Dr. Kim DeVries
9 Apr. 2010
A2: Explain the Classical and enlightenment definitions of rhetoric and propose a contemporary definition. Account for the differences between the three.
The Western rhetorical tradition has a long and varied history of definition and redefinition. Through the Socratic dialogues of Classical times, the reasoned treatises of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and on to contemporary debate on the place and function of rhetoric in the modern world, this centuries-long dialectic on defining the parameters of rhetoric continues. In all these places and in all these times, people have felt the need to discuss, decide, argue, persuade, convince, refute, rebut, and discover through variously devised rhetorical strategies. Despite the differences in opinion about rhetoric, more unites them than divides. Certainly our modern-day understanding of rhetoric stands upon the shoulders of past giants.
In the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans we find definitions of rhetoric tailored to young, vibrant democratically-oriented societies seeking social truths. Ancient Athens was home to a culture whose well-being depended upon its citizens’ capacity to artfully express their ideas and persuade others of their merit through powerful argumentation as part of the democratic process. The natural sciences were in their infancy and the discovery of truths about people and the world were considered part of rhetoric’s legitimate sphere of concern. Therefore, dialectic as a means of logical discovery and invention was inextricably bound up with argumentation, both being aspects of rhetorical theory. Oral presentation, persuasive public speaking, was the height of rhetorical practice and is the most general definition. Such a definition does not, however, take account of the complicated view of rhetoric in the ancient world.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the importance of rhetoric in ancient Greece, much contentious debate surrounded its use. At the core of many of these disagreements were the issues of truth and virtue. Skilled practitioners of rhetoric could slyly manipulate truth in their arguments, prompting Socrates in the Phaedrus to call rhetoric “a mere routine and a trick, not an art” and a means of “enchanting the mind.” Many, including Plato, considered rhetoric as a “technique for use by the common man impatient to arrive rapidly at conclusions or to form an opinion without first of all taking the trouble of a preliminary investigation” (Perelman, Olbrechts-Tyteca 7). In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates asserts that the point of persuasion should be to create good citizens and a good government. This aim requires virtue on the part of those who use rhetoric. But for Socrates, those whose high rhetoric had installed them in office had regularly failed to demonstrate virtue in their rhetoric. Instead, they flattered the citizenry for further self-aggrandizement, a practice Socrates describes as “delight[ing] a whole assembly, but yet hav[ing] no regard for their true interests.” Nevertheless, even as Plato explicates the dialogues of Socrates that excoriate rhetoric, both the teacher and the pupil show themselves as masters of rhetorical invention and persuasion. The conflict between the obvious capacity of a skilled rhetorician (or sophist) to sway the opinions of a crowd and the need for a democratic society to have citizens motivated by virtue and the common good fostered an extremely bifurcated view of rhetoric among the ancients. Their definitions both laud and condemn.
The following generations of writers on rhetoric would tack in a slightly different direction from their predecessors. Plato’s student Aristotle abandons Socrates’ vitriol against rhetoric for a measured study of how best to accomplish rhetoric’s chief aim: persuasion. Aristotle’s project in this regard is as an educator. He methodically demonstrates wide-ranging technique for persuasive rhetoric, including how to gain an audience’s trust through the judicious technical application of ethos, but he simultaneously acknowledges that speakers do bear great responsibility for their acts of rhetoric. Among Roman writers on rhetoric, Cicero, too, explains both sides of the rhetorical coin. Certainly, for a free country to flourish, it must have accomplished speakers who can inspire the citizenry to be their best, but for that to happen, the rhetor must have a the broad base of good liberal education to draw from. While both Aristotle and Cicero maintain strong ties to the functions of rhetoric in public speaking, their writings increasingly connect the study of rhetoric with education in general.
The move toward seeing rhetoric through the lens of education is in full bloom by the time mid-sixteenth century Renaissance writer Peter Ramus writes his “Argument in Rhetoric Against Quintilian.” For Ramus, earlier writers on rhetoric had cast their nets far too widely. The Greek Aristotle and the Romans Cicero and Quintilian incorrectly confused and conflated dialectic and rhetoric. Quintilian’s contention that oration or rhetoric is defined by the virtue of the practitioner and his knowledge about diverse subjects such as philosophy, law, and history muddied the rhetorical field and neglected to focus upon the actual elements of rhetoric. Ramus sees only two aspects that define rhetoric: style and delivery (7). Neither invention, the discovery of arguments through reasoning, nor moral virtue, are part of the study of rhetoric for Ramus and should be separated into other categories or disciplines. One hundred and fifty years later, Giambattista Vico decried the way that the academy of his time had separated learning into discrete disciplines, leaving rhetoric to its own devices. Eloquence alone—Ramus’ style and delivery—was often empty of substantive content. On the other hand, dry speech composed of “bare truth” facts frequently failed to convince hearers where “some trifling line of argument” could have moved the audience through eloquence (16). Vico saw that these two extremes needed to come together for mutual benefit and he also returned to the call for ethical training, especially for those studying the abstract sciences.
