Sunday, December 13, 2009

Rhetoric: from Persuasion to Understanding

Moe Azadeh
Eng. 651
Prof. Steven Wexler
Rhetoric: from Persuasion to Understanding


Traditionally, rhetoric is defined as effective use of language for the purpose of persuasion. Implicit in this Aristotelian definition is an instrumental view of language which takes it to be a tool whose “effective use” can be mastered, a tool to represent abstract concepts which themselves are beyond the realm of language and which can be used for a variety of purposes, for example, representation, communication, persuasion, etc. Also implicit in this definition is a lack of any normative or ethical qualification on the nature of the “persuasion” that takes place: as long as persuasion has happened, the act of rhetoric has been achieved and its goal has been reached.
Both these points can be challenged. The instrumental view of language is now deemed to be grossly naïve. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of modern philosophy has been an intense attention to language and its active role both in the formation of our own selves as linguistic beings and in the creation of the construct that we call “the world.” Wittgenstein summarizes this view aptly: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Outside language, there is no world. Rhetorical theories, therefore, must reflect this fundamental role of language and examine its ramifications. On the ethical dimension, there is little doubt that not all persuasions are equally “authentic.” Those who are persuaded that a spaceship is about to take them to a better place and the journey starts with a mass suicide have no doubt been convinced through the power of language, but it is hard to ignore the point that in this instance of persuasion something has gone seriously wrong.
The challenges mentioned above can be given a more serious theoretical undergirding through an area of philosophical inquiry that has come to be known as philosophical hermeneutics, especially as identified by the name of Hans George Gadamer. In the special sense of the term, hermeneutics is interested in the understanding of the meaning of texts, and its history goes back to the understating and interpretation of scripture. In its more general sense, however, what Gadamer calls philosophical hermeneutics is interested in unraveling the mechanisms through which “understanding” is made possible and takes place, be it the understanding of the meaning of a text, or the understanding of a particular event, or indeed the understanding of the world we found ourselves in. In short, philosophical hermeneutics is interested in understanding understanding.
As a side note, it is worth mentioning that the impact of modern hermeneutic thought in general, and Gadamer’s work in particular, has not remained limited to pure theoretical or philosophical investigations. To give an example of the impact of Gadamer’s work in practical matters, one can mention the publication of a study by the Catholic Church with the title: Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past. This study, which almost exclusively was based on Gadamer’s work, was the background for Pope John Paul II’s pronouncement about the past faults of the Church, including the wrongdoings of the Church towards the Jewish people (Dostal, 6). The fact that an apparently abstract philosophical theory has caused such a move in a conservative institution such as the Church says something about Gadamer’s work.
But what are the implications of hermeneutical insights for rhetoric? One expects that a philosophical enterprise which sets as its goal the study of understanding should have something to say about rhetorical aspects of language. Indeed, in a sense rhetoric is the art of effective communication in which a major part (if not the major part) should be understanding. Surprisingly however, there have been relatively few works dedicated to exploring the relationship between hermeneutics and rhetoric (Ryan).
In this paper I will investigate two approaches to the relationship between hermeneutics and rhetoric. The first approach, which I will call descriptive, deals with the ways hermeneutics can shed light on reasons behind the force of language. Here the concern is not whether this force is used in a morally or ethically (or in some other normative sense) acceptable manner, rather, the goal is simply to give a descriptive account of the persuasive power of language. However, the second approach, which I call prescriptive, tries to address rhetoric from a value-laden perspective, and thus deals with questions such as “authentic” vs. “inauthentic” rhetoric, or more generally, ways in which we can critique rhetorical acts from an ethical or moral perspective.

