James Kinneavy’s “Modes of Discourse”

The modes of discourse refers to what discourses are *about*.

To determine the mode of a discourse, ask yourself 2 questions:

  1. What is the object of the discourse? What’s being talked about?
  2. What aspect of that object is given the most attention?

The 4 modes 0r “windows on reality” (ways of looking at an issue):

  • Narrative – gives “prominence to changes taking place in reality”
    – Dynamic (Becoming) view of reality
    – Details change from potential/potency to act (Moves forward)
    – Attempts to show causality
    – Theorizes a procedure chronologically: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.    (prescriptive)
  • Evaluative – pronounces judgment on a thing or event
    – Dynamic (Becoming) view of reality
    – Considers the act relative to its potential (Looks backward)
    – Structure is the same as classificatory mode (parts become criteria)
    – Logic is syllogistic, as classificatory mode, except a positive evaluation is attached –> All GOOD social networks have x,y,z
    Facebook has x,y,z
    Facebook is a good social network
  • Descriptive – a still, stable “photograph of reality”
    – Static (Being) view of reality
    – Concerned with individual characteristics (Existence)
    – Whole to part organizational structure (need to be sure you have all the parts when you use this mode)
    – Simply describe the component parts of the main thing
    – Clustering way of thinking
    – The parts need to be parallel in importance, level of abstraction, mutual exclusivity
  • Classificatory – “not concerned with the unique thing, but with things as members of groups”
    – Static (Being)
    – Concerned with group/class characteristics (Essence)
    – Part to whole organizational structure –> demonstrate how the part belongs to the whole
    – 1st must take the thing (object under study) and name it into a larger whole
    – Logic is syllogistic–>all social networks have x,y,z characteristics
    Facebook has x,y,z characteristics
    Facebook is a social network
    – Compare/contrast themes use this mode of organization (x,y,z above would be points of comparison)

Other important points:

  • The modes closely parallel the 4 points of stasis, as described by Cicero.
  • “Modes determine organization” and “differentiate the various kinds of scholars” in disciplines.
    – E.g. “literary history is narrative, literary criticism is evaluative, literary theory is classifictory, and literary         analysis is descriptive.”
  • Isolating the modes from one another is artificial, since they are always working with one another to provide a thick picture of reality.
  • Looking through the lens of one mode will always hide what could be seen when viewed through another.
  • Thus, the modes both illuminate and obfuscate the same reality, depending on which lens one has on.
  • “Each mode needs to be supplemented by the other modes to make any pretense to a full account” of reality.

There is a direct relationship between the modes and stasis theory. The modes, like stases, make rhetoric possible in that they offer a way of getting to what’s at issue in a text. They are both ways of constructing reality.

When can a text that exists unto itself in the descriptive mode be used as a heuristic to evaluate (an) other text(s)? What elevates a text to the level of a heuristic? How does that movement happen?


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