The efforts of Ramus to separate rhetoric from other disciplines and Vico to reintegrate them reflect the historical conditions of each of these writers and the needs of their times. While truth and virtue were vital qualities for the ancient Athenian democratic society, Ramus lived in an era dominated by monarchies, a time when truth and ethics were largely something given by religious authorities. There was little need for eloquent speakers in public spaces. The venue for rhetoric was in scholastic exercise and explication. What nascent distinctions did exist between disciplines found them struggling for identity, as was Ramus for rhetoric’s distinct identity and definition. By Vico’s time, the burgeoning fields of discovery opened by Bacon’s treatise on the scientific method was pushing disciplines farther and farther into circumscribed fields of study. Vico saw the need to reinforce their mutual strengths through defining rhetoric more broadly than did Ramus. Furthermore, through worldwide trade and the growing spirit of independence among the middle class, the world was opening up for a more global society that had real need of rhetoricians who could effectively address their audiences on a wide range of developing topics. Vico’s early Enlightenment definition of rhetoric spoke to these needs.
As with the definitions of rhetoric in ancient times and during the Renaissance-Enlightenment eras, defining rhetoric for contemporary purposes is dependent upon the needs and sensibilities of the time. We live in an era when claims about truth and virtue have never been more suspect, despite the advances of knowledge and facts through scientific research. Similar to the situation in Vico’s day, academic disciplines have staked out discrete territories and truth claims for themselves. For the abstract sciences, truth has been solely a matter of logic and repeatable proof. Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca want to move rhetoric beyond that restricted view of reasoning and tear down the fences that have been built between formal logical reasoning and other more creative forms of human reasoning (510). Ethics is one major area these writers point to as inadequately addressed by formal logic and scientific proof. They want to bring back into view “the social aspect of language” through which truths are discovered communally, particularly when these truths concern value judgments (512-13). One path to renewing the art of rhetoric as a social act is the revival of the array of rhetorical techniques and devices that were so import to historical rhetoricians. Perelman and Olbrachts-Tyteca catalog an exhaustive listing of these in their book The New Rhetoric—everything from the uses of ambiguity to the most effective way to appeal to authority (Kissel). With this renewed emphasis on rhetoric, this venerable field reinstates itself as part of a well-rounded education that deals with truths generated not only through positivistic science but also through dynamic dialectical practices.
Where does that leave the contemporary definition of rhetoric? Except in the pages of a dictionary, there can be no singular definition of rhetoric for the modern age. Just as in ancient Athens, rhetoric is a complex of practices and convictions. Theoretically, modern writers on rhetoric seem in some ways to be returning to the roots of rhetoric as a means of discovering truth through dialectic. This is appropriate for a time when even scientific truth has come to be regarded as largely constructed through the methodologies and paradigms of its practitioners. Social truth is all the more subjective and therefore in need of discovery, dialectic, and argumentation—rhetoric in the classical sense. Tangential to these issues is the propagation of mass communication and the ability for public speech to affect, both positively and negatively, vast numbers of people. Here rhetoric once again may call in vain for virtue, for we have seen demagogues sway crowds into destruction. Subsequent advances in understanding the psychological mechanisms of persuasion continue to feed into rhetoric’s arsenal of understanding and challenge its connection to ethics. Finally, rhetoric has in part merged with theory on written composition, where the tenets of the ancients still spark debate on how best to teach developing writers to discover their truths, integrate these with facts, and present all elegantly. For me, the definition of rhetoric for our time must include all these facets of its practice. Nevertheless, at the center of it all, persuasion powers this centuries-long conversation. To live communally as humans do requires cooperation. That means persuading people with diverse interests and opinions to come together in mutual support through the use of compelling arguments. That means rhetoric.
B1: Is it possible to really understand the rhetorical tradition of another culture? Explain why or why not. Draw on course texts as needed for examples and arguments.
