Rhetoric is its Effects: On Rhetoric and Pragmatism

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Rhetoric is its Effects:
 

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 - r ..."Trotsky and the Wild Orchids"
 

 - n ...Barbara Herrnstein Smithpragmatism in critical theory"postclassical theory"origin of the term in the Duke conferenc ...relationship to pragmatismagainst Platonic thoughtconstructivismrelativismcompare James - see West, n 54, p 251The "scandal of philosophy" - the proble ...Walter Benn Michaels"New Pragmatists""The Shape of the Signifier"
 

 - pra ...Cornel WestThe American Evasion of Philosophy
 

 ...(on James, but applicable to pragmatism  ...rhetorical traditionintroductionAs Smith's use of the term "postclassica ...other histories of pragmatismeg West's, Stanford Encyclopedia'semphasize AmericannessWest mentions only a couple of European  ...see Emerson (West) or Peirce and James ( ...emphasize pragmatism as a break w/ the E ...Rorty does have some sense of connection ...anti-pragmaticPlatomoral deficiency of rhetoricmetaphysicsAristotledialectic separate from rhetoric
 

 ( ...Quintilian"good man speaking well"
 

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Rhetoric is its Effects:

On Rhetoric and Pragmatism

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introduction
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C. S. Peirce, one of the founding figures of pragmatism, arrived at this often-quoted formulation in his 1878 essay "How to Make Our Ideas Clear": "Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole conception of the object" (qtd in West 49).

This seems simple enough on the surface: things are just the sum of their effects. A pencil is a pencil because it leaves a mark when drawn across the page; because it fits in the hand; because it is used to write with. But what Peirce's dictum amounts to is a rejection of all metaphysics---a pure, agnostic rejection, since Peirce doesn't affirm or deny extra-material attributes but simply leaves them out of consideration. For Peirce it doesn't matter whether a pencil is the form of a transcendant pencil essence, or the trace of an ideal pencil. No problems arise when considering liminal objects that may or may not be pencils (automatic pencils? grease pencils? giant novelty pencils?), because they too are simply the sums of their effects, and whether we include them in the category "pencil" is our decision at any particular moment. Nor is a pencil good or bad, except insofar as it has good or bad effects; and since those emerge from its use, they're clearly contingent in the event and not attributes of the thing in itself.

A pragmatic theory of rhetoric, then, might be understood as a theory that defined rhetoric as no more than its practical effects. ...

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pragmatism in philosophy and critical theory
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origins w/ Peirce and Dewey (maybe mention James)
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basic explanation of pragmatism
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Pragmatism, in philosophy, is a loose school (whose members often hold conflicting opinions) of thought that emerged as a mostly US intellectual tradition in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, more or less beginning with Charles Saunders Peirce. In his pragmatism Peirce - a practicing scientist - was primarily concerned with rejecting metaphysics, and in general the philosophical investigation of intangibles. For him the nature of an entity was the nature of its observable effects: things are what they do. [develop into brief discussion of Peircian pragmatism as necessary]

[briefly describe other early pragmatists: Dewey and maybe James, maybe mention Gadamer and the phenomenology / hermeutic / pragmatist connections, though likely don't have room for that - could mention in a footnote]

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against metaphysics
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In the European-derived tradition (insofar as such a thing exists), rhetoric has often been connected to intangibles, such as ethics. This is a metaphysical proposition: if rhetoric necessarily has some ethical weight, or if ethics necessarily has some effect on rhetoric, then there must be some sort of rhetorical essence beyond the material form of the spoken or written words. Of course, a particular employment of rhetoric often has contingent ethical "valences"; that is, how rhetoric is employed and to what ends in a given situation may be ethical or unethical behavior. But this is a very different thing from the claim that there is always and inevitably some linkage between rhetoric in the abstract and ethics (or any other intangible) in the abstract. I'll demonstrate some of those claims below.

Nor is that the only way in which metaphysics has been forced upon rhetoric. More subtly, rhetoric's place in epistemology often implies and follows from a metaphysics of truth and/or knowledge. When Aristotle subordinates rhetoric to dialectic in the production of true statements, for example, he's arguing for a privileged epistemological method that's superior to rhetoric, and he's doing so not on empirical grounds but because he believes that rhetoric's facility with counterintuitive theses (as demonstrated by the Sophists) indicates a weaker essential connection to truth. [finish this line of argument]

So the major theoretical intervention into rhetoric that I see coming from pragmatism is a rejection of metaphysics. Then I hope to show why removing metaphysics from rhetorical theory might be useful in practice.

