Date on Master's Thesis/Doctoral Dissertation


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph. D.



Committee Chair

Williams, Bronwyn T.

Author's Keywords

Rhetoric; Empathy; Pedagogy


Empathy; Social psychology; Rhetoric--Social aspects; Language and culture


Empathy has been commonly evoked within rhetoric and composition as a way to understand audiences and as a classroom ethic. This dissertation goes further in defining rhetorics of empathy, analyzing the uses of rhetorics of empathy in political and social discourse, and proposing how rhetorics of empathy might inform the ways we teach reading and writing. The first chapter defines rhetorics of empathy through a survey of empathy's place in the rhetorical tradition, including Aristotle's theories of emotion, ideas of compassion in the Scottish Enlightenment, and Kenneth Burke's concept of identification. This rhetorical history is combined with contemporary understandings of empathy from developmental psychology and moral philosophy. The resulting definition is of rhetorics of empathy as means of persuasion notable for combining the cognitive and the affective within our perspective-taking faculties, social relations, and moral judgments. The importance of rhetorics of empathy in political discourse is shown in an analysis of Barack Obama's speeches, which both promote and perform positions of empathy. Obama's speeches are further shown to employ empathy through allegory, particularly in the telling of Obama's own story as an occasion for empathizing with multiple American identities. A series of first-person accounts of the nearly and newly homeless from the Las Vegas Sun are used to illustrate the contested conditions of rhetorics of empathy based upon readings of suffering, victimhood, and the overlap between self and other. An argument then is made for composition pedagogies that work with empathy as rhetorical appeal and as a disposition that can be cultivated through habits of reading and writing. The proposed pedagogies include an attention to perspective-taking and the perceived human reality of issues. They also require an awareness that empathy is always at best an approximation, one inherently tied to differences in experiences and social relations. This dissertation maintains at the end that rhetorics of empathy are valuable precisely because of the paradoxical questions they foreground, those of the cognitive and the affective, our relationships and responsibilities to one another, and the critical necessity of recognizing our always present differences alongside a shared humanity.