Notes on Rhetoric

by E. John Winner

Words are instructions or directions for behavior, and they may be responded to either appropriately or inappropriately, but the appropriateness or inappropriateness depends upon the judgment of someone.

— Morse Peckham (1)

A dialogue between  a rhetorician and a logician

R–Let’s say we have one audience that sets stock in logic-based discourse; another prefers appeal to emotions.  The issue is not how each target audience has its base preferences triggered rhetorically, but why it is they wish their preferences appealed to.  The one identifies with their intellect, the other with their “gut feelings.”

L–This sounds like you’re saying that both audiences are being manipulated.

R–I wouldn’t say manipulated.  Their responses are directed toward a preferred end.

L–But surely an appeal to reasoning is simply part of an effort to find a common truth.

R–Are you not listening to yourself? “An appeal to our reasoning”? what could be more rhetorically directive?

L–But if I am faced with a choice reasonably presented, allowing me to judge on logical grounds…

R–And how does that make you feel? Isn’t that the person you always wanted to be? and would you submit, if you did not feel this?

L–But I am trying to convince you.

R–You want my assent; and how shall this be evidenced?

L–If my logic is sound, you will agree.

R–You want me to engage a speech act, “yes;” and further, don’t you also want me to go about “convincing” others on your behalf?

L–On behalf of the truth!

R–It may be; but that’s beside the point.  Therein lies your dilemma:  Everything you want me to say may be true; everything you want me to do may be based on true beliefs.  But first, you must have me acquiesce.  You must persuade me to your cause.  You can appeal to my previous experience and education; you may appeal to my inculcated beliefs; you may appeal to my sense of self or to the values with which I identify.  But you will never get my assent with pure logic.  ‘If’ covers a lot of ‘maybes’ and ‘then’ only follows, necessarily, as part of a truth-table.

Rhetoric: the practical value

There is not a single thing we say that lacks rhetorical value. The art of rhetoric – and the critical response to it – begins with admitting that.  Rhetoric is the verbalization of our desires and our fears – our lust, our wish for power, our frustrations and anxieties, our self-identifications, i.e., our images of ourselves.  It defines us socially and in terms of how we interact with others (the others we always want something from, whether good or ill or even if it is perceived as somehow benefitting others). (2) We use it on others – there is no socialization otherwise – and others use it on us.

The question is how to navigate in its stream, not whether we wish to stand apart from it – which is impossible – or what we can know independent of it, which is nothing.  We might want to be disembodied intellects, entirely separated from material reality, but that is not how nature made us. We are as we are.  My dog will use every sign she can present to get me to pet her, to feed her, and to let her out at night. Our signs are far more complicated, but they also originate in similar needs for recognition and social stroking.  What a wonderful thing it would be, if we were “spirits in a material form!” Unfortunately, we are merely animals, trying to get the world around us to do our bidding.

The goal of all argumentation (…) is to create or increase the adherence of minds to the theses presented for their assent. An efficacious argument is one which succeeds in increasing this intensity of adherence among those who hear it in such a way as to set in motion the intended action (a positive action or an abstention from action) or at least in creating in the hearers a willingness to act, which will appear at the right moment. [3].

We have developed a great many technologies with which to do this, but the first and foremost is rhetoric.  Who cares if you can upload consciousness into a computer? The important question is whether you can persuade a plumber to clean your pipes on Saturday! (Extra points if you get weekday rates.)

Rhetoric and Criticism

Can ‘critical thinking’ be taught successfully in the schools? This question has been debated for decades, but the argument has been largely cooked by the mistaken presumption that there is some discursive space from which to criticize efforts to manipulate people – whether through propaganda or advertising or political speechifying. Unfortunately, that’s not true. The problem with rhetoric is that it can always get us what we want, but is rarely what we want it to be.

We want rhetoric to be controllable by reducing it to social protocol. The notion is useless and untrue, even though this is the common understanding of it (e.g., it’s the founding premise of so-called “composition studies”).

The supposition that there can be a clear distinction between rhetoric and traditional logic (which is the logic we commonly use in daily life) is false, and Aristotle noted this, which forms the basis of his Rhetoric. (4) All modern studies on response patterns to common public argumentation (e.g., behavioral responses to advertising or political speeches) seem to confirm this.

