Obviously, a persuasive essay needs to persuade; it is about convincing the reader of a certain point of view. The case, however, is far more complex than that. In fact, persuasive writing is a genre unto itself, with a history extending into antiquity, and numerous genres and sub-genres. Persuasion is a much studied topic within the philosophical and oratorical schools. Thus when one speaks of the art of persuasion, the term is not simply idiomatic.
There are many approaches to persuasion, but within academic study argumentation is perhaps paramount. This is because it has a long-standing and much tested history, having evolved numerous codified approaches along the way. Among these we may number formal logic, inductive reasoning, deductive reasoning, abductive reasoning and many more.
The reason argument is touted in the Academy is that it follows rigorous structural rules. While it is perfectly possible to persuade someone via bombastic language, fallacious reasoning, and even to coerce conformity to a position, such practices are frowned upon. These kinds of persuasive writings are unscrupulous, the preserve of red top tabloids and other species of low-minded text.
An argument, then, has a very specific format in which propositions are presented in support of a particular conclusion. In this sense, an argument is a structured way of organising thought so as to test hypotheses. Because argumentation depends upon formal logic, the conclusions it unearths are seen to be more reliable. This degree of systematic reliability consequently affords a level of critical robustness which, provided one's premisses are sound, makes for a very persuasive case indeed.
For more on this, see the extended article on Argument.
The term rhetoric has of late acquired a dubious reputation, having come in general parlance to denote a sort of empty speak, cant or bombast which we associate with politicians and other such dealers in in substantive discourse.
However, the technical definition of the term has a far more complex and strategic application. Here, rhetoric refers to a specific set of persuasive techniques or appeals employed in argumentation either to oppose or support claims.
The three main kinds of rhetorical approach are bracketed under the terms logos, ethos and pathos. Broadly speaking these terms refer to: appeal to intellect (logos); appeal to ethics (ethos); and appeal to emotion (pathos).
Logos is concerned with a systematic appeal to reason by dint of formal logic. Formal logic encompasses the specific processes employed by philosophers in testing a truth statement. Primary approaches in this regard include inductive and deductive reasoning. Thus logos looks to persuade on the basis of rational, logical arguments. It is consequently a very methodical and structured means to persuasion.
Ethos, as an ethical appeal, targets the credibility and thus reliability of a particular source. You will no doubt have come across warnings against including dubious sources in your scholarly work. A good example is the prescriptions on using Wikipedia as an academic citation. This is because Wikipedia, as a wiki (a platform which may be edited by anyone), does not meet the standards of rigour which generally obtain within the Academy - whereby peer review, in theory at least, assume was a level of reliability.
So, how might ethos apply to a university essay? For one thing, citing the most reputable and renowned sources is itself an appeal to ethos. It is saying if the world leading physicists believes that this or that theory is flawed, then there is good reason to treat that theory with scepticism.
Looking at the other side of the coin, we could point to a scholarly work which makes big claims without offering adequate corroboration. For instance, a history text which argues for a complete re-evaluation of some key events purely on the basis of anecdotal evidence sourced from a questionable person. On this occasion we might, again, by appeal to ethos, dispute the author's conclusions by illuminating the flimsiness of the evidence presented, relying as it does on a single (perhaps decidedly dubious) source. This is a very common eventuality in historical studies - particularly seeing as, for a good portion of human history, any chronicler whose account did not flatter the ruling elite was very much placing their life at hazard.
The appeal to emotion, pathos, works at the reader's feelings, exploiting their emotional faculties in order to win them over. At first glance, this might seem a precarious approach for academic composition; and, in some sense, this is true. You need to be very careful about when and where to employ pathos in essay writing. Yet there is a place for emotional appeal within a robust critical composition.
You may have heard the famous quote made by Stalin that “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic”. This gets at a very fundamental part of human psychology. While we find it easy to focus in on individual experience and individual tragedy, it becomes very difficult to process emotions similarly when the scale involved is extended by orders of magnitude.
Think about this in terms of a sociology essay, which uses qualitative research to examine the concept of children living in poverty. It almost invariably will make a far more persuasive case to include in-depth interviews with a select few children who have experienced poverty, than it would merely to quote a statistic about how many children live below the poverty line. This is because it brings us into an emotional connection with the subject matter. In general emotions move us more than reasoning. Nor is this in any way inappropriate. Some phenomena should incite an emotional response. Child poverty should upset us. The inclusion of an interview in the above proposed study presents the facts of the matter in immediate detail. As such, it is not trying to distract with pathos, but rather is leveraging emotional appeal in a justifiable way to consolidate a sociological point.
In almost all cases you will find that persuasive writing incorporates some element of logos, ethos and (albeit far less frequently) pathos.
All of the above approaches can be appropriate. The determining factor will be the context of usage. You need to tailor your persuasion to the case at hand, what is required and what is most germane. It is worth bearing in mind that an argument will be more persuasive if it exhibits integrity. Obvious attempts at manipulation or coercion will strike as shady and thus hobble your case.
The subject matter and the specific task required will dictate the kind of approach to take. So, it is highly unlikely that an essay in pure science, addressing abstract mathematical problems, will lend itself to appeals to emotion. They would be out of place, digressive and therefore ultimately of little use if not damaging to your position.
On the other hand, a literary assignment concerning love poetry, would be hard-pressed to succeed without appeal to emotion seeing as emotion is the stock in trade of poets.
Your primary objective is to figure out what arguments and approaches work best for the particular tasks you are attempting. Consider your readership. What is most likely to convince them of your case? As long as you follow a methodical approach, making your arguments as tight as possible, it will be very difficult to oppose your point of view.
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