Category Archives: Paper #5

Epistemology and Rhetorical Narrative Theory: Making it Fit

If the definition of rhetoric, at its most simple, is discourse that acts upon its audience in some way (and those ways may be under dispute)[1], then the study of rhetorical narrative theory necessarily involves analyzing narrative texts for the rhetorical effects they have upon their reading audience. What then, add validity and scope to this field, and, my question, what value does this have more broadly, beyond scholarly circles? Some scholars may see the value in rhetorical narrative theory in its ability to generate shared experiences of a text (Phelan), or its value may be understood to place narrative texts within the larger fields of cultural, historical, social, or political knowledge (Shen). Meretoja summarizes these divides between an epistemological understanding of texts, and their onotological value:

[T]heorists have been divided into those who conceive of narrative primarily as a cognitive instrument for imposing meaningful order onto human reality or experience (for example, Hayden White, Louis Mink, Daniel Dennett) and those who consider it to be primarily an ontological category that characterizes the human way of being in the world, that is, something constitutive of human existence. (89)

This then invites the major investigation of rhetoric theory: what is the relationship between the author and narrator (real, implied, reliable, unreliable) and the experience of the readerly audience, and what methods do we use to understand that relationship? How does a text act rhetorically upon its audience? If the implied author, sometimes in the voice of the narrator, has designs upon its audience, how can explicating those designs lead to deeper knowledge of the function of texts in our cultural and social worlds?

To answer these questions, it is necessary for the rhetorical scholar to be knowledgeable of the scope, validity, and methods within the field, however they might argue with each other. Though narrative theory and the rhetorical study of fictional narrative can have many epistemological factors that provide value and knowledge in our understanding of narrative texts, my own interests focus on the epistemological role of the narrator in narrative theory, and rhetorical narrative theory’s interest in the reliability of the narrator, how the narrator knows what she knows[2], and whether the role of the implied author creates critical knowledge in narrative study, or whether its debatable role distracts from more important foci that includes reader response and cultural truths/human experiences. And it may be that these philosophies need not be divided, and indeed many scholars have argued that methodological approaches should be integrated to form a unified field that allows us to “debate the similarities and differences, the commonalities and conflicts, among those methods” (Phelan, “Teaching Narrative” 218).

In attempting to bring together and place knowledge of narrative texts through a study of the debates, applied methodologies, and interpretive value generated by rhetorical narrative theory, I seek to really reveal how stories act upon readers through “the ways that authors use textual (and sometimes intertextual) phenomena to guide their audiences to respond to the communication in one way (or one set of ways) rather than another” (Phelan, “Cognitive Narratology” 310). But even that is not sufficient, as my interest is more deeply concerned with how these interpretations, whatever the methodologies, build knowledge of narrative texts beyond academia, into what Phelan describes as not just “the author’s private intentions but rather in his or her public, textualized intentions” and this “entails locating authorial agency in the implied rather than the actual author” (“The Implied Author, 127). As a pedagogy, this may bridge the academic realms of research and teaching, and allow deeper meaning-making of narrative and its role in our cultural, historical, and political contexts as what Meretoja terms the “complex interconnections between the ontological, epistemological, and ethical dimension of the relation between narrative and human existence” (90).

Debates are part of what generates epistemological value in the disciplines, but in some cases, it may be more valuable to recognize perspectives that may conflict with those reified through a specific critical lens.

Debates are part of what generates epistemological value in the disciplines, but in some cases, it may be more valuable to recognize perspectives that may conflict with those reified through a specific critical lens.

Finally, there remains the epistemology of interpretive methods and what objects of study can realize the author-audience dynamic of interpreting texts, and broader public interpretation of those same texts, or, framed as an academic question, can we experience texts in the same ways and how do those experiences build knowledge, values, and context in historical and modern culture? As we consider texts that range from fictional narrative, to the short story, to poems, and dramas, and nonfictional storytelling[3], we are really asking is if there are intentional actions put upon us as readers, in communication with the author. This casts into question the role of the real author, the implied author, the narrator (reliable or unreliable), the reader and the scholar, and are the major approaches concerned with methodizing our interpretation, both within the academy and beyond. Can a reconciliation of methods and theoretical approaches in rhetorical narrative theory “explain experience and organize knowledge” so that teaching and public discourse of texts addresses issues of cohesiveness and legitimacy in literary studies (Phelan, “Rhetorical Aesthetics,” 86)?


Works Cited:

Bitzer, Lloyd. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric, Vol. 1 (1968): 1-14. Print.

Booth, Wayne C. “How Many Rhetorics?” in The Rhetoric of Rhetoric: The Quest for Effective Communication. Malden: Blackwell, 2004.

Covino, William A. and David A. Jolliffe. Rhetoric: Concepts, Definitions, Boundaries. New York: Longman, 1995. Print.

Heinze, Rueddiger. “Violations of Mimetic Epistemology in First-Person Narrative Fiction.” Narrative 16.3 (October 2008): 279-97. Print.

Meretoja, Hanna. “Narrative and Human Existence: Ontology, Epistemology, and Ethics.” New Literary History 45.1 (Winter 2014): 89-109. Print.

Phelan, James. “Cognitive Narratology, Rhetorical Narratology, and Interpretive

Disagreement: A Response to Alan Palmer’s Analysis of Enduring Love.” Style 43.3 (Fall 2009): 309-21. Print.

——–“The Implied Author, Deficient Narration, and Nonfiction Narrative:

Or, What’s Off-Kilter in The Year of Magical Thinking and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” Style 45.1 (Spring 2011): 119-37. Print.

——–“Rhetorical Aesthetics and Other Issues in the Study of Literary Narrative.”

Narrative Inquiry 16.1 (2006): 85-93. Print.

——–“Teaching Narrative as Rhetoric: The Example of Time’s Arrow.” Pedagogy:

Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 10.1 (2009): 217-28. Print.

Zerweck, Bruno. “Historicizing Unreliable Narration: Unreliability and Cultural Discourse in Narrative Fiction.” Style 35.1 (Spring 2001): 151-78. Print.


[1] Wayne C. Booth explores the various definitions of rhetoric in his chapter “How Many Rhetorics?” and notes that Aristotle showed that “rhetoric has no specific territory or subject matter of its own, since it is found everywhere” (3). A thorough reading of the many definitions of rhetoric throughout time, premodern to postmodern philosophies, seems to bear up Aristotle’s premise, though Lloyd Bitzer’s definition may most fully give the scope of rhetoric as it acts within diverse domains in modern theory: “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” (“The Rhetorical Situation,” 4). In addition, Covino and Jolliffe further define rhetoric as “primarily verbal, situationally contingent, epistemic art that is both philosophical and practical and gives rise to potentially active texts” but caution that within this domain there are certain limitations and ambiguities (“What is Rhetoric?” 5).

[2] See Ruediger Heinze’s article “Violations of Mimetic Epistemology in First-Person Narrative Fiction” for a comprehensive articulation of how narrators “know” the story they tell; this rather fascinating approach assumes that narrators of the first-person and the “knowledge they display is temporally, spatially, or cognitively” unknown to them. How, then, do we trust their narration? Phelan further argues that this unreliability is intention by the author, and thus creates a certain response by readers.

[3] See my two PAB Posts #7 and #8, which explores texts and their interpretation using rhetorical narrative theory and especially, authorial intention and narrator reliability.


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