Rhetoric as philosophy

Can ‘critical thinking’ be successfully taught in the schools? This question has been debated for decades; but the debate has been largely cooked by the mistaken presumption that there is some discursive space from which to criticize efforts to manipulate people – whether through ‘propaganda’ or advertising or political speechifying. Unfortunately – that’s not true.

The problem with rhetoric (which is what we are discussing here) is that it can always get us what we want, but is rarely what we want it to be.

We want rhetoric to be controllable by reducing it to social protocol. That’s useless and untrue, despite the fact that this is the common teaching of it (e.g., that’s the founding premise of ‘composition studies’).

The supposition that there can be a clear distinction between rhetoric and traditional logic (which is the logic we commonly use in daily life) is false; and Aristotle noted that, which forms the basis of his Rhetoric. All modern studies on response patterns to common public argumentation (e.g., behavioral responses to advertising or political speeches) seem to confirm this.

If this is the case, then there can be no clear *discursive* distinction between ‘mindfucking bullshit’ and reasonable persuasion. And there isn’t. The distinction is between what the target audience of the former believe, and what the target audience of the latter believe. The problematic is not how target audiences are manipulated, but why it is they wish to be so manipulated.

Rhetoric is simply the practice of using language to control the behaviors of others. And we all use it, specifically to that purpose. Thus our awareness needs concern ourselves, and the possible consequences of our discourse. We are fooling ourselves (and doing disservice to our young) to pretend otherwise.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves.” (- Shakespeare) *

“Words are instructions or directions for behavior, and they may be responded to either appropriately or inappropriately, but the appropriateness or inappropriateness depends upon the judgment of someone.” Morse Peckham, “Explanation and Power: The Control of Human Behavior,” U Minnesota, 1979.

“The problematic is not how target audiences are manipulated, but why it is they wish to be so manipulated.”

– ‘This sounds like you’re saying that both audiences are being manipulated -‘

‘I am; they are.’

‘But surely an appeal to our reasoning is not a manipulation, but simply a conversation between equals.’

‘Are you not listening to yourself? “An appeal to our reasoning”? what could be more rhetorically manipulative?’

‘But if I am presented with a choice reasonably presented, allowing me to judge on logical grounds -‘

‘- and how does that make you feel? Isn’t that the person you always wanted to be? and would you submit if you did not feel this?’

There is not a single thing we say lacking rhetorical value. The art of rhetoric – and critical response to it – begins with admitting that.

Less simply, then: Rhetoric is the verbalization of our desires and our fears – our lust, our wish for power, our frustrations and anxieties, our self-identifications, i.e., our images of ourselves: it defines ourselves socially, and how we interact with others (the others we always want something from, be it sex, money or respect – i.e., subservience). We use it; others use it on us. The art becomes, how to navigate in its stream, not whether we wish to stand apart from it (which is impossible) or what we can know independent of it (which is nothing).

We might want to be intellect separable from material reality; but that is not as nature made us. We are as we are; my dog will use every sign she can present to get me to pet her, to feed her, to let her out at night. Our signs are far more complicated; but do they not originate in similar needs for recognition and social ‘stroking’?

What a wonderful thing it would be, if we were ‘spirits in a material form’! Unfortunately, we are merely animals, trying to get the world around us to do our bidding.

We have developed a great many technologies with which to do this; but the first and foremost – available, and indeed inevitable, to all – is rhetoric.

Who cares if you can upload consciousness into a computer? The important question is whether you can persuade a plumber to clean your pipes on Saturday! (Extra points if you get him/her on weekday rates!)

* This clearly means that ethics begins as a question of what we say, and the behavior we expect from this…..

We are only what we say and do. That’s an ontological problem, but it is not beyond the question of what we can know….

Which makes clear that studies we have long believed to be separable – ethics, epistemology, ontology, sociology. etc. – are all part and parcel of a single problematic –

Who are we? what is this, this thing called ‘human’?


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