Philosophy and Rhetoric, Argument and Exploration

The term "rhetoric" has expanded well beyond the original meaning of a persuasive argument designed to overpower an audience and bring them over to the speaker's point of view. The "New Rhetoric" now foregrounds interaction, conversation, and joint construction of knowledge.

But a form of persuasion lies at the bottom of every use of the term "rhetoric." To speak is to present claims to which others may or not assent, by which others may or may not be persuaded. To take in part of another's lifeworld, to build the self as "a field of selves" as Wayne Booth puts it, is a fundamentally persuasive process. Language, Weaver reminds us, is always "sermonic," always tries to build a world through words..

The question is, does "argument" lie behind every instance of "persuasion"? I think that the answer is clearly "no," as Booth claims when he argues that persuasion happens through emotional proof, through exposure to examples, through the uptake of art--in short, through any symbolic interchange. Yet "argument" in the more restricted sense of a chain of propositions presented in sequence is still one of the most important rhetorical forms.

Oakeshott and Burke capture the differences between these two views of rhetoric in their complementary yet divergent images of the "conversation of mankind." Oakeshott's "conversation" reflects the antifoundationalist roots of his philosophy by placing argument in the background of the conversation: "A conversation may have passages of argument and a speaker is not forbidden to be demonstrative; but reasoning is neither sovereign nor alone, and the conversation itself does not compose an argument" (198). Burke's conversation, while still not in pursuit of an absolute Platonic truth, is more recognizable as traditional rhetorical engagement: "Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you" (110). It is this second kind of argument that I think of when I ask whether hypertext is friendly to rhetoric, for it presupposes an exchange of positions, each of which can be articulated as a position in ways that hypertext may not allow for without denying its own mandate as hypertext.

The waters are further muddied by confusions of terms. I divide rhetoric into exploratory (Oakeshott) and argumentative or discursive (Burke). Philosophers sometimes reserve the term "philosophy" for arguments intended to establish a position, and speak of "rhetoric" (often with a tacit "mere" in front of the term) as either discourse without rigorous intellectual engagement, or as the superficial set of forms that the underlying series of positions may take. Thus "the rhetoric of hypertext" means, for these philosophers, a matter of form rather than content. This distinction has been going on since Plato distinguished rhetoric from dialectic, and reached its peak with Ramus' total cleavage between the two territories. (Two philosophers whose work I respect deeply, David Kolb and Charles Ess, get my rhetorician's blood up with this age-old distinction.)

I don't intend to re-engage this largely semantic dispute, nor do I want to except to clarify my own use of the terms as a rrhetorician rather than as a philosopher. For rhetoricians, philosophy is argument considered as an abstract formal system. Rhetoric is exploation (Oakeshott) or argument (Burke) for an audience. The rhetor must consider how her arguments will work in a particular context--particular readers, particular occasions, particular purposes: that is, it must take into account kairos.

By this definition, when philosphers write down their philosophies for others, they are doing rhetoric. Aside from the ironic savour of this point, it is important because it suggests that philosophers-as-rhetoricians (that is, whenever they speak their philosophy) must consider the rhetorical arrangement of their arguments. This is not a trivial point when considering whether hypertext is friendly to rhetoric.

On the other hand, limiting this discussion of rhetoric to the subclass of "argumentative rhetoric" may be artificially limiting the discussion. If we get past the definition of rhetoric as argument, maybe we will see the role of hypertext more clearly.


Is Hypertext Friendly to Argumentative Rhetoric? The crux of my argument about the rhetoric of hypertext.
Oakeshott on Conversation An extended quotation to explore the conversational view of rhetoric.
Burke's "Unending Conversation" Metaphor An extended quotation to explore a related view of rhetoric.
Kolb and Ess on Rhetoric and Philosophy A further exploration of/digression on Rhetoric vs. Philosophy
Exploratory Rhetoric Backing up on myself: maybe "argument" is too narrow a definition of rhetoric.

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