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rhetorical tradition
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introduction
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toward a pragmatic rhetoric
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description
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consequences
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call to action
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West: Pragmatism rejects the two major classes of theories of ideas in European epistemological philosophy: correspondence theories and coherence theories. Correspondence theories hold that ideas are true when they have some relationship to the real world---which of course has to be sufficiently knowable that it can be used to put ideas to the test. Coherence theories, on the other hand, only require that ideas hold together in agreement with one another. Pragmatists find both of these deficient for various reasons and so turned, beginning with Dewey, to social practice as the ground on which ideas are validated. "[I]deas are neither copies of the world nor representations linked principally to one another, but rather ingredients for rules and for plans of action" (99). This conception of ideas would suggest a robust and active rhetoric, aiming toward the inspiration and guidance of action, rather than airy debate; a rhetoric inextricably linked to praxis.

Moreover, this conception of idea is inherently rhetorical, because it depends on argumentative structure in the constitution of ideas themselves. As West says, for early pragmatists like James and Dewey (and this is also true for some later ones, particularly Rorty), "truth has simply little to do; all the work [of validating ideas] is loaded on warranted assertibility" (99). That is, pragmatists largely discard the notion of truth as a tool, however important it might be in some abstract conception of the world. Ideas are to be tested by examining how they can be described (assertibility) and what chain of thought supports them (warranted). And this is nothing more or less than saying that, under pragmatism, an idea is nothing more or less than an argument.

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philosophy needs rhetoric
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author's note
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In its present form, this is definitely more of a "paper" than the draft you saw a couple of weeks ago, which was really just an outline with some fragments thrown in. [footnote: I found working that way, using Freemind, was quite productive. It also let me save snapshots of my progress along the way, by saving copies of the Freemind file at various points. I used the same change-management software that I use for source code at work to preserve a handful of versions of the outline as it developed. That's quite liberating---I know that I can always go back, see what I changed, recover older versions, etc. It's given me a vague, pie-in-the-sky idea for a writing tool that would build on Freemind and keep track of all changes, so that you could always move back and forth in the history of the writing process. Something to think about, perhaps.] But while this is officially the "final" draft for the class, and though it has the form of a finished paper, I still think of it as very much a work in progress. Though I don't, at least for now, feel the need to turn this project into a book---I think it's quite useful at the article or conference-presentation length---I do think it's not yet ready for public consumption.

What's missing in particular is a better sense of what else has been done along these lines, particularly within the discipline of rhetoric. Thanks to West's American Evasion of Philosophy I think I have a pretty good idea of the history of pragmatism in US philosophical thought, and through Rorty, Fish, Michaels, Smith, and various other writers I have a fairly broad view of contemporary pragmatism in critical theory and literary theory. But I have a number of references to pragmatism in rhetoric that I lacked the time to chase down. Guiseppe found a reference to a book by Walter H. Beale called A Pragmatic Theory of Rhetoric, for example, which certainly sounds like it might be relevant, but I have yet to look it up. Consequently, I'd be reluctant to present this in its current form without doing more research to see more clearly how it fits into existing work in the field.

That said, I think it's likely that this could become a conference presentation or an article at some future point. It's definitely a good candidate when an interesting conference comes up. And that's my intended audience: rhetoric scholars, in the conference setting.

What this draft does well, I think, is lay out some of the reasons why I find pragmatism interesting, both in the philosophical abstract and for practical reasons, on its own and in relation to rhetoric. It's also helped me to explore the history of pragmatism and see more of the nuances, conflicts, and disjunctions among various thinkers' formulations, though I'm not sure how much of that comes through here---for reasons of space, I had to omit a lot of possible asides and comparisons. I've tried to stay focussed on the inquiry nature of this project, and that's been productive and refreshing. While I've always seen seminar papers as essays---as trials, attempts to develop new ideas---foregrounding the question rather than the thesis helped me think in a more open-ended and plural manner while reading and writing.

