as some Sophists were accused of doing (Jost, W. & Olmsted, W. (Ed.s ), 2004).

Isocrates also believed that rhetorical skills had to be taught and that education was the only way through which one could combine theoretical and practical ideas which could be applied in daily life doing matters of public good and importance. The great philosopher Plato also theorized on the meaning of communication, and his views differed from Isocrates’ in support of Socrates who favoured dialectic (the method of argument for resolving disagreement by use of truthful reasoning and rationality – appealing to logic rather than emotion) over the art and quality of oratorical presentation. What we see here is that from an academic’s perspective, there are aspects of verbal communication which must be learned in order to be deemed effective for their intended purpose and that, in the case of Rhetoric, is to persuade an audience on a given subject matter.

Classical Greek debates about Sophism, Rhetoric and Dialectic are a good place to start analyzing the emergence and evolution of communication theory, as it stimulated the revelation of heuristic truths which apply to communication theories even to this day. This foundation of knowledge / understanding of communication is, however, most highly accredited to Aristotle, Plato’s student, who “was the first person to give serious consideration to drawing a map of learning and defining the various disciplines of the arts and sciences (Kennedy, 2007)”. Aristotle criticized his predecessors’ debates on the definition and functions of rhetoric for “the arousing of prejudice, compassion, anger and similar emotions [which had] no connection with the matter at hand… (Frees, J. H. (Ed.), 2012)”. He sought to establish universal rules which could be applied to verbally obtain the most effective communication between a person and his/her audience. Echoing Isocrates’ sentiments, he claimed “The special characteristic of an art is the discovery of a system or method, as distinguished from mere knack”. Therefore, like many other aspects of life which for centuries human minds have tirelessly explored, the potential impact of effective communication on our existence should not be taken for granted.

Rhetorical theory today is the result of centuries of discourse and analysis based on these classical philosophers’ views. In his landmark article “Communication theory as a field”, Robert Craig introduced a foundational framework for major theoretical discourses about communication. He classifies Rhetorical theory as the first of seven sub-disciplines of communication theory. According to him, this theory remains as “the art of persuasion through effective speaking and writing (Craig, 1999)”. Often, an analysis of the public works of famous and highly influential men and women throughout history will reveal similar patterns in their skillful use of Aristotle’s rhetorical devices such as the five cannons (style, arrangement, invention, persuasion and memory), the three means of persuasion (Ethos, Logos and Pathos) and logical fallacies and syllogisms, as well as other devices (TIME, 2012). This makes classical rhetoric as useful a means of communication today as it was thousands of years ago, especially in public speaking in legal and political spheres. Aristotle identified three genres of rhetoric: deliberative, forensic and epideictic, and defined it as the ability to persuade an audience in any given situation. As such, rhetoric is a discipline which has evolved so as to concern itself with many phenomena of communication beyond politics to other form of media including music, fine art, religion and journalism, among others (Jost, W. & Olmsted, W. (Ed.s ), 2004).

17th – 18th CENTURIES AD
Whilst many researchers divide communication by contexts, such as Craig’s seven “traditions”, three historical groups / institutions remain as the origins of prominent communication theories: the art of oratory speaking and writing, leading to rhetorical theory; major politico-economic transitions which stimulated social communication theories and, with the advent of mass media, theories of journalism and mass communication.

Contemporary rhetoric is described by many scholars as human communication based on purposeful and strategic manipulation of symbols from a large variety of domains, including the natural and social sciences and various forms of mass media. In other words, modern rhetorical theory tends to overlap with other traditions of communication theory, such as the study of inter-subjective mediation by signs. This approach can be confusing especially when the term rhetoric is applied to media such as fine art and architecture and other communication forms which exist in the absence of words. It is interesting to note that semiotics, the study of signs and symbols, which, I believe, can be loosely translated to “wordless rhetoric” traces back to Hippocrates (as a branch of medicine) and Aristotle in the 5th Century BC. The term derives from the Greek word meaning “observant of signs”. Aristotle established a 3-part model of semiotics in which the “sign” is broken down into three parts; signifier, the signified and the referent (Voyer, 2008).