If this is the case, then there can be no clear distinction between “mindfucking bullshit” and reasonable persuasion.  The distinction is between what the target audience of the former believe, and what the target audience of the latter believe. And the problem is not that the target audience of the former is somehow getting hoodwinked or manipulated, but rather, why they want to be manipulated.

Rhetoric is simply the practice of using language to influence the behaviors of others. And we all use it, specifically to that purpose. We are fooling ourselves (and doing disservice to our young) to pretend otherwise.

As is well remembered: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves.” (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar).  But the complete sentence Shakespeare has Cassius say: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” The assumption of writers who argue that we can be free of rhetoric – that rhetoric is some evil manipulation of people (who need to think more rationally) – is that most people would not be “underlings” if they were better informed and rhetoric better controlled, something that, unfortunately, is untrue.

The two crucial speeches in Julius Caesar are by Brutus and Antony. (5)  Brutus’ speech is modeled after Cicero, and is an impeccably reasoned appeal to the reasoned identification of the audience with the interests of the Roman city – an abstraction. Antony’s speech is an indirect appeal to the individual citizen’s immediate emotional response (probably modeled on the sermons of Shakespeare’s Reformation England). The ethical backdrop to these speeches is ambiguous (acceptable to Shakespeare’s audience, since Romans were pagans, thus doomed to hell).  Brutus has helped murder a man recognized as a capable governor, because of what he might have become.  Antony seems to be revenging a beloved mentor, but has a hidden agenda.

Ethically, both men are in the wrong: Thus their differing speeches need only be judged rhetorically as to their differing success (and Antony’s clearly wins out).

Shakespeare not only had a better grasp of rhetorical practice than most rhetorical theorists, but also of rhetorical theory. The problem is how the audience sees its own interests, not what is in their best interest, reasonably assessed.

One can’t “manipulate” racists into engaging in racists acts. They are ready and willing to do so. Is racism in their interest? Unfortunately, they think so. So we begin undoing racism by undoing racists beliefs already held. Pretending they are being manipulated seems rather overly charitable.

America invaded Iraq because the American people wanted to do so. The Bush regime gave them the excuses they needed to feel satisfied in their personal identities as citizens of “the world’s only super-power,” a ‘Christian nation’ sitting as a “City on the Hill,” an “exceptional people” with a “manifest destiny.”

Fools do not fly where angels fear to tread; they walk about daily, going to work, coming home, pretending they have a good idea of how the world works and what is expected of them.

My mother often said, that we are all born slaves, and once I asked her if she had been hired to work at Auschwitz during the Holocaust, would she have taken such a position? She said “well, it would have been a job, of course.”  Before we are the “rational animal,” we are the “rationalizing animal.”  Never underestimate that – especially when it comes to the power of rhetoric to persuade.

The Socratic notion, that language and knowledge can be melded together to cut through rhetoric and thereby delegitimate the powerful, rests on shaky epistemic and psychological grounds, not to mention that there also is a sociological problem, namely that the powerful will use any means necessary to maintain power; rhetoric, lies, and even the application of force. We only have discussions like these, because we live in a culture where rhetoric and lies are fairly successful, thus perennially deferring any sense of the powerful that they must employ force against us. But we have plenty of examples of cultures where discourse doesn’t really matter, because everyone knows the powerful will use force.

I’m not saying we need to avoid being critical of the powerful.  On the contrary, in a culture where we can do so, I’m suggesting that we need to mount a rhetoric more powerful than that which currently operates – persuasion increases our numbers, and there is strength in numbers. But in doing so, we would be in a stronger position the more certain we are of our own motives, so that our rhetoric doesn’t catch us by our tails. Antony’s rhetoric engendered a bloody civil war and led to the establishment of the Roman Empire,  hardly a model of what we would consider a liberal democracy.  My caution: give up hope for perfection (“utopia” – Latin, translation: “no place”), and surrender any claim to glory or grandeur.

