Exigence in Rhetoric

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In rhetoric, exigence is an issue, problem, or situation that causes or prompts someone to write or speak.

The term exigence comes from the Latin word for "demand." It was popularized in rhetorical studies by Lloyd Bitzer in "The Rhetorical Situation" (Philosophy and Rhetoric, 1968). "In every rhetorical situation," said Bitzer, "there will be at least one controlling exigence which functions as the organizing principle: it specifies the audience to be addressed and the change to be effected."

In other words, says Cheryl Glenn, a rhetorical exigence is "a problem that can be resolved or changed by discourse (or language)... All successful rhetoric (whether verbal or visual) is an authentic response to an exigence, a real reason to send a message" (The Harbrace Guide to Writing, 2009).


  • "​Exigence has to do with what prompts the author to write in the first place, a sense of urgency, a problem that requires attention right now, a need that must be met, a concept that must be understood before the audience can move to a next step." (M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Appeals in Modern Rhetoric. Southern Illinois University Press, 2005)
  • "An exigence may be something as direct and intense as a power outage, which might prompt an official to persuade everyone to 'stay calm' or to 'assist those in need.' An exigence may be more subtle or complex, like the discovery of a new virus, which might prompt medical officials to persuade the public how to change its behavior. Exigence is part of a situation. It is the critical component that makes people ask the hard questions: What is it? What caused it? What good is it? What are we going to do? What happened? What is going to happen?" (John Mauk and John Metz, Inventing Arguments, 4th ed. Cengage, 2016)

    Rhetorical and Nonrhetorical Exigences

    -  "An exigence, [Lloyd] Bitzer (1968) asserted, is 'an imperfection marked by urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a thing which is other than it should be' (p. 6). In other words, an exigence is a pressing problem in the world, something to which people must attend.

    The exigence functions as the 'ongoing principle' of a situation; the situation develops around its 'controlling exigence' (p. 7). But not every problem is a rhetorical exigence, Bitzer explained,

    An exigence which cannot be modified is not rhetorical; thus, whatever comes about of necessity and cannot be changed—death, winter, and some natural disasters, for instance—are exigences to be sure, but they are nonrhetorical. . . . An exigence is rhetorical when it is capable of positive modification and when positive modification requires discourse or can be assisted by discourse.
    (pp. 6-7, emphasis added)

    Racism is an example of the first type of exigence, one where discourse is required to remove the problem... As an example of the second type—an exigence that can be modified by the assistance of rhetorical discourse—Bitzer offered the case of air pollution."

    (James Jasinski, Sourcebook on Rhetoric. Sage, 2001)

    - "A brief example may help to illustrate the difference between an exigence and a rhetorical exigence. A hurricane is an example of a non-rhetorical exigence. Regardless of how hard we try, no amount of rhetoric or human effort can prevent or alter the path of a hurricane (at least with today's technology).

    However, the aftermath of a hurricane pushes us in the direction of a rhetorical exigence. We would be dealing with a rhetorical exigence if we were trying to determine how best to respond to people who had lost their homes in a hurricane. The situation can be addressed with rhetoric and can be resolved through human action."

    (Stephen M. Croucher, Understanding Communication Theory: A Beginner's Guide. Routledge, 2015)

    Exigence As a Form of Social Knowledge

    "Exigence must be located in the social world, neither in a private perception nor in material circumstance. It cannot be broken into two components without destroying it as a rhetorical and social phenomenon. Exigence is a form of social knowledge—a mutual construing of objects, events, interest, and purposes that not only links them but makes them what they are: an objectified social need.

    This is quite different from [Lloyd] Bitzer's characterization of exigence as a defect (1968) or a danger (1980). Conversely, although exigence provides the rhetor with a sense of rhetorical purpose, it is clearly not the same as the rhetor's intention, for that can be ill-formed, dissembling, or at odds with what the situation conventionally supports. The exigence provides the rhetor with a socially recognizable way to make his or her intentions known. It provides an occasion, and thus a form, for making public our private versions of things."

    (Carolyn R. Miller, "Genre as Social Action," 1984. Rpt. in Genre In the New Rhetoric, ed. by Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway. Taylor & Francis, 1994)

    Vatz's Social Constructionist Approach

    "[Richard E.] Vatz (1973)... challenged Bitzer's concept of the rhetorical situation, maintaining that an exigence is socially constructed and that rhetoric itself generates an exigence or rhetorical situation ('The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation'). Quoting from Chaim Perelman, Vatz argued that when rhetors or persuaders choose particular issues or events to write about, they create presence or salience (Perelman's terms)—in essence, it is the choice to focus on the situation that creates the exigence. Thus a president who chooses to focus on health care or military action, according to Vatz, has constructed the exigence toward which the rhetoric is addressed."

    (Irene Clark, "Multiple Majors, One Writing Class." Linked Courses for General Education and Integrative Learning, ed.

    by Margot Soven et al. Stylus, 2013)

    Further Reading

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    Your Citation
    Nordquist, Richard. "Exigence in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Mar. 22, 2017, thoughtco.com/exigence-rhetoric-term-1690688. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, March 22). Exigence in Rhetoric. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/exigence-rhetoric-term-1690688 Nordquist, Richard. "Exigence in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/exigence-rhetoric-term-1690688 (accessed March 22, 2018).