Daniel T. Richards

Daniel T. Richards

Innovative Strategist & Digital Expert

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…

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Not Everything Is an Argument

Rectangles on a blue background. An excellent demonstration of the shape tool in Photoshop. Yet this painting sells for hundreds of dollars. It may be fine decoration for a Nieman Marcus, but it’s not art.

Indignant Ian: How dare you, man! Who are you to say what is and isn’t art?

A thinking man, that’s who.

It’s a “habit” of mine to use my mind for the purposes of definition and categorization. You may not like my output, and I’m open to hearing your argument, but I’m willing, able, and ready to make a judgement call in this case. Those shapes aren’t art.

One thing I know for sure is that art is something. It’s not everything. (Then it would be nothing.) Art has characteristics, attributes, features. Art has a definition.

Likewise, something I hear all the time when I talk about rhetoric is that “everything is an argument.” ::sigh:: No, it’s not.

Your Wifi key is not an argument. The Florida Keyes are not an argument. Alicia Keyes is not an argument.  Arguments, like art, are something. I’ve covered what they are in previous posts, and I’ll continue to do so. But I want to take some time to discuss other kinds of discourse. What you can engage in if you’re not making an argument.

In composition studies, there are traditionally four categories of discourse:

  • Exposition
  • Description
  • Narration
  • Argument (not covered in this post)

Let’s look at the characteristics and distinguishing features of each:

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