If logos had a logo, would it depict a log and a goose, and would it be called the Logos loggoose logo?
Makes sense to me—
The word logos has a long and variegated history. A lot of people in a lot of different fields have used it to mean a lot of different things. But, in most writing classes, it has generally become a sort of technical term for the logical side of writing.
Most often, when we talk about logos, we’re talking about just the facts in a piece of writing—and we often point to anywhere a writer includes statistics. This is a good place to start, but we can do more than just identify facts when we’re thinking about logos.
That’s why, when we talk about logos here, we’re most interested in talking about how a writer shows readers that their claims and arguments are reasonable. At its most basic, logos is really about making sense.
More than facts
When we disagree with people, it’s pretty common for us to say something like, “If only they had the facts.” I have heard people say that differences in political opinions come from some people having the evidence and other people ignoring the evidence (or being ignorant of it).
But as reassuring as it is to say that your team is right because you have facts and the other team is just dumb, it can’t be that simple. If disagreements only happened because one side didn’t have all the information, disagreements would be easy to solve. You wouldn’t need rhetoric or persuasion, you would just need a big book of facts to show people they’re wrong.
The fact is, facts don’t tell us much—or not enough anyway.
So, for example, the winter got pretty cold where I went to college. It was a fact that there were many days where it never got hot enough to melt ice outside: if you tossed an ice cube out the window in the morning, it would be there when you went to bed.
If you’re me, the fact that it was that cold meant that it was time to get out the coat and gloves, turn up the thermostat, and mix up some hot chocolate. However, when I was walking around campus on days like that I would always—always—see one or two guys walking around in shorts and sandals.
Were they just stupid? Had they missed the memo that it was colder outside than the freezing point of water? Didn’t they know that cold weather means long pants and coats?
Obviously, they weren’t stupid. Obviously, they were not oblivious to the fact of the average air temperature on that day. They had just noticed the fact and interpreted it differently. For me, the logical leap between a cold day and putting on a coat was so fast that it was almost automatic and seemed like a necessary conclusion.
For those guys walking around in shorts, though, cold weather did not trigger an automatic wardrobe change. It was as cold for them as it was for me, but they did not interpret the cold in the same way that I did: it didn’t change their behavior even though it seemed to me that a behavior change in response to the same fact was so obvious and necessary.
So if we think about me and the guys in shorts, it’s not true that I was using logos and they weren’t. Both of us were informed by reasonable interpretations of facts. If I had walked up to them and said, Excuse me, I don’t think you noticed, but it’s 25 degrees out today, I really don’t think they would have been surprised and then rushed home to change.
But, for some reason, when things get political, we forget that people can respond to the same facts differently. That puts us in the position of assuming our political rivals are dangerously stupid—and that means that we spend a lot of time talking past each other instead of engaging each other in meaningful discussions.
Interpreting the Facts
That doesn’t mean there’s never a right answer or that our decisions, values, and interpretations of facts don’t ultimately matter. The point is not that all positions are equally valid as long as you can give good reasons.
When you’re writing a paper and thinking about logos, your job is not to show your readers that you have the facts. That’s only the start of what you need to accomplish.
Really, when you’re thinking about logos in your own writing, your job is to show your audience that your interpretation of the facts is reasonable. It’s not about showing them the data, it’s about showing them that the conclusions you draw based on the data make sense.
The real point is that you, as a writer, cannot afford to present “just the facts” with the expectation that your readers will automatically agree with you. Whatever issue you’re writing about and whatever position you take, there is always a possibility that your reader will simply understand the facts differently.
If all you do is present the “facts” without also presenting a clear and compelling case for why your interpretation is the best interpretation, you’ll only reinforce your readers' previous beliefs. They’ll see the facts, assume that your interpretation is way off base, and then ignore the rest of your argument.
And, obviously, that’s not what you want. If you really believe in what you’re writing about and really want your readers to believe it too, you should be able to explain why your interpretation of the facts makes sense and why other possible interpretations aren’t as reasonable.
You should, in other words, be able to show your readers why they should be thinking about the facts in the same way that you do.
So, to wrap up, remember that logos is about being reasonable or making sense. Giving your readers evidence and facts is an important part of making sense, but it’s only part of the work you should be doing when you think about logos in your own writing.
There probably aren’t many people who willfully live according to beliefs that they know are wrong. Most people will have good reasons for thinking and acting in certain ways. Because of that, it is really important as a writer to remember that your readers—even the ones who disagree with your ideas—have good reasons for disagreeing.
It’s not just because they’re ignoring evidence or being intentionally difficult. Because of that, it’s important to think of your readers as human beings and not little facts machines. When you present facts and evidence to them, make sure you explain your interpretations of those facts—and make sure that your interpretations make sense.
So, if you can move in your writing from delivering facts to presenting compelling and reasonable interpretations of facts, you’ll be writing more powerful stuff. Then you won’t just be teaching your readers some new things: you’ll be changing their minds.