Sunday, February 9, 2014

Rhetoric again

We had an interesting discussion of rhetoric on Friday with all the rhetoricians and philosophers at the school plus some others trying to explain and understand what it is that the discipline of rhetoric takes itself to be. I'm not sure how far we got. Here are some points that the rhetoric people seemed to agree on:
  • the goal of teaching and studying rhetoric is to achieve social harmony, specifically the avoidance of world wars and genocide but also lesser evils such as government shutdowns
  • rhetoric is the art of persuasion, and studying it enables you both to persuade and to detect when others are trying to persuade you of something
  • it is founded on a belief in relativism that rejects the idea of "truth with a capital T
  • it is a habit of mind, something active that is never still and can never be pinned down or really defined
  • it is also interested in human relations and power structures in something like the way that sociology is interested in such things
I don't know how all this is meant to go together, but it is quite possible that the subject doesn't see itself as having an essence that ties its various aspects together. My questions, still, would be something like these:
  • if it is deeply relativistic, how can it also stand for good and against evil? what does it take 'good' and 'evil' to mean?
  • if it is a kind of tool for non-violent combat, or simply persuasion, why should we expect this to lead to agreement rather than victory for one side or the other? or is agreement achieved through non-violent persuasion regarded as inevitably or necessarily harmonious? 
  • if so, what reason is there to believe that the good guys will always win, or that the bad guys (or others) won't resort to non-rhetorical means when they sense that they are losing the rhetorical battle? 
  • how does awareness of attempts to persuade lead to harmony rather than suspicion?
  • if it really is about what actually persuades people (rather than, say, what ought to persuade people), why aren't empirical studies of the kind psychologists conduct a bigger part of the discipline?  
  • if nothing really ties the parts of the subject together then how does one progress within the discipline from introductory to intermediate to advanced? and if one doesn't, or can't, do that, then is it really an academic discipline in which it makes sense to have students major, or would it better as a supplement to other majors?
I think that the questions about relativism, world peace, and whether something so diverse can be a real discipline are probably best regarded as red herrings. What remains seems strikingly close to the idea of the hermeneutics of suspicion (an approach to reading and interpretation that brings together ideas from Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud). So how might a course of study be built on this idea? 

I think you would need to know some of the history of philosophy before you could understand Nietzsche, so you would probably start with a couple of courses in philosophy. Perhaps one course dealing with ethical theories from Plato to Mill, and another focusing on modern philosophy from Descartes to Kant. Some Schopenhauer would be handy, too, and some political philosophy wouldn't hurt. Next would come Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, either together in one course (which sounds like a lot, but might be possible) or else in three separate courses (ideal but perhaps not practical). Then you could finally get to the business of reading and interpretation, probably looking at both classic works of literature and art and contemporary 'texts' that can usefully be interpreted in this kind of way. For the latter I would think that literature and art would be less appropriate choices than political slogans, journalism, various forms of popular entertainment, and so on. 

You would need philosophers to teach the foundational philosophy courses, philosophically literate professors of literature and art to teach the classics, and some people (probably rhetoricians) to cover the contemporary stuff, although I don't know how much help, i.e. how many courses, students would need in this area. If you can read Shakespeare and Melville through Marxian, Freudian, and Nietzschean lenses then you probably don't need a lot of help doing the same with much simpler material. There wouldn't be much pure rhetoric in there, but then rhetoric doesn't seem to be pure so much as it is the application of certain philosophical ideas to literary (and other) criticism.

This could be quite a good program, although I don't know how different it would be from a fairly standard English curriculum with a more than standard philosophy requirement. I'm also not sure that the special promotion of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud is justified. It wouldn't be likely to be all that popular, or to lead directly to a job. But it would be interesting. 


  1. Allow me to revive this question: What is truth with a capital T? - I can think of at least three ways to use this expression:

    1) A relativist might say that there are only perspectives, but no truth. everyone has their own little relative small-case truth. So if someone believes there is more than perspectives, they believe in truth with capital T. That's one kind of way to use this expression.

    When the expression is used like this, I'm inclined to say that I'm a believer in truth with a capital T.

    What other ways are there to use this expression?

    2) I guess one can say that some truths are more stable or important or transcendental than others--metaphysical, grammatical truths. These are truth with a capital T, as opposed to contingent empirical truths. Somehow the expression 'truth with a capital T' seems less appropriate here.

    3) The expression might also be used for another view, to say that all truths are the same--e.g. to say that there is only scientific truth, or only divine truth, or whatever.

    Am I missing something? How do you want to use the expression? Do you have a use for it?

    1. I don't have a use for it. It seems to me that people only rarely talk about "truth with a capital T" except to say that they don't believe in it. No one (usually) claims that they do believe in this thing, so I'm not sure what is being denied when people talk like this.

