Up to Doug Brent's Papers on Rhetoric and Communication
Originally published in Proceedings of the Canadian Society for the History of Rhetoric 3 (1991): 81-91. A much fuller version of this argument appears in my monograph Reading as Rhetorical Invention: Knowledge, Persuasion, and the Teaching of Research-Based Writing (Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1992).

                  Why Does Rhetoric Need a Theory of Reading?

                                  Doug Brent
                             University of Calgary

Throughout history, rhetoric and poetic have always been
intimately related, easily trading theory and technique.  These
borrowings have tended to occur most easily in the canon of
elocutio:  the figures have been passed back and forth between
the two discourse arts to such an extent that a "rhetorical" view
of literature often means no more than an attention to the use of
tropes and schemes (Vickers' In Defense of Rhetoric is the most
recent example of this tendency).  This paper will argue that
modern rhetorical theory and literary theory should be connected
through the canon of inventio as well. Because new views of
knowledge place reading at the centre of the inventional process,
we must expand our notion of what invention means.  In order to
do so we should look in part to literary theory for inspiration,
because literary theory has for years been inquiring actively
about the structure of the reading process in ways that rhetoric
has only recently realized are important.

This paper is a part of a much larger study that I am undertaking
in order to build a theory of reading as rhetorical invention. 
Toward the end I will sketch briefly what some of the components
of this theory might look like.  However, the main purpose of
this paper is agenda-setting:  I want to explain why I think we
need such a theory and where I think we should look for the
elements of it.

Let me illustrate the need for an expanded theory of invention by
examining one modern rhetorician in detail:  Wayne Booth.  In
Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, Booth argues that modern
philosophers have taught us to believe one of two extreme points
of view.  Knowledge originates either in scientific, objective
observation of the "real" world, or in emotional, highly personal
apprehension of values.  Both extremes--both "modern dogmas"--
preclude rhetoric:  objective observations don't need to be
argued for, and emotionally apprehended values cannot be.  As a
result, "Passionate commitment has lost its connection with the
provision of good reasons." (xi)

His answer is to recast a very old idea--that knowledge is
discovered through dialectic--in a new form.  To do this he uses
modern ideas on the social construction of knowledge,
particularly those of Michael Polanyi.  For Booth as for Polanyi,
knowledge is not created through the isolated self interacting
with the physical world, nor even by groups of selves attempting
to achieve Platonic certainty through the discursive testing of
logical propositions.  Rather, knowledge is developed communally
"through a willing assent to the process of making an
intelligible world with my fellow creatures" (105).  Thus the
self is  "a field of selves":

          It is essentially rhetorical, symbol exchanging, a
          social product in process of changing through
          interaction, sharing values with other selves.  Even
          when thinking privately, "I" can never escape the other
          selves which I have taken in to make "myself," and my
          thought will thus always be a dialogue.  (126)

I choose Booth to illustrate this attitude to rhetoric not
because he is the only or even the main exponent of it, but
simply because he does so with particular clarity and insistence. 
This interactive view of knowledge interpenetrates every
dimension of modern rhetoric.  In Invention as a Social Act, for
instance, Karen Burke LeFevre argues for social construction as a
basis for composition theory.  It is also at the root of Burke's
vivid metaphor of the "unending conversation": 
     Imagine that you enter a parlor.  You come late.  When you
     arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged
     in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to
     pause and tell you exactly what it is about.  In fact, the
     discussion had already begun long before any of them got
     there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for
     you all the steps that had gone before.  You listen for a
     while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of
     the argument; then you put in your oar.  Someone answers;
     you answer him; another comes to your defense; another
     aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or
     gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality
     of your ally's assistance.  However, the discussion is
     interminable.  The hour grows late, you must depart.  And
     you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in
     progress.  (The Philosophy of Literary Form 110-11)

My point is that the use of the term "rhetoric" for this process
of building a world through symbolic interaction extends its
meaning in some important ways.  Persuasion is not the end of
rhetoric but a necessary means.  As Booth puts it,
     The supreme purpose of persuasion in this view could not be
     to talk someone else into a preconceived view; rather it
     must be to engage in mutual inquiry or exploration.  In such
     a world, our rhetorical purpose must always be to perform as
     well as possible in the same primal symbolic dance which
     makes us able to dance at all.  (137) 

This definition of rhetoric essentially collapses rhetoric and
dialectic into one process with social interaction, not deductive
logic, at its core.  

