A note on rhetoric

(This includes revised material from previous posts.)

“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 [1].

Dialogue: A rhetorician and a logician:
‘Let’s say we have one audience that sets stock in logic based discourse; another prefers appeal to emotions. The problematic is not how each target audience has its base preferences triggered rhetorically, but why it is they wish their preferences appealed to. The one identifies with their intellect, the other with their ”gut feelings….”’
‘This sounds like you’re saying that both audiences are being manipulated.‘
‘I wouldn’t say manipulated; I suggest their responses are directed toward a preferred end.’
‘But surely an appeal to reasoning is simply part of a dialogue in the effort to find a common truth.’
‘Are you not listening to yourself? “An appeal to our reasoning”? what could be more rhetorically directive?’
‘But if I am faced 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?’
‘But I am trying to convince you -’
‘You want my assent; and how shall this be evidenced?’
‘If my logic is sound, you will agree.’
‘You want me to engage a speech act, “yes;” and further, don’t you also want me to go about “convincing” others on your behalf?’
‘On behalf of the truth!’
‘It may be; but that’s beside the point. Therein lies your dilemma: Everything you want me to say may be true; everything you want me to do based on that, may be based on true beliefs. But first, you must have me acquiesce. You must persuade me to your cause. You can appeal to my previous experience and education; you may appeal to my inculcated beliefs; you may appeal to my sense of self, to the values with which I identify. But you will never get my assent with pure logic. “If” covers a lot of ‘maybes,’ and “then” only necessarily follows in a truth table.’

Rhetoric: the practical value:
There is not a single thing we say lacking rhetorical value. The art of rhetoric – and critical response to it – begins with admitting that. 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 our selves socially, and how we interact with others (the others we always want something from, whether good or ill; or even if it is perceived as benefiting the other somehow [2]). We use it on others, there is no socialization otherwise; and 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.
“The goal of all argumentation (…) is to create or increase the adherence of minds to the theses presented for their assent. An efficacious argument is one which succeeds in increasing this intensity of adherence among those who hear it in such a way as to set in motion the intended action (a positive action or an abstention from action) or at least in creating in the hearers a willingness to act, which will appear at the right moment.” – Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, The New Rhetoric [3].

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!)


[1] Explanation and Power: The Control of Human Behavior, U Minnesota, 1979.
[2] “Eat your spinach and you’ll grow up healthy as Popeye.”
[3] Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, The New Rhetoric: A treatise on argumentation (J. Wilkinson and P. Weaver, Trans. ), University of Notre Dame Press, 1969.
This is probably the most comprehensive text on rhetoric in the modern era, and links well with classical rhetoric without simply re-iterating it, since the authors were well aware that they were writing in the post-propaganda era following WWII. It had considerable influence on Continental philosophers, but is written in the straight-forward academic prose preferred in the Analytic tradition.

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