A Theory of Discourse: The Aims of Discourse
By James L. Kinneavy
James Kinneavy was a professor at UT—I think his office is now Diane Davis'—and founded the English PhD's concentration in rhetoric. A Theory of Discourse (1971) is his most broadly read book, and today I learned that "The Texas Education Agency adopted his theory of discourse as the foundation of its English program, as did the State of Wisconsin." Certainly it was frequently cited in the Iowa State program during my PhD work (1994-1999). However, by that time, A Theory of Discourse had become received knowledge. We didn't read it in the program, instead reading later articles that critiqued its central organizing principle, the aims of discourse, and the results of those aims, the modes of discourse.
The modes of discourse were so important to the book that Kinneavy promised in this book that he would write a second volume focusing on them. Unfortunately that volume never came to pass. In 1981, Robert J. Connors published his "The Rise and Fall of the Modes of Discourse" (which we did read in ISU's program), in which he critiqued the concept and traced its eventual abandonment.
But Kinneavy's book is more than the modes of discourse. It's an attempt to make rhetoric a scholarly field of study. As Kinneavy argued in 1971, "Composition is so clearly the stepchild of the English department that it is not a legitimate area of concern in graduate studies, is not even recognized as a subdivision of English in a recent manifesto put out by the major professional association (MLA) of college English teachers ... , in some universities is not a valid area of scholarship for advancement in rank, and is generally the teaching province of graduate assistants or fringe members of the department" (p.1). Composition classes were "chaotic," and "the agenda of freshman composition vary from nothing to everything" (p.1). "There is no definite concept of what the basic foundations of composition are" (p.2). Yet, Kinneavy argued, "it is the thesis of this work that the field of composition—or discourse as it will presently be termed—is a rich and fertile discipline with a worthy past that should be consulted before being consigned to oblivion, an exciting present, and a future that seems as limitless as either linguistics or literature" (p.2).
Kinneavy argued that composition was in its Kuhnian preparadigm period (p.2), without common foundations or systematic commitments (p.3). Kinneavy proposed to provide such a foundation.
To begin, he discussed four rival terms for what he wanted to accomplish: rhetoric, composition, communication, and discourse. After some discussion, he chose "discourse" because it could be directed at any aim of language and any text (pp.3-4). (Today, the term "rhetoric" has taken this position and is used roughly in the way Kinneavy attempted to use "discourse"; offhand, I suspect that this term rose to the top because it could claim classical lineage. Kinneavy's understanding of discourse roughly parallels the Bakhtin Circle's notion of the utterance; compare p.22.) Kinneavy grounded his exploration of discourse in the communication triangle: the points are the encoder, decoder, and reality, while the area of the resulting triangle is the signal (p.19). This communication triangle has often been critiqued in subsequent literature, for good reason, but it gave Kinneavy a systematic way to analyze and discuss different aims of discourse. Kinneavy traces the triangle structure back to Aristotle, and he liberally uses it to diagram the study of language as a whole (p.25), the field of English (p.31), the aims of discourse (p.61), and Aristotle's Rhetoric (p.226). Side note: I have often wondered whether activity theory's rapid inroads in writing studies had to do with the fact that it also uses triangle diagrams to represent contextualized aims.
Based on this work, Kinneavy separates out four aims of discourse, centered on corresponding "classes of kind of referents" (p.36). These aims are expressive, referential, literary, and persuasive (p.61). To help you orient: the referential includes scientific, informative, and exploratory discourse (p.63); reports are considered referential rather than persuasive (p.61). Having established the different aims and the modes that serve them, Kinneavy seeks to establish their norms (p.63).
The rest of the book examines each aim of discourse in turn, one aim per chapter. These chapters are subdivided into introduction and terminology; nature; logic; organization; and style. Throughout each chapter, Kinneavy dives deeply into each aim, connecting it to vast literature and systematically explaining it as it relates to a part of the communicative triangle.
For instance, in his chapter on persuasion, Kinneavy locates persuasion as being focused on the decoder (p.211). He argues that rhetoric has three traditions, the stylistic (attending to ornamentation), the Aristotelian (a distinct way of thinking), and the communicative (grounded in Isocrates, Cicero, and Quintilian, with a modern representative in I.A. Richards) (pp.214-215). Kinneavy argues strongly that "persuasive discourse is generally different from reference discourse (and literary and expressive discourse as well). Otherwise everything is rhetoric" (p.217). (Compare this claim with the central claim in the popular first-year composition Everything's an Argument, coauthored by UT professor John Ruszkiewicz, whose term overlapped Kinneavy's.) English departments distrust persuasion, Kinneavy argues (p.222), yet rhetoric "is necessary as long as man is a being with a body, with emotions, and with persistent character judgments. It would, indeed, be a cold and forbidding cosmos in which rhetoric did not exist" (p.224).
And here we get to the nub of the problem with A Theory of Discourse. I strongly sympathize with Kinneavy's central project, which is to systematize study of discourse so that we can appreciate, value, and research all of its facets. But discourse doesn't really have "facets," nor can it be well represented in a triangle with separated corners, nor does it typically have analytically separate aims. As facile as it might seem to declare that "everything's an argument," that statement seems more defensible than the claim that discourse has practically separable aims. As much scholarship has repeatedly shown since 1971, for instance, "referential" documents such as scientific papers and reports have persuasive aims, often nakedly persuasive ones (consider recommendation reports, for instance, or read Latour). Similarly, as Kinneavy alludes, "literature and love" could not exist in a world without rhetoric (p.224). I think Kinneavy recognizes that these separations are really analytical, but in proposing separate structures and modes to serve these analytically separate aims, he implies different approaches; there's not a good way to recognize and analyze the layering, melding, and tensions that inevitably result from contradictory aims (if such aims indeed contradict each other in the first place). I think these issues spring from the communicative triangle itself, which posits an analytic separation that is qualitatively untenable.
Not to say that this book isn't an achievement or isn't worthy of reading. In fact, if you study rhetoric, you really ought to read it. I regret that it took me so long to do so! But understand it as a part of a larger arc that the field of rhetoric has traversed.