Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to MR, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements that have shaped rhetorical history. It’s a new year and a new semester here at the University of Texas, and it’s time for some new years resolutions. We got a lot of old episodes re-recorded last semester, and by golly I’m glad we did, but it’s time to get some fresh episodes out. So, thanks to the Humanities Media Project here at the University of Texas at Austin, we’re going to have some brand new episodes. Okay, we had like six new ones last semester, but this time I’m keeping a promise I made to a Belgian. Victor Ferry wrote in last august or something and when we talked about episodes, he said that he’d love to hear about the great Belgian rhetorician--Chiam Perleman. “Sure, Victor,” I said. “We’re doing some old episodes, but I promise, we’ll do Perleman this year.” So, in the name of keeping promises, we’re not only doing one episode on Chiam Perleman, but we’re doing two. That’s right, a Perelman two-parter. Today we’ll talk a little about Perleman’s life and his collaboration with Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca and their master work, The New Rhetoric,. Next week we’ll talk about Perleman’s solo career and the Rhelm of Rhetoric and some of the responses to the Perelman’s work.


Perelman almost wasn’t a Belgian rhetorician. He was born in Poland and moved to Belgium, as many Poles were wont to do in the late twenties and thirties. There, he could have been a lawyer, because he got a law degree, and then he went and got his doctorate in philosophy by looking at a mathematician. But while he thought big thoughts about law and ethics and philosophy, things really took off when he met a colleague named Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca and they set about writing the massive book, the New Rhetoric.


The New Rhetoric is not a modest undertaking. what Perelman and Olbrechts Tyteca were undertaking was nothing less than the complete rehabilitation of ancient rhetoric into a modern resource for making ethical decisions. In this rehabilitation, audience is key: that’s what rhetoric really does best. As they say it, “For argument to develop, there must be some attention paide to it by those to whom it is directed” (think of your audience in other words.) They go on and say,  “argumentation aims at securing the adherence of those to whom it is addressed, it is, in its entirety, relative to the audience to be influenced” (1969, p. 19). The audience, though and “the audience” may be different things. There’s an audience which is the ideal, a universal audience that is perfectly understanding and wise and then there is the audience that one gets, like the hand one is dealt. The latter is called the particular audience. This changes how we talk about argument, too. So an argument may be persuasive if it appeals successfully to a particular audience, but it won’t be convincing unless it can “gain the adherence of every rational being” (28).


But let’s get a little deeper in the weeds about the universal audience. The universal audience, they write “consists of the whole of mankind, or at least, of all normal, adult persons,” and since we seldom find ourselves addressing the whole of mankind or even all normal adult persons, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca point out that “Each speaker’s universal audience can, indeed, from an external viewpoint, be regarded as a particular audience, but it non the less remains true that for each speaker at each moment, there exists an audience transcending all others, which cannot easily be forced within the bounds of a particular audience” (30). So it’s an election year, let’s talk about the problems of the particular audience. Say you’re a politician running for office in a region that’s been hit hard by industrial decline. You might address a crowd of people who are depressed by the high levels of unemployment, scared about continuing layoffs and stressed about the idea of trying to find a new job that may ask them to change their careers, and their homes in the middle of their lives. It might be tempting to tell these people that you will bring back industrial jobs, that the factories will run again, that they can stay in their own homes and careers. But then you might have to go directly to address another crowd, say a group of environmentally minded people who are thrilled that the factories are closed--after all, they’re the ones who lobbied to tax pollution in their town, and they petitioned for increased regulation, which cost the factories so much money that they couldn’t stay open. what are you going to say to this audience? If you promise the factories will be back, they’ll boo you out of the room.


Or, as Perelman and Olbretchs Tyteca say, “Argumentation aimed exclusively at a partciular audience has the drawback that the speaker, by the very fact of adapting to the views of his listeners, might rely on arguments that are foreign or even directly opposed to what is acceptable to persons other than those he is presently addressing” (31).