Judgment in Rhetoric

Judgment in rhetoric has two jurisdictions. The first is that of public discourse, and anyone is invited to the jury. The other is that of those trained in rhetorical analysis. That sounds as if the trained critic of rhetoric ought to be considered the “Supreme Court” of the whole domain, or at least, one might say, “the final court of appeal.” But in fact the matter is the other way around; the public decides whether rhetoric is persuasive by their active responses to it, i.e. by being persuaded by it. The critic has largely an advisory role. The critic clarifies the claims, discovers the fallacies, weighs the epistemic ground of the rhetoric – the unstated assumptions, the evidence provided for the claims, the implications of tropes and innuendos and their possible consequences.

Several problems recur in the court of rhetoric, which explains why many people, from fascistic censors to critically minded philosophers, mistrust it. But as I have discussed before, whether or not rhetoric is successful cannot be determined on the basis of whether its claims are right or wrong.  To understand rhetoric as rhetoric, the principle determination can only be whether it works or not – whether it persuades its intended audience. So rhetoric arguing for ethically repugnant positions may be considered successful, if in fact it wins over its audience. Nobody’s really happy with that (except the successful rhetorician), but it is true nonetheless.  How could it be otherwise? Rhetoric is a tool, not a strict form of communication.  Its sole concern is with getting others to do what one wants, whether voting a certain way, buying a certain product, or simply experiencing certain feelings leading to certain acts or behavioral responses. There is no logic to the statement “I love you,” but its rhetorical value is clear, and lovers have been relying on it for millennia. What does the statement communicate? Hopefully that the utterer loves the person who is the object of his statement; but maybe not. That judgment depends on the consequences.

Rhetorical analysis and criticism, like any analysis, always is directed towards the past – to what has been said and what its effect has been. But rhetoric in practice is always directed towards the future – to hoped-for states-of-affairs, actions, and consequences. This makes it difficult to judge a rhetorical performance successful or not until it has actually proved successful (or not). What a critic of rhetoric can achieve, concerning a current rhetorical performance, is some determination of the strength of its claims, the assumptions it depends on, the nature of its tropes and implications, and the possible consequences of accepting these.

Yet this leads to another problem. The court of rhetoric does not employ the same standard of judgment as that of logic. Logic judges much like a criminal court: the judgment is supposedly decided as absolute – “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The court of rhetoric, like civil procedure courts, decides on the standard of “the weight of the evidence.” This is actually makes sense, as claimants before the court of rhetoric have opposing beliefs, not simply opposing interests. It would be unjust to one who actually holds a position that is morally repugnant to others to assert that “no reasonable person would believe that, therefore they are lying.” Of course they believe it; we believe a lot of objectionable, even repugnant things. They aren’t lying; they believe in what they are saying.  The question then is whether their claims are weaker or stronger than the counter-claims offered by those who believe otherwise.  Judgment of the rhetoric cannot proceed on any other basis without injustice to the parties involved.  Otherwise it becomes mere tool to a censor’s agenda.

Yet a strong and well-informed critic of rhetoric ought to be able to demonstrate when ethically questionable rhetorical claims are also weak rhetorical claims, because what is ethically questionable often relies on prior claims that are inadequately supported. Donald Trump’s claim that most Mexican immigrants are involved in criminal behavior or that American Muslims celebrated the 9/11 attacks can be easily undercut through reference to statistics in the first instance, or reliable reports by those on the scene in the second. So these are weak claims before the court of rhetoric. Yet Trump’s rhetoric resonates with a percentage of the population that is preoccupied with fears about different ethnic groups and different religions. This must not only be acknowledged, but addressed. Simply saying that what Trump says is untrue or unjust misses the complexity of what is going on (and frankly does injustice to his presumed audience). Also, it renders Trump’s opponents somewhat blind.  First, they lose sight of the appeal he has for his audience, and thus will find it more difficult to understand that audience and find some way to appeal them with a countering rhetoric.  Then, if they think the issue is Trump’s being “wrong,” or simply lying, they may be lulled into believing that all they need do is dismiss what he says. But in the public arena, this amounts to ignoring what he says. That means that his potential audience has only what he says to rely on, to feel some comfort in their already held fears and beliefs. That means that Trump’s essentially weak claims will appear stronger to his audience than they actually are. The danger, then, is that Trump’s rhetoric may persuade a potential audience without any adequate response. Then, as has happened all too often in the past, weak rhetorical claims could prove successful.  So it’s not enough to say that Trump is wrong; one has to win over his audience, or at least his potential audience. And what that requires is a stronger rhetoric than that which Trump himself deploys, supplementary to any logical or other reasonable arguments one makes against what he has to say.

