Oh, it’s getting to me! Words are not just words; they’re calls to action. A friend sent this to me for very different reasons than the content of our class, but it reminds me of Aristotle’s means of persuasion. I post simply to supplement our original reading: http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2011/09/04/speech
I expected to struggle with this class. I have no explicit training in rhetoric, and only a single composition pedagogy course on my transcript. I never took a writing class as an undergraduate, and had never heard of a thesis statement until I started my Masters degree nine years ago. I had been managing to produce them without too much difficulty, but hadn’t ever been told what they were. Long story short: I’m literate, but not thanks to any explicit training in rhetoric. Most of what I know I learned implicitly.
So I expected to struggle, and you may detect hints of frustration when I speak in class. Metaphorically speaking, I am still trying to figure out which way is up. I’ll get there eventually, but I’m still trying to make sense of what this subject is, why we study it, and how we can put it to use. I’m not trying to be obtuse here, just felt the need to explain where I’m coming from. Because another thing I struggle with is unstructured writing – I never assume anyone has any interest in what I might be thinking about, so I hesitate to share my thoughts in public this way. But here goes.
There are a lot of things that have struck me from the first group of readings, but I’ll start with the historians from the Octolog who have helped me put things into perspective a bit. I thought Swearingen’s opening statement raised an interesting issue, about how the early spread of literacy in the classic era coincided with the institutionalization of rhetoric. She goes on to suggest that the study of rhetoric should be reconceived as “a primary instrument of disseminating literacy” (p.18). Although she situates that dissemination specifically in the classical era, Connors later returns to this theme in a more modern context during his reflection. He says that composition courses are unique in that they did not evolve from any sense of intellectual inquiry, but were “instituted to address the social issue of perceived illiteracy” (p.38).
As far as I know, Connors states a historical fact. And although Swearingen merely uses historical facts to make what is a disputable claim, for now I am buying that claim. So for the moment anyway, I am trying to make sense of this course by looking at literacy and rhetoric as being inseparable. Or if not inseparable, they stand shoulder to shoulder, even if that is the most insincere political metaphor of the past decade. But linking literacy and rhetoric in a deep way helps me to contextualize this course, the field of composition studies, and my own teaching in ENGL 3323 (Technical Writing).
And context has been another thing that has interested me during the first two weeks of class. Aristotle’s Rhetoric, for example, is deeply rooted in his own social and historical context. Although we have come to apply his ideas to so many different forms of communication, the text situates them in specific rhetorical acts common during his era, some of which have long since passed out of existence. And several other historians in the Octolog emphasize the importance of context, particularly Berlin and Crowley. They do so rather differently of course, by saying that any history is shaped by its author’s sociopolitical and ideological context. I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but this theme strikes me as important. Perhaps we will come back to it later in the semester.
I hope to have more to say about the next group of readings, but I don’t have much else worth sharing for now. And that last statement implies that this post has been worth sharing, which like Swearingen’s is a highly disputable claim. So I’ll just stop here.
During one of our (short) classes, I was intrigued by our discussion of truth, or Truth. I realize that this is a bit on the metaphysical–or, at least, it could certainly wander in that direction–but I think it’s an important point to clarify in Aristotle, if only because we need to distinguish in “things that are true” versus “truth.” I don’t mean to say that they are inseparable, rather that one leads to the other. We have “things that are true” which lead us naturally (for Aristotle, at least) to the “truth” or, perhaps more appropriately, “Truth.” And it is a natural process–as in, through forces of nature–for Aristotle: “Rhetoric is useful (1) because things that are true and things that are just have a natural tendency to prevail over their opposites…things that are true and things that are better are, by their nature, practically always easier to prove and to believe in” (22-23). So not only are true things better, faster, strong (we have the technology), but they’re easier to prove and believe in.
I seem to recall a mention of Aristotle’s…what was it…oh, right–ridiculously overblown idealism.
When we discussed how we’re going to tackle the weblog entires in class, I kept threatening to use The West Wing, and this clip nails it:
True (ha!), it’s a fictional show, but these maps are real, and so are the issues associated with them. Sadly, the Peters projection map isn’t widely available, nor are many upside-maps. And these aren’t the only alternative map projections.
