Kolb and Ess on Rhetoric and Philosophy: An Elaboration/Digression

David Kolb is an example of a philosopher who, as philosophers have tended to do since Gorgias was pilloried by Plato, uses the term "rhetoric" to mean lack of rigour:

Hypertext as rhetoric would be an accumulation of words, images, and considerations that would have an effect on the reader, perhaps persuade the reader to adopt an attitude or a course of action; but the effect would not be based on a line susceptible to criticism and rational evaluation.
(Socrates in the Labyrinth)

Charles Ess makes a different version of this claim, somewhat more rigorously argued, in his commentary on Andersen's "Hypertext Notes" essay:

In much poststructuralist and postmodern hypertext theory, the linear argument is presumed from the outset to be, at best, an artifact of print culture we are best off dispensing with as quickly as possible. In my reading, however, this claim is made exclusively by folk outside of philosophy--meaning first of all, literary theorists, folk such as Jay David Bolter who was originally trained as a classicist, etc. These writers seem quick to dismiss argument as simply a variant of either rhetoric (arguments are only to persuade) or literature (arguments are simply another form of narrative, with no greater or lesser claims to "truth" than any other narrative).

For a philosopher trained in logic, however, these dismissals are highly problematic--and not simply for the ostensibly traditionalist reason that we might want to protect what we know, the Machiavellian reason that we want to defend and expand our academic territories, etc. Rather, these dismissals are problematic for at least two reasons. One, they are examples of reductionism, if not of begging the question. It needs to be demonstrated, not simply assumed, that logical argument is indeed reducible to either rhetoric or narrative. Without such demonstration, we simply assume such reduction - which is to beg the question.

Two, if we try to offer such a demonstration--we quickly find ourselves doing something rather strange: we attempt to offer logical argument to demonstrate that logical argument is not privileged in any way, but is simply reducible to either rhetoric or narrative. In Hegel's terms, we are caught in the cunning of reason: it seems difficult to avoid logic and argument --especially in the moment we are trying to eliminate these as simply variants of something else!

Allowing myself to be brieflly sidetracked and to rise to these philosophers' bait, I would answer that the reuniting of logic and rhetoric proceeds not from a logical argument (which is indeed circular) but from the antifoundationalist view of philosophy propounded by Rorty. Oakeshott, and many others. The "New Rhetoric" would be more apt to see philosophy (in the sense of a rigorous series of propositions) as a fairly local patch in the larger "conversation" that antifoundationalist philosophy substitutes for positivist inquiry. In the absence of an ultimate foundation in which to ground philosophy, everything is rhetoric, but not always "mere" rhetoric. The sophists don't look so bad if we look at them, not through Plato's eyes, but through our own: as people trying to make order out of a foundationless world through speech.

This argument is not as much of a sidetrack, however, if we phrase it, not in terms of the ancient identification of rhetoric with "mere" persuasion, but rather in terms of the question of what happens to rhetoric when it loses the line. Even assuming that these people are wrong about "normal" rhetoric, that rhetoric is really epistemic, capable of creating knowledge, does it lose that ability when it loses the line? If rhetoric in hypertext cannot present a coherent worldview for the reader's examination an possible assent, does it become merely "an accumulation of words, images, and considerations" that is not "susceptible to criticism and rational evaluation"?

Is Hypertext Friendly to Argumentative Rhetoric? The crux of my argument about the rhetoric of hypertext--how we got to the present discussion.
Philosophy and Rhetoric, Argument and Exploration Distinctions among these terms to explore my argument.
Oakshott on the "Conversation of Mankind" An extended quotation to explore the conversational view of rhetoric.
Exploratory Rhetoric Backing up on myself: maybe "argument" is too narrow a definition of rhetoric.
Is Hypertext Formless? An elaboration of the importance of form plus some self-criticism of my suggestion that hypertext lacks form because it lacks linearity.
Our Role as Teachers A way out of this philosophical loop to the fundamental question: do we resist or embrace the new world of hyperliteracy?

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