More than I would have liked of this draft was done close to the deadline, but that's hard to avoid even under the best of circumstances. At least with the draft, the conference, and the multimedia project I had to do significant work on the project as a whole over the past few weeks, which certainly helped.

Here's what I'd like a reader to take from this piece. First, a sense of what pragmatism is, at least as I've sketched it out, as an intellectual movement and philosophical school. Second, an understanding of some of the ways in which I see pragmatism opposing some ideas that have been attached to rhetoric by various thinkers. Third, an appreciation of the possible consequences pragmatism might have for rhetoric that I speculate on, and why I find them exciting. If I've been rhetorically effective, maybe the reader will share in some of that excitement, too. But I also hope (and if I haven't accomplished this, then it's a weakness in the paper that needs to be corrected) that I've left it clear, in the end, that pragmatist thought can go in many directions, and its possible contributions to rhetoric are much more than what I can enumerate. My real hope for this project is that some readers would be inspired to develop other pragmatist-inflected rhetorics.

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reflective note
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As befits an inquiry, this project has taken me to some places I did not anticipate.

Thanks to various pieces I'd already read by Rorty, Smith, Fish, Michaels, Haraway, and others, I thought I had a reasonably good (if not particularly deep or historical) understanding of pragmatism, at least in its major contemporary forms. That was the understanding that inspired my first response paper, on Isocrates seen in light of the New Pragmatists. While I don't disavow that understanding now, I do feel this project has given me, on the one hand, a much richer understanding of the contemporary pragmatists, and on the other an invaluable perspective on early pragmatism and how it developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

At the same time, my new knowledge (however partial and occasionally confused, after a survey at breathtaking speed) of the European rhetorical tradition has led me to think at length about how that intellectual history informs pragmatism (particularly when the latter is viewed as a distinctly or primarily US endeavor), and how that history looks in the light of pragmatism. The early, simplistic equivalences I suggested---Sophists as one sort of pragmatist (Rortian or Smithian, roughly speaking), Isocrates as another sort (Michaelsian), Socrates and Plato as anti-pragmatist---are not unreasonable, as far as they go. But other insights can come from reflecting on the connections between Plato and Emerson, for example, or considering the difference between reading Gorgias as closer to Fish (taking Gorgias more or less at face value) or as closer to Rorty (hypothesizing that Gorgias is being at least somewhat ironic). And moving on in the tradition, all sorts of other fascinating partial connections appear. Vico's sensus communis is clearly allied to pragmatic theories of the social construction of truth, but the historical determinism of his "three ages" flies in the face of the pragmatic insistence on the contingency of cultural forms.

The project has also led to some specific writers I want to investigate further. I mentioned in the Author's Note that I had not had time to look at all (or even most!) of the sources people in class recommended---that's a tremendous list for the next phase. On the other hand, the books I did read brought some new key figures to my attention. Cornel West makes a strong case for Dewey's importance in pragmatic thought; my previous exposure to Dewey had been only a few comments here and there about his pedagogical innovations, but after reading West's chapter on him I can see that there's much more in Dewey's work that deserves review. (West calls for a renaissance of Deweyism, and he may be right, though I'm afraid that it's been nearly twenty years since he wrote American Evasion and it doesn't look like the Dewey train has yet left the station.) Rorty, in the first chapter of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, makes much use of Donald Davidson's theories of language. Again, I had only the most passing familiarity with Davidson (I hadn't even realized he was an American), but after reading a couple of online articles about him I'm eager to learn more. (Years ago at an MLA book sale I picked up a collection titled Literary Theory Since Davidson, just because it looked interesting, but like so many other books I never got around to reading it. Now it has a new lease on my attention...)

A major problem with the project as it stands today is that I became captivated by the philosophy, and consequently robbed the rhetoric research to pay the philosophical. That's quite noticeable in the paper, I think, where the discussion of thinkers who are usually identified as rhetoricians is pretty thin. I'm a bit disappointed with myself for this, particularly since my background in critical theory tends to lead me toward the philosophy and critical-theory aspects, and I meant to correct for that by focusing more on the rhetoric, particularly the contemporary rhetors (which obviously remain an area I know little about). I think this doesn't hurt the paper as much as it might because my intended audience has a strong background in rhetorical theory already, so I need to provide less of it; but it would still be improved if I were able to make more of those connections explicitly. When I revisit this project, connections to the rhetorical tradition and especially to contemporary rhetoric will be a major area of effort.