ceelo /danger mouse “rorscharch” by Brian Louie

Semiotic theory thus acts as a bridge studies of rhetoric and mass communication, because the understanding of signs, when applied to general codes such as “text” in print media or “images” in visual media is a critical component of analysis of communication and its cultural effects. Perhaps a pioneer in including the study of semiotics in Western theoretical thought was John Locke (1632-1704) in his book An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), where he states that the sciences can be divided into physical, practical and semiotic parts (Locke, 2004). However, the theory to which Locke is mostly credited is Liberation theology – the argument that people are by nature free and equal, thus have rights to life, liberty and property (Tuckness, 2011). Locke’s liberation theology was centered on government and politics, but had a strong influence on later communication theories and models from the West as well as the global South. For instance, Liberal tradition of mass communication emerged with the advent of the printing press in the early 17th century, although it was until the 19th century that printed media was affordable to reach the public en masse, with the commercialization of news and newspapers.

The liberal tradition sees the mass media as essential to the development of democracy and “securing rights of citizenship by disseminating information and a pluralism of views” (Neve, 2000). In 1789, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man stated that “Every citizen may speak, write and publish freely. George Orwell defined libertarianism as “allowing people to say things you do not want to hear”. Later in the mid twentieth century, stimulated by inequalities in access to and involvement with mass media between the developed world (which the media subordinated themselves to) and developing, post-colonial nations, developmental communication theory emerged. This theory calls for a “process of strategic intervention toward social change, initiated and engaged by organizations and communities … [which] encompasses participatory and intentional strategies to benefit the public good, whether in terms of material, political or social needs (Wilkins, 2008)” on the claims that there can be no development without communication. There are echoes of Marxist contributions to communication theory in Development Communication theory. For example, the term Hegemony, a term coined “to denote the predominance of one social class over others”, was actually coined by leading Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramisci (Bates, 1975).


In the 19th century, scholars such as philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce (1839-1914) and the “father” of modern linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), further influenced the study of semiotics in the social sciences. Pierce defines rhetoric as “the study of the necessary conditions of the transmission of meaning by signs from mind to mind, and from one state to another (Bergman, 2007)” whilst Saussure “distinguishes the language system into two parts, the signified and the signifier. The signified is a concept or meaning which is expressed through the form. The form is called the signifier, which is the external part of language (Wikibooks contributors, 2012)”, and differentiates himself from previous philosophers such as Plato or the Scholastics, by insisting that the “sign” is arbitrary, i.e. that no word is inherently meaningful, but rather a representation of something which must be combined in the brain with a signified object in order to be conceived as a sign with particular meaning (Saussure, 1949).

The term “mass communication” is used in a variety of ways (Debanjan, 2010) to define how information is disseminated simultaneously to large segments of the population through mass media. Mass Communication is one of the most highly theorized aspects of communication, beginning with the Soviet Media/Communist Theory, which “sees the media as integrated into the existing political elites and therefore reflecting their interests (Neve, 2000)”. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels pioneered the intellectual development of Marxism which, although based on an economic and sociopolitical world view, echoes to some extent the liberal tradition. Marxism is also based on an analysis of class relations within society and their application in the analysis and critique of capitalism.

karl Marx – top 100 best philosophers

Marxism has a dialectical view (whose roots can be traced back to Socratic philosophies for the discovery of truth, and responsibility for one’s actions) towards the negation of social ills such as class struggle and underdevelopment. With regards to communication these ills can be exemplified, in a Marxist perspective, that “The ideas of the ruling class are, in every age, the ruling ideas: i.e. the class which is the dominant force in society is at the same time its dominant intellectual force (Marx, 2012)” and calls for the media to be controlled by the (Communist) state, which is supposedly a wise and neutral master, unlike the liberal approach which sees an independent press, in a capitalist society, as beneficial to the masses. Liberal theory and Marxism both agree that globalization of production leads to development in the less developed countries, but development is not uniform across countries. Unlike liberalism which is absent from political theory and focused more on theology, orthodox Marxists emphasize politics and see the integration (equalization) process as the results of a revolution, whilst liberals expect it to be peaceful.

Other prominent Marxist philosophers in the late 19th century include Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkeimer, who were all committed Marxists associated with the Frankfurt School. These theorists were amongst the first to emphasize the potential for media to influence culture. In fact, Marcuse argued that the media defined the terms in which we may think about the world, whilst Adorno and Horkheimer coined the phrase culture industry, referring to the collective operations of the media (Bennett, Cirran, Gurevitch, & Wollacott, 2005).

