Mere Rhetoric

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Audio: Modern_Dogma_and_the_Rhetoric_of_Assent.mp3
In 1969 in Chicago, Illinois, a group calling themselves The Committee of 5000 Plus Against Disciplinary Procedures issued demands. They demanded that the issue of discipline would be seen in context that expulsions would be rescinded, that cases against protesting students be dropped. At the end of the list of the demands, they demanded that the failure of the Committee of the council, which is to say, the council of the University of Chicago, to respond satisfactorily to these demands by Tuesday noon March fourth will in and of itself constitute grounds for further militant action.
The University had a series of different ways to try to respond to this. There were a lot of faculty discussions about what to say, but officially in February 26, 1969, the faculty spokesman for the executive committee of the elected faculty council addressed the faculty and students of the University of Chicago as follows: and in which spot they responded with the exact same list of demands that the students had made, ending with failure to respond so within the time specified will automatically result in expulsion. How had such a breakdown of rhetoric happened, that one group was unable to respond at all to the demands of another, simply dismissing them? And believing that reprinting the exact words in almost the exact language would demonstrate the apparent ridiculousness of such a position. How had rhetoric broken down?
Well that's the question today on Mere Rhetoric where we get to talk about weighing boots, modern dogma, and the rhetoric of a cent where he as a member of the University of Chicago faculty at this time and one of the great founders of the 20th century tradition of rhetoric had a chance to respond to this as it was going on and a little bit in retrospect as he did revisions of the lectures that he gave that eventually became modern dogma and the rhetoric of assent. Wayne Booth is sometimes grouped among the neo-Aristoteleans which means that he likes to categorize things and he's pretty classical in some senses. He's very interested in how rhetoric could possibly break down and for him there's been a loss of faith in the idea of good reasons by the 1960's. The idea that we can indeed persuade each other to change minds. That we can change minds at all.
The reason why this loss of rhetoric has happened, he argues, has been the creeping approach of modern dogmas, these modernist ideas that are either scientist or romantic. Both of these positions, even though they seem antithetical, are opposed to the idea of rhetoric. They assert that the purpose of offering reasons cannot be to change men's minds in the sense of showing that one view is genuinely superior to another, but it all must be trickery. Because of the dogmas of modernism, what had once been a domain with many grades of dubiety and credulity now becomes simply the dubious for scientism or the arena of conflicting faiths for irrationalism. 
For Booth, the poster boy for all of these conflicting positions is Bertrand Russel, or rather, Bertrand Russels'. Booth asserts that Bertrand Russel is sort of the hero of the modernist age and claims that he sees a lot of students with posters of Bertrand Russel up in the dorms which maybe was a big deal in the 60's because I've never met anybody with a poster of any philosopher, even Bertrand Russel, but maybe back in the 60's things were different. So he says that Bertrand Russel has become sort of the hero of both of these positions -- scientist and romanticism. Booth splits his work into three parts.
Russel one, the quote, genius of mathematical logic, unquote, who was all into proof and facts. Russel, too, who tried to disestablish certain past beliefs and establish the more adequate beliefs of science, and Russel, three, who was the man of action and passion, the poet and mystic -- both the completely sterilely irrational and impassioned romantic are part of this modernist perspective that can undermine rhetoric. Either things can be factually argued down to the very last point as a matter of the absolute motives. This motivism is a dogma not as Booth says, because I think all or most valued choices are made on the basis of fully conscious scientific cognate reasoning, but because I find that many people, assuming without argument that none of them ever can be, look for the secret motive where in practice motivism often leads to a cutting down of man's aspirations and capacities to the nearly animal or in a natural further step, to the chemical or physical. Getting down to the chemical or physical seems like a really blunt way of trying to discover truth, one that doesn't allow for any dialogue. You just cut down to why people are saying what they're saying in a chemical sense. The opposite of this is a sort of mysticism that insists that my idea is always correct even though as Booth says, truth is not always on the side of the rebel. To simply say no when everyone else is saying no is just another form of group compliance, a disguise and therefore and feeble yes. And therefore some of these student protesters who are so insistent that their way is correct because it was a new way was behaving in sort of a romantic, or to be less charitable about it, irrational way, insisting that the faculty could simply not understand their position at all and had to be given a list of demands to comply or not comply with instead of engaging in dialogue.
[00:06:40] 
Well the opposite of this is of course rhetoric. The supreme purpose of persuasion is to engage in mutually inquiring and exploring and that rhetoricians learn to be committed to learn whatever conditions make such mutual inquiry possible. What leads to such failures as the Chicago demands and what can prevent such failures? The remarkable thing about rhetoric for Booth is that we successfully infer another human being's states of minds from symbolic clues but also -- and this is very important -- that in all societies we build each other's minds, that we contribute to each other. If there is no rhetorical inquiry, we can't do that anymore. Rhetoric is a supremely self-justifying activity, Booth says, for man only when those engaged in it fully respect the rules and steps of the inquiry. The way to do this, surprise, is through thoughtful dialogue. 
As I do, when I know that justice of my action is determined by whether what looks like good reasons are in fact good reasons. In this sense, Booth asserts that we must somehow constitute society as a rhetorical field. Ultimately this rhetorical field of society is not a comfortable community nor a stable one. Even those who join it consciously and systematically as we almost do by talking together here -- here being the lecturers that he's presenting -- cannot provide a convenient list of gods and devils, friends and enemies. But at the same time he can give us some ease into whatever sub community we have already assented to. We have to find space for a rhetorical field. For conversation, not just breaking things down to the scientific or insisting my way or the highway.  In this realm of rhetorical inquiry, Booth says we can add value fields that modernism would exclude. In love by lovers. In astronomy, by [inaudible]. In whatever kind of value those who have some knowledge of a good reason from a bad. In short, what some people might call untenable claims can join into the part of rhetoric. 
Also, there's an excellent part of this book that talks about the rhetoric of poetics and of narrative. If we can convince each other that lovers know something about love, then maybe there can be something to be taught from literature as well. He calls this section the story as reasons and he claims every kind of argument that anyone could ever use in real life might be used in a narrative work and it could presumably carry as much force from one place as another. If there are good reasons for confidence and the values of discoursing together, then we can get about our business importantly, whatever that may be. 
This becomes the key point. We have to go about discoursing together and then we can do whatever our business is -- arguing about business or politics or religion --, but not unless we have confidence for the value of discussing together. 
This book, written even back in the 70's, paves the way for the listening rhetoric that Booth will eventually develop in the 90's and 2000's. Not that we learn to argue less, but that we learn to argue better.
Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_Modern_Dogma.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 12:00pm CDT