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Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history.

Sep 28, 2016

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren, we have Jacob in the booth and we’re here together because of the support of the Humanities Media Project at the University of Texas at Austin. And the reason we’ve gathered together in the beautiful recording studio in the basement of Mezes Hall is to talk about the work of George Campbell.


Campbell, like his contemporary Hugh Blair, was a rhetorician-preacher and he believed that he could teach preachers to preach better through modernizing classical rhetoric. Campbell started out in law as a young buck and gradually gravitated towards a clergical vocation. From there, he became the teacherly sort of minister, becoming a scriptorian, translating the gospels of the New Testament and tinkering around with what would be one of his crowning works: the Philosophy of Rhetoric.  According to C. Downey, this guide was not just for rhetoricians and not just for preachers, also the book really reached the best-sellers list in the 19th centurey. The book had 39 editions by the 20th century (9-10). It was a bedrock for many of the rhetoric textbooks that dominated in the 19th century. But before it was one of the defining texts of Enlightenment rhetoric, it was a work-in-progress read before Campbell’s friends in the Aberdeen Philosophical Society, a bunch of like-minded brainy sorts who liked to spend time philosophizing together.


Sidebar: I don’t know why people think writing groups and faculty writing retreats are new-fangled productivity machines. These Enlightenment blokes were always clumping up together to read and think and write together. I’m as much of a loner as any other scholar in the humanities, but I figure if it works for Campbell and Blair and their lot, it’s worth giving it a shot, right?


Like all of his Scottish Enlightenment buddies, Campbell was engaged in the project of making the study of human activities more empircally demonstrable. Making the humanities more scientific, if you want. Campbell went back to classical sources of rhetorical thought and read them across the budding psychological sciences. Instead of “servile imitation” of the classic authors (vi), he promoted a modern interpretation that recognizes that things have changed since the classical treastises were written. That being said, he’s not going to throw out the baby with the bathwater.


And, brother, did this guy like threes. That must be the Aristotlian influence creeping in. It might be worthwhile for you to imagine a chart with three columns when you think about Campbell’s ideas, as we go through the podcast you can start to fill in these columns in all of Campbell’s triparts.


One of the key Campbell trios are that the best langauge is “current, national and reputable.” Lets take a moment and dice out these three. Current is a modern gloss on what Campbell calls “present”--which doesn’t just refer to the time, but also to a metaphorical sense of place. Present is the opposite of past and also the opposite of absent. For a rhetor to use old-timey language is to alienate from the audeince. Similarly, Campbell, good Scotsman of the Enlightenment that he was, is a booster of national language, but this goes beyond the Eton accent--national langauge means there is no universal grammar. Again, we don’t need to stick to the same language rules of Cicero’s Latin when we’re writing and speaking in English.ure use must be (1) English (2) in the English idiom and (3) “employed to express the precise meaning which custom hath affixed to them” (170). If this all sounds cheerfully revolutionary, don’t worry, his idea of reputable will burst your bubble. Like the other “common sense” philosophers, Campbell assumed that one class--his class--were the proprietors of proper langauge. So while he wasn’t a chronological or Latinate snob, he wasn’t advocating a rich brogue riddled with slang over the pulpit. When your group gets to set common sense, everything else is nonsense (cf “Enlightenment Rhetoric” Encyclopedia of Rhetoric 233).Most important question: “is it reputable, nationals and present use, which, for brevity’s sake I shall hereafter simply demoninate good use” (154).  Over all, he argued that English is richer than even Latin (383) and language ought to “prove bars again licentiousness, without being checks to liberty” (380). PSo there’s your first trio: national, current, reputable langauge.


Campbell focuses on the audience as the heart of rhetoric, specifically, the psychological states of the audience. People care if the topic is important, close to their time or place, related to those concerned or interested in the consequences (91-94). This leads to our next set of threes: imagination, reason and passion. Members of the audience have all three of these parts and the rhetor must address them all three (77-86). Say you have these three main ideas, which come from Cicero, from Augustine, from everyone: rhetoric appeals to imagination, memory and passion. It delights, instructs and moves. With Campell, these three modes of rhetoric line up to genres, too. Imagination is related to epic; Passion related to tragitiy and comedy and memory fits in with satire and, through it, persuasion.Additionally important are Campbell’s listed aims related to these three: enlighten the understanding, please the imagination, move the passions or to influence the will” (11), in apparent order of importance (15)


Emotion was especially interested to Campbell. He Emphasizes the passions of the audience (82). Through diminishing or counter-suggesting a different emotion, the rhetorc can calm an emotion (97), especially implicitly rather than explicitly (98).The rhetor can leave “the effect upon their minds […] to nature” (96). If people are riled up about Catholics, as happened in Campbell’s Scotland, you can respond in a peaceful, calm way, as he did in a pamphlet called An Address to the People of Scotland, upon the Alarms that have been Raised in Regard to Popery urging people to calm the eff down.


The final three part from Campbell that I want to talk about is a little more complex. It starts with two seeming opposites: probability and plausibility. Probability and plausibility are “daughters of the same father, Experience” Probability is begot of Reason and Plausibility by Fancy (89-90). So you can think about this in terms of literature and art. This last week I chain-watched a sci-fi fantasy coming-of-age series about four nerds in the eighties. Even though my reason balks at the idea of monsters in the walls and nefarious psychic experiments, my imagination, my fancy, accepts that if there were monsters in the walls and nefarious psychic experiments, this show describes exactly how nerds in the eighties would respond to it.  My experience with the world tells me something about monsters in the walls and something else about pre-teen nerds in the 80s. Or in Campbell’s explanation, probability “results from evidence and begets belief”(86) while plausibility “ariseth chiefly from the consistency of the narration” being “natural and feasible” (87). Campbell is skeptical, as you might expect a Scottish Enlightenment preacher to be, of drawing on the artist for evidence.Testimony of the poet goes for nothing” he writes “His object […] is not truth, but likelihood” (89)


So there are our three threes: language should be current, national and reputable; reasoning draws on imagination, memory and passion; experience leads to both probablility and plausibility. I have to admit, while researching this podcast, I came to a newfound appreciation of Campbell. His wikipedia page, for example, is severely lacking. I should probably do something about that now, huh? If you have a topic you think gets shorted, why not drop me a line at Oh, or speaking of technology if you like the podcast, you can get on ITunes or whereever you get your podcasts and leave us a good review. Letting us know what you like lets us bring you even more. It’s like probable as well as plausible.