      Sometimes they seem to want to belittle truth or reduce the stature of disciplines that seek it, e.g. science. "They claim they are discovering 'the Truth' but really they are just mucking about with test tubes." (I have heard something very close to this being said.) I don't really see the point of this except to express resentment toward well funded and respected disciplines.

      Sometimes they want to emphasize the 'situatedness' of all knowledge. I don't really know what that means. I mean, of course no one is ever not in some context or other, but so what?

      If belief that p and belief that p is true are the same thing, then not believing in truth seems to be like not believing in belief, or believing that all beliefs are false. (Am I committing some elementary fallacy here? It seems too easy.) And that seems crazy.

      On the other hand, if the idea is that no one can be sure they have the whole truth so don't commit purges on the basis that you think you know what is best for humanity, then fair enough. If "truth with a capital T" means ideology then I'm against it too. I suppose I'm also against it if it means something like Plato's theory of forms as commonly understood. But no one believes in that.

      "There are only perspectives" sounds like something that some people might want to say. But the objections are obvious: perspectives on what?, and is it true that there are only perspectives? It seems that "there are only perspectives" has to be understood in some weird way, and I don't get it. It's as if the goal is to dial up the irony so far that you cannot really believe or take anything seriously. And I can't argue with that, but I don't know how anyone can encourage such thinking when there are so many things that demand to be taken seriously (all the things usually called evil, for instance).

  2. I think I gently butted heads a few times on this truth/relativism issue in my first go-round in the 6-hour Rhetoric course taught at my school. I had to point out that there is a distinction between what a person believes is true and what is true. It is a distinction we all make, all of the time, especially when we're not doing (in the pejorative sense) "theory." I agree that the various normative commitments of rhetoric don't make any sense without some commitment to there being right (or better) answers to some questions.

    The Nietzsche/Marx/Freud aim would be interesting, and you identify the main challenge, which is that one needs to know some history of philosophy in order to appreciate deeply what NM&F are up to (at least N&M). If this program is offered over multiple courses, then basically you just need to embrace what the Jesuit schools have--that everyone will take a historical philosophy course. (One could call it "Great Thinkers," Etc. Etc.)

    Even if this program only differed from a fairly standard English major in having a heavy philosophy requirement, that surely wouldn't be a bad thing. I left English in search of better philosophy (I was an English major).

    As for where such a program would "lead," it seems that it would not be any better or worse than a philosophy major (or really most 4 year liberal arts degrees earned without additional graduate training/certification... shhh!)

    1. Thanks, Matt.

      I think just about all undergraduate degrees are the same in terms of where they lead without additional graduate study, but we have a newly designed program in English that emphasizes rhetoric, and in their more enthusiastic moments its supporters talk as if it will work wonders for our students' employability. I hope it does, but I have my doubts.

      A standard English major with a heavy philosophy requirement would be great, I think (I also like the idea of a standard philosophy major with a heavy English requirement). What we have is more of a rhetoric major with a heavy-ish literature requirement (two courses minimum, but in reality probably several more) and a little philosophy (two courses minimum). I'm working to understand what this means and whether I think it's a good thing. But I'm also just working to understand what rhetoric is. Based on what I've heard it seems to me that it's literature plus philosophy, but I think the rhetoric people see it more as a hybrid.

  3. "But I'm also just working to understand what rhetoric is."

    Perhaps it goes without saying, but be careful not go looking for an essence where there isn't one. Maybe there is something that "is" rhetoric. There are surely lots of things that aren't. Perhaps it makes sense that it is somehow a hybrid of English and Philosophy, insofar as these are two disciplines in which the authors of studied texts present us with ideas and (dare I say, in the case of literature) arguments. But the modes of presentation/argumentation are quite different! [It's tempting, but of course wrong, to characterize the difference along the lines of rational vs. emotional persuasion. But that leaves out too much (in particular imagination and all of the cognitive aspects of, e.g., empathy).] So, rhetoric must have something to do with studying the different modes of persuasion/argument, but you could sneak in truth by somehow adding that there is a concern about uncovering truth--when it's there to be found--and a concern about what methods work better than others, say, for particular cases and problems. Reading great literature won't help us understand global warming per se, but reading Ibsen might help us understand climate-change deniers (and environmentalists who feel--for better and worse--a bit like Stockmann (which isn't all good)...)

    1. I think this is right. It might be nice to find an essence of rhetoric, but I'd settle for seeing some family resemblance between the things rhetoricians do. You say that there are surely lots of things that aren't rhetoric but I have met a rhetorician who could not think of anything that wasn't rhetoric, and when you put a bunch of rhetoricians together not only do they tend to come up with different accounts of what rhetoric is (just as philosophers might if asked to define or explain philosophy), they also tend to count more and more things as belonging under the heading 'rhetoric' (which is unlike philosophers, I think).

