In contrast with the academic preference for objectivity in writing and reading today, emotion and passionate belief were seen as both a prerequisite for and integral part of debate in ancient rhetoric. That is, issues were not worthy of discussion unless they divided people emotionally in Ancient Greece (Crowley and Hawhee 27). Aristotle maintains that emotional states of audiences are crucial in persuasion (31). Indeed, in his accounts of the emotional states of audiences, he never describes how to convince an impartial audience, possibly because such a task is far more difficult. Due to the importance placed on emotions, theories of audience in ancient rhetoric attempted to explain the characteristics of different archetypes of audiences that the rhetor may encounter and how to persuade each type. Despite Aristotle’s affinity for the sciences in his scholarship, he markedly departs from the scientific in his discussion of audience in Ars Rhetorica, relying heavily on folk psychology. In defense of Aristotle’s use of folk psychology, I posit that the practical nature of rhetoric aligns its theories better with intuitive theories of emotional states. To demonstrate this, it is necessary to: first, define folk psychology; second, illustrate that Aristotle indeed relied on folk psychology for his theories of audience; and third, discuss the benefits of folk psychology in a theory of audience.
While folk psychology can be defined in many ways, in this essay, I use it in the “mindreading” sense, in which it refers to “that set of cognitive capacities which include (but is not exhausted by) the capacities to predict and explain behavior” (Ravenscroft). Mindreading has long pervaded philosophical, cognitive, and psychological theories because of its prevalence in common thought (Ravenscroft). While the academics of modern cognitive science, psychology, and philosophy have largely departed from the beliefs of mindreading, it is evident that mindreading beliefs are still held by many non-academics due to its intuitive nature. Mindreading posits that the average person can explain and predict the general behaviour and emotional responses of other persons with a surprisingly high success rate (Ravenscroft). That is, many people can recognize another person’s emotional state — explained semantically through emotion-words — and predict how an action will affect another person’s future emotional state. This ability predominantly relies on commonly held beliefs and situational evidence that are acquired throughout a person’s life, and these experiences are used to evaluate behaviour without a specific theoretical framework (Ravenscroft). Mindreading, then, can be described as an intuition because it is a decidedly non-scientific approach.
Aristotle’s Audience and Mindreading
Aristotle certainly relied heavily on commonsense ideas of psychology in Ars Rhetorica, particularly in Book 2 where he argues that rhetors must understand...