08 October 2006

Philosophy as Rhetoric

I hesitate to propose this idea here, but perhaps it will generate some interesting discussion. As I remarked in my "Philosophical Despair" post, I often struggle with dark thoughts as to just what philosophy is or what value that it has. Lately I've been toying with the idea that philosophy is a branch of rhetoric. Now it's likely that this thesis will cause irritation among many, as the discipline of rhetoric often has negative connotations, suggesting manipulation. It might even appear disappointing. However, if we go back to Aristotle, rhetoric is simply that discipline that studies all available means of persuasion. In persuading another person, I have to make reference to grounds and motives, and a philosophy can be seen as an elaborate presentation of a system of grounds. Kenneth Burke has made this point well. According to Burke, motives are always unfolded in ratios between act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. Throughout his magnificent Grammar of Motives, Burke shows how various philosophies privilege various elements of this pentad. Thus, for instance, Spinoza's Ethics places its emphasis on scene, insofar as it is causal relations among all the modes that are determinative. Kant's Critique of Pure Reason can be seen as placing its emphasis on the agent, with his claim that the subject gives itself his own law. Badiou's ontology places its emphasis on the act, with his claim that truth-procedures emerge out of the praxis of subjects bearing fidelity to an event. And so on. In each of these cases, a set of grounds is put forward designed to persuade persons in one way or another.

Now it seems to me that a philosophy strives to formalize the available arguments or means of persuasion present at any given point in time. That is, it strives to present what is presumed by these arguments in its most basic form. Along these lines, I think that there are two basic types of philosophy. On the one hand, there are those philosophies that ground the current state of things, or which strive to essentialize the order of being as it currently exists. I take it that these sorts of philosophies are what Deleuze and Guattari referred to as "State philosophies". For instance, in Hegel we discover that the State of Prussia is the highest embodiment of Spirit and his ontology effectively functions as an apology for this state, and in the work of figures such as Rawls and Habermas, we're given a formal presentation of the liberal subject and values of capitalist democracy, as if this subject were simply true a priori, rather than the product of specific historical circumstances. That is, such a philosophy naturalizes the contingent, treating other possibilities of being, other types of subjects, other values, as if they were not possible.

In his most recent work on "worlds", Badiou argues that existence in any situation is characterized by degrees of intensity, determining the degree to which something exists in a situation. This is a very different conception of "intensity" than what one finds in Deleuze's Difference and Repetition, so it's important not to confuse the two. Take the current situation in the United States. Leftist politics has a very low degree of intensity in our contemporary situation. On television and newspapers, genuinely leftist voices are seldom presented. In the system of party politics, leftist politics is entirely absent. Bill Clinton has far more in common with George Bush, than he does with someone like Chomsky or Lenin. As a result, it is very difficult to make persuasive arguments from this position, because the situation doesn't have the resources to hear these sorts of arguments. Where these positions might have had a high degree of intensity during the great labor struggles in the United States, they are almost entirely invisible in our current situation.

It seems to me that this observation opens the door for another type of rhetoric. Every rhetorical field makes metaphysical assumptions, ontological assumptions, ethical assumptions, and political assumptions about what is possible and what is impossible, that it then evokes as "common sense" or the "obvious". When Aristotle said that the rhetorician studies the available means of persuasion, one of the points here is that arguments float about in the social world as the doxa of the time, defining the framework in which the rhetor might produce interpellations in his audience. Yet it seems to me that there is another type of rhetoric that doesn't address itself to an audience that is, but an audience that is yet to come. That is, this philosophical activity sets about trying to change the very co-ordinates of what is possible and impossible, what is speakable and unspeakable, within a situation, challenging the metaphysics of its time, our collective ontological assumptions, our ethical assumptions, our political assumptions, our aesthetic assumptions, in the name of making new arguments availabe for persuasion, and transforming that which has a very low degree of intensity in a situation shift to having a very high degree of intensity. Who is this subject yet to come? And what arguments does she need to transform the field in which we dwell?

In drawing philosophy closer to rhetoric, I'm trying to make the point that philosophy doesn't simply try to get at the truth of being, but rather that philosophy seeks to do something. A philosophy functions as a lense or a terministic screen through which I view the world, and thereby effects how I act and analyze the world. In reading a philosophy I am transformed as a subject. I am not a subject reading a philosophy. Rather I am a subject produced by an exchange of communication. I am different after reading Plato than I was before. I experience myself differently and I experience the world differently. I am a "superject" of that philosophy. So how is it possible to transform the distribution of the possible and impossible in a social field? What rhetorical acts transform such distributions?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

My dear Levi,

What a wonderful post! In the truest deleuzian sense you are in the awesome process of creating CONECPTS, the state of becoming, when you write:

It seems to me that there is another type of rhetoric that doesn't address itself to an audience that is, but an audience that is yet to come.

Precisely. From Nietzsche to Deleuze that is what it is all about: escaping contingency, fleeing naturalized doxa, embracing the affirmative, eyeing the yet invisible, being the yes-sayer.

Of course, philosophy is a branch of rhetorics. It is probably also, as your countryman Richard Rorty would say, a branch of literature.

Most of all, concept creation is (or should be) innovative, energetic, futuristic, evolving, enhancing, and CREATIVE. It is, accordingly,
explorative and joyfully messy - what else?

A concept is therefore a chaoid state par excellence; it refers back to a chaos rendered consistent, become Thought, mental chaosmos. And what would THINKING be if it did not constantly confront chaos? Reason shows us its true face only when it "thunders in its crater". Even the cogito is only an opinion, an URDOXA at best, if we do not extract from it the inseperable variations that make it a concept...