Hermeneutics and Rhetoric: Descriptive Approach

One cannot question the power of language, a power that exerts itself in numerous explicit and implicit ways. We all enjoy when we read a literary masterpiece; it gives us a kind of fulfillment and satisfaction that cannot be reduced to other kinds of pleasures. A good speaker or a powerful piece of writing can stimulate in us strong and sometimes fierce emotions and extract from within us sensations which even we ourselves were not aware of. Certainly this power does not originate merely from the content. This can be easily observed in the case, for instance, of a poem. Sometimes a poem can exert such a power as to completely transform someone’s life. Karen Armstrong, supposedly, found such a transforming power in T. S. Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday, so much so that it became the turning point of her life. However, a theoretical article with the exact same contents would very likely have ended up as just one more article in her stack of papers and books. But what is the source of this power? Why should words exert such command on people? A descriptive approach to rhetoric observes this extreme power and then tries to explain its origin by giving an account of it, without attempting to pass any normative judgments on the nature of such acts.
Hermeneutics’ contribution to a descriptive account of rhetoric can be attributed to the insights that it provides on the nature of language. As mentioned earlier, hermeneutics tries to give an account of human understanding and the conditions for its occurrence. Among these conditions, language occupies a particularly crucial (and mysterious) position, for indeed any act of understanding is deeply linguistic. Language is “among the most mysterious questions for human reflection” because “the very pondering or thinking about language transpires in language” (Figal). Language is so close that: “when it functions it is so little an object that it seems to conceal its own being from us.” (Figal, quote from Gadamer). Language is always already there, something through whose mediation the world is revealed to us. It is something we can never completely understand, transcend, or bring under control, as any attempt to achieve such goals can itself only be carried out within language. One of the best accounts of how deep language is rooted in our existence is from Helen Keller, who described her pre-language experience as such:
Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was no-world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness. I did not know that I knew nothing, or that I lived, or acted, or desired. I had neither will nor intellect… my inner life, then, was a blank without past, present, or future, without hope or anticipation, without wonder or joy or faith.[1] (Keller, 113)
It is interesting to note that Gadamer distinguishes between two alternative views of language: language as image, and language as sign. He then goes on to claim that ever since Plato Western thought has replaced the concept of image with that of a sign. Gadamer emphasizes the imaging power of language, where by imaging he intends to underline the revelatory aspect of the word (logos) (Baker), the power to “bring into open” and to dis-close, a power lacking in mere signs. Gadamer’s famous adage summarizes this view: “being that can be understood is language.” We are linguistic beings for whom “the world” manifests itself through language. We can never completely master language, or understand its workings, because our very understanding is mediated through language. We are as much in control of language as language is control of us (Figal). In fact, Gadamer points out: “it would be literally more correct to say that a language speaks us than to say that we speak a language” (ibid).
In this view, in short, language creates us as well as our world, “the conversations that we ourselves are” (Figal, quote from Gadamer). This sense of language provides a basis for the power of rhetoric, for it is not merely a tool to use language effectively, but rather a means of creation, creation of realities in which people can find new homes for their being. The life changing power of a true piece of poetry, for instance, originates from the world-changing power of language: “When one reads a poem, its words do not stand for something else; they are themselves the instantiation of a presence that every interpretation intends but for which none is a substitute” (Baker). Thus, we can say that in this sense rhetoric is the means of creating new realities, or new worlds, new worlds over and against an existing history, tradition, or linguistic background. To this end, rhetoric is effective to the extend that it succeeds in this act of creation, and if hermeneutic insights are correct, this success is determined by the ability of the rhetor to maintain a balance between two extremes: on one side one must work within the confines of the familiar world of the audience, or more precisely, within the hermeneutic circle or horizon which they occupy. If one strays too far off from this horizon, one runs the risk of simply walking out of the world of the audience and thus losing the communication. On the other side, one cannot build a new world right in the middle of the world everybody occupies, for such a familiar horizon lacks the ability to move, create, reveal, or open up new possibilities. Thus, it is the responsibility of the rhetor to locate his or her rhetoric strategically within and yet away from the mundane center of the hermeneutical world of the audience. And of course since rhetoric is an act of language, it can never be fully transcended, understood, or planned in advance. Both the rhetor and the audience are bound within the circle of language, even if one is trying to channel and use it to affect the other.

