Mar 21, 2016
When last we left our intrepid hero, Chaim Perelman was describing universal audiences with his collaborater Lucie Obretch-Tycteta and setting up what he called the new Rhetoric. Today, we’ll talk about his solo text, The Realm of Rhetoric and critical responses to his philosophies.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Realm of Rhetoric is that is it around a fourth of the size of the New Rhetoric. I think that’s probably a function of having writing a ground-breaking magnum opus and then following it up.
Let’s start with the spoilers. What is the realm of rhetoric? It is“communication tr[ying] to influence one or more person, to orient their thinking, to excite or calm their emotions, to guide their actions” of which dialectic is one part (162). In another place, Perelman says “Argumentation is intended to act upon an audience to modify an audience’s convictions or dispositions through discourse, and it tries to gain a meeting of minds instead of imposing its will through constraint or conditioning” (11). Some of this sounds a little Burke-y, doesn’t it? All this talk about how talk isn’t about force, even psychological force.
Perelman’s words here state that, “the new rhetoric is concerned with discourse addressed to any sort of audience” (5) not just a specific group of people hanging out in the marketplace listening to speakers.
The presence of controversy means that dialectical reasoning always involves audiences, and always involved received opinion. For instance, if I try to tell you that we should visit Italy for vacation this year, I’m relying on opinions that say that Italy is a good place for vacations, that traveling for vacation is a good idea, etc. Perelman says that dialectical reasoning is about justifiable opinion and it isn’t invalid because it deals with opinion, but just different. And different disciplines require different types of argument: “It is as inappropriate,” he writes “to be satisfied with merely reasonable arguments from a mathematician as it would be to require scientific proofs from an orator” (3).
So the realm of rhetoric is different: “A argument is never capable of procuring self-evidence, and there is no way of arguing against what is self-evident… argumentation… can intervene only where self-evidence is contested” (6).
That isn’t to say that there are constraints in this realm of rhetoric. Even if you decide to make every argument to support a proposition, so that it can reach all audiences, there are “psychological, social and economic limits that prevent a thoughtless amplification of the discourse” (139). And if we have to limit the arguments we make, we have to think about making the best ones, the ones that have efficacy and validity in various forms. Efficacy is mercenary: does it work for that audience? Does it, to use PErelman’s term, persuade?The other option is validity, which is linked to convincing, to the universal audience “above and beyond reference to the audience to which it is presented” (140).
Perelman ultimately accepts a big version of rhetoric “As soon as a communication tries to influence one or more persons, to orient their thinking, to excite or calm their emotions, to guide their actions, it belongs to the realm of rhetoric” and get this “Dialectic, the technique of controversy, is included as one part of this larger realm” (162).
Dialectical reasoning needs to get off its high horse, Perelman suggests because “We can immediately see that dialectical reasoning begins from theses that are generally accepted, with the purpose of gaining the acceptance of other theses which could be or are controversial” in other words “it aims either to persuade or convince” (2). So yeah, what’s the realm of rhetoric? Everything.