Emergence of New Rhetoric

Insofar as the revival of rhetoric under the auspices of a theory of argumentation is a renewal of the Aristotelian emphasis on inventio, on the discovery of the persuasives in relation to a matter or case in question, then I am all in favour of this theoretical and pedagogic effort. It constitutes a way for those regions – Germany, France, Holland, England – where rhetoric had been reduced to the stylistic study of rhetorical figures in literature and oratory, to renew a more substantive rhetoric, a rhetoric concerned not just with style, figures and elocutio, but with also with logos, inventio and persuasive argument.

For both Perelman and for Toulmin, this renewal of argumentation was enacted via a return and reworking of Aristotle. However, it is important to note that it did not involve a renewal of contact with Cicero, Quintilian or Isocrates. That is, what is being renewed is a quite narrow understanding of richness of ancient rhetoric. Both Perelman and Toulmin were bent on formulating a form of argument that could express and resolve, not so much theoretical or scientific issues, but public issues of social, political, ethical and legal policy. Both framed their work in relation to law and as a reaction to the dominance of the positivist metaphysic and legal theory that dominated European philosophy from the post-WW1 to the post-WW2.

Crudely, there were three dominating philosophical trends during that time: the Austro-English logical positivism in which any word or statement not grounded in empirical content was considered to lack all meaning, to be mere meaningless emotion, a view that consigned ethics, politics, aesthetics, literary studies to irrelevance. Even worse, it meant that questions of ethics and politics could not be discussed nor argued in any rational way. Perelman was a logical positivist who had lived as a Jewish activist engaged in clandestine resistance against the Nazi war machine in Holland during WW2, but found when acting as a lawyer involved in the Nuremburg trials that logical positivism provided no compelling grounds for condemning or punishing of Nazi leaders of war crimes in relation to the Holocaust.  The only grounds available to  lawyers and judges were the empirically existing, already ’Nazified’ ‘positive law’ which were radically inappropriate for dealing with the radicality of evil exemplified by systematic genocide. It was the search for a common ground for legal judgements that led him to re-appropriating the Aristotelian rhetorical tradition of practical reason concerning ‘the probable’ (in opposition to theoretical reasoning).

There were two other philosophical paradigms during that era – Thomism and Existentialism – but neither offered any inspiration or theoretical substance to the legal tribunals in dealing with the issues of justice arising from WW2. Thomism was formulated in an esoteric mediaeval conceptual framework embedded in Catholicism; and Existentialism could only give voice to an outrage and resistance on behalf of the annihilation of the meaning of individual lives, but did not offer any grounds for reasoned argument in relation to the law, state craft or public policy.

The return to practical reason by Perelman and Toulmin as a response to the ethico-political deficit of the post-WW2 era should be contrasted with another response to this deficit represented by the return to Kant by Rawls and Habermas. Both were efforts to find grounds for rational arguments in domains of social and public life consigned to meaningless decisionism and emotion, but whereas the return to Aristotle represented a renewal of the rhetorical tradition and practical reasoning, the return to Kant represented a return the positing of a transcendental normative order against which political policy and actions could be judged.

I still remember the first time the views of Rawls was explained to me in a way I could comprehend. It was on a rock climbing trip in Australia over a fire and meal on a dark star-lit night. I had already expressed my bafflement in trying to come to terms with Rawl’s work, however the clarity of the description of Rawls by a fellow-climber who was studying him, repulsed me. The notion of positing imaginary situations in order to deduce judgements on actual situations seemed preposterous to me. It did then and still does today.

(I do acknowledge that judging something from the perspective of an ideal or utopian can be illuminating and relevant. Gadamer interprets Plato’s Republic in this way: that is, as a fiction designed to offer a normative perspective, not as a realistic practical goal or objective. However, I still do not think that this can address the nittty-gritty details to which we must respond as embodied and socio-historically enculturated beings, our lives as Sittlichkeit beings).

Having separated the return to Aristotle by Perelman and Toulmin from the return to Kant by Rawls and Habermas, I will set the latter aside for now and consider them at more length elsewhere. In regards to Habermas, it is only fair to acknowledge that his Kantianism becomes thinner and more dilute over time, even though he refuses to let go of it entirely.

I now need to point to a key difference between Perelman and Toulmin in their acknowledgement of a relation to rhetoric. Perelman, although at first coy about it, eventually openly acknowledged that he was reviving rhetoric as what he calls ‘a New Rhetoric’. Although the title of the major study by Perelman and Olbrecht-Tyteca in French was: Traité de l’argumentation, la nouvelle rhétorique, the title and subtitle were reversed in the English version to become: The New Rhetoric: a treatise on argumentation. This re-titling of the English edition was a deliberate choice on Perelman’s part designed to acknowledge that USA still possessed an unbroken lineage to ancient rhetoric in the university discipline of Speech, a field of university study which had broken from both the study of poetic and fictional literature (Literary Studies) and the teaching of writing (Composition) in order to focus on oratory and media communication.

Toulmin, by contrast with Perelman, refused to acknowledge any connection to ancient rhetoric. Insofar as he connected his work to any tradition, it was to the tradition of casuistry of canon law. That is, to the kind of reasoning employed by priests in confession judging the seriousness of sins, and the reasoning of theologians and canon lawyers in determining cases brought before church tribunals and investigations. As a result, Toulmin framed his renewal of Aristotelian rhetoric more in terms of dialectic, with a tighter link to logic.

About Rob McCormack
I am a retired second chance educator living in Melbourne, Australia. Theory I am interested in includes: Rhetoric, both ancient and contemporary; Post-structural discourse theory, Laclau; Halliday's systemic functional linguistic theory; Hermeneutics (esp. Gadamer); philosophy, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Derrida; 'practice theory' in social theory such as Schatzki, Bourdieu; political theory, such as Arendt, Laclau, Tully ; pedagogic theory and philosophy such as Biesta, didaktik. Praxis I am interested in include: Adult education and adult literacy; second chance education; academic discourse and writing; langauge and learning; Indigenous education.

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