Lloyd Bitzer, “The Rhetorical Situation” (1966), Richard Vatz, “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation” (1973), and Scott Consigny, “Rhetoric and Its Situations” (1974)


According to Bitzer, not all situations are rhetorical. Rhetorical language does indicate the presence of a rhetorical situation, but he asserts that the situation is not only rhetorical when rhetorical speech is present–a rhetorical situation might exist but die if no orator addresses it. As well, rhetorical language does not call a situation into being. Rather, the circumstances of the situation determine the use of rhetorical discourse; that is, . He delineates between the rhetorical situation and persuasive situation, noting that the latter exists “whenever an audience can be changed in belief or action by means of speech,” whereas the former involves “altering reality…by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action. The rhetor alters reality by bringing into existence a discourse of such a character that the audience, in thought and action, is so engaged that it becomes mediator of change. In this form,” he concludes, “rhetoric is always persuasive” (4).

Rhetorical situation may be defined as a complex of persons, events, objects, and relations presenting an actual or potential exigence which can be completely partially removed if discourse, introduced into the situation, can so constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significant modification of the exigence. (6)

Exigence: the urgency that allows the situation to be rhetorical; an exigence that cannot be modified is not rhetorical.

Audience: the audience must be able to be moved to change, or it’s not rhetorical.

Constraints: the circumstances (“persons, events, objects, and relations”) that affect and limit the rhetoricity of the rhetor.

  • Artistic proofs (entechnoi pisteis): the intrinsic appeals that the rhetor has control of, in particular, ethos, pathos, and logos
  • Inartistic proofs (atechnoi pisteis): the extrinsic or environmental appeals that the rhetoric cannot control

Vatz (seven years later)

Vatz positions himself against Bitzer, arguing that the latter’s stances is too Platonic, too phenomenological, and so his conceptualization of the rhetorical situation discounts the agency of the rhetor. Rather than the situation calling for the use of rhetorical discourse, the rhetor is the figure who sees and determines whether there is a situation present–the figure who names the situation. In other words, meaning is extrinsically derived; or, as Vatz puts it, “meaning is not intrinsic in events, facts, people, or ‘situations’ nor are facts ‘publicly observable'” (156). How we respond to a situation depends on how we perceive it, and this relies on two processes: “the choice of events to communicate” (Burke’s terministic screen) and “translat[ing]…the chosen information into meaning” (interpretation as well as invention, according to Perelman) (156-7). [Burke, Weaver: in the act of communicating an event, we use “value-laden” language, whether it’s eulogistic or dyslogistic.]

If, on the other hand, you view meaning as a consequence of rhetorical creation, your paramount concern will be how and by whom symbols create the reality to which people react. (158)

On the other hand if we view the communication of an event as a choice, interpretation, and translation, the rhetor’s responsibility is of supreme concern. (158)

To view rhetoric as a creation of reality or salience rather than a reflector of reality clearly increases the rhetor’s moral responsibility. (158)

For Vatz, then: situations are rhetorical; utterance strongly invites exigence; rhetoric controls the situational response; and situations obtain their character from the rhetoric which surrounds them or creates them (159).

Consigny (one year later)

Consigny seeks to bridge the theoretical differences between Bitzer and Vatz, arguing that Bitzer’s rhetorical situation is determinate, assuming objective aspects like exigence, while Vatz’s is non-determinate, granting too much subjective agency to the rhetoric and ignoring the power of the situation to control the rhetor. Consigny’s solution is to reëstablish rhetoric as an art reliant on topics and commonplaces that allow the rhetor to make use of integrity and receptivity in being rhetorical.

The work of the rhetor is to assess the complex circumstances of a situation and “discover what position to adopt by making sense of the situational incoherencies” (177). “The rhetor’s task,” he goes on, “is not to answer questions and solve well-formulated problems, but rather to be able to ask good questions and to formulate or discover relevant problems in an indeterminate situation.” The rhetorical situation “involves particularities of persons, actions, and agencies in a certain place and time; and the rhetor cannot ignore these constraints if he is to function effectively” (178). [Rice, Cooper: ecologies] [Does Bitzer too much or inconsistently minimize the atechnoi pisteis?”] The rhetor does this by working through the “pragmata of the situation.”

If the rhetor is to function effectively in novel rhetorical situations, disclosing relevant issues in each, he requires a capacity which allows him to be receptive and responsible to the particularities of novel contexts.

Integrity: The rhetor needs a set of tools, so to speak (“a ‘universal’ capacity”; “a repertoire of options” [180]), from which to draw to be able to respond to the demands and constraints of a situation.

Receptivity: The rhetor needs to become “engaged” in a situation so that they respond appropriately to the problem at hand–rather than “creat[ing] problems” or “disregarding the situational parameters” that warrant attention.

To enable the conditions of integrity and receptivity to exist and be met, rhetoric must be conceived of as an art of topics (or commonplaces), the topic being “a device which allows the rhetor to discover, through selection and arrangement, that which is relevant and persuasive in particular situations” (181).

The topic is thus construed as an essential instrument for discovery or invention. But they topic has a second important role in the theory of rhetoric: that is the function of topic as a realm in which the rhetoric thinks and acts. … The topic functions both as instrument and situation; the instrument with which the rhetor thinks and the realm in and about which he thinks. (182)

Consigny relies on the Aristotelian formulation of topics as terms set in opposition to one another so that invention takes place in the interstices between the terms: “The…terms of the topic, when applied to the indeterminate matter of a context, structure that context so as to open up and delimit a logical place in which the rhetor can discover and manage new meanings and relationships” (183). [Parataxis?] The rhetor has the agency to treat the terms as opposites or as “correlatives,” and how they perceive the relationship frames or shapes the issue at hand.

The topic, as formal opposition of terms, opens up a logical place for investigation; but as formal, the topic requires an engagement in the particular “matter” of the situation.  The art of topics is not a totally free-floating art of creativity, in which a rhetor creates problems “arbitrarily.” Rather the interplay or “rhetorical circle” between devices and situation requires both a formal and material constraint for effective discovery and management. (184)

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