How important is the relationship between Philosophy and Rhetoric? Is it important? In this blog post, I will examine the relationship between Rhetoric and Philosophy including the scholarship of George A. Kennedy’s Classical Rhetoric.

When brainstorming this idea of the relationship between Rhetoric and Philosophy, I looked first at the Classical definition of Rhetoric according to Kennedy: “Rhetorical language and speech informs, persuades, or motivates the reader by appealing to emotions, shared values, or logic (ethos, pathos, logos). It is a formal way of talking about how you use different methods to persuade someone”.

The definition of Philosophy according to James Madison University’s Philosophy website page: “Philosophy is the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, existence. It analyzes concepts, definitions, arguments, and problems. It helps us to distinguish fine and subtle differences between views and to discover common ground between opposing positions” (

Florida State University’s Department of Philosophy defines philosophy as “an activity people undertake when they seek to understand fundamental truths about themselves, the world in which they live, and their relationships to the world and to each other”( Their academic philosophy program is divided into four major areas of study:

  • Metaphysics (study of nature of reality “what is truth”),  
  • Epistemology (study of knowledge “How do we know what we know”),
  • Ethics (what we ought to do and what it would be best to do “What is right”), and
  • Logic (the nature and structure of arguments “what is good or bad?”)

It is very clear to me, according to these definitions, that philosophy and rhetoric go hand-in-hand. It is important to use both skills: philosophy provides training in the construction of clear formulations, good arguments, and appropriate examples and rhetoric to inform and persuade (yourself and others) in an effective manner.

Philosophy provides skills in presenting ideas through well-constructed, systemic arguments (i.e. RHETORIC!!) and helps the author or orator to express what is distinctive in their views by eliminating ambiguities from writing and speech.

Rhetoric teaches writing of challenging texts with an emphasis on fairness to alternative positions, developing the ability to establish personal views and portray concrete examples.

Whew, that is a lot to take in. However, it has been very useful to help me understand the relationship between the two disciplines!

George Kennedy does not go very far into the weeds of this concept of philosophy in rhetoric. Kennedy’s text is from a survey course on the relationship of rhetoric and philosophy from the late seventeenth century to the end of the nineteenth century. He mainly illustrates the important Philosophers from these time periods in Britain, Germany, and the United States and their critical works in rhetoric. These world-renowned Philosophers have used the techniques of rhetoric for centuries, including topics of invention, classification of issues, and tropes or figures of speech.


The relationship of rhetoric and philosophy fell under much debate towards the end of the seventeenth century. Francis Bacon played an important role in rhetoric of human affairs. Descartes, in Part I of his Discourse on Method, concluded that the strongest powers of reasoning and persuasion belong to those who most skillfully arrange their thoughts to make them clear and intelligible—in other words, who use rhetoric. He found that it was necessary when communicating to a general audience to: use these skills in French rather than Latin,  to use autobiographical narrative, and to use imagery and dialogue form.

In contrast, Thomas Hobbes moved in the opposite direction from Descartes. Hobbes, in his Latin translation of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, he states that rhetoric is a threat to society and stirs up the passions of a crowd. In his work, Leviathan (1651), he attacks metaphorical language as “senseless, ambiguous, and a cause of contention, sedition, or contempt”(“Hobbes et rhétorique”, 333).

The Royal Academy of England, the British counterpart to the Académie Française was more concerned with science than rhetoric in the seventeenth century. However, John Locke, the most famous philosopher of the time, had given lectures on rhetoric at Oxford in 1663 from his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. He stated that rhetoric had three functions: “(1) to make known one man’s thoughts or ideas to another, (2) to do it with much ease and quickness, and (3) to convey the knowledge of things”. Locke suggests that the books of rhetoric which abound in the world, will instruct those who want to be informed…rhetoric has its established professors, is publicly taught, and has always had a great reputation (Classical Rhetoric 271).

One of the most eloquent of philosophers, David Hume, was a strong advocate of rhetoric. In his great work, Of Eloquence, he criticizes modern English usage of rhetoric in “our calm and temperate speakers…Ancient rhetoric was infinitely more sublime than what our modern orators aspire to”(273). Why was the modern rhetoric unsatisfactory? According to Hume, the rules and procedures put constraints on oration. Where was the inflaming passions or the attempt to elevate the imagination of the audience? He concluded that modern speakers simply did not make the effort or lacked the genius of rousing a nation.  “As it is, we are satisfied with our mediocrity, because we have had no experience of anything better” (273). Amen to that, Brother Hume.

It would take the challenge of great issues from both the American and the French Revolutions to inspire eloquent political debates. Kennedy states that the great orators of this period include Thomas Erskine, James Macintosh, Edmund Burke, William Pitt the Younger and from Germany, Immanuel Kant (274).

Kant, whose influence dominated German philosophy throughout the nineteenth century, expressed that “the arts of speech are rhetoric and poetry…Rhetoric is the art of transacting a serious business of the understanding as if it were a free play of the imagination; poetry that of conducting a free play of imagination as if it were a serious business of the understanding. The poet promises merely an entertaining play with ideas” (274).

Friedrich Nietzsche can be added to this list of great German philosophers as he lectured on the subjects of Greek oratory and Greek and Roman rhetoric at the University of Basel between 1872-1874. Nietzsche defends rhetoric against the criticisms of Plato, Kant, and other philosophers.

Across the Atlantic, on our home shores, the most classical early American rhetoric according to Kennedy is that described in lectures given by John Quincy Adams. Adams, the first holder of the Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, states that “ A subject which has exhausted the genius of Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian can neither require nor admit much additional illustration”(288).

Kennedy ends this chapter with late nineteenth century Philosophers. I realize that he omitted several important Philosophers of this time period: Darwin, Thoreau, Emerson, Hegel, Schelling, Kierkegaard). I wonder how the relationship between philosophy and rhetoric has continued in the past two centuries: Sartre, Chomsky, Camus, Foucault… from the 20th century and, I must confess, in looking over a list of 21st century Philosophers, I do not recognize many names.

Works Cited

Kennedy, George A. (1999). Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition. London:

     UNC Press.

Thouard, “Hobbes et la rhetorique: Un cas complexe,” Rhetorica 1 (1983): 333-39.