Later, Aristotle writes that “A statement is persuasive and credible either because it is directly self-evident or because it appears to be proved from other statements that are so” (27). Granted, the first half doesn’t really apply to maps. But the second part? If I asked someone to point out on a map exactly where they stood, and they found their location and pointed, wouldn’t it be correct? If we all agree to the lie, does it become true? Part of me hopes not, but the pragmatist in me has to stop–and that pause gives me…well, pause.
The following got my attention, loads of highlighter ink, and more than a bit of trepidation, even on my first reading: “The true and the approximately true are apprehended by the same faculty; it may also be noted that men have a sufficient natural instinct for what is true, and usually do arrive at the truth” (22). When I build something out of a piece of wood, my angles can’t be “approximately true” or the pieces won’t quite fit. If they “fit” enough then the object won’t be sturdy or may fall apart. This idea of “approximately true” distinguished from “true” is alarming, especially since Aristotle believes that the same sensibilities judge them. Even if we “usually” arrive at truth, according to Aristotle’s bloated sense of idealism, what happens when we don’t? Do we get used to false truth over time? If continents aren’t where I think they are, or if the Earth’s make up isn’t what it’s generally believed to be, then it’s about time we rethink a few things.
After working on this entry for about a half hour, I realized that after thinking about Aristotle, about Truth, and about maps, one questions began to gnaw at the back of my brain until it haunted me: Where the heck am I?
The only comforting answer: right here.
I confess to being confounded by Aristotle’s insistence on classifying the various “goods” that humans pursue. NB: Rather than emphasizing the word good with quotation marks throughout this post, I shall use the word in its singular and plural forms to mean those things that are best for human beings– that thing or those things that lead to human happiness. I struggled with Aristotle’s lists of those things that are good, such as degree and station in life through birth; looks or appearance; physical strength and height; plenty of children; friends; wealth; athletic powers, and et cetera. I was initially bothered by Aristotle’s specificity. I certainly don’t possess many of the goods that he describes–such as good looks or health in old age–and I am bothered even today by the societal acceptance of certain goods as being superior to others. I wondered then if the list he provides is nothing more than the aesthetic goods of his time and culture, and his purpose in listing them has a deeper purpose. I think we can all agree that certain things are good: health, friendship, and financial security among other virtues. The question, then, becomes what goods are better than others, and the ultimate question is what thing (or things) constitute the highest good. I hope I’m not stretching my understanding of Aristotle too much when I state that his search for good is to serve the ultimate goal of locating the highest good.
I interpret his ideas thus (and this is influenced by outside readings from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, whence I turned for clarification of my muddied thoughts): that the highest good, identified as such, is inherently desirable for itself; this highest good, then, is not desirable in order to achieve some other good; and finally, all other goods that one seeks are pursued in order to achieve this highest good. I am left with the puzzle, then, of what constitutes the (or a) highest good. How does one know the difference between an end, and the links in the chain of causality that leads to it?
Aristotle seems to be interested in human happiness and virtue as achieved via the felicitous use of rational thinking over the course of a lifetime. I don’t entirely embrace that idea; I’m concerned that it leaves out the possibility of pleasure gained from the irrational, the artistic, those serendipitous moments or extended periods of magic (for lack of a better term) that we all experience that lead to a higher (or highest) good in our lives. I’m also still puzzled by the implication that lacking certain goods, such as good health or youth or beauty, diminishes my life. Why should certain superficial attributes detract from my full engagement of human happiness? This seems to be a cultural, and therefore ephemeral and subjective, phenomenon. The fact that I am bombarded by images through various media that privilege youth and beauty over age and wisdom as cultural values does not diminish my individual level of happiness.
