“More important, as I have already indicated and as I plan to explain in detail later on, in teaching writing we are tacitly teaching a version of reality and the student’s place and mode of operation in it. Yet many teachers (and I suspect most) look upon their vocations as the imparting of a largely mechanical skill, important only because it serves students in getting them through school and in advancing them in their professions.”
–James A. Berlin

Key Terms: Neo-Aristotelian Rhetoric, Current-Traditionalist Rhetoric, Neo-Platonic Rhetoric, New Rhetoric

James A. Berlin’s “Contemporary Composition: The Major Pedagogical Theories” (1982) seeks to outline four contemporary approaches to composition studies: Neo-Aristotelians/Classicists, Positivists/Current-Traditionalists, Neo-Platonists/Expressionists, and the New Rhetoricians. He acknowledges his own identification as a New Rhetorician and seeks to illustrate that it is the “most intelligent and most practical alternative available” (Berlin 256). He further puts forth claim that “in teaching writing we are tacitly teaching a version of reality and the student’s place and mode of operation in it. […] This essay will argue that all writing teachers are perforce given a responsibility that far exceeds this merely instrumental task” (Berlin 257).

Neo-Aristotelian (“Classical”) Rhetoric

  • Truth is “located in the rational operation of the mind” (Berlin 264).
  • “Neo-Aristotelians take the audience seriously as a force to be considered in shaping the message. Still, […] concern for the audience is only a concession to the imperfection of human nature” (Berlin 266).

Berlin describes Aristotelian rhetoric as: “Reality for Aristotle can thus be known and communicated, with language serving as the unproblematic medium of discourse” (257). Claims about the world are made using “syllogistic reasoning, the system of logic that Aristotle himself developed and refined” (257). The purpose of rhetoric is to allow a speaker to not only discover Truth but to persuade others of this Truth through a direct conduit of language. Further, he notes that Aristotle’s focus on this reasoning–the “invention” stage–led him to neglect arrangement and style (258).

Current-Traditional (Positivist) Rhetoric

  • Truth is located “in the correct perception of sense impressions” (Berlin 264).
  • “Current-Traditional rhetoric demands that the audience be as ‘objective’ as the writer; both shed personal and social concerns in the interests of an unobstructed perception of empirical reality” (Berlin 266).

As to the Positivists/Current-Traditionalists, Berlin observes that they dominate contemporary ideas about writing instruction. He further notes that Current-Traditional Rhetoric’s “epistemological stance can be found in eighteenth-century Scottish Common Sense Realism” (259). Like Aristotelian thinking, Common Sense Realism holds that the material existence of the world is knowable and that all knowledge comes from sound thought proceeding from direct sense observations. However, Common Sense Realism rejects syllogistic/deductive reasoning in favor of discovering Truth “by induction alone” (Berlin 259). In this model, scientific experimentation replaces intellect-driven logic as the means of understanding the world. In the composition classroom, Berlin laments, “college students are encouraged to embrace a view of reality based on a mechanistic physics and a naïve faulty psychology–and all in the name of a convenient pedagogy” (261).

Neo-Platonic (Expressionist) Rhetoric

  • Truth is located “within the individual, attainable only through an internal apprehension” (Berlin 264).
  • “For Neo-Platonic Rhetoric the audience is a check to the false note to the inauthentic and helps to detect error, but it is not involved in the actual discovery of truth–a purely personal matter” (Berlin 266).

From here, Berlin characterizes Neo-Platonist Rhetoric as a reaction to Current-Traditionalism, which has manifested “in American public schools in the twentieth century under the veil of including ‘creative expression’ in the English curriculum” (261). Under this system, Truth must be based on internal, individual experience because “the material world is always in flux and thus unreliable” (261). Therefore, he points out, “ultimate truth” can be discovered but never taught or communicated. This repurposes rhetoric toward the task of error-correction instead of expressing Truth (Berlin 261). This leads to an “Expressionist” approach to composition instruction, wherein writing is treated “‘as a ‘personal’ activity, as an expression of one’s unique voice” (Berlin 262). This is not to deny the possibility of certain truth,” but rather that “verifiable truths” are found through “private experience, divorced from the impersonal data of sense experience” (Berlin 262). In the classroom, this method seeks to strip away what is “inauthentic” for the writer, emphasizing that the student learns to write but cannot be taught to write. Dialogue between teacher and class and between students is used to facilitate this, often focusing on the discussion of student papers (Berlin 263). Berlin emphasizes that this dialogue is not used to gain an understanding of audience, instead to purge “what is false” from the self (263).

The New Rhetoric

  • “Truth is dynamic and dialectical, the result of a process involving the interaction of opposing elements” (Berlin 264).
  • “In The New Rhetoric the message arises out of the interaction of the writer, language, reality, and the audience. Truths are operative only within a given universe of discourse, and this universe is shaped by all of these elements, including the audience” (Berlin 266).

The New Rhetoric, Berlin explains, has its roots in cognitive psychology and empirical linguistics and treats rhetoric as “epistemic, as a means of arriving at truth” (264). In the other named rhetorics, Berlin points out that “In each case knowledge is a commodity situated in a permanent location, a repository to which the individual goes to be enlightened” in contrast to the New Rhetoric (264). Knowledge is a “relation that is created, not pre-existent and waiting to be discovered” (264). In this model, communication itself forms “the elements that go into the very shaping of knowledge” (264). Because data must always be interpreted to have meaning, “The New Rhetoric denies that truth is discoverable in sense impression” (265). Unlike the other modes of rhetoric discussed, wherein “truth exists prior to language,” in the New Rhetoric “truth is impossible without language since it is language that embodies and generates truth” (265). In my reading, this essentially means that understanding of language precedes understanding of Truth or knowledge, and since language shapes thought, language thus determines what may be understood, and how. Also in contrast to other forms, the New Rhetoric views writers or speakers as creating meaning, shaping an understanding of reality; that is, writers constantly define their own terms and approaches (Berlin 266). This does not claim some sort of “isolated individual” agency or wisdom, of course, because writers and their understanding are shaped by language and communication with others (and, obviously, the ideas of others).

In the composition classroom, this means that instructors provide students with techniques to discover knowledge and to create (and express) their understanding of that knowledge. So, the Invention stage is as important as in Neo-Aristotelian Rhetoric, but Arrangement and Style are also key–because “Structure and language are a part of the formation of meaning, are at the center of the discovery of truth, not simply the dress of thought” (Berlin 267). Therefore, Berlin calls writing instructors to bear in mind that “In teaching writing, we are not simply offering training in a useful technical skill that is meant as a simple complement to the more important studies of other areas. We are teaching a way of experiencing the world, a way of ordering and making sense of it” (268). Berlin closes by pointing out the pointlessness of emphasizing “process” over “product” in composition when different forms of instruction teach such widely varied versions of “process” (269).


Berlin, James A. “Contemporary Composition: The Major Pedagogical Theories.” 1982. Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. 2nd Ed. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana: NCTE, 2003. Print.

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