Instead imagine what the universal audience would approve of, what both the groups you want to address care about: they want their communitity to have plenty of jobs and economic success, and they want to live in a place where the air and water are clean and pure. This is a small example of the ideal, the “agreement of the universal audience,” which may be generalizable, even hypothetical.


“Philosophers,” Perekman and Ol-ty say, “always claim to be adressing such an audience, not because they hope to obtain the effective assent of all men--they know very well that only a small minority will ever read their works--but because they think that all who understand the reaons they give will have to accept their conclusions,” or, in other words “The agreement of a universal audience is thus a matter, not of fact, but of right” (31).


But where can one hope to find a universal audience? I know where to find unemployed factory workers and environmentalists, but how do I know how the universal audience polls? Frankly, P and Olbretchs-Tyceta say, you have to make them up as you go. “Everyone constitutes the universal audience from what he knows of his fellow men, in such a way as to transcend the few oppositions he is aware of. Each individual, each culture, has thus its own conception of the universal audience. The study of these variations would be very instructive, as we would learn from it what men, at different times in history, have regarded as real, true and objectively valid” (33). So if you’re speaking to that group of unemployed factory workers, you have to think about what arguments they (and the environmentalists) would find valid. If you suggest that the community can pivot into clean industry and environmental tourism, you have to wonder whether your communities believes that it’s true that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” or that anyone can change and the American spirit is about growth and adaptation. What is your culture’s conception of what is real and true? It takes some work to figure out what’s valid in your community and what’s universally accepted. the universal audience is a kind of invisible standards committee, detirmining what will fly for everyone. But the committee is hard to pin down, even for the scholars arguing for it in The New Rhetoric.

As the authors put it,  “it is the undefined universal audience that is invoked to pass judgment on what is the concept of the universal audience appropriate to such a concrete audience, to examine, simultaneously the manner in which it was composed, which are the individuals who comprise it, according to the adopted criterion, and whether this criterion is legitimate. It can be said that audiences pass judgment on one another” (35).

Agreement in the community yields a fact. Facts are not immutable and once it is no longer accepted, it becomes a conclusion, rather than a starting premise (68).  We might all agree that factories pollute, or that pollution hurts the wild life. Build enough of a web of agreement, and you come up with truth. Maybe that truth for our community is that factories as currently constituted are antithetical to a clean, healthy environment. It relates the different facts that the universal audience agrees to. Move one step over from facts and you get values like patriotism, or health. Values are arranged in hierarchies. Is health more important than patriotism? Is the environment more important than jobs? And hierarchies are arranged in loci. General loci are the most absolute. For example, the value of human life might be an absolute loci in your community. You’d do whatever it took to protect it, even if Matt Damon was from your town and you had to rescue him from the Nazis or Mars or whatever. Specific loci are more specific to the situation for example, the value of Matt Damon’s life when he’s in danger might be the specific loci, or you might say, if you have to choose between Matt Damon and an extra, choose Matt Damon’s life.

So taking all of these terms into account, the strength of the argument is (1) “intensity of the hearer/s adherence to the premises” and (2) “relevance of the arguments in the particular discussion” (461). Getting back to our politician, you might have a harder time convincing an unwilling audience of your argument, but arguments don’t need to be waterproof: “the essential thing is that they appear sufficiently secure to allow the unfolding of the argument” (261). the whole object of argumentation is “gaining the adherence of minds” within a “community of minds” (14).

That’s all the time we have for today, but The New Rhetoric is a 562 page masterpeice that set the stage for much of the philosophical discussion about rhetoric and reason. Next time we’ll talk about some of the responses to The New Rhetoric as well as Perelman’s Realm of Rhetoric. In the meantime, if you have a favorite rhetorician you’d like to hear featured on the show or if you want to extract some promises, drop me a line at I’d love to hear from you.

Direct download: 16-02-18_-_Mere_Rhetoric_-_Perelman_Pt_1.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 2:56pm CDT