This view of rhetoric as essentially dialectical (or perhaps of
dialectic as essentially rhetorical) destroys forever any
possibility of a two-stage model of rhetoric in which knowledge
is discovered by some other means and then transmitted by
rhetoric.  This model is associated most closely with Plato, but
we also see a form of it in Aristotle, who treats rhetoric
primarily as a means of discovering arguments to support a point
of view, not as a means of discovering the point of view itself. 
It survived through the eighteenth-century in the "managerial"
view of rhetoric espoused by Blair and Campbell, and in the
twentieth century can be recognized in composition textbooks that
tell students to go to the library first, then come back and
start writing.  This last incarnation is not quite on the same
level as Plato's progression from dialectic to rhetoric, but it
has the same effect:  it severs rhetoric from discovery of

Collapsing this into a single process of rhetorical inquiry
impels a radical revision of our view of invention.  Invention is
traditionally seen as a forward-looking process.  It funnels out
from the single rhetor toward the audience and moves forward in
time from the framing of a discourse toward its delivery.  If we
see rhetoric as part of an epistemic conversation, however, we
can see that it also involves another movement, from the rhetor
back into the vast network of conversation that helps him develop
his views.  In other words, a full account of rhetoric must take
account of the fact that the rhetor is himself an audience. 
Before he comes to the point of attempting to create belief in
others, he has created belief in himself through interaction with
countless other selves.  If the inventional stage of rhetoric is
to have any meaning now, it must mean more than the devising of
arguments to support a point of view.  It must mean constructing
the point of view itself through the consumption of others'

Having brought the problem into the arena of rhetoric, we commit
ourselves to answering the sort of very practical questions that
rhetoric, as a fundamentally practical art, is always prone to
ask.  We must ask not just "What is it?" but also "How does it
work?"  Booth phrases this problem as the question, "When should
I change my mind?"

Part of this inquiry involves constructing a rhetorical theory of
reading.  In our modern literate world--or at least, in the world
of educated and intellectually mature adults--it is through
reading that we make contact with many of the other selves, some
long dead, through which we build our own selves.  If we are to
explain this type of invention, we must be able to explain how a
rhetorician reading is able to take a disparate group of claims
made by individuals, each with her own perspective on the world
and her own reasons for seeing it as she does, evaluate them, and
actively construct a single view satisfactory to himself.  In
short, we must develop an account of how readers sort through the
bids made for their assent.

The problem with building such an account from within rhetoric is
that rhetorical theory is not particularly expert at asking how
we do this.  Deciding when to change our minds on the basis of
other peoples' texts implies at least two steps.  We end by
evaluating claims, accepting some and rejecting others.  But
first we must interpret others' texts, for we cannot judge
another's beliefs until we think we understand what they are. 
Rhetoric, a process that "has its end in judgement" as Aristotle
puts it, has developed quite a few ideas about this second stage,
but says very little about the first.

Traditional rhetoric simply had to have faith that an audience
could interpret accurately.  Rhetoric is traditionally defined as
the art of using language to influence others' behaviour and
belief.  This implies that discourse is a reasonably reliable
means by which one person can affect another.  The rhetor must
know that what he puts into his discourse will be roughly
reflected in what the audience takes out.  Otherwise persuasion
is meaningless, for the rhetor has no predictable influence on
his audience.  To do his job, the rhetor must believe human
beings act not at random, but rather for reasons that he can
predict and use.  