As with courts of civil law and unlike criminal courts – or that of logic, whose scale is limited to the black-and-white of true-or-false – the court of rhetoric must adjudicate cases on a grey scale. That is because opposing interests are rarely easy to decide between, especially if grounded in beliefs sincerely held by the opponents; and because rhetoric triggers a host of responses – emotional, social, cultural – that are not reducible to “reasonably held” positions.

The art of persuasion – its theory, its practice, its criticism – is not about what is wrong or right or true or false, and never about some “view from nowhere” or what some god might want us to be and certainly not about what world we might prefer to live in. It is about the world as it is, and about people as they are. That understandably frustrates us; but the world is by nature a disappointment.


  1. Explanation and Power: The Control of Human Behavior, U Minnesota, 1979.
  2. “Eat your spinach and you’ll grow up healthy as Popeye.”
  3. Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, The New Rhetoric: A treatise on argumentation (J. Wilkinson and P. Weaver, Trans. ), University of Notre Dame Press, 1969. This is probably the most comprehensive text on rhetoric in the modern era, and links well with classical rhetoric without simply re-iterating it, since the authors were well aware that they were writing in the post-propaganda era following WWII.  It had considerable influence on Continental philosophers, but is written in the straight-forward academic prose preferred in the Analytic tradition.
  5. Act 3, scene 2.

Categories: Essay, Essays

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  1. An excellent essay. Strong and clear.

    Given our disagreements about various things, I was surprised not to encounter here any passages which I immediately wanted to challenge.

    I was curious about this sentence, however: “That means that Trump’s essentially weak claims will appear stronger to his audience than they actually are.”

    “Essentially weak.” “Actually are.” Obviously you are purporting to present a “view from nowhere” here. I personally have nothing against such a perspective (which could be seen to be what science – broadly understood – aspires to). But I thought (perhaps mistakenly) that you had reservations about it. I understand the explicit assertion. But I am not sure what you are meaning *implicitly* to claim here by the use of these expressions. If it’s just that empirical claims can be objectively assessed, I’m certainly with you.


  2. Mark,
    Thank you.

    Words like ‘essentially’ and actually’ have unwanted connotations, and I use them too frequently. I think a word like ‘basically’ a better word, since it implies structure rather than foundation or immediacy. I always liked Heidegger’s “proximately and for the most part,” but can never use it unself-consciously.

    But yes, all I really mean here is “it’s just that empirical claims can be objectively assessed.”


  3. Hi EJ, this is really well done. Coincidentally, I also submitted a piece on rhetoric v. logic in argumentation before yours was published. While I agree with some, perhaps most, of what you say, I am still not sure I’d consider rhetoric the *primary* component of argumentation (this is something discussed in earlier commentary).

    I’m going to minimize my comments here, and rewrite my essay to make it more a response to this one.

    I guess the only thing I would want to ask (to make sure I’m not straw manning you in the rewrite) is whether you feel the argument you presented here, supports a position that rhetoric is primary (compared to logic) or that (as you discussed in an earlier thread) logic is simply a part of rhetoric? I realized I could read the essay as treating logic a couple different ways, and wanted to make sure.

    Either way, still a good read (classier than mine) with valid/important points to consider.

    Wait… or did I mean points that I simply want to view as valid and happen to consider important?

    This position does take a bit of wind out of the sails of any compliment. 🙂


  4. As usual this post presents a depth of understanding into a basic human activity (communication) beyond what one usually finds on the internet. Having said that it feels somewhat one sided to me. I agree with you when you put it so clearly that ‘rhetoric is the verbalization of our desires and our fears – our lust, our wish for power, our frustrations and anxieties, our self-identifications’. But is there not also desire to understand and evaluate as the flip side to the desire to persuade?