Hermeneutics and Rhetoric: Prescriptive Approach

As noted before, rhetoric is usually defined as the ability to use language effectively to persuade. The term “persuade” is critical here, for it signifies an “act” which originates from the rhetor as the subject, and is “performed” on the listener or the reader as the “object,” with the consequence that the latter is persuaded of the truth of the message that the former has originated. In stronger cases, the audience not only is persuaded regarding the intended message, but also “moved” to act upon it. Such terminology carries a strong sense of subjugation and suppression, as if rhetoric is the act of (intellectual) subjugation and conquering of the audience. But is this view of rhetoric ethically defendable? Can we prescribe a rhetorical act, no matter how apparently successful it has been in terms of persuasion, if that persuasion has resulted from such a one-directional transaction in which one side is the subject and the other side is the object? Indeed this implicit sense of power and dominance in the traditional definition of rhetoric may lead to the identification of persuasion with, for instance, “… a deliberate, patriarchal attempt on the part of a rhetor to change the listener's mind, and… therefore, a form of social and intellectual violence” (Ryan). In a prescriptive approach, one attempts to address such concerns by trying to delineate the parameters of what one may call “authentic” or “true” rhetoric. The hermeneutic answer to the question of what constitutes a true or authentic rhetoric can be summarized as follows: true rhetoric is a rhetoric in which the focus has shifted from persuasion to understanding. In the reminder of this paper, I try to discuss the meaning and ramifications of this focal shift.
The key concept in this shift is the concept of understanding. Let us then start with giving an account of the meaning of understanding from a hermeneutical perspective. Mostly under the influence of experimental sciences, standard views of understanding hold that to understand “correctly” requires a suspension of one’s presuppositions and prejudices, so that “objective” knowledge could be obtained. In other words, in order to understand (approach “Truth”) one must, as much as possible and ideally completely, set aside one’s cultural and individual backgrounds, prejudgments, and perspectives, for such factors can taint the objectivity of the process of knowledge. The problem, of course, is that such a “view from nowhere” is not available. Human understanding is deeply contingent, situated within cultural, historical, and linguistic backgrounds (Wachterhauser).
Unlike positivistic approaches which naively try to deny this contingency, hermeneutics embraces human understanding’s “situated-ness” and recognizes it not as a hindrance to, but as a condition for knowledge. Indeed Gadamer’s controversial claim is that it is due to one’s prejudices (i.e., presuppositions) that any understanding becomes possible. In order to understand, one needs to occupy a point of view, a perspective. Any understanding is situated within a tradition, a historical and linguistic background, as part of an on-going conversation. These factors are not impediments to understanding; rather, they are precisely the conditions for understanding (Gorndin). Of course, this does not mean that presuppositions are not to be questioned or critiqued. What it means is that in stead of trying to ignore or deny them, authentic understanding tries to bring its presuppositions to light and to subject them to the critique of reason. Although these presuppositions can never be fully understood and transcended, they can be questioned, examined, and to various degrees understood.
This Socratic view of knowledge can be understood better if we examine Gadamer’s understanding of understanding more carefully. Gadamer distinguishes between three meanings of understating (Gorndin). The most familiar sense of understanding is to know something, for example, to understand or to know that Paris is the capital of France. In this sense, knowledge has a conceptual nature, a “knowing what” character. This epistemological sense of knowledge is in contrast with the second kind of knowing which can be called “knowing how.” In knowing how, we know how to do something, or how to achieve a goal, for example how to ride a bicycle or how to swim, even if we are not able to provide a theoretical account of that knowledge. In this sense knowing is more a practical matter of knowing how to achieve a goal as opposed to a theoretical knowledge of some facts. But a third kind of understating (which is the primary mode of understanding Gadamer is interested in) is the sense in which two individuals come to understand each other. In fact, Gadamer gives primacy to this mode of understanding because he thinks other kinds of understanding are more or less subspecies of this more general sense, for any understanding is indeed a dialog within some tradition, and against some historic and linguistic background. The model Gadamer uses to describe this mode of understanding is that of a horizon. Understating is less an act and more an event, an event that takes place over and after the active engagement of all participants, an event that signifies a merging of horizons between a subject on one side, and a text, a tradition, or another subject on the other side. Based on this understanding of understanding, we can proceed and discuss means of critiquing rhetorical acts in a normative manner, i.e., less in terms of their effectiveness, and more in terms of what may be called “authenticity.” But how are we to distinguish between “authentic” vs. “inauthentic” rhetoric? Again, to repeat what was mentioned earlier, it is not hard to motivate such a distinction, for it is easy to show examples of “effective use of language” where the outcome has been disastrous.
My answer to this question, in short, is that authentic rhetoric is one in which both the rhetor and the audience enter in a dialog whose aim is not for one side to persuade (or be persuaded by) the other, but to prepare the conditions for the event of understanding. In other words, the goal of authentic rhetoric is to deliver, and even reveal, the “truth”: authentic rhetoric is truth oriented. Now, we can say all rhetorical acts at least implicitly include truth claims. This is the case with speech acts as much as writing, and even more so in practical matters such as teaching writing or composition. To quote Daniel Royer:
“I thoroughly agree with James Berlin who insists: To teach writing is to argue for a version of reality and the best way of knowing and communicating it-to deal ... in the metarhetorical realm of epistemology and linguistics. And all composition teachers are ineluctably operating in this realm, whether or not they consciously choose to do so” (Royer).