(D&G: What Is Philosophy?, p. 208)

THAT is the INTENSITY philosophy should be about (screw any definition of the term Badiou or Deleuze might give it).

Back to the future!

Orla Schantz

October 08, 2006 3:47 PM  
Anonymous tolga said...

The philosophical statements do not make sense when they are not able to coincide with the inner experiences of the readers or audience or whoever the subject that is "subject" to the constraints, problems of the philosopher's comtemporary society. But as you stress on the trasformative character of philosophy, I am tempted to express my curiousity of the supposed necessity of distance that the philosopher has to construct to his audience. Is not this what differentiates the philosopher from a politician who tries to be closer to the people to attract them? Though, the distance of the philosopher sometimes seems to be more seducing. Did not only Marx achieve both? He is one of the perfect rare examples of direct political stances to the system without sacrificing the theory to any possible aim of seductive attempts.

October 08, 2006 5:57 PM  
Blogger Lynn said...

Maybe, the project as you have outlined it is not possible in the way you have framed it. A philosophy/rhetoric that tries to renegotiate the possible versus the impossible depends on the underlying social conditions. In particular, when the prevailing ideological assumptions conflict with material social conditions, the way is open to imagine and communicate new possibilities. Without sufficient motivation for changing the prevailing social conditions, the task of developing new possibilities seems too arduous and risky. A causal chain might go like this: social conditions generate the recognition of social problems and inherent conflicts with prevailing ideology; social problems enlist the imaginative resources of thinkers to solve the problem; imaginative resources generate the kinds of philosophy and rhetoric that elucidates new possibilities and new methods used to persuade.

Taking the time to formulate new possibilities, is not so much seeking new coordinates to measure a prevailing system, but rather discovering new axioms that have a better claim to truth. If the prevailing social axioms are not materially in conflict with perceived social reality, those who espouse new possibilities will not find an audience suitably motivated to listen to appeals and arguments about new possibilities. Opinions will remain the same, that is, unless one can break the deadly embrace between misperceived social reality and ideology; and that is, if, indeed, social reality is misperceived.

An audience yet to be is an audience who will be partially determined by future social conditions. Predicting the state of both to lay foundations for their conversion or receptiveness to new possibilities seems very difficult to do. Without good predictions about these states, ones having a high degree of confidence, there seems no point in seeking new possibilities before the fact.

Maybe, all I am saying is that seeking new possibilities within the horizon of predictability is better than seeking possibilities that seem outside the horizon of predictability.

October 09, 2006 8:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am sure you are familiar with what is called "communicative rationality" -- the philosopher Gary B. Madison describes it this way:

"The most prominent characteristic of non-dogmatic, communicative rationality is that, unlike dogmatic, theoretical reason, it is not a form of intellectual problem-solving which seeks to “discover” supposedly objective truths or values, ones, that is, which are believed to exist prior to, independent, or outside of the reasoning process itself (the very existence of such 'truths' is, the skeptical critique of dogmatic reason maintains, an undemonstrable article of faith on the part of dogmatic reason). Rather, as rhetorical theory ever since the time of the Sophists has maintained, it is the process by which people 'reason together' in order to arrive at and maintain agreement among themselves in regard to all matters having to do with the organization of their collective lives and endeavors. . . . Communicative reason knows no absolute other than the will to communicate, to resolve differences, and to seek mutual, uncoerced agreement."
(Madison Logic of Liberty. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. 217-8)

Another resource is Chaim Perelman's The Realm of Rhetoric.


October 09, 2006 9:00 AM  
Anonymous Sinthome said...

Lynn, I think you nail the issue. What I was trying to suggest is that we can begin to create those possibilities through our discourse and making arguments and concepts available that aren't currently available in the social field. To put it boldly, it doesn't exist unless it's said. Currently labor oriented politics doesn't exist in the American field of discourse. What speech-acts would be necessary to produce it or open a space where it might begin to exist?

October 09, 2006 9:08 AM  
Anonymous Sinthome said...

Jeff, thanks for the references! I've heard about this school of thought, but I haven't ready any of these works. I don't care for Habermas, as I don't think he takes the irrationality that inahbits discourse at the level of symptoms, the imaginary, and so on and I don't like his normative conception of discourse. Are these thinkers continuations of this line of thought?

October 09, 2006 9:10 AM  
Anonymous Jeff Wild said...

Actually Madison is a student of Gadamer and Ricoeur and sees himself in the line of what he calls "phenomenological hermeneutics."

I also know that he is not a fan of Habermas, because he believes that Habermas' notion of consensus is just not reasonable.

Here is a fairly long quote that might be helpful:

'The question has been posed: "If we absorb postmodernism, if we recognize the variety and ungroundedness of grounds, but do not want to stop in arbitrariness, relativism, or aporia what comes after postmodernism?" I believe that the beginnings of an "after postmodernism" can clearly be discerned in that philosophical discipline known as phenomenological hermeneutics.'

'The two most outstanding features of phenomenological hermeneutics from the point of view of the present discussion are (1) that it as "postmodern" as any other form of postmodern thought, but (2) unlike other forms of postmodernism ("poststructuralism," "neopragmatism"), it does not lead into the dead-end of relativism and nihilism (see my submitted paper, "Coping with Nietzsche's Legacy: Rorty, Derrida, Gadamer".)

Here is a link to that paper: http://www.focusing.org/apm_papers/madison2.html

October 09, 2006 10:55 AM  

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