Progress, but Slow Going: Public Argument in the Forging of Collective Norms

Gutta cavat lapidem non vi, sed saepe cadendo.


Rhetorical argumentation is a craft: collective, processual, and circulating, and it partakes in the indeterminate evolution of public norms. Official apologies can illustrate how rhetorical modalities over time can reflect change in civic sensibilities and effect collective moral reflection and evolution. Rhetorical citizenship, understood as encompassing both critical production and reception of publicly circulating arguments, is a way of conceptualizing the interaction between the individual and the collective in the ongoing discursive formation of the community and the norms that inform it.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

     Ovid, Epistulae ex Ponto IV, 10, 5. “The water drop hollows a stone not by force but by falling often”.

  2. 2.

    By”public” I refer to the common opinion or, in classical terminology, doxa.

  3. 3.

    I have discussed various theoretical issues regarding official apologies elsewhere, see e.g. Villadsen (2008, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2018).


  1. Aristotle. 1991. On rhetoric. A theory of civic discourse (trans: Kennedy, George A.). New York: Oxford University Press.

  2. Asen, Robert. 2004. A discourse theory of citizenship. Quarterly Journal of Speech 90: 189–211.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Asen, Robert, and Daniel C. Brouwer. 2010. Introduction: Public modalities, or the metaphors we theorize by. In Public modalities. rhetoric, culture, media, and the shape of public life, 1–32. Tuscaloosa: University of Alambama Press.

  4. Blumenberg, Hans. 1987. An anthropological approach to the contemporary significance of rhetoric. In After Philosophy: End or Transformation (trans: Wallace, Robert M.), eds. Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman, and Thomas McCarthy. Cambridge: MIT Press, pp. 429-457.

  5. Condit, Celeste Michelle. 1987. Crafting virtue: The rhetorical construction of public morality. Quarterly Journal of Speech 73: 79–97.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Farrell, Thomas B. 1991. Practicing the arts of rhetoric: Tradition and invention. Philosophy & Rhetoric 24: 183–210.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Kock, Christian, and Lisa Villadsen (eds.). 2012. Rhetorical citizenship and public deliberation. University Park: Penn State University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Kock, Christian, and Lisa Villadsen. 2014. Rhetorical citizenship as a conceptual frame. What we talk about when we talk about Rhetorical Citizenship. In Contemporary rhetorical citizenship, ed. Christian Kock and Lisa Villadsen, 9–26. Leiden: Leiden University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Kock, Christian, and Lisa Villadsen. 2017. Rhetorical citizenship: Studying the discursive crafting and enactment of citizenship. Citizenship Studies 21: 570–586.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Perelman, Chaïm, and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca. 1969. The new rhetoric. A treatise on argumentation. Trans. John Wilkinson and Purcell Weaver. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

  11. Tindale, Christopher W. 2017. Replicating reasons: Arguments, memes, and the cognitive environment. Philosophy & Rhetoric 50: 566–588.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Trudeau, Justin. 2017. Apology in the House of Commons for the federal government’s past treatment of members of the LGBTQ2 community. Accessed 10 July 2018.

  13. Villadsen, Lisa S. 2008. Speaking on behalf of others: Rhetorical agency and epideictic functions in official apologies. Rhetoric Society Quarterly 38: 25–45.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Villadsen, Lisa S. 2012. Beyond the spectacle of apologia: Reading official apologies as proto-deliberative rhetoric and instantiations of rhetorical citizenship. Review essay. Quarterly Journal of Speech 98: 230–247.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Villadsen, Lisa S. 2013. The regretful acknowledgement: A 'dignified end to a disgraceful story?' In Apology between ritural and regret: Symbolic excuses on false pretenses or true reconciliation out of sincere regret? ed. Daniël Cuypers, Daniel Jansen, Jacques Haers, and Barbara Segaert, 209–228. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

  16. Villadsen, Lisa S. 2014. More than a nice ritual: Official apologies as a rhetorical act in need of theoretical re-conceptualization. In Let’s talk politics. New essays on deliberative rhetoric, ed. Hilde Van Belle, Kris Rutten, Paul Gillaerts, Dorien Van De Mieroop, and Baldwin Van Gorp, 27–43. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Villadsen, Lisa S. 2018. Keep calm, carry on, and above all: Don’t apologize! Changing rhetoric in the service of stalling political change. In Rhetorics change/rhetoric’s change, ed. Jenny Rice, Chelsea Graham, and Eric Detweiler. Parlor Press and Intermezzo. 978-1-60235-502-6 (ePub).

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Lisa S. Villadsen.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

The article is based on a keynote lecture entitled “Rhetorical citizenship and public moral argument: A quaint idea for turbulent times?” given at the 2nd International Rhetoric Workshop held in Ghent, Belgium, 2018.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Villadsen, L.S. Progress, but Slow Going: Public Argument in the Forging of Collective Norms. Argumentation 34, 325–337 (2020).

Download citation


  • Rhetorical citizenship
  • Public norms
  • Craft
  • Rhetorical argumentation
  • Celeste Michelle Condit
  • Chaïm Perelman
  • Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca
  • Public morality
  • Official apologies
  • Justin Trudeau
  • Hans Blumenberg