I think Richards’ theories are best described when compared to those of the empiricists (read on for an explanation of empiricism and you’ll see why this contrast is helpful!). Shall we?


(1). Primary epistemic function vs. secondary epistemic function

Richards believed that rhetoric should be “a study of misunderstanding and its remedies.”

He gave rhetoric a primary epistemic function, or a primary role in the creation of knowledge. Unlike the empiricists of the day, who relied on observation and sense perception to discover truth, Richards claimed that language took part in meaning-making.

The empiricists’ viewpoint is illustrated by the box model. There is an ‘idea’ in a box, and rhetoric is the box, the delivery/presentation of the idea. Rhetoric, therefore, is merely a vehicle for knowledge. This model separates language from the idea.


Richards did not support this viewpoint. Rather, he thought language was crucial to the construction of meaning and truth.

After all, don’t words shape our understanding of a concept? Don’t words conceptualize the ideas which exist in our heads?

Richards chose to focus on language itself and how it functioned. He was interested in studying how words worked…

(2). Fluidity/ambiguity of language vs. specificity of language

Empiricists like John Locke advocated for the simplification and clarification of language. The “correctness” of the English language became a goal. Ambiguity was to blame for misunderstanding and miscommunication. Slang, for example, contributed to the ambiguity. For the empiricists, specificity was key.

Richards called his critique of “correctness” the Proper Meaning Superstition. He described this as “the common belief…that a word has a meaning of its own (ideally, only one) independent of and controlling its use and the purpose for which it should be uttered.”

Words are arbitrary – it is impossible for words to have only one definition!

Think about this in terms of the denotative and connotative meanings of words. The denotative meaning is the dictionary definition we’re all familiar with. The connotative meaning, however, is more personal. Connotation is related to our unique associations with a particular word or phrase. (In my introductory video, I use the word “college” as an example.)

(3.) Popular consensus vs. sense perception

According to Richards, words do not inherently have meaning.

Where, then, does meaning come from?

Meaning is attributed to words by popular consensus – we agree upon particular meanings in response to particular contexts/situations.

The empiricists would have found this to be false, as they relied on their observations of the world to discover meaning and truth (as we discussed above). The empiricists believed that meaning existed around us, and we had only to discover it.