Freeing rhetoric from metaphysics and transcendental epistemology could, I believe, have significant consequences, in ways that I'm only starting to see. I believe it can lay rhetoric bare, so to speak, stripping away what I cannot help but feel are distractions (interesting though they might be as intellectual exercises [footnote: It's interesting to note that West suggests many pragmatists may need to indulge in non-pragmatic philosophy from time to time merely to satisfy a personal need---to scratch an itch, as he puts it (96).]), such as the question of rhetoric's epistemological priority relative to dialectic or the scientific method. And that, in turn, might enable some new theories of rhetoric that deal more concretely with how to do things with rhetoric, rather than, say, what constitutes rhetoric (as an object, practice, or discipline)---a concern that we saw rhetors take up time and time again.

I believe freeing rhetoric from metaphysics can let us acknowledge the true scope of rhetorical effects. If, like Quine, Rorty, and Smith, we see language not as a medium (carrying ideas from some special source, such as the world or the self, to the sphere of discourse) but a tool, and specifically as the basic tool of knowledge, then all knowledge-production is rhetorical. This is constructivism writ large: all knowledge is produced through the motivated use of the affordances presented by signifying systems. If rhetoric is defined as the study of the conscious employment of signifying systems to achieve a goal---a definition I'd like to advance, if only tentatively---then it becomes a kind of epistemology itself, but not the hypothetical epistemology ("how do we know things?") of analytic philosophy. Instead, it's an applied epistemology: how to make things known.

Finally, I believe freeing rhetoric from metaphysics can bring rhetoric fully into the postclassical project described by Smith and Plotnitsky, a project I unabashedly subscribe to. [footnote: Today, anyway. Maybe I'll change my mind about that in a year. Nothing is certain!] Why postclassicism? First, because I agree that European-derived thought has tended to assume certain classical theses as axioms, and I believe that all ideas should be continually up for review, even though we need to assume many of them at any given time in order to come to (transient, contingent, partial) agreements for action. Second, because I agree that some of those ideas, such as the paranoic rejection of relativism, are specifically counterproductive, and that reconsidering them is necessary to formulate a more sophisticated understanding of such crucial areas as ethics and law. And third, I think the postclassical project looks like a plausible way to address some of the key failings of the Enlightenment project, such as its Eurocentrism and anthrocentrism. And that, in turn, may help us on the one hand become the "ironic liberals" Rorty wishes us to be, with strong facilities for recognizing the suffering of those unlike us; and on the other to arrive at more sophisticated models of power and agency that help us do something about that suffering.

In short, I see pragmatism and postclassicism as deeply aligned, a view which is probably not controversial, but worth exploring nonetheless. And I see postclassicism as something desirable intellectually and politically, so it's not surprising that I'd like to see rhetoric brought into the postclassical fold. What, in turn, does rhetoric bring to postclassicism?

I've already suggested that philosophy in general, including pragmatism and postclassicism, can make more use of rhetoric. Rorty and Fish have both suggested, in their own way, that philosophers and philosophy are of little importance in our everyday lives---and they're two of the most readable contemporary philosophers. Philosophers need to work on their rhetorical skills if they're going to achieve the outreach that would make their ideas broadly effective---or as West proposes, resituate their rhetorical effects in a popular context such as preaching, which amounts to the same thing (attending to audience and kairos). That's one purely practical application of rhetoric to postclassicism.

On a theoretical level, rhetoric can perform at least two other favors for postclassicism. Having posited broad constructivism, actor-network theory, and other anti-foundational theories of knowledge and action, postclassicism is always in danger of appearing to "level" interactions among actors, so it's not clear where differences in power or effectivity lie or how they're achieved or used. Rhetoric is essentially a study of contestation, so it is already somewhat equipped to deal with those questions. In other words, it can help answer questions like "how does an idea get constructed in a way that favors a particular interest?" and "why can some actors in the network pull harder?". The other favor is historical. Of all disciplines that are still vigorous in the US academy today, rhetoric has the most widespread and thorough-going interest in classical thought---the very intellectual ground that postclassical thinking explicitly sets itself against. If postclassicists want to undermine the classical foundation, rhetoricians can best show them where to dig.