Overall, though, this section of his work suggests that the rational pursuit of happiness (and virtue?) is the highest good. The pursuit of the highest good, then, seems to permeate the discussion held by the eight panelists of the “The Politics of Historiography.” James Murphy refers to Aristotle when he writes, “it is the choice of Final Causes (purposes) which determines the Efficient Causes (ways of action) which a community pursues” (5). In other words, the end good determines the goods that lead to it. Each of the panelists (except Victor Vitanza, who seems to be tripping on mushrooms, or LSD—been there, done that. In any case, he is too clever and smug to be taken seriously) strikes a position that attempts to find or declaim the highest good of the history of rhetoric. The sheer variety of opinions expressed to me points to the impossibility of finding a single highest good, or best practices approach to the study of the history of rhetoric. (As an aside, I must here state that the term “best practices” gives me the willies. I served as an adjunct instructor at two California community colleges, and the conceit of “best practices” for instruction was all the rage in the latter part of my teaching experience. The idea is that one person’s instructional methodologies can be privileged over those of a greater number of instructors, implying the possibility of “norming” instructional practices for composition. I suppose I’m revealing my bias for the individual approach to instruction over the institutional and codified approach to instruction. I will continue to engage in self-reflection regarding my biases).
Regardless of their differing opinions regarding the purpose of the study of rhetorical history, each speaker seeks a highest good, whether it’s Berlin’s connection to language and power; Enos’s “quest toward intellectual excellence”; or Jarratt’s comment that “rhetoric could step into its role as meta-discipline” (9). I’m fascinated by the diversity of opinions contained in “The Politics of Historiography,” while at the same time frustrated by the knowledge that what they were discussing twenty-three years ago is, in essence, unanswerable. My sense is that, as with all attempts to answer philosophical questions, the times in which the discussants live drive the dialogue. Tastes change. Positions shift. The one person I lean more towards is James Berlin, and that only in connection to his position that, “To understand a rhetoric, it is thus necessary to examine its position in the play of power in its own time” (11). I’m more interested in how rhetoric speaks to its historical times, of how language and images are used to manipulate, shape or exploit the values of an historical period. For now, though, I feel as though I’m becoming muddled again, so I’ll reference Vitanza referencing Cixous and say, “Let’s get out of here!” (16).
There is nothing new under the sun, according to King Solomon (Ecclesiastes 1:9), and a host of writers after him (Aristotle among them). Hence, before Aristotle and after him, philosophers and rednecks alike have debated about anything, something…and learning about Aristotle’s rhetoric has made me ultra-aware of the rhetoric I am bombarded with today. Below are several musings on our readings and how I am seeing our culture (mis)using rhetoric as envisioned by Aristotle and modern rhetoricians.
FACTS: Looking at the latest news reports, rhetorical risk management is constantly in the limelight and is a concept that might make Aristotle roll in his grave. Aristotle was adamant that rhetoric be used [1355a] “to employ persuasion, just as strict reasoning can be employed, on opposite sides of a question…in order that we may see clearly what the facts are,” and that things that are true and things that are better are, by their nature, practically always easier to prove and easier to believe in.” Guttings’ July 6, 2011 essay on John Taylor’s critique of President Obama’s budget proposal demonstrates how Aristotle’s ideal of rhetoric is being ignored today. The facts about the budget are, for practical reasons, the same; but what is left out of the argument of Taylor and his opposing economists’ is the far-reaching effect on the public. The economists know the facts, arguably (hee hee) all of them. However, someone decides whether those facts are shared with the public, and how they are shared. Guttings’ essay implies that the public is being told half the story (gasp).
Aristotle claims that “We must not make people believe what is wrong,” (23) , and he privileges a demonstration of truth, government and propositions needed for effective persuasion. Consider the following story: Spin Machine Slips A Gear On Latest Jobs Report (http://www.npr.org/blogs/itsallpolitics/2011/09/02/140145429/spin-machine-slips-a-gear-on-latest-jobs-report). Is something “wrong” if it is truth misrepresented? We’ll have to wait for the speech on September 8, 2011. Will the public be made aware of the facts of our economy so that “they may clearly see”? After all, Perelman says, government will not be considered legitimate unless there is justification “other than force,” (p. 86). The truth – the facts – are waiting to be spun.
