The Rhetorical Situation



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Dr. Katherine Heenan

English 472

Spring 2007

March 22, 2007


Bitzer, Lloyd. "The Rhetorical Situation." Philosophy and Rhetoric, 1 (January, 1968), 1-14.


  • Marks a turning point in the US study of rhetorical theory

  • Sets out to define rhetoric as discourse responsive to a particular kind of situation

View of Rhetoric

  • For Bitzer, rhetoric is action.

  • He defines rhetoric as "A mode of altering reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action."

  • "Language is a mode of action and not an instrument of reflection."

  • You have to understand rhetoric in its context; it's meaningless outside of the circumstances that created it.

  • Rhetoric is pragmatic; it has practical things to do. It is primarily concerned with getting things done:

A work of rhetoric is pragmatic; it comes into existence for the sake of something beyond itself; it functions ultimately to produce action or change in the world; it performs some task. In short, rhetoric is a mode of altering reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action (3-4)

  • Rhetoric is always persuasive.

  • With this view of rhetoric in mind, Bitzer then proposes that rhetorical “discourse comes into existence because of some specific condition or situation which invites utterance” (4).



The Rhetorical Situation described

  • To understand rhetoric, you have to understand some thing about the situations that create it.

  • Bitzer defines the "rhetorical situation" as

    • "A complex of persons, events, objects, and relations presenting an actual or potential exigence which can be completely or partially removed if discourse, introduced into the situation, can so constrain human decision or action so as to bring about significant modification of the exigence."



    • It has three components.

    • Exigence "an imperfection marked by urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a thing which is other than it should be" (6)

      • It is situation that causes a need for rhetoric (or utterancy----Something that stands in the way of something desirable getting done which can be rectified through utterance

      • This is the problem or inadequacy you want to correct with your message.

      • He distinguishes between exigences that are rhetorical and those that are not. An exigence is only rhetorical if it can be altered by discourse:

An exigence is "rhetorical when it is capable of positive modification and when positive modification requires discourse or can be assisted by discourse" (6-7).

      • This means a situation is not rhetorical if:

      • There is always at least one controlling exigence in a rhetorical situation.

      • Bitzer uses the national crisis arising directly after the assassination of JFK as an example of rhetorical exigence—speeches by LBJ and others helped to calm or improve the situation rhetorically.



      • Audience "Properly speaking, a rhetorical audience consists only those persons who are capable of being influenced by discourse and of being mediators of change" (8). Those who can affect the situation if adequately and properly affected by the utterance (universal/particular--those capable of being influenced and those capable of influencing)

        • This means that the audience is more than just people who hear your message

        • The audience, in this sense, is made up of those people who could be changed by your message and who could make changes because of it.



        • Constraints- “besides exigence and audience, every rhetorical situation contains a set of constraints made up of persons, events, objects and relations which are parts or elements of the situation because they have the power to constrain decision and action needed to modify the exigence” i.e., beliefs, attitudes, documents, facts, traditions, images, interests, motives, etc. that stand in the way of the audience responding properly (i.e., fittingly) to the exigence (8).

          • According to Bitzer, the constraints refer to two main categories: those that are internal to the rhetor, and those which are external.

            • Internal constraints include personal beliefs, ideologies, physical limitations—anything that can be directly attributed to the speaker.

            • External constraints refer to the environment and audience, i.e. their beliefs, frame of mind during the discourse, physical and psychological environment of the audience .

          • Constraints are tools that the speaker can use to help make changes.

          • Some constraints are originated by the speaker (Aristotle called them artistic proofs: logos, pathos and ethos).

          • Some constraints come from the situation (Aristotle called these inartistic proofs, like testimony and other facts).

          • Therefore one’s own rhetorical abilities is a constraint as is available evidence, possible arguments, audience beliefs, etc.



          • Characteristics of rhetoric that is sensitive to its situation.

            • "Rhetorical discourse is called into existence by the situation...out of necessity."

