Mar 11, 2016
Sometimes I make a podcast and I think, “Golly I hope I did justice by that idea, person and movement that shaped rhetorical history.” Sometimes I make a podcast on the work of someone living, like Scott Stroud’s book about John Dewey, and sometimes I make a podcast on someone dead, like Kant. If I misrepresent a dead person, who will stop me? A living one. today, on Mere rhetoric, not exactly a retraction, but a revision of a previous episode on Immanual Kant, the philosopher who has been long-identified, including by me, as diametrically opposed to the field of rhetoric. Scott Stroud’s Kant and the Promise of Rhetoric, today on Mere Rhetoric.
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, a podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren, specially thanks to the Humanities Media Project at the University of Texas for their support in making these new episodes both possible and awesome. Also thanks to Jacob in the booth, and Scott Stroud, also of the University of Texas. I emailed Dr. Stroud when I talked about his book in the Dewey episodes, and he told me he was working on a book on Kant that may change my opinion on him. Alright, I thought, let’s hear it.
And I did. Stroud wrote a few articles about Kant’s views of education which suggested that there may be a rhetoric of Kant after all, and they piqued my interest to the point when I was ready to jump on this book when it released.
Essentially Stroud argues that Kant didn’t hate rhetoric as much as we think so, which is pretty high because Kant says things like, “Man, I hate rhetoric.” Stroud even points out that Kant turned down a position as professor of poetry even though he wanted “academic advancement and funds” (4), just because he seemed to dislike linguistic fla-dee-la. But it’s possible that some of Kant’s antipathy towards rhetoric is just antipathy towards a certain kind of rhetoric.
Kant’s frienemy, Christian Garves, was a loud-and-proud Ciceronian, which criticized Kant openly and behind anonymity. “Kant rejected this way of doing philosophy,” Stroud writes “and in doing so, rejected the notion of rhetoric that appeared connected to it in practice” (23). He hated the idea of all the self-interest inherent in Garves’ understanding of rhetoric, felt like it was categorically opposed to the categorical imperative: that any action you undertake could be a universal law. Remember when your mom would catch you littering or picking the neighbors’ flowers and ask, “What if everyone did that? What would happen then?” That’s essentially the mom version of the categorial imperative.
But rhetoric isn’t about universals. It’s not about telling people to do things that are applicable to everyone in every situation--it’s hopelessly conditional. Garston in Saving Persausion, another book we’ve talked about on the podcast, banishes Kant from the world of rhetoric because he loved universals so much. Stroud responds to GArston’s complaints. “Rhetorical message are primarily not universal, since few things relevant to pressing decisions in the present are of such general scope,” he admits “Yet Kant’s philosophy seems to demand that practices be universalizable.” (187) The detachment usually described as a condition of scholarly logic is actually “an orientational or dispositional feature as as such is applicable to all forms of communicative activity” (189) There are things that are universalizable in how we do rhetoric, even if each instance of rhetoric may be specific to its moment of kairos. As Stroud says, “Kant did not insist that a reason be a reason for every potential listener; he does seem to insist, however, that it be a reason for everyone in a comparable situation” (190).
Okay, that’s all well and good, but what about the fact that Kant pretty much straight out says, “Do you know what I hate? rhetoric. I really hate that field. Ugh.”? Well, first off, that’s paraphrase, but secondly, it’s also translation. There are multiple words that could be translated as rhetoric. Even in English, we have rhetoric and eloquence and persausion and all sorts of words that fan out like a Vann diagram with overlapping meanings. Some of the terms are manipulative, but not all. “clearly, the larger genus of ‘skilled speaking’ or elequence is re (42)levent to Kant’s moral project.” stroud says, but “If one honors the complexity of the phenomena of human communication and the range of terms being used by Kant, one can conceptualize rhetoric simply as the persuasive use of language in community with others “ (43). And that’s something that Kant can get behind
Okay, so if we accept that Kant doesn’t have a deep abiding hatred for all things communication, what would a Kantian rhetoric look like? Building fromKant’s philosophy, what if he had taken that poetry job? what would he have said to the writers in his class? That’s the second task that Stroud takes, after his resuscitation of Kant into the field of rhetoric. Or as he himself puts it: “what sense of such rhetorical action are enjoined by Kant’s complex thought on morality, religion, politics, aesthetics, and education? Taking ‘rhetoric’ not as a simple term but as a complex concept, what uses or forms of rhetorical activity fit into Kant’s mature thought, especially the important topic of moral and the formation of the ideal sort of human community?” (7).