SEMANTICS: I liked Richards’ musings on the meaning of words and their complexity, but I don’t know (yet) if Aristotle gave meaning much merit. What is missing in the economists’ arguments almost appears to be the meaning: facts exist, but are shared with the public in a way that favors certain political parties. Kind of like what Ted Koppel said: “The commercial success of both Fox News and MSNBC is a source of nonpartisan sadness for me. While I can appreciate the financial logic of drowning television viewers in a flood of opinions designed to confirm their own biases, the trend is not good for the republic. Fox News and MSNBC … show us the world not as it is, but as partisans (and loyal viewers) at either end of the political spectrum would like it to be. This is to journalism what Bernie Madoff was to investment: He told his customers what they wanted to hear, and by the time they learned the truth, their money was gone.” Ted Koppel, Washington Post, November 14, 2010. Perhaps this demonstrates Aristotle’s emphasis on the similarity of rhetoric and dialectic, rhetoric teaching how to debate “various points of view” for the audience to decide, and dialectic providing “techniques of discussion for a common search for truth,” (Perelman, p. 66). Our culture seems to be fond of neither technique as originally intended (apologies to investigative journalists and the like). Here, I agree with Perelman that “in matters of opinion, it is often the case that neither rhetoric nor dialectic can reconcile all the positions that are taken,” (p. 68).
PRACTICAL REASONING: When Aristotle proposed that a statement is persuasive “because there is somebody whom it persuades,” I don’t think he meant we should sit around and be told “what’s what” by competing politicians, but rather that we should determine if we are being “managed” by rhetoric, instead of being persuaded by the facts, for we must remember that “the end of knowledge is power….” (Bacon).
With just two weeks of class under our belts, I am drawing many parallels between my freshman composition class lectures and our selected readings. I have very little training in rhetoric, but, many of the ideas we discuss are pertinent to how we teach our freshman. Chaim Perelman, in his “New Rhetoric” claims that “what an audience accepts forms a body of opinion, convictions, and commitments that is both vast and indeterminate” (71). As instructors, we task out students to write towards an audience (whether an actual audience outside of the instruction exists can be debated on another day) and to use particular language to reach them. As Perelman continues to suggest, the orator “must employ language that takes into account the classification and valuations implicit in the audience’s acceptance of them” (72).
Take, for example, a real political campaign advertisement from the 2008 presidential race.
I show this advertisement to my freshmen for two reasons: first, to discuss the audience that Huckabee reached out to in hopes of reaching the Republican nomination. Secondly, to demonstrate the ethos of using such an actor and popular culture icon as Chuck Norris in a very heated presidential race ad. I begin asking who Huckabee attempts to reach with this ad. Generally, the students understand that Huckabee wants to reach a demographic that range in the 18-30 age bracket and demonstrates this want by speaking several humorous lines of what Chuck can and cannot do. This connection between speaker and the younger audience develops further due to Chuck speaking on various policy talking points and Huckabee playing the “I’m relevant because I understand what you value” card. My second point I want my students to consider is ethos. Why does Huckabee invoke such a figure as Chuck Norris? What does Norris bring to voters that would otherwise be absent from his platform? To answer these questions, I must turn to Aristotle. Claiming that “persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible” (356a 4-6). So, Huckabee wants his audience to select his platform based on the endorsement from the Texas Ranger. The problem with this line of thinking is to assume that the audience knows what Chuck stands for himself. Does the audience understand Norris’s political practices? Or are they basing their opinions on what the audience knows about the characters Norris plays on television? My assumption is for the latter. Huckabee invokes an argument based solely on the representations of Norris as a cultural icon in order to gain a specific voter’s trust. Aristotle submits that character may be the only way to effectively persuade an audience (356a 10-15).
When I use this ad in my classroom, my goal as a speaker re-enforces Perelman’s ideas of what an orator should do to engage the audience. For the freshmen to understand ethos and audience, I must use specific cultural and social references in order to break down these abstract ideas. So, much like Huck must use “a vocabulary and phrasing that enable him. . . .to stress the main elements and indicate which are merely secondary” to a larger audience, I must use specific signs to teach my students (72).