    I think that while your posts and comments are effective in putting forth arguments, and they surely carry persuasive power they also seem to me at root even more fundamentally to come from a desire to understand to communicate that understanding. I can see that content understanding by itself does not lead to effective rhetoric, and also that effective rhetoric need not require deep content understanding. I can’t help feeling that there is a fundamental difference however between rhetoric fueled by a desire to manipulate, and rhetoric driven by a desire to communicate some understanding that may be perceived as lacking.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. dbholmes,
    Compliment away! I don’t mind being manipulated for a good cause!

    Charles Peirce, recognized as a contributor to the development of modern logic, like many modern philosophers believed that knowledge was best acquired, determined, and expressed through logic. But he thought that logic needed a foundation in the study of signs – an idea that has a long history, and is easily defended, but not so easily understood, since it necessarily intersects the sense perceptions with language, which remains a somewhat poorly understood conjunction. I know that a dog has walked through my yard if I smell a certain odor of poop. But while we have verbal responses to communicate that with others, what is the exact word for this odor? Note that the precise odor that signifies the dog is somewhat different from that of human, so I know that it wasn’t just some crazy person defecating on my lawn. What are the words that mark that distinction? We can search for some, or make some up as we go along; but while words communicate the idea of my impressions or responses, none of them will signify the dog the way the poop itself does.

    So the relationship between sense signs and verbal signs remains a problematic. And it was just such problematics that led Peirce to develop a theory of semiotics, from which logic could develop with ever greater precision.

    But this project ran into some problems itself; and one of these is that signs elicit responses, and responses oft occur as actions. I don’t simply identify the poop, and through it a dog – I grimace, feel a slight nausea, express disgust. And of course I remove the offending pile as quickly as I can. (That’s not the response the dog was looking for; we know that dogs excrete partly to mark territory. So obviously responses to signs are predictable only within a range, and can involve conflict, even between species!) However, the main point is that semiotics has a necessary behavioral component – which is quite in keeping with Peirce’s belief that knowledge was not accumulated for its own sake but as a ground for action.

    However, once behavioral responses are allowed into any theory of communication, it’s like spiking fruit punch with vodka. Even if you can’t taste it, it will have its effect. Because logic can be distilled into structures, it seems impervious to this; but only if we study logic as a kind of mathematics, as some do. Once we try to bring it out into the world as an application of language per se, we run into a myriad of problems having to do with accounting for language that doesn’t seem to communicate anything directly, but which exists simply as part of social protocols expected and eliciting responses – eg, ‘please open the door.’ I’ve seen boring cognitive scientists who dismiss such sentences as merely communicating a desire for the door to be opened. This doesn’t even account for ‘please;’ but more importantly it doesn’t account for different significations in different contexts. A weeping man at the door of his ex-girl friend’s house means something different with this than a policewoman responding to a complaint about a domestic squabble.

    Now, the Analytic tradition has developed certain lines of thought that addresses such issues, eg, semantics. However, semantics alone won’t get a lawyer very far in a courtroom, or a politician in an election campaign. Nor will it increase a critical understanding of how a particular advertising campaign successfully sells a product or service.

    Rhetoric is primarily a verbal art. Aristotle argues that its foundation is the enthymeme – a partial syllogism that relies on an unexpressed premise (which the rhetor knows the audience believes to be true). He is only partly correct. When we begin to examine all the various premises that go unexpressed in rhetorical argumentation, we find these include a host of unfounded intuitions, biases, ‘gut feelings,’ and residual responses to past experiences. We find ourselves back in semiotics, precisely that study of the responses to signs configuring thoughts producing action.

    That tells us that rhetoric is closer to the origins of language than logic.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. sthleon2015,
    ” I can’t help feeling that there is a fundamental difference however between rhetoric fueled by a desire to manipulate, and rhetoric driven by a desire to communicate some understanding that may be perceived as lacking.”

    There surely is difference, in style and technique, and the kind of responses hoped for. But I don’t see the differences as so fundamental that we can’t recognize both practices as rhetoric.


  7. Often times when I write a comment, I do so because I see some aspect of the topic differently in some way from the way it was presented. Usually there is a lot clarity lacking ( no big surprise I’m sure ) in what I perceive as my alternative view. Then when I press enter and read what I wrote it seems more so like I am stating an argument than asking a question. I think the desire to better get to the root of my lack of clarity is in part what drives me to write comments, but the comments always reveal some desire to persuade as well.