The rise of communications technology in the early 1900s, which was mostly stimulated by the World Wars (WW1 and WW2) stimulated a burst of theories in mass communication. Like Aristotle 2000 years earlier, governments knew there was strength in the ability to influence public opinion. The dictionary defines propaganda as the deliberate spreading of information, ideas, or rumors in an effort to either help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, or nation. Most commonly propaganda is used in the political arena. Propagandists in the world war eras worked diligently to build strength for their positions through mass media. An outcome of WW1 propaganda efforts was Hypodermic Needle theory, which proposed that mass media is a powerful tool which can be used to influence a large group of people directly, and control their behavior. Information is fed to them in a one-way and direct method, as a drug would be injected into someone’s blood through a hypodermic needle.

© Brett Lamb / lessonbucket.com

Along with Liberatian Theory, Soviet Media/Communist Theory and Development Communication Theory, Social Responsibility Theory was one of Wilbur Schramm, Siebert and Theodore Paterson Four theories of the Press. The theory advocates for increased responsibility of the media towards different audiences as the emergence of radio, television and film, as they had realized that the “free market” approach to press freedom in the USA had only increased the power of a selected group of media moguls, serving the elite only and not the less well-off classes who were also exposed to mass media.

This theory contributed to the development of a new dimension of principle and policy frameworks to regulate the media. Instead of a top-down regulatory approach as seen between the 165h and 19th centuries through which both church and state took increasing interest in the content of published and printed media, the Commission of The Freedom of Press / Hutchin’s Commission (1949) urged the media to practice self-regulation. The media was urged to embrace cultural diversity, active audience participation and censorship of anti-social material in the media (The Commission On Freedom Of The Press, 1947). In the sense that, to this theory, the duty to one’s conscience was the primary basis of the right of free expression, we can once again see a parallel to the Socratic philosophy of “[subordinating] a rhetoric of persuasion to a rhetoric of truth (Reeve, 1948)”.

MID 20th – 21st CENTURIES AD
Due to the proliferation of mass communication in the mid-20th Century, communication studies changed, first with the impetus of propaganda techniques and then towards more mathematical models that perceived communication along the terms of information transfer. As previously mentioned, propaganda refers to a subset of communication involving the intent to influence people’s beliefs and behaviors. In other words, to persuade people, as is the objective in the use of rhetoric. It differs from rhetoric in that it involves a mass communication campaign which is often one-sided or fear-based and deceptive for the sole purpose of, as per Noam Chomsky’s documentary film, “manufacturing consent” (Achbar & Wintonick, 1992). The earliest most controversial propaganda theory was Walter Lippman’s in his 1922 publication, Public Opinion (Lippman, 1922). Lippman postulated that ordinary people did not have enough access to information which would enable them to perceive the media objectively, which made them vulnerable to manipulation by governments which owned the media. Therefore, a body of knowing citizens should be the opinion leaders who interpret events and disseminate opinions through the media. Although propaganda is often considered a tool of government formation and policy, it may also be found in other institutional settings such as advertising, education and even religion.

Rupert Murdoch, “modern Prospero of media power” … even before the hacking scandal.

After the end of WW2, Harold Lasswell identified several functions which the mass media serves in society. The five elements include:
Surveillance, that is providing information and news;

  • Correlation, which means that the information provided is selective, critiqued and interpreted by the media;
  • Cultural transmission, which is mirroring of the audience’s cultural beliefs, values and norms;
  • Entertainment and
  • Mobilization, which refers to arousing the public into action regarding issues of societal interest, especially in times of crisis.

Lasswell famously developed the theory that communication is “Who says What in Which Channel to Whom to What Effect (Lasswell H. , 1948)”. This concept guides several theories postulated thereafter, of which three most influential were the Diffusion of Innovations Theory, Agenda Setting Theory and the Theory of Uncertainty Reduction. The Diffusion of Innovations Theory, which seeks to explain how, why and at what rate new ideas and technology spread through cultures, was popularized by Everett Rogers in 1962 (Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, 1962). The model predicts that the media, as well as interpersonal communication networks, provide information which influence common or popular opinion and judgment. Rogers argued that this process consists of an innovation, diffusion (or communication), time and consequences, where an innovation is “an idea, practice or object that is perceived to be new by an individual or other unit of adoption”, and diffusion is “the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over a period of time among the members of a social system (Rogers, 1995)”.