In class on Friday, we identified standards as a point of
contention amongst the Octalog scholars. Micah’s post addresses the issue of
how facts are established but primarily through Perelman’s point of view. I particularly like how Micah said, “Still, the one premise that seems to work
in our existence is that TRUTH is something we AGREE upon … and by extension we
must include REALITY, FACT, KNOWLEDGE. If we accept this one universal premise,
then we must accept the premise that argumentation (rhetoric) plays a VERY
significant role in epistemology.” However, I wish Micah would have developed
the final idea of that statement more – the role that rhetoric plays in
epistemology and vice-versa.
As I read through
the Octalog discussion, I was particularly interested in how each of the
scholars addressed the ideas of facts, validity, proof and evidence. My
interest in these concepts is also tied to an interest in how rhetoric has been
ignored (shunned? excluded?) in certain disciplines and even how rhetoric has fared
within English departments. After re-highlighting all of the passages in the
Octalog that address facts, proof, evidence, etc., I realize it’s too much to
take up in this one blog post. So, I’ve tried to pick out a few especially poignant
fairly early in the conversation, says, “we sort of fall in a range on a
spectrum of the degree to which we’re interested in facts” (22) and later, in
his reflection on the conversation, Robert Conners comments, “most of us seem
to be acting out a kind of intellectual multiple-personality disorder. On the
one hand, no one, not even Rich Enos down at the right-hand side of the table,
seemed willing to make the direct claim that they wrote the truth when they
wrote history . . . Then nearly all of us go on to talk about how we write to
convince, to persuade, to recover this or that figure or idea or tradition.
How, in other words, we all take certain stands and write as if we knew the truth and wanted only to share and
promulgate it” (36).
scholars who would claim a greater interest in facts are still hesitant to
claim that facts are representative of the truth. However, the rhetoric used to
represent both facts and, for those less interested in facts, their story of
history presents a version of truth that can/should be willingly accepted as
the truth. Nan Johnson comments, “My role as a narrator does not prevent me
from intending my tale to be accepted as a “true story” in the sense that, as
an act of rhetoric, my history imposes formal shape on the probable, or on the
relative truth, while simultaneously seeking acceptance as a logical
explanation of reality” (18). So, it would seem that these scholars in the same
field can’t agree on the truth of facts. This disagreement, as I understand it,
is an epistemological one.
asks, “Is there evidence that that’s [that it’s important to avoid closure and
that history is more story than fact] true? And if it’s just possible that that
strong version isn’t beneficial, and
that systematically avoiding closure is not
the best thing to do, how would we ever get evidence that that is perhaps
not as valid as the claims being made for it” (32). To which Victor Vitanza
replies, “Is there any evidence for evidence? Is there any proof for proof?” (43).
Not only can
scholars in the field of rhetoric not agree on the truth of facts, they also
struggle with agreeing on the proof of truth. At what point are proof and evidence
true? I can’t help but think of Kuhn and his study of scientific revolutions at
this point. Even in empirical fields like chemistry and physics, proof and
evidence have time and time again been disproven. (If I can find my copy of
Kuhn I’ll try and add some specific examples here).
And my final
couple of quotes:
From Nan Johnson,
“In likening historical research to archaeology, I am upholding in part the
traditional, and I would say common-sensical, bias that historical investigation
can unearth material evidence” (17) And from James Berlin, “And I realize that
material goods are themselves constructions; they’re empirical, but we can
never see them. The thing in itself will always evoke this conception framework”
Scholars in the
field of rhetoric can’t even agree to the truth/factuality of material
evidence. These disagreements within the field are all epistemological. I think
this is incredibly interesting considering Micah’s statement that rhetoric
plays a role in epistemology, because here I see epistemology playing a role in
approaches to rhetoric. Like many concepts in academia, I feel like I’ve
stumbled into a chicken-egg situation. Has rhetoric shaped each scholars
epistemology and in turn shaped their rhetoric and shaped their epistemology,
and their rhetoric, etc. etc. etc.
