Quick and Dirty Philosophy: Humanizing Rhetoric

20 Oct

Part III: The Rhetorical Equation

If what mattered in language was truth, there would not be so many languages.” – Nietzsche


Plato had an intense dislike of rhetoric, snubbing it as a way to persuade ignorant masses. One may even say he was biased against the subject because of his dislike of its negative uses. Snubbing a thing does not make it go away, however, and Aristotle recognized and built on this subject, which had been abandoned by his mentor. These ancient philosophers argued for a view of rhetoric as a civic art. As a civic art, rhetoric is ensconced within the political sphere, although Aristotle then created a small crack in this idea, in his further narrowing of the concept. This crack became a well-spring of ideas for various philosophers during the enlightenment and beyond. One of the most comprehensive ideas regarding rhetoric is that of Nietzsche. For this concept,the basis of knowledge and rhetoric must be revisited.

Immanuel Kant, among other prominent philosophers have firmly established truth to be a description of reality that is limited at the very least by our senses. However, even language itself cannot fully convey a concept, as much as we try, because the understanding of language itself is limited to our own experiences/associations.

With an imperfect understanding of different knowledge types and an imperfect means of communication, common ground between individuals is all too easy to lose. This is where rhetoric plays its part. The artistic skill of rhetoric is a medium of associations. The greater the rhetorician’s skill with associating her experiences and knowledge with that of any given social group, the greater the bandwidth of communication, if not the focus. This is important for anyone in a position of public scrutiny. Anyone who has listened to a rhetorician “getting into the details” of a subject in which they are very familiar will always be able to point out that the rhetorician isn’t telling the whole story. This seems like deceit to some, but to those who have no interest in getting into the nitty-gritty, these “details” are all they want to hear and are sometimes more than they can understand.

Since rhetoric is only a medium, its uses can vary from honorable to sinister, “truthful” or intentionally deceitful. Here is where rhetoric, truth and knowledge twist in on themselves. The rhetorical equation is this: Since rhetoric governs the effectiveness of associations, and associations inform our understanding of language, then truth becomes rhetorical and knowledge is informed by rhetoric.

As I feel I have been long-winded enough without being exhaustive, I’ll move on to other subjects now.

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Posted by on October 20, 2012 in Philosophy, Writing


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