The Uncertainty Reduction Theory, whilst emphasizing on interpersonal communication, can also be applied to mass communication. The theory drew

why i watch TV … mostly

on the work of Fritz Heider’s publication The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations which addressed peoples’ behavior based on how they seek to understand their interpersonal relationships by assessing and interpreting others’ behavior. Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese developed the Uncertainty Theory in 1975, citing uncertainty as motivation for information-seeking behaviors which guide interpersonal interactions (Bennett, Cirran, Gurevitch, & Wollacott, 2005). This concept had previously been highlighted in Shannon and Weaver’s Information Theory, which regarded uncertainty as “entropy”, an unnatural state of disarray which the exchange of information seeks to set right (Shannon & Weaver, 1949).

The Uncertainty theory can be extrapolated to predict how people will access information in the media to reduce uncertainty. In a sense, this theory supports the Diffusion of Innovations theory inasmuch as the media provide information, but also counters the Diffusion of Innovation theory’s prediction that information use is a passive process. Instead, it will inform audiences that are seeking to reduce their uncertainties on an individual as well as a societal level. This is the concept behind the Uses and Gratifications theory, which suggests that people are not passive recipients of information, but according to their needs actively select which media outlets and media content they choose, and simultaneously the media compete with each other to satisfy these needs (Katz, Blumler, & Gurevitch, 1974). Combining the evidence from these three theories, it is obvious that if there is misinformation from the source, the overall outcome might be an audience’s conviction of an incomplete or untrue message.

An example of how information can be manipulated (e.g. by the media), and later affect an audience’s behavior, was first demonstrated by Kurt Lewin’s Gatekeeping model (Lewin, 1943). This model shows that it is important to remember that the filtration of information by the “gatekeeper” holds the potential to changes the audience’s perspective of a story and ultimately create a limited understanding of reality in this audience. For example, in the media setting, the gatekeeper might be a reporter who covers one perspective of a story and leaves out another part, or an editor who selects which information will go forward, and which will not, essentially deciding which part of a certain commodity will enter a system.

In the 1970s McCombs and Shaw took a different direction when they looked at the effects of gatekeepers’ decisions. They found that the audience places importance to a news item from the emphasis the media place on it. McCombs and Shaw pointed out that the gatekeeping concept is related to their concept of agenda-setting:

In choosing and displaying news, editors, newsroom staff, and broadcasters play an important part in shaping political reality. Readers learn not only about a given issue, but also how much importance to attach to that issue from the amount of information in a news story and its position. In reflecting what candidates are saying during a campaign, the mass media may well determine the important issues—that is, the media may set the “agenda” of the campaign (McCombs & Shaw, 1972).

Two basic assumptions of the Agenda-Setting Theory are that (1) the press and media do not reflect reality, and (2) media concentration on a few issues leads the public to believe that they are the most important current issues. This theory has been extensively researched in communication studies and influenced the development of several other media theories. There are three types of Agenda-setting, namely Public agenda-setting, Media agenda-setting and Policy agenda-setting. In Public agenda-setting the public’s opinion and agenda reflects the most important public issues and problems. Media agenda setting is the pattern in which the importance and depth of a story is measured by the patterns of coverage it receives in the media, and Policy agenda-setting refers to the concept that the public or media’s attention has an influence on elite policy makers. An in-depth exploration of Policy agenda-setting resulted in the “CNN Effect”, a theory that 24-hour news networks, such as CNN, have strong effects on the general political and economic climate, for example by causing political leaders to react more aggressively towards the subject matter being examined due to the prolonged exposure it receives in print and television. The greatest limitation of the CNN effect theory is the fact tha by virtue of its origin and skewed content which highlight “Western interests”, it has only been demonstrated in events that the US policies were focal. Nevertheless, the developing world is also seen to react to press coverage on international news channels about their countries. This is a knock-on effect of the CNN effect (the Big Brother Effect, perhaps?) For example, when Western journalists covered events leading to the Ruwandan genocide, Ruwandan leaders were forced to feign rejection of several anti-Tutsi acts so as to appease Western countries on whom they relied on for financial aid and support (Gourevitch, 1998).