This assumption, however, has been treated simply as an
assumption, an article of faith.  The idea that it could be
otherwise never occurred to the ancient rhetoricians.  The idea
occurs to Wayne Booth, for he spends quite a bit of space in
Modern Dogma insisting that meaning is shareable:
     Not only do we talk and write and create art and
     mathematical symbols and act as if we shared them:  we
     really do share them, sometimes.  Sometimes we understand
     each other. . . .  In short, we know other minds, sometimes,
     to some degree.  That we often do not, and that the
     knowledge is never complete, is at this point irrelevant,
     though it has sometimes been talked about as though we were
     hopelessly alone.  (114)

Booth never tells us who it is that talks about it this way, but
it is not hard to guess who he wants us to think of:  Bleich,
Fish, Derrida, de Man, and all the other literary critics who
solve the problem of unstable interpretation by denying that
texts have any stable meaning, or that it matters.

This is an attitude that, if sincerely held, would make rhetoric
impossible by denying its most fundamental postulate:  that we
can influence each other through language.  Booth is certainly
right to argue that we simply know, without needing proof, that
it can't be so.  We could not get on with our lives if it were
so; to believe otherwise is, in the words of Bertrand Russell,
"one of those views which are so absurd that only very learned
men could possibly adopt them."

But for rhetorical theory as opposed to daily practice, this
common-sense assertion of faith finally will not do.  A theory
requires not just an assertion that, but a model of how.  In
addition, the relationship between rhetoric and literature is too
close for us simply to wave away theories of indeterminacy.  In
fact it is now closer than it has ever been.  In A Speech-Act
Theory of Literature, for instance, Mary Louise Pratt shows
fairly convincingly we can't locate the difference between
literature and non-literature in formal features of the text or
in the presence or absence of fictivity.  Every attempt to do so
is undercut by countless counter-examples.  Louise Rosenblatt
makes the same case in The Reader, The Text, The Poem.  If there
is any difference between rhetoric and literature it is not in
the thing itself but in its use.  The point is that if literary
texts may have no stable meaning, and we cannot reliably
distinguish literary from non-literary texts, then we have to ask
how any texts have stable meaning.  If we are trying to expand
the canon of invention to include reading, we have to account for
the way reading can be a reliable basis for changing one's mind.

Let us review the argument as developed so far:

1.   To remain relevant in a social-constructivist age, rhetoric
     has to be able to absorb the social-constructivist view of
2.   To do so, we must develop a theory of how we construct
     knowledge through consumption of others' rhetoric, a process
     that includes reading.
3.   To explain reading as part of rhetorical invention in turn
     requires dealing with--not just denying--arhetorical
     theories of reading that are too powerful to be ignored.

We have opened a Pandora's box that the ancients had the good
sense to leave closed.

But just as certain branches of literary theory can create
problems for an epistemic rhetoric, other branches can help build
solutions.  Whereas rhetoric has until recently dealt with the
problem of indeterminacy largely by taking determinacy on faith,
literary theory has been forced to grapple with problems of
interpretation directly.  Interpretation is the main business of
literary criticism, and the differences of interpretation that
even the simplest work of literature can generate so dwarf the
problems generated by most rhetorical texts that it seems safe to
declare literary theory the undisputed expert in this area.  I
wish to stress, however, that I am not primarily interested here
in explaining the rhetorical effect of specifically literary
texts, an inquiry that dominates the work of rhetorical critics
such as Wayne Booth.  Rather, I am after something much more
general.  I want to borrow from literary theory some of the
insights that can be applied to the building of a general theory
of the rhetorical effects of all types of texts, including those
which are typically described as "non-literary."  Rhetoric needs
to be able to explain how all the textual voices in the great
conversation, from literary works through scientific,
philosophical, and historical works, down to everyday instances
of rhetorical influence such as the daily newspaper, get
themselves interpreted in ways that allow the rhetorical building
of self to occur.

There are two main bodies of reading theory that can help explain
how readers construct meaning.  One is discourse processing
theories of comprehension.  These theories use empirical data to
build cognitive models of meaning-building.  These can be a rich
source of insights about interpretation, and are especially
interesting because they deal primarily with non-literary texts. 
In my larger study I will deal extensively with such theories. 
Here, however, I want to narrow my scope to the other body of
theory that can help us build a model of rhetorical reading: 
"reader-response" or "audience-oriented" theories such as those
of Louise Rosenblatt and Wolfgang Iser.  This body of theory is
particularly interesting because it deals with the extreme case
of interpretive difficulty, that is, literature.  If these
critics can find ways to account for stable meaning in the
notoriously unstable world of literature, then a fortiori, their
methods should help us explain meaning-building in all texts,
literary and non-literary.