In Intro to Grad
Studies, I felt like I was presented with an either/or situation concerning
epistemological stands. You either believe the world is a lab and knowledge is
out there to be discovered through scientific tests, or you believe that the
world is a stage and knowledge is created by the interaction of the players on
that stage. I struggled with this dichotomy and still do. I think after reading
this Octalog, it seems like these historians also struggle with the intricacies
of this dichotomy. Is this why rhetoric has had such a sordid past? Is this why
rhetoric, despite its meta status, has been so rejected by the sciences and so hit
or miss within the field of composition? Is rhetoric a field of fence sitters?
Or was I presented with a false dichotomy?
p.s. I copy and pasted from Word and the formatting was all funky, so I tried to fix it in the upload/insert window and it didn’t get much better…. so I don’t know how to fix it. Sorry for the weird line breaks.)
Reading a selection of Chaim Perelman’s New Rhetoric gave me inspiration for writing a short poem. This inspiration is the basis behind my posting for this week. If you wouldn’t mind, I would like to share the poem before I begin my post:
Truth is yes,
Whether echoed in exclamations,
Or whispered in gulps within.
Truth is yes.
Chaim Perelman’s work is entitled Traite de l’Argumentation: La Nouvelle Rhetorique (Treatise on Argumentation: The New Rhetoric) and was published in 1958 (Conley 297). I mention this because I believe a reflection on a complicated work must begin with some type of overview. And so I begin with a look at his title. With my limited reading of the work, I must do my best to see the “forest” before I get lost in the “trees.” When considering the original title, we see Perelman’s broad project—a treatise on arguments.
When we look at Perelman’s background, we discover a complicated figure with a diverse background. He received two doctorates: one in jurisprudence in 1934 and another in philosophy in 1938 (Conley 297). During WWII, specifically between 1940 and 1944, it is interesting to note that Perelman was “an important figure in the Belgian Resistance” (ibid). When we consider his studies in law and philosophy, as well as his experience through the tumultuousness of WWII, we begin to discern a possible genesis behind why Perelman would be interested in studying “arguments” in particular. In any civil society, when people are involved, “arguments” are the central means by which we discuss and debate political, legal, ethical, and social issues.
Previously, in Perelman’s early work (specifically in his essay “De la Justice”/“On Justice,” 1945), we see an attempt to logically/objectively/empirically define issues of justice; or as Perelman notes, “This study, [was] undertaken in the spirit of logical empiricism” (Foss 63). He ultimately comes to realize that justice is always deductively based in “values,” something that cannot be objectively and logically pinned down. Near the end of the essay, he asks, “How then does one reason about values?” (qtd. in Conley 296). Perelman also writes:
“As for the value that is the foundation of the normative system, we cannot subject it to any rational criterion: it is utterly arbitrary and logically indeterminate . . . . The idea of value is, in effect, incompatible both with formal necessity and with experiential universality. There is no value which is not logically arbitrary” (qtd. in Foss 63).
This then is the problem that Perelman revisits in 1958, in The New Rhetoric. It is a question of answering the problem of how one discerns and rationalizes, beyond formal logic, how values operate in society—and more specifically, how rhetoric provides a way of grounding this discussion. Although, I think it is important mention, this new rhetoric goes beyond mere discussion of values and becomes Perelman’s basis for “A Theory of Practical Reasoning.” As Perelman writes:
“For the new rhetoric, however, argumentation has a wider scope as non-formal reasoning that aims at obtaining or reinforcing the adherence of an audience. It is manifest in discussion as well as in debate, and it matters not whether the aim be the search for truth or the triumph of a cause, and the audience may have any degree of competence” (qtd. in Foss 67).
The “adherence of an audience” is one of the central aspects of this new rhetoric. It is the recognition that reasoning is based upon commonly held beliefs—beliefs based by the audience. In formal logic, you have axioms, statements accepted as evidently true (logically, objectively, empirically). In all other forms of reasoning you have subjective claims of belief. Perelman makes this distinction in another way. He writes, “On the one hand, there are facts, truths, and presumptions; on the other, values, hierarchies, and loci of the preferable” (qtd. in Foss 69). In both cases, agreement on either side is situated specifically with the audience.