Finally, not all Frankfurt scholars criticized the media as a tool of cultural or politico-economic oppression. Jurgen Habermas approached communication theory from a pragmatic perspective in which the media encourages free moral discourse between individuals (Habermas, 1990) and deliberative discourses amongst equal citizens (Habermas, 1999) or, in other words, creates a public sphere. The public sphere is ideally one in which all who participate are sincere, factually correct and experienced / exposed enough to talk back against what is said through the media. As regards to whether the word ‘public’ here is representative of the diversity of the masses, this theory has received much debate, not only in ancient times but in the latter twentieth century as new media came of age. For example, Plato criticized rhetoric for giving its students the ability to manipulate their audience through its unidirectional format in which the orator speaks, and is heard, but there is little room for debate (Chambers, 2009). Any debate was conducted amongst the same elite group of people (educated, free men), and the masses had no chance to make a contribution. Centuries later, in his book Television and the Public Sphere: Citizenship, Democracy and the Media, Peter Dahlgren says

Habermas tells … a rather melancholic historical narrative in two acts… the public sphere is historically specific to the societal arrangements of Britain, France and Germany… Prior to this, in the Middle Ages, there was no social space which could be called ‘public’ in contrast to ‘private’; powerful feudal lords (as well as the Church) may have displayed themselves and their power… but this did not in any way constitute a sense of public sphere in Habermas’ sense… The second act traces the decline of the bourgeois public sphere in the context of advanced industrial capitalism and the social welfare state of mass democracy… Large organizations and interest groups become key political partners with the state, resulting in a re-feudalization of politics which greatly displaces the role of the public… The public becomes fragmented, losing its social coherence [and] becomes… a group of spectators whose acclaim is to be periodically mobilized but whose intrusion in fundamental political questions is to be minimized (Dahlgren, 2000).

Today, thanks to the internet, more people have more access to information from the widest range of sources in the fastest time in history. In an ideal world, the internet would provide a level playing ground on which media corporations, journalists, advertisers and individuals like you and I to name a few, from all over the world, can air their message, leading to a uniform flow of information globally. Nevertheless, this is a neoliberal perspective with several limitations. There are conflicting phenomena beyond the scope of this paper (access, nationality, control, identity and voice) which complicate the scale of the 21st century public sphere. For one thing, a quarter of the world’s population, including 70% of Africans has no access to electricity, or the internet (World Health Organization, 2011). Culturally and economically, as well as politically, there are disadvantaged and excluded groups in this arena. Robert Gerodimos elaborates; “Political discussion, and the subsequent formation of public opinion, is one of the core functions of democracy… however, recent advances in new information and communication technologies may be causing the segmentation (or even fragmentation) of the mass audience… making the definition of political deliberation as we know it problematic (Gerodimos, 2004)”.

only 1/20 countries surveyed for this infographic about Facebook’s 955 Million Users was in Africa


A large number of communication theories have been considered, albeit superficially, in this essay. It is evident that there is no single perfect communication theory. Various conclusions can be drawn because of the varying domains of interest and levels of influence which these theories have had on communication studies today. This poses a great danger for communication students of missing the heuristic value of some theories. One angle of a theory might be given more emphasis than another and depending on how it is framed, the theory will have a different meaning from one perspective to another. Communication models have evolved towards complexity, reflecting the increasing complexity of information and media over the ages. This also means that communication theory moved from being a study of the tangible (oratory and written communication) to the abstract (semiotics) and from its direct (swaying an audience) to indirect (cultural and moral) effects. As they have evolved, communication models have become as dynamic as the process of communication itself, and in spite of their various limitations, they are still useful in contributing answers to the question which this essay sought to find, and many others. A main theme in the theories covered within this study is that the practical application and outcomes of any communication must be considered, and ideally should favour the greater good.


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One thought on “Rhetoric and Sophistry (Part 2): The Cradle of Communication Theory?

  1. Pingback: Rhetoric and Sophistry (Part 1): The Beef | aesthetic asymmetry

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