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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.

Apr 16, 2015

Show Notes (transcript available upon request):


Why and how does rhetoric break down? For Wayne Booth the issue is that there has been a loss of faith in the idea of good reasons--that we can, indeed, persuade each other to change minds. The crucial assertion is that we are able to change minds.

Modern dogmas--either sciencism or romanticism-- assert that"the purpose of offering reasons ... cannot be to change men's mind in the sense of showing that one view is genuinely superior to another" but it all must be trickery (87). Because of the dogmas of modernism "what had once ben a domain with many grades of dubiety and credibility now becomes simply the dubious (for scientism) or the arena of conflicting faiths (for irrationalism)" (89). The poster boy for these--conflicting enough-- positions is Bertrand Russell, or--rather--Bertrand Russells. Booth splits Russell's work into three parts: Russell I, "the genius of mathematical logic" who was all into proof and facts, Russell II who "tried to disestablish certain past beliefs and establish the more adequate beliefs" of science, and Russell II who was "the man of action and passion, the poet and mystic" (46-7). Both the completely, sterilely rational and the impassioned romantic are part of the modernist perspective that can undermine rhetoric.

The crazy thing is that "Not only do we talk and write and create art and mathematical systms and act as if we shared them: we really do share them, sometimes. Sometimes we understand each other" (113).

Boothe can take it a step further and say that not only do we understand each other, but we actually make each other. We "successfully infer other human beings' states of mind from symbolic clues" but also we "characteristically, in all societies, build each other's minds" (114). This is, in fact, "the supreme purpose of persuasion"-- to "engage in mutual inquire or exploration" and rhetoricians should be committed to learn "whatever conditions make such mutual inquiry possible" (137). "Rhetoric is a supremely self-justifying activity for man only when those engaged in it fully respect the rules and the steps of inquiry" (138). In the rhelm of rhetorical inquiry "we can add value fields that modernism would exclude: in love by lovers, in gastronomy by gourmets, in ever kind of value by those who have some to know a good reason from a bad" (143)--in short what I have called, before, untenetable claims.

The way to do this is through--surprise--thoughtful dialoge. "as I do so I will know that the justic of my action is determined by whther what looks like good reasons" are, in fact (149). We must "somehow constitute [society] as a rhetorical field" (149). Ultimately, "it is not a comfortable community nor a stable one. Even those who join it consciously and sustematically, as we all do by talking together here, cannot provide a convenient list of gods and devils, friends and enemies. But at the same time it can give us some ease in whatever subcommunity we have already assented to" (203).

There's also a great part on rhetoric of poetics and narrative, which I could include in a rhetoric of poetics course--"story as reasons" "Every kind of argument that anyone could ever use in real life might be used in a narrative work and it could presumably carry as much force one place as another" (181).
"if there are good reasons for confidence in the values of discoursing together, then we can get about our business, what ever that may be" (100)

"truth is not always on the side o th rebel"..."simply to say no when everyone else is saying no is just antoher form of group compliance, a disguised and therefore feeble yes" (195)

Motivism is a dogma "not because I think that all or most value choices are made on the basis of fully conscious and 'scientifically cogent reasoning' but because I find many people assuming, without argument, that none of them ever can be. 'Look for the secret motive'"(25). In practice, motivism has often led to a cutting down of man's aspirations and capacities to the 'merely animal' or, in a natural further step, to the chemical or physical" (29)