Aristotle was the first to formulate and explore the rhetorical concept of telos. Telos can also be referred to as purpose and is distinguished as an important element in rhetoric. The definition of a purpose is the ultimate object or goal that an individual is striving to obtain. In a rhetorical situation, the purpose would be the objective of your writing or speech.
Every writer hopes to achieve some goal through their writing. Eugene Garver states that “Aristotle believes that we deliberate not about ends but about things that lead to the end. The telos of each particular choice is the end about which we do not deliberate but towards which we deliberate” (60). Essentially, Aristotle says that we do not focus on telos when writing but instead the steps that will lead us to telos.
Many writers would agree with Aristotle upon reflecting on their personal writing experience. Although our writing may have a purpose, it is not the central focus. If writers focused only on the goal that their discourse was meant to achieve, they would be limited and likely unable to attain their telos. Human beings’ brains function in specific ways; because of this operant form, writers cannot disconnect the means that they use to obtain their telos from the purpose of their writing. If this process and knowledge are ingrained in their psychological state, they will be unable to focus solely on the purpose of their writing. Writers recognize that without the knowledge behind the purpose, their telos cannot be fulfilled.
Imagine this scenario in a classroom setting where a student is instructed that the goal of an assignment is to analyze a particular element contained within a story. That student will take the necessary steps to decipher and understand those elements to the extent that they can produce a written analysis. If the student did not follow those steps and focused exclusively on the product they had been asked to create, they would be inhibited by the limited knowledge they had already obtained of the story, thereby failing the objective of the assignment.
The concept of rhetorical telos is not limited to the writer but also extends to critics. In the article, “Commitment to Telos: A Sustained Critical Rhetoric,” Kent Ono and John Sloop discuss the importance of the critic incorporating telos in their commentary. To extenuate their perspective, the authors stated that, “Telos is not teleological or Utopian; rather, telos is the continuous, ever-changing purpose, as ephemeral and enduring as putting pen to paper, of the critic and society” (1). They are accurate in stating that telos is an ongoing concept that should be employed throughout all writing forms regardless of context. When a critic evaluates a writer’s work, it is vital for them to portray their feedback in a way that allows the author to digest and incorporate it into their text. If the critique’s telos is not to benefit the writer and improve their work, their comments would be futile and inhibit the writer’s future progress.
- Garver, Eugene. Aristotle’s Rhetoric: An Art of Character. University of Chicago Press, 1995.
- Ono, Kent A., and John M. Sloop. “Commitment to Telos—a Sustained Critical Rhetoric.” Communications Monographs, vol. 59, no. 1, 1992, pp. 48–60.