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Rhetrickery = Cookery?

Mike caught me in a bit of sloppiness in a comment over at his site this past week, and I thought I'd see if I couldn't redeem myself here. While I can't claim the background in classical rhetoric that Mike has, I'd like to explore my intuition that Booth is making a move toward Platonism in RoR. The original passage where he self-identifies as Platonic is fairly qualified:

The history of philosophy has been full of debates about whether some value judgments deserve to be added to this category of hard, unchangeable fact. Saving that issue for chapter 4, I must confess here, as much of my previous work reveals, that I am strongly on the "Platonic" side: torturing a child to death for the sheer pleasure of it is always wrong, and that fact will never be changed by any form of rhetoric. Slavery will always be wrong, no matter how many cultures practice it. Though rhetoric is needed to change minds about such truths--they're only in effect discovered through centuries of catastrophe and discussion about it--they are still for me part of unchangeable reality (13).

It's fair, I think, to say that, over at vitia, I placed more weight on the word "Platonic" than it was intended to bear. And yet. And yet.

This is only partly facetious:

Booth: Can we agree that rhetoric is "the entire range of resources that human beings share for producing effects on one another" (xi)?

Brookus: Why, surely that is an eminently fair definition.

B: And can we agree further that, even as they are expressions of value, that there are certain of these expressions, such as those about child-abuse or slavery, that are inarguable? That is, can we say that such expressions carry the force of fact?

Br: I cannot imagine someone who would argue for these practices, so it would appear that they do indeed carry such force.

B: Then surely we can agree that, among the "entire range of resources," there are some that produce effects that lead towards these inarguable facts, and yet others that obscure them?

Br: Yes, that makes sense to me, Booth. You yourself say that this "range" spans from effective to sloppy, from ethical to immoral (xi).

B: And yet, far too many consider "rhetoric" indicative only of the more pejorative end of the spectrum, viewing it as "little better than the crippled servant of true thinkers" (ix).

Br: That is certainly the case.

B: Would it not be better, then, to distinguish between that form of rhetoric which obscures and produces misunderstanding, often for unethical ends, and that form which strives instead for the understanding of those ethical truths which we have identified as unchangeable?

Br: That would seem to clarify things mightily.

B: Then let us define that former, more ethically questionable rhetoric as rhetrickery and the latter instead as rhetorology.

* * * * *

There are probably people out there who can do this better than I, but my point, as I hope is clear here, is that, in describing Booth as Platonic, I'm picking up on a vibe and a series of strategies that strike me as more explicitly Platonic than I've experienced in Booth's previous works. Donna left a comment comparing Booth's strategies to those of Habermas, and that really clicked for me. What I see in this book is the elevation and abstraction of the idea of understanding--it becomes Understanding, and listening-rhetoric the route to it. And it's hard for me to see how this differs substantially from Plato's advocacy of Truth and philosophical dialectic as the route.

Of course, one main difference is that, rather than splitting into philosophy and rhetoric, Booth offers us two species of rhetoric, but I'm not certain that this is a difference of kind.

I went back and looked through my notes for Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, and I will say that it's easy for me to see how the rhetoric of assent turns into listening-rhetoric, but as I read through MD, I came across a few places where I think I see a shift in Booth's thought:

Once we give up the limiting notions of language and knowledge willed to us by scientism, we can no longer consider adequate any notion of "language as a means of communication" or as "one of many forms of conditioning." It is, in recent models, the medium in which selves grow, the social invention through which we make each other and the structures that are our world, the shared product of our efforts to cope with experience (135).

The supreme purpose of persuasion in this view could not be to talk someone else in a preconceived view; rather it must be to engage in mutual inquiry or exploration (137).

Now, Booth does "believe" that "rhetorical questions pursued honestly will finally lead to a God-term" (136), but I guess I see a marked difference between this model (which is bottom-up, as he himself notes) and the model offered in RoR, which starts from first principles and reasons top-down. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, but it is an approach that privileges certain definitions, and undercuts his discussion of rhetorical contexts (as any discussion of first principles must) later on.

I'll stop there, I think, and hope that I've done a better job of identifying the Platonism that I see in RoR. My only additional note is that the constitutive view of rhetoric in MD bears a strong similarity to Richard Lanham's work, and to my mind, Lanham is one of the most glaring omissions in chapter 4. I can understand how, given Booth's neglect of technology, The Electronic Word might have passed beneath his radar, but Motives of Eloquence? For me, that's pretty glaring.


Love the dialogue, but I don't know about 'sloppy' -- you were fairly careful in your language. Me, on the other hand -- I was outright mistaken. There is an undercurrent of Aristotelian pragmatism running through the book, but when I look back through, it seems to fall more on the Platonic idealist side, and I think you're absolutely right that in advocating listening-rhetoric as the route to a privileged Truth, Booth is echoing Plato's Phaedrus and Seventh Letter stance on dialectic as the road to truth -- and, as your post't title indicates, a Gorgias stance on the misuse of rhetoric. Part of my confusion, I think, came from the Aristotelian taxonomistic qualities of The Rhetoric of Fiction.

And I'm with you on the puzzling absence of Lanham. I'm not familiar with Motives, but Analyzing Prose is outstanding, and the Handlist is quite useful.