Modes of Persuasion


Over at my Degree of Freedom site, my son Ben – who has been studying how to become a critical thinker by reading material from LogicCheck and elsewhere – talks about what Aristotle called his three modes of persuasion: logos, pathos and ethos.


Many students may be familiar with those terms from English classes where they are often taught in the context of persuasive communication, commonly referred to as rhetoric.


Given that critical thinking has its roots in ancient philosophy, the equally ancient rivalry between philosophy and rhetoric might explain why persuasive communication is often left out of courses and programs that teach students to think critically. For if philosophy is on a quest for truth, rhetoric can be seen as a way to obscure the truth through artful use of the tools of persuasion.


But separating thinking and persuading into distinct (sometimes armed) camps obscures the fact that in most real-world situations, we do not (and sometimes cannot) solve problems through reason alone. Sometimes, we must look to other factors – such as emotion and trust – to make choices on matters large and small.


This is where Aristotle’s modes of persuasion play a role in the kind of critical thinking you have read about here at LogicCheck. Whether looking at editorials, political speeches. or arguments, we need to think of them on three levels.


The first is the level of logic. Arguments you have seen translated into structured statements and then analyzed for validity and soundness have either failed or passed tests designed to determine if the logic behind those arguments, i.e., their logos, is strong or weak.


Second, since human beings are not robots or Vulcans (and most of us are not logicians), arguments also tend to appeal to us emotionally with the emotional content of an argument referred to as pathos.


Finally, while you can argue with yourself, the vast majority of arguments are between people, or groups of people, meaning interpersonal factors such as trust and respect (or lack thereof) often play a role in who and what we believe. These interpersonal factors play into Aristotle’s third mode of persuasion: ethos.


As you will learn over the next few weeks, the strongest arguments balance logos, pathos and ethos in just the right combination. Before you learn how to strike that balance, however, let’s first look at arguments that fail to do so.

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