However, as countless examples show, more often than not, truth claims are merely claims, and do not contribute to any authentic disclosure or understanding. So the question of how to distinguish between authentic and inauthentic rhetoric still remains.
One way to proceed is to contrast authentic rhetoric with inauthentic rhetoric. Inauthentic rhetoric is an instance of monolog, in which the main concern is not reaching understanding or delivering of truth, but rather the utilization of others as means to some external goal. Even when apparently a conversation is going on, the two sides talk past each other or at each other, rather than cooperating in a constructive way towards unraveling the truth of the matter at hand. Now I am aware of the problems associated with a term like “truth”, and how careful one must be when using it. To this end, we need to start by defining “truth” and its achievement through dialog, as the occasion towards which authentic rhetoric must strive.
The debate on the meaning of truth is of course one of the most fundamental concerns of philosophy and one that goes back (at least within Western tradition) to sophists on one side and Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle on the other side. This paper is obviously not the place to survey such a deep and conservational issue as the meaning of truth. However, as far as we are concerned, and in terms of philosophical hermeneutics, this debate is between those who hold that the hermeneutic circle is a vicious one, and those who believe otherwise (Wachterhauser). Gadamer belongs to the latter group, and this is the position I am trying to defend too. This view is a position which attempts to establish a position between relativism on one side (the view that all human beliefs are only justified by other beliefs, and thus the whole enterprise of human knowledge is “spinning frictionlessly in the void” (ibid.)) and naïve realism on the other, a view that holds reality is simply out there ready to be discovered.
What distinguishes the hermeneutical stance towards truth from naïve realism is that historic and linguistic preconditions of any act of understanding are not rejected, but accepted, and acknowledged as a precondition for understanding. The hermeneutical circle is a circle, but it is not viscous in the sense that it makes some contact with reality, as opposed to spinning frictionlessly in the void. In this view, truth is the consummation of the event of understanding, whereby the different parties enter an act of dialog with the intention of achieving a goal, while genuinely acknowledging their own historic and linguistic limitations. Each side is willing to listen as much as to talk, to give up as much as to defend, to make space for question as much as to provide answer. And of course the dialog happens within language, and it is acknowledged that language brings into light, reveals, as much as it covers.
Thus, a genuine act of rhetoric is one in which the speaker and the audience (or a tradition, or a text) enter into a dialog with the aim of revealing the mystery that is otherwise hidden, a truth that is not known or planned in advance, but rather is a goal towards which the process of understanding struggles. It follows that a genuine act of rhetoric (just like any genuine dialog) cannot be planned in advance, for in fact the more it is preplanned, the more artificial it sounds. Rather, it is like a game that the parties enter, and although it has rules, its outcome is not known in advance. Through the sincere cooperation of the parties, the truth is gradually (and always only partially) revealed. Indeed, we can say, an act of rhetoric is most authentic when it itself is (paradoxically) most transparent and unnoticed, letting the “the matter at hand” to be dis-closed through the cooperation of the participants. It should be noticed that in this sense, authenticity becomes also a matter of an ethical decision, a decision that is by no means easy. The speaker (or more generally the “active” side of the conversation) must be ready to listen as much as to talk. Here listening does not mean a mechanical act of letting others speak. In stead, it means a decision on the part of the speaker that he is entering a space with many players, and that his role is not to command others into subjugation, but to open up a space for them (and for himself) in which questioning, dialog, and new thoughts can flourish. Likewise, the listener (or the reader, or more generally the “passive” side of conversation) must also make a decision to the effect that he is not merely seeking assurance for things he already knows or believes, but that his responsibility is to be a genuine participant in a conversation that has been going on and will likely continue to go on, and for which there is no last word.
Authentic rhetoric can better be understood once it is contrasted with inauthentic rhetoric, a monological act in which the rhetor plans in advance to manage, handle, or move the audience in a pre-planned direction. If we want to use Kantian terminology, we can say that in inauthentic rhetoric the audience are not treated as ends in themselves, but rather as tools to some end intended by the speaker. Whether this external goal is legitimate or not is of little consequence, for even if it were legitimate, the audience has not entered the act voluntarily, as they are being manipulated towards some goal outside the working of their free will. In other words, in inauthentic rhetoric one side hands over his powers of reason, resistance, and questioning; and instead enters a transaction which is based mainly on a one-directional, unchallenged, flow of language.
Let us summarize the key points mentioned above once again. Against the background of the traditional definition of rhetoric as persuasive use of language, and informed by hermeneutical insights, we can take at least two approaches. In the first approach, we can try to go beyond the surface of rhetorical acts and try to give an account of the working of language in a deeper level. From this perspective, hermeneutics provides deeper insights about the force of language in terms of the recognition of how deeply linguistic our existence is, and to what extent it is us who are spoken by language rather than the other way around. In the second approach (which is in fact built upon the first), we can go beyond mere description of the power of language and qualify the use of language in terms of its goal. To this end, authentic use of language involves an inherently dialogical effort towards the realization of understanding. Here dialog must be taken in a general sense, and can take various forms like the dialog between two persons, between a speaker and the audience, between a writer and the readers, between a teacher and students, or between a text and its readers. Moreover, the emphasis is not on persuasion, but understanding. Thus, if language is used in a manner that lets the various sides involved in the dialog approach the truth of the matter at hand, the goal of language has been realized, even if no persuasion has taken place.