And this takes me back to what inspired me to write my poem. With the “new rhetoric” being a form of practical reasoning, one situated by a “universal audience,” I am drawn into a new perspective about “truth” and epistemology in general. It appears to me that all truths, beyond those established by formal and empirical logic, are governed by affirmations of an audience. And thus, “truth is yes.”
Sharon Crowley said it is impossible to do purely inductive or deductive research because when we read or research anything we bring to it “the whole framework” of how we became interested in a particular subject, our place within the subject we are discussing, and perhaps even why we ended up in a particular class reading Crowley’s own words. If, as Crowley asserts, our motives are what guide all of our choices, then my motives and my framework are pedagogical. To me, the study of rhetoric is inextricably linked with how it is currently being taught in classrooms and how I will approach the subject when it is my turn to stand at the front of the room and lecture to my students. Even Crowley herself says few historians seek only to add to the body of research in rhetoric, but rather study the history of rhetoric in order to “guide teachers of composition in making pedagogical choices by acquainting them with those which have been made in the past.” For me, it is impossible not to constantly ask myself: how will my knowledge of the history of rhetoric influence my approach to teaching writing? Better yet, does our educational system provide students with the rhetorical tools needed to participate in politics, practice law, give wedding toasts, or simply carry on conversations where opinions are expressed? Honestly, as I prepare myself for a career in teaching composition and rhetoric, I fear that I will always falls short because of the lack of exposure today’s students have to the art of persuasion Aristotle wrote about in the 4th century B.C.
Jan Swearingen spends a great deal of time reflecting on how the spread of literacy occurred simultaneously with the institution of rhetoric, and there fore we must examine rhetoric as the “primary instrument for disseminating literacy in the classical ear.” For Swearingen the point of this statement is to show how women were excluded both from literacy and rhetorical instruction, but if we put this into a contemporary context I would contend it is not the women who are being left out of education, but rather the rhetoric. Today, few men and women encounter any training in argumentation and rhetoric prior to entering a post-secondary program, and even then that training is often limited to certain disciplines and departments.
Robert Connors said the discipline of composition was created to solve the social problem of illiteracy, not to simply be an intellectual enterprise. However, I wonder why college writing classes were implemented to address this issue instead of using the strategies of the classical era to teach children literacy and rhetoric simultaneously. At what point in history did we remove rhetoric, the art of persuasion and argumentation, from literacy? And more importantly, how to we begin re-integrating it into elementary curriculum? Victor Vitanza calls composition (and rhetoric) a meta-disciple because it informs all other disciplines, emphasizing that we need to be teaching writing across the curriculum instead of limiting it to English teachers and freshman composition courses and I couldn’t agree more. There is mutual influence between literacy and rhetoric; we emphasis literacy in schools today, but we leave out the rhetoric to the disadvantage of students.
Susan Jarrett said literary critical methods are part of rhetoric and composition because they are “innately, inherently, and powerfully rhetorical,” but I would argue that rhetoric, literacy theory, and composition are all part of one another because humans are innately, inherently, and powerfully rhetorical. Take for example a small child who begins a sentence to a classmate with “my mother told me that…” Even though the child has probably never heard of Aristotle and cannot spell ethos, he or she is nevertheless invoking the credibility of parent to make a point. Similarly, children utilize the power of pathos when they tell their parents “if you love me you would…”, and demonstrate understanding of logos when they refrain from certain behaviors because they know the resulting punishment or when they make a radical suggestion such as the one in this taco commercial. If that is not demonstrative proof that children are capable of logical reasoning, I don’t what else would be.
As humans we have an innate pull toward that which is rhetorical regardless of the official training we have been exposed to, yet this natural tendency to persuasion is widely ignored in schools. Why aren’t we teaching kids about Aristotle’s elements of persuasion? Are we afraid they will talk us out giving them too much homework?
