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Does Rhetorical Studies Progress?


Submitted by Jim Aune on September 23, 2011 - 10:56am


A recent conference at Harvard addresses the question "Does Philosophy Progress?" Some video here. How would you answer the same question for rhetorical studies? My own belief in the Whig Interpretation of History is rather deep, although uneasily so.

Submitted by Scott Stroud (not verified) on September 27, 2011 - 3:48pm.

I am skeptical of claims of progress in either philosophy or rhetoric. Yes, certain positions are now so accepted as to evoke nodding heads when mentioned, but I doubt we're getting closer to any more truer account of things. Perhaps the progress question is loaded with a bad notion of progress--perhaps we should ask, "Is rhetorical studies becoming more useful?"

Submitted by Jim Aune on September 27, 2011 - 4:50pm.

I think we probably progress (or at least effectively adapt to new social circumstances) in some parts of rhetorical studies:

1. We know a lot more about how the brain processes information and what the relationship is between "reason" and "emotion" than we ever have before. At the practical level of improving informative rhetoric and teaching or designing persuasive messages (see Frank Luntz or Drew Westen) than previously.

2. Similarly, improved historiographical methods make it possible to interpret key texts or historical moments more accurately. We know now, for example, that the rhetorical intentions and political context of John Locke in writing the 2nd Treatise of Government are very different than was believed before Peter Laslett's work. Hegel's work makes more sense thanks to Terry Pinkard's and Robert Pippin's redefinition of Spirit in terms of the "sociality of reason." We also know a lot more about presidential rhetoric in the US (even if we may never fully resolve the George Edwards versus presidential rhetoric scholars debate).

3. At a more "meta" level, where we deal with politics and ethics and aesthetics, the best we can accomplish is improving, in Geertz's happy phrase, "the precision with which we vex one another." The "pragmatist" rhetorical strategy that Scott Stroud exhibits above is always an option: if you don't like the conversation, change the subject. But I'm still not quite sure I want to part of a scholarly enterprise where it's impossible to be *wrong*.

Submitted by syntaxfactory on September 27, 2011 - 8:30pm.

Jim: By your examples, would it be fairer to say that other fields progress and we take advantage of them?

I suppose we know more about our own history than we used to, too -all that digging in the KB archives at PSU puts us further advanced in our knowledge of KB, parallel to your Locke example.

But that seems small compared to the persistent reinvention of theory.

Submitted by Asen (not verified) on September 27, 2011 - 8:59pm.

If by progress we mean that present scholarship builds on past scholarship (the idea of progress as more closely approximating a truth seems like a bit of a straw figure to me), then there are numerous, significant examples of progress in rhetorical scholarship. Most present-day rhetorical scholars, for instance, accept as a starting point for their work the constitutive, epistemic qualities of rhetoric. This view was not imported from elsewhere, but advanced through the scholarship of Robert Scott and others. In public sphere scholarship, Goodnight's work on argument spheres has established a foundation that many subsequent scholars have amplified and extended. So, too, with early work in feminist rhetoric, and the rhetoric of science, and movement studies, and more.

Why the reluctance to claim progress in rhetorical scholarship?

Submitted by Virginia McCarver (not verified) on September 25, 2011 - 11:23pm.

It may at first seem strange to talk about “progress” in the tradition and discipline of rhetorical studies. After all, any conception of progress will look distinct from that of the sciences, for example. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions rejects the idea of slow building and accumulation of theories and axioms and instead embraces an understanding of this building accompanied by periods of revolution, wherein the discovery of anomalies lead to a “game changer” of sorts. Has rhetoric experienced any “game changers” radically redirecting the community’s trajectory of study? I don’t mean to suggest we debate this question exactly—although it would certainly be interesting and yield provocative arguments on either side—-rather I bring up Kuhn and scientific revolutions as an example of progress within a field or discipline and as a means of questioning this model’s applicability to rhetoric.

I also don’t think rhetoric proceeds or progresses through refutation, which is another mark of progress in science. Science, as Corman reminds us never achieves definitive conclusions, but rather progresses via the “process of conjectures and refutations.” I believe part of the inventive space within the field of rhetoric emerges from this lack of refutation; certainly there is an accumulation of new perspectives and theories, but they seldom wholly refute earlier work.

Alan Gross’ chapter in Graff and Leff’s book The Viability of the Rhetorical Tradition is very helpful here. He has no trouble using the notion of progress within the discipline. Progress, to Gross is theory and theoretical refinement, accomplished via building on the theoretical contributions that have come before. He argues that conceptualizing progress helps give substance to the tradition. The intellectual progress of rhetoric is unique from that of the sciences in that progress does not necessarily negate what came before. Instead, progress “reaffirms the continuing value of the tradition, and simultaneously, the continuing need to interpret that tradition by means of further theoretical and critical efforts” (p. 36). I can really buy into this. From Gross’ standpoint we need to turn to the tradition to help us build what is important and necessary. Refinement suggests working with some sort of previous effort, some raw materials. Refinement and building are also means of understanding progress.

Submitted by syntaxfactory on September 25, 2011 - 3:21pm.

...a narrative upon which progress can be imposed and from which progress can be planned.

Rhetorical studies, specifically rhetorical theorizing, but to a lesser extent rhetorical criticism and pedagogy, is weak in that area. In philosophy, it seems to me, you can draw a line from Moore's Principia to contemporary ethical theory, and you can draw a line from Russell through Wittgenstein to contemporary work in language. But I don't think you can draw a line from Fred Newton Scott through anybody to today, nor even from Ehninger through anybody to today.

That is, where there is continuity, it exists in Spirit. I can see the spirit of RL Scot in Barry Brummett and Joshua Gunn, but I cannot see a project, initiated by Scott and advanced toward Progress by Gunn or Brummett.

The field is characterized by reinvention, not by Progress, I think.

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