Baker, J. M. “Lyric as Paradigm: Hegel and the Speculative Instance of Poetry in Gadamer’s Hermeneutics.” The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer. Ed. Robert J. Dostal. Cambridge University Press, 2002. 143-167.

Dostal, Robert. The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer, The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer. Ed. Robert J. Dostal. Cambridge University Press, 2002. 102-126.

Figal, Gunter, “The Doing of the Thing Itself: Gadamer’s Hermeneutic Ontology of Language.” The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer. Ed. Robert J. Dostal. Cambridge University Press, 2002. 102-126.

Gorndin, Jean. “Gadamer’s Basic Understanding of Understanding.” The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer. Ed. Robert J. Dostal. Cambridge University Press, 2002. 36-52.

Keller, Helen. The World that I live In. New York, the Century Company, 1914

Royer, Daniel J. “New Challenges to Epistemic Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Review. Vol. 9, No. 2. 1991. 282-297.

Ryan, Kathleen J. and Natalle, Elizabeth J. “Fusing Horizons: Standpoint Hermeneutics and Invitational Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 2. 2001. 69-90.

Wachterhauser, Brice. “Getting it Right: Relativism, Realism, and Truth.” The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer. Ed. Robert J. Dostal. Cambridge University Press, 2002. 52-79.

[1] I owe this reference to Dr. Dean Pickard.

