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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.

Jul 10, 2015


“Today,” I.A. Richards begins his 1936 lectures, rhetoric “is the dreariest and least profitable part of the waste that the unfortunate travel through in Freshman English! So low has Rhetoric sunk that we would do better just to dismiss it to Limbo than to trouble ourselves with it--unless we can find reason for believing that it can become a study that will minister successfully to important needs” (3). this is just what Richards sets out to do in a series of lectures at Bryn Mawr that eventually became the thin book The Philosophy of Rhetoric.


For Richards, a literary scholar by training and one of the founders of the Close REading and New Criticism, rhetoric had been for too long about disputes and argumentation. Instead he proposes that rhetoric should be “a study of misunderstanding and its remedies” and investigation in “How much and in how many ways may good communication differ from bad?” To this end, the proposes a sort of philological rhetoric, one where there is to be “persistent, systematic, detailed inquiry into how words work that will take the place of the discredited subjuect which goes by the name Rhetoric” (23). This description may rankle contemporary rhetoricicans. We like argumentation, and resist the idea that what we should be doing sounds like the very work schoolmarmn sentence diagramming, but Richards recognized that the way words work cannot be divorced from society.


But Ricahrds also broadened the idea of what rhetoric could be--not just strict argumentation, but an exporation of all language. “Perausion is just one of the aims of discourse” he writes. “It poaches on others.” This opens up rhetoric to more than argumentation, and Richards’ focus on words, words, words does not come at the expense of thinking about meaning.


In fact, he derides what he calls the Proper Meaning Superstitution, the fallacious ida that “a word has a meaning of its own (ideally, only one) independent of and controlling its use and purpose for which it should be uttered” (11).

Instead “What a word means is the missing parts of the contexts from which it draws its delegated efficacy” (35). It’s all context.


In order to illustrate the importance of context, Richards gives the example of the metaphor, one of the four master tropes. He separates the metaphor into its two parts: the tenor and vehicle. the tenor is the thing behind the metaphor and the vehicle is the means of conveying it. So if I said love is a battlefield, love is the tenor and battlefield is the vehicle. That girl is a firework. girl is tenor, firework is the vehicle. So far so good? So metaphors, Richards says, “may work admirably without our being able with any confidence to say how ti works or what is the ground of the shift.” Richards gives his own, slightly outdated example “If we call some one a pig or a duck, for example, it si little use looking for some actual resemblance toa  pig or a duck as the ground. We do not call someone a duck ro imply that she has a bill and paddles or is good to eat” (117). Little venture into canniblistic imagry there, I.A., but, of course, we call someone a duck becuase they are “charming and delightful”--or we could call someone a duck if we were a little more british. But the duck example highlights that while some metaphors work because of a “direct remblance” between the tenor and the vehicle and sometimes because of a similar attitutude to both--love is like a battlefield because there are similar feelings to being at war and being in love. This all sounds like a lot of poetics, but it demonstrates Richards concern for the very small elements of communication.


Words are vitally important, down to the detail, for Richards. “Words are the meeting points at which regions of experience which can never combine in sensation or intuition, come together. They are the occasion and the means of that growth which is the mind's endless endeavor to order itself. That is why we have language. It is no mere signalling system. It is the instrument of all our distinctively human development, of everything in which we go beyond the other animals." (131)


Ultimately, he envisions a philosophical restructuring of rhetoric were “we may in time learn so much about words that they will tell us how our minds work” (136). Further, he goes on “It seems modest and reasonable to combine these dreams and hope that a patient persistence with the problems of Rhetoric may, while exposing the causes and modes of the misinterpretation  of words, also throw light upon and suggest a remdial discipline for deeper and more grievous disorders; that, as the mall and local errors in our everday misunderstandings with language are models in miniature of the greater errors which disturb the development of our personalities, their study may also show us more about how these large scale disasters may be avoided (136-7). The man who pioneered New Criticism proposes a New Rhetoric beyond argumentation.


for all that, you won’t read much rhetorical scholarship pulling on Richards. Back in 1997, Stuart C Brown pointed out that while most rhetoric students read the Philosophy of Rhetoric, or at least excerpts of it, rhetorical scholars don’t really pay much attention to Richards. Maybe they have a word or two of “faint praise” and ackowledge him as part of our tradition, but they don’t spend much time on him. Brown thinks this is a mistake and that Ricahrds “ established the basic argument for establishing a truly new rhetoric” (219) By acknowledging the multiplicity of meanings, the instabliity of langauge, Richards opens up space for rhetorical interpretation. Brown makes an indepth defense of the value of Richards’ work. But still, 1997 was a long time ago and Richards still hasn’t come to the forefront as a rhetorical influence.


that being said, we’ll get to spend a little more time with Richards, because next week we’re going to talk about Richard’s other major work--the Meaning of Meaning--so get ready to get hipster about your rhetorical theoretians next time on Mere Rhetoric.