Mere Rhetoric

Remember when you were a freshman and you took first year critical reasoning? Or in high school, when you took the AP thinking exam?


Of course not, because we don’t really teach philosophy or critical thinking. What we do teach is writing.




Welcome to MR the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, movements and people who have shaped rhetorical history. today we’ll be talking about the mid nineties text “Rhetoric of Reason,” winner of the 1997 MLA Mina Shannassy book prize.


Titles one chapter “The end of Philosophy and the Resurgence of Rhetoric” Provocative idea. but can rhetoric and writing classes take over the millenia of philosophy and logic instruction that have long been cornerstones of a liberal education?


Crosswhite conceives his own book to be “a challenge to teachers of writing… to become much more philosophical about the teaching and theory of argumentation” (8).Motivated by “a social hope that people will be able to reason together” (17) in a civil responsibly taught in FYC classes the nation over.  Because “The teaching of writing is nothing less than the teaching of reasoning” (4). Purpose of university education is to write reasoned argumentation, “about conflicts that are matters of concerns to many different kinds of people, to fellow citizens who may not share their specialized knowledge” (296).


Rhetoric is philosophy without absolutes (“including negative absolutism”) (35).  If there is an end of philosophy in the 1990s as the influence of deconstructionists like Derrida is splashing over departments of English, can writing and rhetoric fill the gap in teaching the new good reasoning?As one review put it, “Crosswhite clearly moves away from the static view of formal logic in which propositions are measured against internally consistent rules rather than the more complex and shifty criteria articulated by live audiences” (Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, Reed Way Dasenbrock, Andreea Deciu, Christopher Diller & Colleen Connolly).


In this, he is highly indebted to the work of new rhetorics like the kind you’ll find in Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca’s The New Rhetoric, which I promise we’ll talk about one of these days. For our purposes the key thing Crosswhite adopts is the idea of a universal audience. The term “universal” can be misleading. Crosswhite points out that “Unviersiality … depvelops along different lines; there are different and sometimes incompatiable ways of achieveing more universal standpoints. Universality is an achievement of particular people at particular times for particular purposes” (215). But another way, he says “Even if argumentation is a relatively universal practice, the occasions on which one argues, what one argues about, the requency with which one argues, the people with whom one argues, how explicitly one argues, how far one carries and argument--all these things may vary strongly from culture to culture” (218). It sounds a lot like rhetoric, doesn’t it, all this considering the audience and kairos and stases? Rhetorically specific communities, though, all will detirmine what is good reasoning and reflect that back to their interlocutors.Reasoning “is dependant on a background of deep competences, moods, abilities, assumptions, beliefs, ways of being and understanding” (254). “Argumentation is a “relatively universal practice” but how, where, why and for what of argumentation “may vary strongly from culture to culture” (218). Fundamentally, “People can argue only concerning those things about which they are willing to learn, and change their minds” (283).


Imagine an audience that is broadly conceived yet culturally dependant. An audience of good reasoners.With such an audience, good reasoning is “a matter not simply of what is true, but of the measure of the truth yielded by argumentation" (153). Audiences are crucial, because “there are those occasion on which an audience repsonds in ways we had not anticipated and in fact goes beyond our own reasoning and our own ideas. sometimes, and audience evaluates our reasoning  and in ways we could not have foreseen--but which we nevertheless recognize as legitimate” (152). Contradiction is important, becoming “powerful enablers of discovery” (263) and as such “contradictions should be cherished, nurtured developed” (264)


Other key influences come from philosophy, notably Levinas and Cavell, because the ordinary, the acknowledgement of other people are important, builds”mutual trust and respect [to] make possible rather extraordinary uses of the ordinary possibilities of communication” (31).



Mutual respect does not, though, mean consensus. In fact, Crosswhite is  bullish on dissent in general "Where there is no conflict of any kind,” he says, “there is no reason" (72). “We don’t need courses in ‘critical thinking’ nearly as much as we need course in suspending critical thought in order to read deeper understandings” (201), focusing more on questions than consensus (199). This proves a problem when looking at a significant third of traditoinal rhetoric: the epideictic. As Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and co-authors observe, this “view, however, forces Crosswhite to quickly pass over how both aesthetic discourse (he cites fiction, poetry, and plays) and, less quickly, how epideictic rhetoric complicate the way that rationality and argumentation be- come embodied and therefore persuasive.” Instead, the epideictic for crosswhite “seems to lack the connectio with social conflict and looks more like a struggle with nature” (104) and the only way is to “try to show how epideictic, too, is a form of social conflict” (105)--a proposition he invokes but doesn’t develop.


But let’s get back to what he does get to, which is surprisingly pragmatic for a book that cites so much Gadamer and Heidegger. He says That students simply “need more familiaryt with more diverse and more universal audience, with audiences which demand more explicit reasoning” (273) Crosswhite gives an extended example of what this looks like in his own classes.


Here’s the useful, wheels-on-the-road stuff: “ writing courses and textbooks often lack focus and purpose; they simply try to cover too much” (189); and he recommends more workshops with student-to-student audiences because “writers need real interlocutors and audiences—a real rhetorical community” (281). Crosswhite’s writtena  pretty brainy and philosophical text here, but he’s also made an argument for bringing questions of reasoning and philosophy into the writing class as key to what we do and key to what philosophy should do. What do you think? Should we be responsible for teaching reasoning in the university? How do we fit it in when we have so much to cover? Drop us a line at and let me know. Should first year composition be retitled first-year reasoning and writing?


Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_Crosswhite.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 12:00pm CDT