Friday, December 11, 2009


Literacy, like many other similar concepts, is a construct. This means it does not correspond to a real “thing” in the real world, rather, it is a shorthand for a range of phenomena. For one thing, literacy is always referenced to a community of users. In old times, this was usually common people for whom reading and writing was important. Compared to this community of users, those whose reading (and to a lesser extent writing) skills was deemed to be insufficiently developed were considered to be illiterate. Even in this simple usage of the term, one case see literacy could be a very vague concept, for the fact of matter is that in reality any particular skill (say reading) constitutes a distribution, a range that covers a relatively vast expanse with the majority of people located in the middle. In this context, anyone whose reading (or writing) skill falls below the average of the distribution can be considered “less literate”. We can arbitrarily set a limit and say those who fall below the 10 percentile are illiterate. But even this simplified statistical approach has its own limitations: do we consider someone with great practical knowledge who is not able to put that knowledge in writing illiterate? Obviously our simplified matrix simply does not work for such cases.But even more importantly, the modern society is getting ever more fractured. So it is quite possible (and indeed necessary) to limit the scope of literacy to very specific domains. A great writer who is obviously considered to be literate in the traditional sense may be completely illiterate when it comes to computer and computer usage. On the other hand, a teenager may be very literate when it comes to computers, but completely illiterate when it comes to economy or reading or writing. I think this means we need to carefully limit the scope and range of a concept like literacy, and be careful to use it only in a very limited where it is clearly defined and where all the users clearly know what is meant by it.


Grammar (or other “mechanical correctness” norms) are integral parts of language, and
I think it is hard not to admit that they are necessary (but not sufficient) conditions for effective use of language. Moreover, they are skills that have to be learned naturally as an integral part of the development of one’s linguistic abilities. The question is what is the best way to achieve (or at least approach) this goal.

Let us consider an example not too far off from that of grammar: mathematics.
Obviously one needs to know a certain level of rudimentary mathematics in order to be able to live a successful life. In many cases however, one needs to know quite more. An architect or a designer needs to combine artistic perspectives with geometrical understanding, many areas of humanities and biological sciences require proficiency in advanced statistics and probability, and of course math is the default language of engineering and physics. However, math and geometry are notorious and almost universally dreaded by many. Why is that? Is there something inherently difficult about them? I think the reason for this notoriety lies not so much with the inherent discipline of math, but more with the way most of us come to first encounter it. We are forced throughout our school years to learn math and geometry, but for most of us it is not clear why, especially when the concepts start to move away from experience and into more abstract realms. However, if more emphasis is put on the relationship between the abstract concepts and the real world problems they are trying to address, the concepts become much more natural and teachable, as indeed they were first developed precisely in that order. Some people have encountered a certain problem and in order to solve it they had to invent the required math. I remember when I was first forced to learn calculus I was tormented and bewildered. But later on when I really saw the need for it, I came to understand and appreciate it, and then I was able to use it effectively in my professional projects. It changed from a solution waiting for a problem, to a solution that really could solve problems.

The same principles hold for grammar (or other “mechanical correctness” norms). If they are taught out of the blue and without enough motivation, students remain puzzled and confused, and grammar will continue to be dreaded. However, in reality, grammar is just a compact way of characterizing how people have naturally come to use language. Native speakers of a language speak it correctly, and can detect the majority of obvious grammatical errors, without being able to give the grammatical “rules” behind their skills. They have gained these skills through observation, absorption, and imitation. A formal, “rule-based” abstraction of the skills that they already innately know will thus be very natural. In the same way, if we want to advance the linguistic skills of students further, we need to first show those concepts in practical examples, and have them absorb those skills through observation and imitation. “Mechanical norms of correctness” can then be introduced gradually and only in conjunction with such natural usage, as a way to help students to use and apply those naturally absorbed skills in new situations.

Our Schools and Our Children

Categorization is always a precarious activity, especially when it comes to cases where categories involve such intensely subjective, value-laden, and perspectival concepts as success and failure. It usually reveals as much about “the categorizer” as it does about “the categorized”, for it shows the conceptual and mental framework within which those who have the power to establish and enforce those categories operate. When it comes to education or literacy the attempt to classify a student as “successful” or “marginal” or “failed” at least is based on the following assumptions:

1. The attribute in question (i.e., literacy) is a one dimensional quantifiable entity sufficiently homogenous to be measured and represented by a single number (score) on a single scale.

