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If it is true that the “rhetorical turn” in the human sciences begun around thirty years ago, based on the work of Dilthey, Gadamer and others and popularized in the American academy by the likes of Thomas Kuhn in science and Richard Rorty in philosophy, was something like a quiet revolution that upended once and for all the superiority of science and forced the scientific disciplines to note how they functioned rhetorically, then the last ten years have seen what might modestly be called a counter-revolution. Where the revolution was marked – by those working in rhetoric especially with something like glee – with announcements that the “sciences of the text,” like formalism, New Criticism, structuralism and most Marxisms were shown once and for all to be failures because science's claim to special objective status was a false one, the counter-revolution has been marked with cautious reminders that description and observation – though perhaps just as biassed as some of Kuhn's more vocal adherents would suggest – nevertheless cannot be dispensed with even in the most hermeneutical of textual practices. Where the revolution has come close at times to suggesting that the operations of science, because they overlap with interpretation, must ultimately be subsumed by hermeneutics, the counter-revolution has suggested often mutedly, though sometimes stridently, that interaction and not subsumption is what the overlapping of the rhetorical and scientific realms suggests for the work of both the human and the natural sciences.
In 1883, with the publication of the first and second volumes of Introduction to the Human Sciences, Wilhelm Dilthey endeavored to establish the human sciences within the same conceptual framework as the natural sciences – “a complex of propositions (1) whose elements are concepts that are completely defined … (2) whose connections are well grounded, and (3) in which finally the parts are connected into a whole for the purpose of communication” (Dilthey, Introduction, 57). The Geisteswissenschajten, because they studied human understanding first, saw the natural law as a guide for human practice, and saw the life of man incommensurable with the world without human interaction with it (Introduction, 56–9). That is to say, Dilthey once and for all distinguished between the natural world as behaving exterior to (or perhaps behind the back of) human cognition on the one hand, and human cognition and resultant social practice on the other. Natural science established the conceptual systems by which nature could presumably be studied and mapped; the human sciences used similar methodologies to study the possibility that such a mapping could be accomplished at all.
Much has changed in the 100 or so years since the Introduction's publication. Most significantly, the natural sciences have been problematized to such an extent that the division imposed by Dilthey between the human and the natural sciences has been blurred, if not (according to some) completely effaced.
With what has been called the “rhetorical turn” or the antifoundational paradigm, work in the human sciences – by the likes of philosophers such as Rorty and Davidson, of scientists such as Kuhn and Polyani, and of philosophers of science such as Feyerabend – theorists have begun to understand that the search for foundational knowledge either by philosophical or by scientific means is a project bound to fail. In the last ten to fifteen years in particular, people such as Louise Phelps in composition studies and Richard Bernstein – in the name of Hans Georg Gadamer – have looked for a “third way” between (in Bernstein's terms) objectivism and relativism, or between the scylla of foundationalism and the charybdis of knowledge without any foundations. And because this turn has been precisely rhetorical, much attention has lately been paid to classical rhetorical texts, like the Rhetoric, Plato's dialogues on oratory (Phaedrus, Gorgias), and texts on ethics and politics, in order to determine whether that “third way” might not have been hinted at by these earlier thinkers.
This chapter will not join that fray, since the connections between rhetoric and other ways of knowing are already well established. My task here will be instead to suggest that important passages in two of Aristotle's texts on rhetoric – Nichomachean Ethics and Rhetoric – imply that in order to persuade members of the polis to pursue a particular course of action, the rhetor is bound to use the methodology of the sciences, because it is through observation that you bear out the results of rhetorical knowledge.
In the face of the multifaceted critiques of modernity, no one needs to be reminded of how fragile [local forms of civil community] are, how easily they are coopted and perverted. But at a time when the threat of total annihilation no longer seems to be an abstract possibility but the most imminent and real potentiality, it becomes all the more imperative to try again and again to foster and nurture those forms of communal life in which dialogue, conversation, phronesis, practical discourse, and judgment are concretely embodied in our daily life.
(Richard Bernstein, Beyond Objectivity and Relativism, 229)
The 1980s and 1990s have been good decades for rhetoric. Stanley Fish, using Richard Lanham's terms, noted the rise of homo rhetoricus, suggesting that it was just such a “species” of intellectual that would point us to the future not just of academic inquiry but of human inquiry as well. Such an intellectual would investigate not the world as it is reflected in our scientific practice, but how those reflections themselves are constructed. “[T]he givens of any field of activity – including the facts it commands, the procedures it trusts in, and the values it expresses and extends – are socially and politically constructed, are fashioned by man rather than delivered by God or Nature” (Fish, Doing 485), and two of the fields most directly affected by the upswing in the fortunes of “rhetorical man” are economics and science.
With the publication of Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, antifoundationalist thinkers could legitimately claim that, with the overthrow of epistemology, hermeneutic analysis could give us the best and most useful information about “the world.” Our understanding of the world is created – linguistically inscribed in a process of “redescription” – rather than “discovered” scientifically. So, the antifoundational object of analysis is the vocabulary used by people trying to describe their surroundings. It is useless trying to analyze the surroundings themselves, because you can never escape their mediated nature: they are always descriptions, and as such all we have to go on are the linguistic schemes that the various interlocutors have at their disposal. What this thesis fails to account for, though, is the object of knowledge, the object of all the descriptions that Rorty sees as so important. We may be able to reconcile competing normal descriptions (that is, abnormal discourse) by finding a “third vocabulary” with which to make descriptions, but the fact remains that there is something that is being described and is (one would think at least in part) responsible for the difference of opinion. Moreover, redescribing something is not necessarily going to change it, nor is redescription necessarily an adequate tool for analysis.