According to Connors, college-level writing classes are meant to be a solution to the perceived illiteracy of today’s youth. Perhaps instead of putting the solution at the end of twelve years of mandatory schooling, we should put the rhetorical back into literacy and sprinkle it across elementary and secondary education. It’s not about turning any one historian’s work into a multiple choice question or asking students to memorize historical facts about rhetoric, it’s about encouraging students to develop rhetorical skills, critical thinking and writing, before they enter a college classroom and become part of a cultural remediation project. Richard Enos calls upon a sense of paideia, an “unceasing effort to seek, establish, and refine standards of intellectual excellence.” Of course, Enos is applying it to the histography of rhetoric and not rhetorical education in the United States, but I think the same paideia is required for both.
At the risk of sounding a bit cheesy: I felt a connection to Perelman in reading “The New Rhetoric: A Theory of Practical Reasoning.” I don’t mean that I can claim a complete, comprehensive mastery of his every point – or even close. I am more than a little far from a privileged telepathic link with him here. Still, I feel, in my amateurish way, my thought process on rhetoric and its uses has followed a very similar path to his over the past year. So, at the risk of inviting an extra-close reading of my writing, I’m submitting that I really enjoyed this article (though it was too long).
I concur that: Some ideas fall outside of the realm of quantifiable and computable formal logic. Formal logic depends on axiomatic premises. But shouldn’t we question and understand where these premises come from? Often they exist (become norms) by the consent of an audience (ideally, the “universal audience”). And this is where the art of argumentation (rhetoric) and justification becomes very useful, and perhaps, necessary.
Page 65, Perelman says, “To pass from a correct inference to the truth or to the computable probability of the conclusion, one must admit both the truth of the premises and the coherence of the axiomatic system.”
On page 83, Perelman says, “if one considers how justification takes place in the most varied spheres … it seems obvious that our intellectual tools cannot all be reduced to formal logic …” He goes on to say, “In this situation, we are compelled to develop a theory of argumentation as an indispensable tool for practical reason. In such a theory, as we have seen, argumentation is made relative to the adherence of minds, that is, to an audience …”
Here, I think it’s interesting to mention that Wayne C. Booth and Kenneth Burke both have echoed similar sentiments in their writings on rhetoric. Rhetoric, as an art of argumentation, seeks to achieve a meeting of the minds and a shared identity with the speaker. Speaker and audience should see eye-to-eye for argumentation to be effective. “This is achieved by forming a community of minds, which Kenneth Burke, who is well aware of the importance of this genre, calls identification,” Perelman says (p. 63). I’m sure many of us have heard friends make informal statements like, “I like him because I can identify with him.” The implication here is that the audience feels as though they see the world through the speaker’s glasses, if you will. (I began this post by saying that I identify with Perelman.)
The point here is that truths, even logical premises, depend on a meeting of the minds, on the adherence of an audience, in order to reach “norm” status, to become premises for logical argumentation. And these premises are the source of axiomatic truths. Okay, then I submit that the only reality, the only truth, the only facts, existing in our universe exist because WE say they exist. WE AGREE on their existence.
Perelman suggests there is a privileged “universal audience” made up of the highest intelligent beings that should share this agreement (p. 68). Okay, that sounds nice. I will put my faith in them too. Still, the one premise that seems to work in our existence is that TRUTH is something we AGREE upon … and by extension we must include REALITY, FACT, KNOWLEDGE. If we accept this one universal premise, then we must accept the premise that argumentation (rhetoric) plays a VERY significant role in epistemology.
Gary Gutting, in “Arguing From the Facts,” talks about the difficulty in considering ALL RELEVANT FACTS, considering ALL possible premises in any rhetorical situation. He says, “Realistically, of course, we can never be sure that we have taken account of all relevant facts, especially with an issue as complex as a national budget.” So, notice the “of course” in that statement? It should be obvious to the world that fully considering ALL that is relative to an argument is basically impossible? Most situations in reality are just too complex? If one chooses to go nuts with subjectivism, I suppose the rabbit hole could go pretty deep in considering ALL that could have a subjective influence on a premise, right?
So, rhetoric (argumentation) suddenly seems rather important. Rhetoric seeks a meeting of the minds. It seeks the widest agreement of people. “Truth” depends on it. “Knowledge” depends on it so that we can form the foundations, the premises, of logical argumentation. Do you agree?