    If multiple participants in a dialogue are earnestly attempting to converge on a better understanding of some issue or concept that dissolves some degree of confusion, and if the use of persuasion is an attempt to orient the other participants in such a way that they may see from something like ones vantage point so that they may better remove some of the confusion – Would this dialogue as a whole be properly characterized as rhetorical or evaluative?

    I think it is probably rare that this scenario unfolds where an earnest goal of increasing mutual understanding is driving the goal to persuade. In these scenarios while rhetoric exists it seems it’s function is qualitatively different. So I guess I am arguing ( probably less than persuasively ) for a bit more optimism in the picture.


  8. Hi EJ, again that was well put, where I agree with much of what you said… still…

    “That tells us that rhetoric is closer to the origins of language than logic.”

    Whether it is closer to the origins of language, does not tell us its proper relation to argumentation (a subset), nor does that tell us whether it is the present or future of most language use.

    I know for certain that I sometimes use language with no intent for changing or causing behavior in others. Unless by behavior, this includes recognition, understanding, or feeling.

    We’ll see what I can do with my essay, and then I’ll welcome your blows!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. dbholmes,
    If rhetoric (or some form of it) is closer to the origins of language than logic, that would mean logical argumentation is really a subset of rhetorical argumentation – and I suggest that historically this is how it probably developed. I can easily imagine ancient ancestors needing to argue deploying shared beliefs, and then later a thinker codifying this process as a logic. (It is Aristotle who writes manuals on logic, not Plato.)

    No one is saying that language is not used for multiple purposes. I did not say every saying is said rhetorically, I said that none lacks rhetorical value. But even the sharing of knowledge means that we re-enforce our social bonds, which thus makes living with each other rather easier.

    I’ve had good teachers and bad teachers; I had an utterly dreadful calculus teacher who would just throw formulas on the board and recite the technical terms for every symbol. I had to learn calc from a book, which fortunately opened with a charming story of the history of maths up to the conflict between Leibniz and Newton, and the uses of calc in physics.

    On the other hand, I had a couple of very good professors in biology and microbiology. The biologist liked to tell jokes and treated our lab assignments something like a game – I won an A on one project when my culture revealed a strain of penicillin resistant bacteria. (I kind of wanted to save it as a souvenir, but it was wiser to toss it in the flames.) The microbiologist anthropomorphized the microbes we studied and told little stories about their reproductive and eating habits – narrative is an essential rhetorical device (with a decided logic of its own, BTW).

    Rhetoric can be used to bring us closer together. A poem is really in the first instance a display of rhetorical finesse, by which the poet hopes to persuade the reader to feel a certain way about some subject, and thus begin thinking about it in a way that brings the reader and the poet closer together in the same culture.

    One can be suspicious of rhetoric, but the hope of somehow avoiding it can only be realized by withdrawing as a hermit. We are all engaged in modifying the behaviors of others; we are all having our behaviors modified. That’s what it means to live in human society.


  10. ejwinner: I have an interest in this topic, in both senses of the term. I’m of the view that critical thinking can and should be taught in schools and universities. Clearly, you disagree. I’ve co-written textbooks that in part attempt to teach critical thinking to secondary school students. It just so happens that I am currently reading Matthew Lipman’s excellent “Thinking in Education”, which is very much on your topic.

    I suppose that from your viewpoint whatever I or Lipman or anyone else says on the matter can have no force, since as you put it there is no “discursive space” in which such a case can be made. If you are right, then the discussion can’t even get started, except as an exercise in which the ostensible argument plays no rational role. And, to be consistent, nothing you say can be construed by you as an argument to show that there is no such discursive space.

    For myself, like Lipman, I think it’s a terrible waste when a student graduates from school or university without well-honed skills in rational argument — and a respect for the value of rational argument. But I guess that’s just me!



  11. alandtapper1950,
    You’ve largely misread my essay, and my comments in this thread, through the prism of a single sentence over which you take umbrage.

    The clear implication of my remarks is that the teaching of critical thinking ought to develop out of the teaching of rhetoric and the criticism of rhetoric. But rhetoric as it is, not as we wish it to be. That is ever more true, as students are surrounded with a multiplicity of media, filled with rhetoric and rhetorical devices that circumvent traditional ‘critical thinking’ maneuvers derived solely from rational argument principles.

