Tuesday, February 5, 2013


If you're wondering about my allergy to rhetoric (or 'rhetoric,' at any rate), try watching this video. Some of the people in it come across as intelligent and make good points (there's one doctoral candidate in particular who seems sound to me), but not everything is uniformly excellent.

If you would rather not watch it all, here are some parts transcribed. People don't always speak in perfectly formed sentences, of course, but I have done my best to write what I think they mean to say accurately.  

  1. An education of rhetoric enables communicators in any facet of any field to create and assess messages effectively. 
  2. What rhetoric does is to help you to become more self-conscious about your practices so that you can tailor them for a wide variety of individual situations.
  3. Rhetoric [...] is language.
  4. When we decide which browser we'll use we're making a rhetorical decision. Which is going to be the best for my career? Which is going to be the best for my research? ... Take digital photography. We make decisions of how I will crop the picture, what lighting I will use, ... These are just as important to the person who is doing visual rhetoric as the person who is using oral rhetoric would consider how loudly they speak, what terms they use. It's the same principle at work.
  5. How people make purchase decisions can be rhetorically informed or not.  [The speaker then points out that people tend to be much more careful and systematic when buying a car or choosing a university than they are when choosing which toothpaste to buy.] That's epistemic rhetoric.
  6. [Next comes a story about two young women going to college. One does a lot of research before choosing a school, and is therefore said to have made an informed decision, while the other picked the school that most of her friends were going to, which is said not to be an informed decision. After this we are told that many people do not question their lives at all because they don't have the capacity to do so. The implication is that studying rhetoric will teach you not to be so foolish as to pick a college without careful research, e.g. into what majors each college offers, and will, in general, help you lead a more thoughtful, rational life. The narrator later tells us that "Julie" used epistemic rhetoric and made an informed decision, while "Kate" based her decision on someone else's opinion.]
  7. Rhetoric, among other things, is epistemic, that is, it creates realities. It's not going to create that wall over there, but it's going to create your perception of that wall or understanding of what that wall means to you, your understanding that the wall actually is there. So when I say it creates reality what I mean is not that it creates some physical world but it creates our understanding of the physical world and our place in the physical world. 
  8. The one sentence definition of epistemic rhetoric that I like to use is that rhetoric is a means of adjudicating between competing knowledge claims.
  9. To say that rhetoric is epistemic is to say that rhetoric is a way of knowing.
  10. Rhetoric is one of the processes we use to create facts, to construct facts.
  11. A fact is raw data plus interpretation.

There's a lot going on, and going wrong, there, it seems to me. Passages 1-4 suggest that one problem is trying to do too much. How can one discipline enable people to assess messages effectively in any facet of any field? I can't assess a chemistry textbook without knowing any chemistry, for instance. Of course, I might check the spelling and grammar, or I might be a design expert and check the layout, but there cannot be a single discipline that specializes in every aspect of every kind of communication. And making people more self-conscious about communication might make it harder for them to communicate effectively. Point 4 suggests that rhetoric is the study of presentation, which perhaps could be a discipline. But I doubt that one can reliably guide people in matters of presentation without some knowledge of what is to be presented. Otherwise the presentation might distort the content or mislead the audience.

Points 5-11 seem almost like a philosophical nightmare. 5 and 6 suggest that "epistemic rhetoric" is (the study of) rational decision-making. This has nothing to do with presentation, though, except in the sense of point 3, that it all has to do with language. This is about as much as I can get from point 7. Point 8 suggests that, if rhetoric is language, epistemic rhetoric is reason. And then 10 and 11 seem like garbled Nietzsche. 

In short, I'm not impressed. The idea seems to be that rhetoric is somehow both the art of presentation in any medium and of any content, and that rhetoric is philosophy, or something very like it. If you really wanted to learn this stuff I'd suggest something like the following curriculum:
  • freshman composition
  • graphic design
  • critical thinking
  • cognitive psychology
  • epistemology
  • philosophy of language
  • Nietzsche
  • Wittgenstein
That doesn't sound so bad, although it might be a challenge to make it all fit together and to teach the courses lower on the list (philosophy of language, etc.) to undergraduates. I wonder whether anyone does something like this? Maybe it's the future of philosophy at VMI.

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