As a first step toward a rhetoric of reading, I believe that
there are at least three concepts from reader-response theory
that rhetorical theory should take note of:  the "virtual work,"
the "repertoire," and the "wandering viewpoint."   Let us being
with the concept of the "virtual work."

Rosenblatt argues that interpretation involves more than a reader
and a text.  The reader creates a third entity, which she calls
the "poem" as opposed to the "text":
     It is not an object or an ideal entity.  It happens during a
     coming-together, a compenetration, of a reader and a text. 
     The reader brings to the text his past experience and
     present personality.  Under the magnetism of the ordered
     symbols of the text, he marshals his resources and
     crystallizes out from the stuff of memory, thought, and
     feeling a new order, a new experience, which he sees as the
     poem.  (12)

She calls this process "evoking" the poem.

In The Act of Reading, Iser takes a similar view.  For Iser,
texts "initiate 'performances' of meaning rather than actually
formulating meanings themselves" (27).  This "performance" of
meaning, like Rosenblatt's "poem," is not identical with either
the text or the reader:
     [It] must be situated somewhere between the two.  It must
     inevitably be virtual in character, as it cannot be reduced
     to the reality of the text or to the subjectivity of the
     reader, and it is from this virtuality that it derives its
     dynamism.  (21)

Although Iser argues that the meaning of a text is evoked by the
reader, this "is not the same as saying that comprehension is
arbitrary, for the mixture of determinacy and indeterminacy
conditions the interaction between text and reader" (24).  

This concept gives new focus to a model of rhetorical reading. 
Once we see the process of reading as a process of evoking a
virtual work, we stop asking what is "in" texts or "in" readers. 
Rather, we ask about the nature of the transaction between
readers and texts.  More precisely, what about this transaction
is determinate and what indeterminate?

Iser's concept of the "repertoire" helps answer this question. 
Iser defines the repertoire as "all the familiar territory within
the text.  This may be in the form of references to earlier
works, or to social and historical norms, or to the whole culture
from which the text has emerged."  (69)  This repertoire, Iser
argues, is different from the reader's mass of personal
associations.  It is organized as "schemata," pre-existing
patterns which condition the way the reader forms meaning:
     The text mobilizes the subjective knowledge present in all
     kinds of readers and directs it to one particular end. 
     However varied this knowledge may be, the reader's
     subjective contribution is controlled by the given
     framework.  It is as if the schema were a hollow form into
     which the reader is invited to pour his own store of
     knowledge.  (143)

The important feature of schemata is that they are shared.  By
providing a hollow form into which the reader's personal store of
knowledge is poured, they act as a structure of constraints,
giving public form to the reader's private associations.  In one
sense, these schemata are clearly also "in" the reader:  it is
the reader's familiarity with this territory that allows it its
power to shape meaning.  Yet these schemata are sufficiently
stable across readers that Iser can speak of them as being "in"
the text, forming a mould for the reader's more personal
associations.  They are actually "in" the transaction between
text and reader, guiding the individual act of evoking a virtual
work through powerful social forces. 

The third concept that I want to point to is Iser's "wandering
viewpoint."  Although a text is linear, the virtual work is not. 
The virtual work is not on the page but is a construct in memory. 
We cannot attend to an entire work, even an entire virtual work
in memory, at the same time, so the reader's focus must
continually change depending on which segment of the growing work
she is attending to at a given moment.  Iser uses the term
"theme" for the view of the work that the reader is involved with
at a given moment; the other potential viewpoints, which continue
to affect the reader but are not currently focal, constitute the
"horizon."  As the reader's viewpoint moves through the work, the
present theme becomes horizon as another view becomes focal.  

