Daniel T. Richards

Daniel T. Richards

Digital Strategist. Rhetorician. All Around Swell Guy.

4 Ends of Discourse: Understand, Dream, Feel, Act

Preach, rhetors! Sing the praises of persuasion far and wide. Spread the eloquent word like George Campbell, Scottish minister and philosopher. His book, The Philosophy of Rhetoric, situated the art within the age of enlightenment, and helped transition rhetoric from the era of Aristotle into a modern context. Thanks, Pastor Campbell!

Among his sophisticated contributions to rhetoric, Campbell’s four ends of discourse are his most well known. What is the purpose of rhetoric? Campbell answers:

“All the ends of speaking are reducible to four; every speech being intended to enlighten the understanding, to please the imagination, to move the passions or to influence the will.”

In other words, discourse can move us to understand, dream, feel, or act.

Why is this important? Because the purpose of your discourse—what it can do and what you want it to do—should affect its form and flourish. It’s hard to get someone to act, for instance, if you’re using arguments better suited for understanding.

I already discussed some of these ends as they relate to your motivation to persuade, but let’s have a look at what they mean for content and style…

Understand: Perceiving is believing.

What does it mean to understand something? Without getting too philosophical, understanding means that your audience makes a proper inference from the information they receive. They get it. If I want you to understand what a tree is, for instance, I would show you a picture of a tree and explain the necessary elements. Roots, trunk, branches, leaves, etc. Easy enough.

But what if I want you to understand photosynthesis? That’s more difficult. How about the aesthetics of nature? Even harder.

“Make clarity a fetish, an absolute, a dogma, a god.”
– Ayn Rand

Discourse with understanding as an end must make clarity it’s absolute standard. Clarity means guiding your audience down a conceptual path that allows them to perceive what you’re talking about as if they could reach out and touch it. Make the ideas real. Achieving clarity can be tremendously difficult, especially with complicated subject matter.

Always keep in mind what it took for you to become convinced of the argument you’re making. What did you need to hear? What evidence made the point convincing? Retracing your steps and creating discourse with your audience’s lack of context in mind is essential for success.

This discourse is especially suited for forensic rhetoric with a strong appeal to logos.

Dream: The impossible is possible.

Beyond simply understanding, there are rhetorical ends with loftier goals. Dreamy discourse asks the audience to think beyond what is and think instead about what is possible. Speaking to the imagination can be a powerful strategy for winning over your audience. People like to dream. They like it even more if their dreams seem attainable.

The most important element of this kind of rhetoric is believability. A dream is one thing, but a fantasy is something else entirely. The content of your discourse must inspire the imagination while simultaneously holding on to enough of reality that your audience grasps the possibility. It’s this intersection of understanding and creativity that makes dreamy discourse so effective.

This kind of discourse is almost exclusively deliberative. It’s future-focused with a strong appeals to pathos and logos.

Feel: Don’t Cry for me, Argentina.

As rhetorically effective as sparking the imagination might be, it’s hard to express the ultimate power of the fully armed and operational battle station of emotion. (Death Star, Shmeth Star.) Have you seen a Feed the Children or ASPCA commercial and not gotten at least a little bit choked up? That pure pathos, my friends.

Emotional discourse bypasses complex understanding and goes directly for “the gut.” In other words, it’s rhetoric that focuses on our deepest values and strongly held convictions.

Emotions are automatic responses set off by prior judgements—whether conscious or unconscious. When we see a spider on our hand, most people don’t stop and think, “Is this creature dangerous? Should I remove it from my skin? Should I pet it?” Instead their past experiences of being bit and watching Arachnophobia cause an instant reaction of fear. They flail wildly, scream, and run out of the room until their girlfriend comes home to kill it. (Well, maybe that’s just me.)

The point is that if stirring emotion is the end of your discourse, you should focus on vivid imagery. Evoke the emotion by using related emotional triggers. Detailed description and narratives can accomplish this textually or aurally, but nothing beats pictures for pathetic appeals.

Emotive discourse relies heavily on ceremonial rhetoric and pathos, pathos, pathos.

Act: Let’s do this!

The most difficult and complex discourse is that which gets us to act. It combines all previous ends to achieve what most people resist at all costs: doing something.

Audiences need a good reason to act. Actually that’s not strong enough. Audiences need an overwhelmingly important reason with such clear implications they’re compelled to expend energy. They want motivation.

Motivation can come from a lot of things. (I’ll do a full post on motivation in the near future.) But broadly speaking people are motivated to do what’s right, what they see as good—for other people or themselves. This doesn’t necessarily have to come from a moral argument (though they’re quite motivating). If people are convinced a certain diet is “right,” for instance, they can be motivated to eat nothing but carrots and apples.

Action discourse requires some kind of purpose and something that the audience can accomplish with a low barrier to entry. Incentives and actionable tasks. This relies heavily on deliberative rhetoric and all three rhetorical appeals. Ethos, though, is particularly important for action, since people are more motivated by rhetors they trust.

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I would be hard pressed to find discourse that uses each end exclusively. Every end requires understanding, action requires emotion, emotion requires imagination, etc. But the point is that knowing what you want to achieve—the primary end of your discourse—can help you determine how to construct an argument. Conscientious rhetors are better rhetors.

Happy persuading!