Western culture has a long and proud history of rhetorical tradition, one that has flowered within and nurtured a civilization of world-spanning ambition and influence, yet the ways of Western rhetorical argumentation are far from the only way to approach the fundamental human need to communicate with one another in public speech or writing. The current scholarly push to examine and understand the rhetorical traditions of non-Western cultures has not only brought to light some long-neglected cultural literary treasures, but has also spawned vigorous debate about the quality of Western scholarship as it relates to understanding other rhetorical traditions. Scholars with cultural ties to the target cultures have objected to the fundamental methodologies being used and have viewed many of the results as seriously flawed. Undeniably, cross-cultural study is a challenge on many levels. The question may be legitimately asked: Is it even possible to really understand the rhetorical tradition of another culture? This question immediately begs a follow-up. What is meant by ‘understand’? If understanding means gaining a reasonably comprehensive grasp of the cultural sensibilities that shape and the historical artifacts that underlie a particular culture’s rhetorical tradition, then the answer is a qualified yes. If understanding means assimilating and knowing a foreign culture’s rhetorical tradition as one born to it, then the answer is a qualified no. I believe that to answer this question unequivocally is to do an injustice to its subtleties. And attention to subtleties must always take center stage when encountering a different culture—even more so when attempting to explain it.
The issue of terminological connotation is only one of several obstacles confronting scholars who embark upon cross-cultural studies in rhetoric. Others include accuracy of translation, availability of source materials, and cultural bias. A case in point is the Western study of the Chinese rhetorical tradition that has been undertaken over the last few decades. Writing in Rhetoric in Ancient China, Xing Lu elaborates on some of the misconceptions plaguing the resultingWestern scholarship: that “Chinese rhetoric is characterized by harmony” (29), that, “speech in China is deprecated” (30), and that “Chinese rhetoric is not interested in logic” (32). Along with offering specific counterpoint to these myths of Chinese rhetoric, Xing Lu maps out the fundamental problems that have engendered them.
Beginning with the difficulties of translation, Xing Lu cites Chinese translation theorist Yan Fu’s principles for translating with “faithfulness, comprehensibility, and elegance.” Western theorist Walter Benjamin, however, argues for viewing translation as a “process of interpretation rather than a mere reproduction of the original meaning.” But how much interpretation is too much? Translators must often make decisions about how to express concepts from the original culture and language that have no direct counterparts in the destination language. The translator becomes a “mediator” and thus requires “competence in both languages and familiarity with the subject matter at hand, but also sensitivity to the cultures of both the original author and the audience of the translation” (10). Since good translation is at the very foundation for study of a foreign culture’s rhetorical tradition, anyone attempting such a project would want to use the very best translations available to facilitate a clearer picture of the subject text’s meaning. Without good translation, miscommunication between cultures is almost guaranteed. When the issue is further complicated by the necessary reliance on documents and texts hundreds of years old, the challenges to understanding multiply.
A second major area of potential misunderstanding when studying the rhetorical traditions of a different culture lies in finding sufficient and appropriate source materials. The Western rhetorical tradition has a well-established canon of materials and cultural discussion explicitly focused on the study and practice of rhetoric. Other cultural traditions may be more diffuse. The Chinese rhetorical tradition, for example, has no specific word, “no single unified signifier,” that corresponds to the English word ‘rhetoric.’ Furthermore, Chinese rhetorical philosophy is embedded across a wide array of texts whose primary topics include such diversities as “ethics, epistemology, and statecraft” (Xing Lu 3). For Western researchers, availability of the necessary Chinese texts has been problematic and limited, especially during the early days of Western interest in the history of Chinese rhetoric. Scholar Yameng Liu blames this material deficit for some of the persistent misconceptions about Chinese rhetoric, a situation stemming from scholars who “made big conclusions from a small pool of source material” (332). Since those early days, more texts have become available, but even that does not ensure greater accuracy of understanding. Yameng Liu points out that failure to give available literary or philosophical texts rhetorical readings (even when they touch upon rhetorical principles) further limits the depth of understanding that Western scholars can expect to glean.