            • The rhetorical situation "invites a fitting response,” that is, the rhetorical situation actually “dictates” or “prescribes” the response to it



            • "Situations come into existence, then either mature and decay or mature and persist."

            • Thus not all discourse is rhetorical.

              • One of the components could be missing--no audience, no exigence that can be modified by discourse, no audience that can act. Scientific and poetic discourse are not rhetorical.

              • There can be communication without rhetoric.

In Bitzer’s description, both the audience and the orator bring sets of constraints to the situation, with the orator bringing “his personal character, his logical proofs, and his style” (8). According to Bitzer, “These three constituents – exigence, audience, constraints – comprise everything relevant in a rhetorical situation” (8).
What Bitzer says that he doesn't mean:

  • Not merely that context is important.

  • Not merely that speaker, audience, subject, purpose interact.

  • Not merely that rhetoric=persuasion.

  • Not merely that the discourse is rooted in historic context.

He also offers a number of “general characteristics or features” of the rhetorical situation (9). These are listed as follows:




    1. Rhetorical discourse is called into existence by situation; the situation which the rhetor perceives amounts to an invitation to create and present discourse.

    2. Although rhetorical situation invites response, it obviously does not invite just any response. Thus the second characteristic of rhetorical situation is that it invites a fitting response, a response that fits the situation.

    3. If it makes sense to say that situation invites a “fitting” response, then situation must somehow prescribe the response which fits.

    4. The exigence and the complex of persons, objects, events and relations which generate rhetorical discourse are located in reality, are objective and publicly observable historic facts in the world we experience, are therefore available for scrutiny by an observer or critic who attends to them.

    5. Rhetorical situations exhibit structures which are simple or complex, and more or less organized.

    6. Finally, rhetorical situations come into existence, then either mature or decay or mature and persist — conceivably some persist indefinitely (9-13).

Beyond exigence, audience, and constraints, these general characteristics have spurred on studies concerning whether responses to situations were fitting and whether discourses invited fitting responses. These characteristics will also come into play in discussing how Bitzer’s work can provide society as a whole with a better understanding of rhetoric.


Some elements of the rhetorical situation include:


  1. Exigence: What happens or fails to happen? Why is one compelled to speak out?

  2. Persons: Who is involved in the exigence and what roles do they play?

  3. Relations: What are the relationships, especially the differences in power, between the persons involved?

  4. Location: Where is the site of discourse? e.g. a podium, newspaper, web page, etc.

  5. Speaker: Who is compelled to speak or write?

  6. Audience: Who does the speaker address and why?

  7. Method: How does the speaker choose to address the audience?

  8. Institutions: What are the rules of the game surrounding/constraining numbers 1 through 7.


What Bitzer does mean by the rhetorical situation:


  1. Rhetorical discourse comes into existence as a response to a situation, in the same sense that an answer comes into existence in response to a question or a solution in response to a problem;




  1. A speech is given rhetorical significance by the situation, just as a unit of discourse is given significance as answer or as solution by the question or problem;




  1. A rhetorical situation must exist as a necessary condition of rhetorical discourse, just as a question must exist as a necessary condition of an answer;




  1. Many questions go unanswered and many problems remain unsolved; similarly, many rhetorical situations mature and decay without giving birth to rhetorical utterance;




  1. Discourse is rhetorical insofar as it functions, (or seeks to function) as a fitting response to a situation which needs and invites it.




  1. Finally, the situation controls the rhetorical response in the same sense that the question controls the answer and the problem controls the solution. Not the rhetor and not persuasive intent, but the situation is the source and ground of rhetorical activity--and, I should add, of rhetorical criticism.

Analyzing the rhetorical situation (which, at its most fundamental, means identifying the elements above) can tell us much about speakers, their situations, and their persuasive intentions.


The ancient Greeks gave special attention to timing--the "when" of the rhetorical situation. They called this kairos, and it identifies the combination of the "right" moment to speak and the "right" way (or proportion) to speak.



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