The rioting that occurred in Los Angeles during the last days of April and the first days of May 1992 after the announcement in the Rodney King police-beating case appears to me to be a perfect example of an event (or, if you prefer, object of knowledge) that cries out for some kind of “redescription.”
Near the beginning of Composition as a Human Science, Louise Phelps notes that “the framework on which the positive directions of postmodern culture converge is an essentially rhetorical one, and as such both fits the needs of composition for a global philosophy of knowledge in relation to praxis and also opens the way for composition to help articulate and realize this paradigm” (6). The book goes on to trace the rise of the “postmodern consciousness,” characterized by its rejection of positivism and its uncritical acceptance of science as both objective and progressive, and by the adoption of acutely self-reflexive modes of thought that situate both the object of inquiry and the methodology for inquiry in sites of contestation. Because the postmodern situation understands the world as mediated primarily by means of language, then it is natural to assume that any discipline that understands itself as primarily interested in the complexities of language and writing should be at the center of contemporary epistemological debates: what can be known, and what is the nature of that knowledge? Phelps suggests that it is composition which recognizes itself as central to these debates, but that the field is currently in something like a crisis of confidence. This crisis begins with compositionists' questions about the nature of their “field,” and its connection to other fields of knowledge, not just in the human but also in the natural sciences.
The two Platonic dialogues that deal most exclusively with rhetoric – the Gorgias, written in about 387 BCE, and the Phaedrus, written about seventeen years later – are often taken as companion pieces. The more or less traditional reception has it that Gorgias is a scathing indictment not necessarily of rhetoric itself but of those who would use discourse to the end of the expedient rather than the good (see Vickers, “Defense”; Kennedy, Persuasion; Hunt, “Rhetoric”). Phaedrus is then seen as Plato's level-headed reassessment of rhetoric, and is taken by many to “explain” the vituperative tone of Gorgias. Whereas in the earlier discourse, Socrates takes his interlocutors to task for blurring the line between knowledge and belief, here Socrates admits that the line is truly hard to make out but that – all things being equal – one should favor knowledge. Whereas Gorgias insists upon a reconfiguration of the definitions of “nature” and “convention,” Phaedrus seems much more willing to concede a role for rhetoric in a conventional world (see Barilli, Rhetoric; Cantor, “Rhetoric” Gosling, Plato; Plochman, Friendly Companion; Leff, “Modern Sophistic” and “Habituation of Rhetoric”). In short, the two pieces are seen as two sides of the same coin: Gorgias condemns a simple (read sophistic) view of rhetoric and upholds a more rigorous, reasonable art, dialectic, as its alternative; and Phaedrus is dialectic's consummation, wherein Socrates shows Phaedrus, the lesser rhetorician, the proper use of figure to argue back as far as possible to first causes (see Black, “Plato's View”).
When Richard Rorty published Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature in 1979, he codified what had already become apparent – the human and the natural sciences, along with philosophy (the primary subject of Rorty's book) had taken a decided turn away from “objectivity” and “realism,” and had questioned the methodologies fundamental to the disciplines themselves. There had been rumblings of such a structural revolution early in the previous decade: Thomas Kuhn (one of Rorty's unsung heroes in Philosophy and subsequent books) had done for the sciences in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions what Rorty had done for philosophy with his book. Within two decades, normative science and positivist philosophy of science – each of which had a tradition stretching back to the early renaissance – had been overthrown, and what resulted was, depending upon how you look at revolution, either wholesale chaos in which scientists and philosophers had to rethink their centuries-old modus operandi without so much as a roadmap; or a fecund multidisciplinary soup, in which the boundaries between traditionally demarcated fields broke down to yield shared methodologies and borrowed metaphysics.
Of course, this revolution did not come overnight. Careful readers of Kuhn had seen it coming for a while. The natural sciences had not been up to the task of explaining the phenomena they took for their job to explain, not because their theories were not complex enough, but because the paradigm within which theoretizing could be done at all had become threatened by methodologies that grew up in the human sciences; and analytic philosophy, far from failing to theorize the epistemological and ontological problems it had set for itself, found instead that the very questions it had been asking were mooted by problems articulated by Foucault and Derrida and raised by others before them.
Though theory has become a common language in the humanities in recent years, the relation between theoretical speculation and its practical application has yet to be fully addressed. In The Practice of Theory, Michael Bernard-Donals examines the connection between theory and pedagogy at the level of practice. He asks how such a practice works not only to change the way we read and speak with one another, but also the conditions in which these activities become possible. Bernard-Donals argues that the most sophisticated practice linking pedagogy to theory is rhetoric, but the version of this tradition in thinkers like Rorty and Fish is never broad enough. The conception of rhetoric he proposes instead is linked to other human and natural sciences. The practice of theory investigates the degree to which a materialistic rhetoric can reinvigorate the link between theory, teaching and practice, and offers a sustained reflection on the production of knowledge across a broad range of contemporary disciplines.