2. It is necessary to ensure that all individuals who (with or without their own choice) are being subjected to this process of categorization fit into this framework.

3. There must be enforcing mechanisms such that those who don’t fit within the framework be penalized (i.e., they should fail the course)

4. The same metric can be applied to measure students with diverse backgrounds and life experiences.

In reality, all of these are assumptions that are very likely not true. For example, regarding assumption (1), even many physical quantities cannot be quantified with a single number. That is why we have vector and matrix calculus…More importantly, many standards are fundamentally tied with a cost/benefit calculus of those who have the power to define and enforce them. Literacy, for instance, obviously signifies fluency in playing a certain kind of language game, i.e., the language game of the dominant culture (the culture who is powerful enough to enforce its own standards on the rest of the members of the society). In this society power and wealth are controlled by corporations, and therefore literacy means an ability to use language in a corporate setting, ultimately, the sort of ability that results in increased production and more profit. But what is the solution? I cannot talk about the macro level, the history will take its course and may be some day we have a society in which profit is not the main motive behind all activities. But on a micro level, we can try to understand diversity and respect every individual as a unique case with his or her good in mind. It is impossible to generalize and prescribe a solution that fits all, but I think reasonable people can make reasonably justified judgments in each individual case. For example, one way to do this may be by taking into account a much wider range of variables than what the official establishment calls for. In particular, the background, abilities, resources, and world views of the individuals should be taken into account. Based on these factors, a personalized plan of action can be developed. But most importantly, this development should not be uni-directional (I know what is good for him or her), rather, it must be based on a genuine dialog where the teacher tries to truly enter the world of the student and establish a two way communication channel where he or she is ready to hear and listen and learn as much as to talk or teach or direct…