This predisposition by researchers in the West to ignore texts that do not fit their own mold for rhetorical texts raises the issue of cultural bias. Edward Said’s descriptions of what he termed Orientalism lays out the often unconscious manifestations of the historical Western views about Eastern culture. According to Said’s understanding, Orientalism is a way of seeing non-Western cultures through dualistic and reductionist lenses. Forces of political dominion, bolstered by academic authority, cast Eastern culture as alien Other, defining Western superiority and identity against a background of essentialism about the inferior and inscrutable East. In the study of foreign rhetorical traditions, especially in the case of Chinese culture, these subtle biases show up in the insistence of Western scholars upon searching for the West’s rhetorical model within the cultural tradition of China and in researchers’ inclination to characterize Chinese culture and its rhetoric in dualistic pairs alongside Western concepts (e.g., Chinese culture is collectivistic and intuitive, Western individualistic and logical) (Xing Lu 15-6). Laboring under this cultural bias, the methodological template of Western research has looked diligently for what it cannot find, while neglecting to recognize what can be found or interpreting texts only in terms of its own cultural paradigms. These culturally embedded attitudes must be overturned before any real understanding of another culture’s rhetorical tradition can be realized.
Besides these specific issues of translation, source materials, and cultural bias, there is a further obstacle to understanding the subtleties of a different or foreign culture’s rhetorical tradition: the barrier of individual alienation that we each carry as members of human cultures dependent upon language to connect us to one another. Kenneth Burke’s theories on terministic screens offer an account for the mechanisms—both individually and through collective constructs of hierarchies and the terminologies for understanding them—that work to filter and channel our attention into certain directions and deflect it away from others. Our life experiences combined with our cultural experiences train us to see the world in particular and highly individual ways. Our terminologies are a “reflection of reality,” that select, deflect, and essentially determine what we perceive as reality. Burke’s example of widely different photographic views of the same objects illustrates in part the resulting alienation and mystification that is present even among members of a homogenous culture (Language 45). The attempt to see through these terministic screens into a completely different culture obviously opens up huge opportunities for misunderstanding, but in Burke’s view, terministic screens are a necessary part of interpreting the world and human behavior (49). Attention must be directed toward some things and selections must be made from the chaos of life. Consequently, when approaching a foreign culture and its rhetorical traditions, a sincere scholar would want to increase awareness of his or her terministic screens and work to minimize their effects. One place filters must be cleansed is in understanding what sounds familiar but may hold shades of meaning that non-native researchers inadvertently screen out. Even when terms cross cultures, their subtle inner meanings rarely do. For example, when ancient Chinese writer Liu Hsieh says in his text on composition that the writer should see to “the collection of material which is relevant to the theme,” (180) does he mean the same thing that Western authorities on composition mean when they advise sticking to the theme? What is relevant in one culture may be superfluous in another and vice versa. What is meant literally in one may be metaphorical or paradoxical in another.
Xing Lu offers several approaches to the study of the Chinese rhetorical tradition that strive to challenge a researcher’s preconceptions and circumvent bias. She recommends a hermeneutic style of research that reaps the most useful aspects of historical hermeneutics for recovering original meaning and of scriptural hermeneutics for critical assessment and current relevance. These tools form part of the evolving hermeneutic circle of shared understanding between speaker and hearer, text and scholar (19-21). Xing Lu further advocates an anthropological perspective that emphasizes letting each culture speak for itself over one that attempts to mount one culture’s practices into another culture’s frames of reference. Finally, Xing Lu argues for a multicultural stance through which scholars and their research are themselves transformed via their acts of observation and interpretation (24). Certainly these techniques and philosophical positions apply effectively not only to the study of the Chinese rhetorical tradition, but to any such undertaking.
For the scholar armed with the knowledge of personal and cultural biases, aware of the limitations of translation, open to unexpected sources of enlightenment, is there hope of really understanding the rhetorical tradition of another culture? Without question, these tools and attitudes can go far to facilitate such understanding, but will it rise to the level of ‘really’ with a capital ‘R’? Ultimately, I think not. One who is not born and nurtured in a culture will never fully comprehend its most obscure motivations as will a native, since any secondary immersion will always be colored by something like Burke’s terministic screens and trained incapacities. Does that mean then that the effort is futile? Not at all. Through the use of a refining process that rests on mutual feedback, much progress can be made in creating useful, nuanced, and authentic understanding of a cultural tradition of rhetoric different from ours. But if my skepticism concerning the production of real understanding between cultures sounds exaggerated, I would like to point out that after twenty-five centuries of the Western rhetorical tradition, we scarcely have really understood ourselves. Western scholars are still contesting many issues whose seeds of debate occupied Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. Theorists are still drawing and erasing boundaries between rhetoric and its ontological constituents. Scholars still ponder the relationship between rhetoric and virtue. Writers such as Richard Weaver—with his radical re-reading of the Phaedrus—are still discovering new meaning in ancient texts. Understanding progresses; it never stops at ‘really’ understood. Like most aspects of life, the project of understanding another culture’s rhetorical tradition is much more about leaning from the journey than about reaching the end.