      It does have something to do with studying different modes of persuasion. That's probably the key idea.

    2. Here's another go at expressing my question about this. Literature tries to move and/or persuade people, and a huge part of literary criticism consists in analysis of how this is done. The same goes for visual art. Philosophical works also try to persuade. Not to mention political speeches, adverts, etc., etc. So one way to study rhetoric would seem to be to study a bit of literary criticism, a bit of art, a bit of philosophy, and so on and so on. And that seems worthwhile. But if rhetoric is meant to be something other than this, then what is it? That's what I don't yet see. I don't mean that it needs to be something else. But I get the impression that it is meant to be something else, and I'm not sure what that could be.

    3. i think you should take a look at chaim perelman, or a more recent book like michael kochin's 'five chapters on rhetoric'.

      it's a little deceptive to say that philosophical works also try to persuade, if you keep in mind what their subjects have centrally been in the tradition, what their standards have been (with the allure of demonstrative proof always haunting them), and the sorts of things aristotle says about persuasion in his rhetoric, like that it pertains to deliberation on matters of action of some sort of timeliness/urgency, that it involves things 'within the ken of all men', and matters at issue where expertise is not the deciding factor, or where whether and how to believe in the claims of expertise is.

      rhetoric's association with literature is about on the same level as philosophy's association with rhetoric and literature. there is a history of appealing to rhetorical ideas to understand how literature works or set criteria for excellence, but literature is traditionally also supposed to have values that are not as important to rhetoric, if you think of the contrast in terms of, say, an oration vs. a poem.

      i think rhetoric's history has varied a lot depending on the forms of persuasion that have reigned at various times. there was probably more of a focus on mass-media analysis after the 50s, and less of a focus on public speaking. but there was also an influx of students after the postwar higher ed expansion who required writing instruction and courses on 'relevant' issues, and i think rhetoric picked up some of that responsibility in universities, sometimes through association with / being housed in english departments.

      my first college-level english comp course was taught by a rhetorician (he assigned us some stuff on rhetoric by sophists that i didn't read, and a reader based on 'crossfire', and some other stuff—he was way better than his students were prepared for, though); a later in-major course in rhetorical anaysis (what we did was analyze stuff, rhetorical artifacts, and read about theories of the various kinds of things relevant to persuasion, which by that point in time admitted of all kinds of exposure to 'theory', hermeneutics-of-suspicion tools, ideological and social critique, etc.). at that school, there was a program either in (as a concentration), or separate from, english-as-literature (i think you could choose), called 'rhetoric and professional communication'. i think technical writers major in that; i haven't seen much mention of them in your remarks here, but if they're taught by this program at your school, they probably play a huge part in filling seats.

    4. it's a little deceptive to say that philosophical works also try to persuade

      Do you mean that they also try to investigate or solve problems? But then literature doesn't only try to move and persuade. Perhaps nothing only tries to persuade. So then a study of persuasion (and nothing else) could possibly be its own thing. It is a large area though.

      Rhetoric and professional communication is certainly something that either is or is going to be taught here, but the program is just getting going. It's too early to say what fills seats. I can imagine something professional-sounding being popular though.

      Thanks for the references. I'll take a look at them.

    5. no, i mean that they accept a different standard than 'persuasion'. the difference is traditionally part of what philosophers contest (with each other and against non-philosophers), but it's caught up in their interest in e.g. cartesian certainties, necessary truths, gapless proofs, etc.

  4. Right--wholes, parts, sums, and the like. Here's a mere suspicion: for some people, the "something else" is something political--all that changing the world rather than interpreting it. But relativism prevents the (possibly murky) political commitment from being sayable (in good faith).

    It's probably ok if Rhetoric is just the argument/persuasion stuff, and then you note--as the communications instructor in our Rhetoric team did--that the student will ultimately be able to choose "to use your powers for good or evil purposes" and then to express your own simple hope that your students would choose the good. That's a little (or a lot) over-simple, but maybe if the "good vs. evil" dynamic is cast in terms of say Socrates vs. Meletus & Anytus, then you get a general normative commitment (about trying to figure out what's true and being free to ask questions, and the value of exposing nonsense) that's likely to be ok with everyone.

    1. does this go along with people (even in philosophy, i note) who describe the undergraduate experience in terms of having opportunities to 'find out what they believe'?

  5. In other words, you could say that YOUR aim in teaching rhetoric is more along the lines of teaching the how to DETECT bullshit (bad sentimentality, etc.) (and avoid it) rather than how to PRODUCE it. (Then you can tell them to major in marketing if they have a problem with that....half-joking.)

    1. Yes. I think you're right about the political thing and this.