There are two venues where Kant’s ideal human community really comes out: education and religion. Both are troublesome to the fundamental question of rhetoric for Kant: how can you honor someone’s autonomy and their freedom and still try to change them? Kant hated manipulation, but you wouldn’t necessarily say that fourth-graders and manipulated into learning long division or state capitals, and you don’t even need to say that they’re manipulated in learning how to share, cooperate and treat others with respect.
Stroud points out that “Kant is notably hostile to rhetoric, but only one version of it--that of persuasive speech used with an orientation toward selfish and manipulative use of one’s social skill. Avoiding such an orientation is the primary aim of education” (106). Part of Kant’s ideal community is that people learn to do the right thing for the right reason. Maybe they can be constrained in the kingdom of right, but in the ideal kingdom of ends, people all do the right thing collectively because they are committed to it individually. Learning how to commit is the object of education.
The most moral way to teach people--especially young people--how to develop the internal discipline to choose the right thing instead of the selfish thing is to present them with lots of good examples. Examples don’t threaten or bully, but present themselves to autonomous agents who can decide for themselves how to interpret the actions and consequences. But since the internal state is key for Kantian ethics, the internal state of the example has to be part of the story. Using examples, especially as a way to teach, uses hypothetical about internal motives for making the choice. “They are, in an important sense, unreal and fictional” (116), even when actual and historical. Take the story of Washington at Valley Forge. If you tell kids that Washington persisted because he believed in the promise of our country, you will forge patriots. If you tell them that he endured because he thought he would wind up on people’s currency you create mercenaries. So in this sense, examples are always fictions of the people who tell them.
Let’s lay aside education and stories for a moment and turn to religion. Religion, too, involves a lot of stories and examples, but it also lets people participate in self-denying actions like prayer, especially traditional, public, set prayers. When you’re reciting along with other people, you can’t express your inter state as much as alter it to match up with everyone else and the traditional prayer. Praying “forgive us our debts as we forgive our tresspassers” reminds you to be forgiving, even if your inclination is otherwise. Devotees who all gather together, in person or world wide, to say “as we forgive our trespassers” form an “invisible church”: a group of people who all have accepted the same internal conditions together. As Stroud explains it: “the invisible church is the ideal ethical community that we ought to aspire to form--a community that encompasses all agents who are members of it by virtue of their willing of the moral law over the incentives of inclination” (144). As opposed to a nation or a family, these community members opted in because of something they all agreed to believe internally together.
finally Stroud turns to the hardest sell: Kant as political rhetorician. He describes how rhetorical critics (those listening to rhetoric) and critical rhetors (those producing rhetoric) can do so most ethically. there are a lot of lists here, so get out your pens and paper.
So manipulative rhetoric has three characteristics: For Kant, manipulative rhetoric can be seen to have 3 characteristics 1-inequality of knowledge, between speaker and audience 2- this sort of rhetoric exerts a causal force on its listeners. “How rhetoric can treat humans as inherently valuable rational beings, or as machines with causality” (44), 3- idiosyncrasy of the goals of this rhetoric--private own goals. (44)
Non manipulative rhetorics have their own list of four characterstics 1- domain-specific concepts and knowledge--somthing to talk about 2- uses what Kant calls “lively presentations” especially through examples (44-5) 3- nonmanipulative rhetoic doesn’t violate respectability in language and “respect for the various parties in the interaction” (45) 4- public goals or transitive across agents (45)
Above all, you are to treat your audience as though it were comprised of autonomous individuals, not elements of the environment that can be manipulated. The best critical rhetors, “ should see the process of public testing as a way to optimize beliefs,” says Stroud, “including their own views. This quest implicates them in using second-personal reasons in an effort to con (214) vince others that the grounds for their views are sufficient subjectively and objectively. Seeing one’s audience as mere causal objects, however, inclines one to find the right utterances to say to move them as causal objects” (215) “Seeing people as part of the natural world is a vital step in using or manipulating them as a mere means, since this conceptualization of a person as an object with predictable causal interaction with other natural objects is a vital starting point to intelligently using them for some contingent purpose” (218).
And when you’re taking in the rhetoric, you similarly must abide by a set of standards:
Rules of criticism
All of this is pretty life-affirming, and I have to admit that I was moved by Stroud’s (and Kant’s) description of the ideal world of rhetoric, just as I was at the end of his text on Dewey. In fact, I’m going to let Stroud have the last word because he puts the ideal in such a clear way.
“thus, Kant answers the ‘Q question’ [need the rhetor be moral] with a nuance reply--a moral agent may not necessarily be eloquent, but the most complete agent is perfected in pragmatic and moral ways. The complete agent is both a morally good person and person who possess the capacity to speak well” (234).