Kinneavy: The Basic Aims of Discourse

Kinneavy, James E. “The Basic Aims of Discourse.” College Composition and Communication, 20. 5 (Dec., 1969), pp. 297-304. Available through JSTOR.

Kinneavy’s Purpose

Kinneavy is concerned with discourse–the “full text, oral or written, delivered at a specific time and place or delivered at several instances” He defines the aim of a discourse as “the effect that the discourse is oriented to achieve in the average listener or reader for whom it is intended.

Determination of the Aims of Discourse

Some Negative and Some External Norms

Kinneavy posits two dangers in determining the aims of any discourse:

  • assuming that what the author says he is trying to do is what the work is actually accomplishing
    • this is Wimsatt and Beardsley’s intentional fallacy
  • assuming that the reaction of a reader is an accurate indication of the purpose of the work
    • this is Wimsatt and Beardsley’s affective fallacy

Both the author’s intention and the reader’s response are markers that point to specific evidence in the discourse, but they do not solely determine the discourse. We must also consider

  • cultural conventions of the genre
  • immediate historical context
  • significance of the chosen medium
  • semantic and grammatical choices used by the author

Internal Norms of Aims

In this section, Kinneavy catalogs the major theories in establishing aims. He starts with Plato/Aristotle and works through a multitude of these authors. He does this to demonstrate how his own theory of the aims of discourse fits into the historical tradition. For brevity, I am focusing on his connection to others because this alone will help me remember the basis of the other theorists.

First, Kinneavy presents the communication triangle (below) that emphasizes the encoder, decoder, a signal, and a reality:


The terms correspond as follows:

  • Encoder is the writer or speaker
  • Decoder is the reader or listener
  • Signal is the linguistic product
  • Reality is the part of the universe to which the linguistic product refers

Kinneavy notes four specific types of discourse that correspond to his communication triangle:

  • Referential Discourse
    • dominated by the subject matter
    • this is “reality talked about”
    • there are three kinds of referential discourse
      • exploratory
      • informative
      • scientific
  • Persuasive (or rhetorical) Discourse
    • focuses on eliciting a specific reaction from the decoder
    • dominated by the request for a reaction
  • Expressive Discourse
    • Speaker is presenting his emotions, individuality, or aspirations
    • dominated by the speaker
  • Literary
    • focus is on the final product
    • language calls attention to itself

Some Conclusions About Aims of Discourse

Kinneavy’s concludes that all aims of discourse need be given the same amount of attention so that students fully grasp their differences. He argues that to focus too much on a single aim has disastrous side effects. He mentions these specifically:

Over emphasis of persuasion in speech departments

  • reference discourse is assimilated into persuasion and the rhetorical proofs are extended to all discourse
  • literature is reduced to persuasion and the role of the encoder is to coerce the audience.

Reduction of all language to self expression

Elementary and Secondary Schools

  • destroys objective scientific or literary norms

College Level

  • stifled self-expression in the student
  • partial cause of deviant self-expression of college students

Neglect of Persuasion

  • causes persuasion to be assimilated and absorbed into literature
  • expressionism is similarly absorbed by literature

About smartykatt

I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Modern Languages at Lamar University where I specialize in rhetoric, composition, digital literacy, and information literacy. My research focuses on the intersections of student engagement with digital and information literacy and their relation to student research and writing. I am an ACES Fellow at Lamar and, with Janice Walker (Georgia Southern), I am a Principal Investigator on the LILAC Project.

Posted on January 10, 2009, in Applied Rhetoric, Exams, Theory and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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