Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Reading :: The New Rhetoric

The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation
By Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca

Perhaps you read this book, or excerpts of it, in grad school. I didn't, but I've seen it cited enough that I thought I should. So I picked it up a few years ago, and started and abandoned it at least twice before I was able to bear down and get through it.

Not that it's a bad book. It's just the equivalent of Goffman's Frame Analysis. Here's what I said about Goffman in that review:
Here, even more than in Goffman's other books, it becomes clear that Goffman is a cross between Aristotle and Art Linkletter. Like Aristotle, he likes to exhaustively taxonomize the subject he's describing—in this case, frames. And like Art Linkletter, he is an inveterate gossip, pulling examples of frames and frame ruptures from everywhere he can (odd newspaper stories, magazines, television shows, books on cons and magic, and repeatedly from Dear Abby columns) in addition to published research. 
Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca run a similar playbook, although their examples come from philosophers and sermons rather than Dear Abby columns. Their goal in this postwar book was to describe non-formal argumentation, specifically examining audiences and shared values, and they reached back to the forgotten Greco-Roman rhetorical tradition to do so. This was fairly radical stuff in 1948, but in 2018 the arguments in The New Rhetoric have become so foundational to contemporary rhetorical theory that they hardly seem radical. As a result, reading the book now is a tedious exercise, at least for me.

The book is divided into three sections:

  1. The framework of argumentation
  2. The starting point of argument
  3. Techniques of argumentation
In this review, we'll spend most of our time on the Introduction. Here, the authors draw a line in the sand with their first two sentences:
The publication of a treatise devoted to argumentation and this subject's connection with the ancient tradition of Greek rhetoric and dialectic constitutes a break with a concept of reason and reasoning due to Descartes which has set its mark on Western philosophy for the last three centuries.
Although it would scarcely occur to anyone to deny that the power of deliberation and argumentation is a distinctive sign of a reasonable being, the study of the methods of proof used to secure adherence has been completely neglected by logicians and epistemologists for the last three centuries. (p.1, their emphasis)
Descartes, they say, "made the self-evident the mark of reason, and considered rational only those demonstrations which ... extended ... the self-evidence of the axioms to the derived theorems" (p.1). Thus deliberation and argumentation were neglected. (They echo Aristotle, who says that rhetoric comes into play when the truth cannot be known.)

What resulted was an understanding of rational science as incompatible with probable opinions—it is "a system of necessary propositions" in which "agreement is inevitable," and thus in rational science, "disagreement is a sign of error" (p.2). Thus "logicians and modern philosophers have become totally disinterested in our subject" (pp.4-5), and the authors instead draw on studies of persuading, convincing, and deliberation from Greek, Latin, and Renaissance authors (p.5). They focus on the proofs that Aristotle termed "dialectical," but since "dialectic" had taken on a different meaning due to Hegel, they lump the original meaning's focus on the probable into "rhetoric." "It is in terms of an audience that an argument develops," they emphasize (p.5). And that is the focus of this book.

Furthermore, the authors primarily examine printed texts, preserving the idea of audience but neglecting "mnemonics and the study of delivery or oratorical effect" (p.6).

They also restrict themselves to incidents in which language is used (excluding silent examples, rewards, and punishments) and specifically used to communicate (excluding blessings and curses) (p.8). They acknowledge the persuasive effects of nonlinguistic elements, but these go beyond their study (pp.8-9). (Note that contemporary rhetorical studies have gone past these boundaries, using and extending the authors' principles.) Within these linguistic bounds, the authors characterize different argument structures (p.9).

In Part I, The Framework of Argumentation, the authors discuss the conditions under which rhetoric applies. "All argumentation aims at gaining the adherence of minds, and, by this very fact, assumes the existence of an intellectual contact" (p.14, their emphasis). And "For argumentation to exist, an effective community of minds must be realized at a given moment" (p.14). That community includes the audience, defined as "the ensemble of those whom the speaker wishes to influence by his argumentation" (p.19, their emphasis). "The audience, as visualized by one undertaking to argue, is always a more or less systematized construction" (p.19). Rhetoric as an academic exercise has been addressed to conventional, stereotyped audiences, and "it is this limited view of audience ... which is responsible for the degeneration of rhetoric" (p.20).

The knowledge of the audience, they say, "cannot be conceived independently of the knowledge of how to influence it" (p.23). At the same time, the speaker must also adapt to the audience (p.23).

The authors draw a distinction between persuasion and argumentation:
We are going to apply the term persuasive to argumentation that only claims validity for a particular audience, and convincing to argumentation that presumes to gain the adherence of any rational being. (p.28)
Audiences can include universal audiences, single interlocutors, and the subject himself (p.30). Some quirks:

  • The universal audience is "often merely the unwarranted generalization of an individual intuition" (p.33). 
  • When engaging with the single hearer, discourse degenerates into dialogue (p.35). 
With this base, the authors get into Part 2, The Starting Point of Argumentation. And here is where the book begins to strongly resemble Frame Analysis: The authors describe a principle, then provide various examples. I won't go through this section in detail—this section is meant to function as a reference.

Let's rejoin the authors for the conclusion:
Instead of basing our philosophy on definitive, unquestionable truths, our starting point is that men and groups of men adhere to opinions of all sorts with a variable intensity, which we can know only by putting it to the test. These beliefs are not always self-evident, and they rarely deal with clear and distinct ideas. The more generally accepted beliefs remain implicit and unformulated for a long time, for more often than not it is only on the occasion of a disagreement as to the consequences resulting from them that the problem of their formulation or more precise definition arises. (p.511)
Should you pick up this book? Yes—eventually. It is a bit of a slog, and a reader with a background in contemporary rhetoric will find parts to be self-evident. But it's still rewarding for contemporary readers and an invaluable foundation for the study of rhetoric.