Expressive Discourse, a phenomenological approach

Kinneavy is interested in expressive discourse where the individual is not necessarily interested in conveying a fact, or convincing anyone, but instead simply to reveal or express his or herself. Diaries, swears, and suicide notes are examples of expressive discourse. He then goes on to express his ideas in terms of the philosophy of phenomenologists such as Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, articulated mainly in various flavors of existentialism. According to these philosophies, all modes of existence of human beings (Being-for-itself, Being-for-the-Others, and Being-in-the-World) are essentially and deeply emotional, and it is this emotional dimension fundamentally woven in our being that is the basis for the act of expression. Expression gives selfhood to the self. According to these phenomenologists, it is the quality of intention or “aboutness” of our internal states that sets consciousness apart from other things. (As a side, one of the hardest phenomena in a purely materialistic account of consciousness is precisely how to explain the aboutness of our emotions and thoughts.) And expression is the externalization of this aboutness or intentionality of consciousness. Thus, expression is a central part of the being and actualization of the “I”. This aspect of the self is also deeply intertwined with freedom. For one to be, according to Sartre, is for one to choose one’s identity and projects. And all these various aspects of our being are essentially within language and therefore linguistic. Thus, language and expression (which manifests itself in style) are not just acts or actions, they are how we are. We talk because we are, and we are because we talk. Kinneavy (following Sartre) then goes on to distinguish bad faith from sincerity, or in Heidegger’s terminology inauthenticity from authenticity and how some very important human states (such as love) contribute to it.Kinneavy has done a nice job summarizing some of the basic ideas of existentialists, but I think he is less successful in relating these ideas to his stated goals in this paper, i.e., delineating expressive discourse. There is much to say about language and how it constitutes our being, and this is precisely the projects that people like Heidegger and Gadamer have pursued as can be deduced form several famous dictums: Language is the house of being (Heidegger), or: Being that can be understood is language (Gadamer). I was eagerly waiting to see more content around this linguistic dimension and in particular about how it is related to expression, but I think Kinneavy has not pursued this direction sufficiently and thus has not fully developed his theme.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Locke analyzes language and the use of words to represent ideas and concepts. “Words are used for recording and communicating our thoughts” he says. He distinguishes between “civil” (i.e., everyday use) and “philosophical” (i.e. technical use) of words, and claims the former is imprecise, while the latter is (or at least should be) precise. Since the main purpose of language is communication, miscommunication can happen when words mean something to the speaker and something else to the hearer. He then goes on to identify several instances where this sort of miscommunication can happen. It is interesting that he also notices the implication of the ambiguity of language with respect to understanding the works of writers who belong to a different age and a different country, for the passage of time and difference of culture creates additional barriers in the way of the communication function of language. In particular, he discusses the interpretation of the old and the new testaments: although the texts themselves are “infallible”, the reader’s understanding and interpretation of those texts are, have to be, fallible. This dose of falliblism in understanding scripture (and more generally in understanding all texts) is a healthy welcome, especially in an age where people still seem to claim they have absolute access to the true meanings of such texts. He then goes on to criticize rhetoric: if we are to enjoy language and seek pleasure from its use, then may be use of rhetorical language is accepted, but where the intention is to speak of things “as they are”, then “eloquence and artificial and figurative application of words” are “for nothing else but to insinuate wrong ideas.” In other words, rhetorical language should only be used for pleasure.I think this important essay signifies the beginnings of an awareness of the critical role of language, an awareness which is one of the hallmarks of modern thought. Locke is one of the first thinkers who is coming to the realization that the ambiguities and shortcomings in language are not just accidental, but apparently fundamental. Yet, what distinguishes him from modern thought is that he thinks, in spite of these ambiguities, it is possible to master language and prevent “miscommunication” by careful use of language, for instance, by keeping the use of rhetorical language limited only to where the intention is to take pleasure in language and not to communicate facts. In short, he feels that language, at least in some level, can serve as a solid ground for human knowledge. On the other hand, modern thought is much more pessimistic (or realistic?). All forms of language are rhetorical, and there are no clear distinctions between understandings and misunderstandings. Moving from the latter to the former is a process without guarantee and undeterminable in advance, a process which resists clear rules, methods, or algorithms.

Augustine’s Rhetoric

Julian Young distinguishes between what he calls “true world philosophies” and those
philosophies who don’t believe in a true world. A true world is a destination to which we
all return, a universal anchor for meaning, an explanation of the ultimate reality
underneath the appearances, a grand narrative that anchors “good” to something above
and beyond the individual. Plato can certainly be counted as a true world philosopher.
Christianity (as well as more or less all other religions) is a true world philosophy. But the
sophists belong to the other side. I would also count most postmodern philosophers as
non-true world philosophers.
I think the most salient feature of Augustine’s work is that he is a true world philosopher,
and this is clearly reflected both in his rhetoric and his discussion of rhetoric. He believes
in “Truth”, and he believes that rhetoric must be in service of this truth. When he is
talking about rhetoric what he has in mind is a speaker (preacher) who is giving a
sermon, in which he is trying to convey the truth that he has found in the scripture to his
audience. If the audience does not know the truth, then they must be informed. If they
know the truth but they have doubt about it, then they must be given arguments. And
finally, if they know the truth and do not have doubt about it, but yet have reluctance
towards it or they don’t act upon it, they need to be persuaded.
Moreover, it is more important for the speaker to have wisdom, for wisdom brings with it
its own proper eloquence. On the other hand, empty eloquence without wisdom is a
dangerous thing. And what is wisdom? Wisdom comes from the heart of a wise man, and
is a result of reflection and understanding of the scripture. And it is also important for the
speaker to preach what he has realized in himself first, otherwise even the finest
examples of rhetoric coming from someone who is not following what he himself is saying
is empty and ineffective.
In short, Augustine seems to clearly distinguish himself and his rhetoric from the
sophists’, and even from such “pagans” as Plato and Cicero. For him, rhetoric’s main
function is conveying and defending the truth: “For since through the art of rhetoric both
truth and falsehood are pleaded, who would be so bold as to say that against falsehood,
truth as regards to its own defenders ought to stand unarmed?”