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Access Type

WSU Access

Date of Award

January 2020

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

Mary M. Garrett


In this dissertation, I offer a tentative exploration of how we can move beyond current theoretical limitations inherent in the dominant tradition of rhetorical approaches to the question of style. I argue that the constraining traditional thread most relevant to the question of style in rhetoric can be traced back to Aristotle’s treatment of style in his Rhetoric and that the limitations of the Peripatetic school continue to impose theoretical limits on current rhetorical scholarship. Therefore, despite recent philosophical advances that have been incorporated into the field of communication criticism – and despite the current consensus among rhetorical scholars as to the inadequacy of Aristotelian theories of language more generally – when addressing the question(s) of style, communication criticism continues to be held back by a conceptualization of style that reduces style to a set of devices or “mannerisms” used for aesthetic ingratiation. This conceptualization of style lacks the depth and explanatory power that theories should provide. Therefore, I propose some initial steps towards an alternative to Aristotle. The first step looks backwards, beyond Aristotle, and to style's origins. Style originates as a rhetorical concept, flourishes within a Sophistic context, and becomes problematic only post-Socrates. I therefore examine conceptual terminology that relates to the intersection of style and Sophism from a neosophistic perspective, thereby recovering some fragments of a pre-Socratic conceptualization of style. While these fragments do not in themselves form a coherent theory of style, they provide a starting point for a theoretical alternative to Aristotle. The second step looks forward, beyond Aristotle, and to the more recent philosophical advances available to communication critics today. I propose systems theory - and more specifically the language of complex adaptive systems (CAS) - as the second step towards moving beyond the limitations of the traditionalist approaches to style. While systems theory has proven to be of great utility in its application to communication criticism more generally, the rich terminology of systems language has largely gone unused when addressing the question(s) of style. I argue that systems theory is especially useful as a means of replacing Aristotelian conceptions of style because systems theory is able to correct overly reductionist thinking with a more thorough conceptualization of the emergent and dynamic nature of textual production. Finally, I argue that the above past and future alternatives to the Aristotelian approach to style can be combined to inform each other and that the combination of the two terminologies can provide a way to discourse about style as skill or quality. Additionally, systems theory can tie the fragments of Sophistic conceptualizations of style into a larger theoretical framework, while the correspondences between these fragments and aspects of systems theory can provide better linkage between systems theory and style. Therefore, combining the two alternatives to Aristotle can enrich our understanding of the concept, while accounting both for the historical origins of style and for directions that future research can take.

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