The wandering viewpoint helps explain not only not only how
interpretation varies, but also how those variations are
systematic.  Remember the larger rhetorical situation in which
the act of rhetorical reading is situated.  The reader reads not
just more the proximate goal of evoking a meaning from the text,
but for the more long-term goal of updating knowledge and belief. 
When trying to decide what to believe, the reader will actively
search for specific pieces of material that relate to the
questions she is asking.  The viewpoint wanders in response to
the kinds of things the reader wants to know.

Of course these questions are unstable.  The act of acquiring
answers, or partial answers, to some questions throws up new
ones.  This is like the well-established concept of the "research
cycle":  the reader, armed with a very general question, explores
sources to find answers that modify and refine the question,
which leads him to different sources and back into the same
sources with a new focus.  But the wandering viewpoint puts a new
edge on this old idea.  It suggests that the reader's questions
guide not just which texts he will go to, but how he evokes a
virtual work from those texts.   

Like the repertoire, the reader's questions are neither entirely
predictable nor entirely unpredictable.  A writer knows some of
the sorts of questions that his text is intended to answer, for
he knows something about the portion of the human conversation in
which it is intended to take its place.  Each part of that
conversation revolves about certain questions that occupy a
certain discipline at a certain period of history.  The writer
who understands the ongoing conversation in which his work will
be read can predict--though without certainty--the general shape
of the questions that readers will be using his text to answer. 
The rhetorical situation, then, is a vital part of the
transaction between writer, text and reader.

This is far from a complete model of interpretation.  It does
suggest, however, some of the ways in which the interpretation of
a text depends on a mixture of public and private forces.  This
in turn suggests what the rhetor can know about the audience that
will enable him to predict response, and inversely, what the
audience knows the rhetor knows.

I wish to stress that meaning can never be seen as totally
determinate.  Every minute we are confronted by minor and major
cases of mismatch between what a writer intends and what a reader
understands.  As Kenneth Burke points out in A Rhetoric of
Motives, rhetoric must always exist in the quarrelsome realm
between perfect identification (in which perfect interpretation
would be inevitable but unnecessary, since there would be no
differences between people) and complete division (in which no
correspondence between intention and reception could ever occur
except by random chance).  But I am not arguing for a theory of
complete determinacy.  Rather I wish to do for interpretation
what Booth argues we must do for knowledge.  The logical
positivists, he argues, "have saddled us with standards of truth
under which no man can live"  (xii).  To be able to say we have
any knowledge at all, argues Booth, we must set the standard of
knowledge lower, so that the variable, contingent understanding
that rhetoric produces can still merit the label "knowledge."  We
must do the same with interpretation.  We can never be sure that
we know exactly what another means, and the other can never be
sure she knows that we know.  But if we set ourselves rhetorical
rather than ideal standards--that if, if we can be content with a
mixture of determinacy and indeterminacy--we can begin to build
models of how it is that "we know other minds, sometimes, to some

As I indicated at the beginning, this paper is preliminary to a
much larger study in which I build and illustrate the model that
I have barely suggested here.  This model is constructed from
insights combined from reader-response criticism, discourse
processing theories of comprehension, and rhetorical theory.  All
I want to do in this brief paper is to argue for two preliminary
claims:  that a modern epistemic rhetoric cannot be complete
unless it includes an account of reading as an inventional
process, and that literary theory can offer us some important
insights that we can use in building such an account.


Booth, Wayne C.  Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent. 
     Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1974.

Burke, Kenneth.  A Rhetoric of Motives.  Berkeley: U of
     California P, 1950.

---.  The Philosophy of Literary Form.  Berkeley: U of California
     P, 1941.

Iser, Wolfgang.  The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic
     Response.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978. 

Lefevre, Karen Burke.  Invention as a Social Act.  Carbondale:
     Southern Illinois UP, 1987.  

Pratt, Mary Louise.  Toward a Speech-Act Theory of Literary
     Discourse.  Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1977.

Rosenblatt, Louise.  The Reader, The Text, The Poem: The
     Transactional Theory of the Literary Work.  Carbondale:
     Southern Illinois UP, 1978.