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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 27, 2016

Kant podcast


Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have defined rhetorical history. Today is a re-record from when we were doing our "villians of rhetoric" series, but since we just recently did an episode where I apologized for being too hard on Kant, here's the original castigation. Enjoy!



Today we continue our podcast series on villians of rhetoric with Kant. As in Immanual Kant, and not ‘I can’t stnd him” I’ve actually been to Kant’s hometown, Kohnisberg, which is now Kaliningrad Russia. And when I say Kant’s hometown, I mean the town where he was born, studied and died. In his whole life he never even traveled more than 10 miles fromKonigsberg. He might not have been much of a traveler, but he had a spectacular philosophy career. He was apopular teacher and had success in fields of physics and natural science, but he didn’t really get into philosophy, hard core philosophy, until he was middle aged. And the emphasis is on “hard.” His critique of pure reason was 800 pages and dense dense philosophy, even for German philosophers. It wasn’t exactly flying off the shelves. But Kan revised it in a 2nd edition and eventually his philosophical work became popular. You know, for German philosophy. His ideas about Enlightenment were controversial, and he had to skirt censorship and even the King’s criticism. His disciples battled his detractors and Kant became the most important German philosopher since Christian Wolff and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. His ideas are quintessentially Enlightenment: agnostic, rationalistic, and committed to individual inquiry of philosophy instead of relying on tradition, including the classical tradition. Kant suggests that there is a thing-in-itself that exists out the in world, but that we are only able to encounter it through our senses and experiences.


Also, he didn’t like rhetoric.


And, brother won’t he let you know it. Rhetoric, he says “merits no respect whatever” because of several complaints: first, that rhetoric is just style. Kant says in the crituqe of judgment athat rhetoric is only “the art of transacting a serious business of the understanding as if it were a free play of the imagination (V 321), In this he makes the same complaint against rhetoric that some of our other villains—Ramus and Montaigne—have made: rhetoric is nothing more than style. By removing invention from the canons of rhetoric and focusing only on style, Kant can focus more on his idea of truth being something just out there rather than something constructed socially. As scholar Robert J Dostal says, “With Kant rhetoric is reduced to a matter of style—dispensable in serious philosophical matters. The requirement [of rhetoric] that one know men’s souls is eliminated in view that it is sufficient merely to speak the truth” (235).


Kant’s other complaint, like Agrippa, Jewel, Patrizi and Hobbes is that rhetoric is immortal. When Kant reads the classical rhetoricians he feels an “unpleasant sense of disapporival” because he finds rhetoric “an insidious art that knows how, in matters of moment, to move men like machines to a judgement that must lose all its weight with them in calm reflection” (V 327). In other words, if people would just sit down and think, really think like a philosopher, they’d come to the right conclusion, but these nasty rhetors mislead them with their tricky words. In this sense he defines rhetoric like this “Rhetoric, so far as this is taken to mean the act of persuasive, ie the act of misleading by means of a beautiful illusion ”

Kant wasn’t the only Enlightenment philopher to criticize rhetoric. Descrates points out that you don’t need to study rhetoric to be a good speaker because “those who reason most cogently, and work over their thoughts to make them clear and intelligible are always the most persauve even if they … have never studied rhetoric.” Like Kant, Descartes believes that if you just speak the truth you don’t need rhetoric. Kant wan’t alone in thinking that rhetoric was dangerously misleading, either. John Lock wrote that “all the art of rhetoric […] are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions and thereby mislead the judgment and so indeed are perfect cheat” So Kant had good company in disliking rhetoric. But can Kant be reconciled to a sympathetic view of rhetoric?


Scott Stroud thinks so. Stroud, who works here at the University of Texas (hook ‘em horns) is the author of a book coming out in October called Kant and the Promise of Rhetoric that aims to rehabilitate Kant to rhetoric. He claims that Kant didn’t really have the same definition of rhetoric which we have—he too, was influenced by villains of rhetoric like Plato and Ramus, and when he says he hates rhetoric, he means he hates something different. Since the book hasn’t come out yet and my Delorian is out of gas, I can’t tell you all of the arguments that Stroud will make in Kant and the promise of rhetoric, but I can tell you what I’ve gleaned from his earlier articles. One of them goes in the back door of rhetoric but looking at education. In 2011, Stroud’s article “Kant on education and the rhetorical force of the example” approaches a possible Kantian rhetoric through Kant’s ideas on education.


Kant says he hates rhetoric, but he loves education and was looking for a way to teach without coersing. So remember how Kant called rhetoric a “beautiful illusion”? Stroud argues that what Kant is objecting to is what Kant else where calls the “aim of win[ning] minds over to the advantage of the speaker before they can judge and to rob them of their freedom” (5:327). In this senese, Stroud says that Kant isn’t anti-rhetoric, but anti-bad rhetoric. The word rhetoric had been so pejorativized by Kant’s time that it came to be synonymous with manipulation and in opposition to individual consideration. So earlier, when we said that Kant was all about the freedom to think without the contraints of tradition? This is that same concern. As Stroud puts it, “What Kant is objecting to is the fact that such rhetorical deception moves people without their choosing the maxims of action, or without an accurate knowledge of what principle they are acting.”


Using illustriative examples, though, can enable the student (or the audience member) to think for themselves. Again, from Stroud, “Kant did not fear the skillful orator. He feared the skillful and non-moralized orator. Examples employed by a cultivated rhetor (a teacher, a preacher, etc.) are engaging because they partake in the lively form of narrative and they readily make themselves available for moral judgment.” Through the educational example, Stroud rehabilitates Kantian opposition to rhetoric. “The way examples operate in Kant's educative rhetoric is by evoking the experience of transitioning from the prudential stage to the moral stage of development in the subject's interaction with the example at hand.” Whether young students or adult audience members, these subjects can be taught without being coersed.


So maybe Kant isn’t truly a villain of rhetoric, but a victim of other villains who made rhetoric such a dirty word that he couldn’t imagine a rhetoric that could be moral and individually affirming. A rhetoric that could be called a Kantian rhetoric.