    “I think it’s a terrible waste when a student graduates from school or university without (…) a respect for the value of rational argument.”

    It should be remembered here that the vipers in Washington (whatever party) and those on Wall Street, and those in Hollywood, etc., were all trained in some traditional course in ‘communication skills,’ or ‘public speaking,’ or ‘composition,’ – traditional meaning based on rational principals and constraint on rhetoric. Apparently, they didn’t learn their lesson?

    When I taught, I taught my students to succeed – to be critical of the rhetoric around them, but also to develop rhetoric that would work to get them where they wanted to go. With my best students I also tried to teach them to be aware of their own motives, to be sure of the consequences of getting where they wanted to go. That is also implicit in my essay.

    “If you are right, then the discussion can’t even get started, except as an exercise in which the ostensible argument plays no rational role. And, to be consistent, nothing you say can be construed by you as an argument to show that there is no such discursive space.”

    This is just a failure to read the essay or the comments. Obviously logic plays its part, and rhetoric necessarily involves argument, so I don’t know where this is coming from.

    In another forum, Dan Kaufman argued that the suspicion of rhetoric developed in the wake of the Modern world’s acceptance of the ideal of an autonomous individual. * That leaves us, as Alastair McIntyre indicates, a choice between an archaic rhetoric that assumes a generally understood good, or the individual’s deployment of truth itself to establish what the good might be (basically as a kind of rhetoric) – Aristotle or Nietzsche. Unfortunately, the Post-Modern world has made the choice for us – it is Nietzsche.

    I’m not a relativist; however, I don’t think we’re going to turn back the clock on the media we have, the politicians, ad-agents, etc., we have, the collapsing (decaying?) university system we have, or the fragmented society we now live in.

    The rhetoric that surrounds us is already unleashed – it now has few if any bounds. Would it not be in student’s interests to help them learn how to survive in this environment, and not that of the world in which we were raised – which unfortunately now only exists in our nostalgia?

    – – – – –
    *, comments. I am going beyond Dan’s remarks there somewhat, but I hope I am fair to McIntyre, whom I read with considerable impress many rears ago. Dan may correct me if I’m wrong.


  12. Alandtapper1950,
    And no, there is no ‘outside’ to rhetoric. You have posted a response worded to elicit sympathy for your self, for Lipman, for your general position, and for your generalized ‘students.’ To a critical reader that’s obvious. The implication of your response is that if my argument be accepted (and obviously it is an argument, however much you ridicule it), disaster will befall our students and, presumably, society in general. So you play on our sympathies and our fears.

    And I have responded by accounting rhetorically for ‘students’ through personal narrative, and appealing to our shared recognition of the changes that have taken place in our shared society over recent years.

    Given our differing positions, we probably could not have done otherwise.

    That doesn’t make your argument wrong (your misreading of the essay does that); but don’t come crying ‘but my weeping proves that rhetoricians cause harm!’ – since this is clearly a rhetorical maneuver.


  13. Alandtapper1950,,
    On reflection, I realized that the closing of my last comment may have sounded a harsh. So let me make clear that I think the teaching of critical thinking is a worthwhile and important pursuit. I just think that it should be supplemented by the teaching of rhetoric (again, as it is).

    We both wish students to go out into the world properly armed with critical skills. So, I invite cooperative thinking on these issues, rather than confrontational. It may not be a matter of ‘either one way or the other,’ it may be a matter of both.


  14. I think the problem is that it is important to distinguish (to ourselves at least) between “the reasons I have to think that X is true” and “the reasons I have to believe X”.

    I think the fallacy is in the thinking that the reasons that persuade someone to a position are sufficient reason for thinking it true. I think it is also the most difficult fallacy to spot.

    Especially as most people would absolutely deny that there is any difference between “I believe X” and “I think that X is true”.


  15. ejwinner: OK, I misread your meaning. I’m sorry for that. Maybe you could have been clearer? Or maybe I’m missing some background assumptions here. As for “eliciting sympathy” and even “weeping” … I’m lost for words. I’m happy to conclude with agreement with your final paragraph.