Carnegie Mellon University

Narrative in Rhetorical Argument

Author: Christine Murphy Silk
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 1996

Scholars from a variety of disciplines have recently taken an interest in narrative, regarding it as a rich source for understanding how humans gather and communicate knowledge. Traditionally, narrative has been viewed primarily, if not exclusively, as a poetic genre. Stories are assumed to be the domain of poets, fiction writers, and literary critics. However, as this dissertation shows, narrative is not exclusively a poetic device. It is also a rhetorical device that has had an important presence in rhetorical argument since antiquity.

This dissertation examines selected treatises of rhetoric from the classical era (Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian), and the eighteenth-century (George Campbell and Richard Whately) to determine how these rhetoricians regarded the roles of narrative in rhetorical argument. In addition, writings on jury trial argument and firsthand observations of bench trial argument are analyzed to determine how narrative functions in contemporary forensic rhetoric. Two significant findings emerge from this study. First, narratives--which include both fictional and non- fictional accounts--have had important functions in rhetorical argument throughout history. Among other things, they have functioned as autonomous arguments, as evidence in support of larger arguments, and as vehicles for conveying emotional appeals and appeals based on ethos. Second, the functions of narrative in rhetorical argument can be accounted for in terms of three factors: (1) the epistemological assumptions of the larger rhetorical system in which the narrative is utilized, (2) the aims of the rhetor, and (3) the specific portion of the argument in which the narrative appears. Furthermore, in forensic rhetoric, the range of functions a narrative may have in a given trial argument seems to depend on the audience trying the case; that is, whether the audience is a jury or a judge. This dissertation is significant because it fills a void in our knowledge concerning the relationship between rhetoric and narrative. Knowing how narrative functions in rhetorical argument can broaden our perspective on the communicative utility of storytelling, and it can increase our understanding of how rhetorical arguments are constructed and transmitted.