Free Will and the Rhetorical Situation
Lloyd F. Bitzer’s article, “The Rhetorical Situation”, is an account of what he calls the “rhetorical situation” as what he believes to be the conditions necessary for compelling a rhetorician to engage in rhetoric (35). It is Bitzer’s position that a work of rhetoric comes into existence as a response to the call of a certain state of affairs in the world (32). Furthermore, Bitzer claims that when we find ourselves in such “situations”, we are compelled to engage in rhetoric in order to restore the balance that we find lacking (34). He identifies three interconnected elements of situational rhetoric: exigence, audience, and constraints (35). Bitzer argues that a rhetorical discourse, which consists of an engagement with an audience for the purpose of compelling that audience to modify the world so as to repair the problem which is presented (35), is required to solve the problem as the world presents it (34). This lack of balance in a rhetorical situation or state of affairs in the world leads to what Bitzer calls exigence, which he defines as “an imperfection marked by urgency” (36). Bitzer also expands on the notion of a rhetorical audience, which is central to his theory of situational rhetoric. Bitzer defines a rhetorical audience as persons who, through discourse, are subject to influence and as persons who can be compelled to bring about the change called for by a rhetorical situation (37). Bitzer also identifies constraints as being a vital component to his theory, which he defines as anything within the rhetorical situation which has the power to “constrain decision” (38).
I will argue that Bitzer does not succeed in providing a successful argument for his claims of the compelling power of the “rhetorical situation” because he doesn’t supply an account of the commonly held notion of free will, which I define as the capability to make choices unconstrained by external circumstances. I hope to show that his conception of the rhetorical situation as a causal force fails to provide an account of rhetoric would allow his readers to justifiably share his views.
While speaking of the compelling power of exigence, Bitzer ignores the commonly held notion of free will and claims that if the exigent property within a rhetorical situation is “strong and important”, then it functions as a constraint on the thoughts and actions of the person who finds themselves within that rhetorical situation such that the observer becomes swept up by the circumstance and is compelled, by the situation, to engage in a rhetorical response with the goal of correcting the perceived imperfection found in that situation (37). Buttressing Bitzer’s assertion that a rhetorical situation can control an individual’s verbal and physical behavior (34) is a presupposition of a deterministic picture of the world in which subjective interpretations of the world are not considered. Bitzer seems to describe the rhetorical situation as...