Category Archives: Philosophy


I don’t like to comment on moral matters too much, especially in this blog. So let’s put aside for the moment that I continue to think Michael Vick  is a deplorable human being regardless of how many touchdowns he throws. My opinion is irrelevant, of course. The amount of touchdowns, though, that he throws is NOT irrelevant; each one shifts a section of public opinion toward ‘forgiveness’, or whatever you prefer to call it, because each one is a highly public act and is charged with all sorts of positive meanings. How can a touchdown be bad? How can a superior athletic performance be bad? The implicit connection between virtue and athletic prowess is one of the most ironclad American (and not just American, mind you) values in existence. Even knowing about it and thinking about it doesn’t diminish its power that much. Even now, the world waits with bated breath for Tiger Woods to redeem himself with a major.

This failure to diminish worries me. One of the central assumptions of rhetorical study is that awareness of rhetoric constitutes a defense to it; that is to say, if we are aware that rhetoric is being employed, it will not affect us as strongly as it will affect someone who is not aware a series of strategies and tactics are acting upon them. And yet even as I am more aware of the pull, the  pull is just as strong. I can feel a little tug on the value of redemption and the redeeming characteristics of the sublime in sports. It is a persistent little tug, that one.

My working explanation for this centers on narrative. I like stories that end in a certain way. Vick’s story has several appropriate endings for me, usually involving a cold, dank cell. Woods’ story also has several preferred endings, most of which involve him winning 30 majors. This is probably directly linked to my view of Woods’ sexual shenanigans as sexual shenanigans rather than moral outrages,  and Vick’s dog-torturing as an heinous and unforgivable crime  rather than the cost of doing business. My values demand certain narrative outcomes and if those values are strong enough, they can cut through any rhetoric. When they are malleable or uncertain, rhetoric can get a foot in the door.

So this is a crossroads of values: in regards to Vick, my intolerance for any cruelty toward dogs, which I consider a morally superior form of life to humanity (I should write an essay one day on that) agrees with my minor hostility toward the cultist behavior of sports fandom. In regards to Woods, however, my disinterest in the  sexual escapades of public figures somehow overshadows that minor hostility and negates it. This may be because I never saw Woods as a role model – I think I’ve said before that I was convinced for several years that he was some kind of experimental  golf-playing robot that had escaped a secret government facility and gone on to win the Masters. I don’t admire the guy… but at the same time I have to admit I’d like for him to win, and this feeling – this emotion – is remarkably similar to my desire to see Vick in jail for life. Strange.

What is Rhetorical Criticism, Anyway?

I get asked this question a lot, and as it pertains to some manuscript revisions I’m making, I thought I’d take a informal stab here first.

I need to revise the question a little, though, and change it to “What makes a good rhetorical critic?” or even, “What do I think, personally, makes a good rhetorical critic?” Just talking about the criticism itself as some objective, free-floating entity seems a bit of a cop-out to me – reasons forthcoming shortly.

A good rhetorical critic starts with several bedrock epistemological assumptions.  Ignore or sidestep them at your peril.

The first assumption  is that all meaning worth talking about is an artifact of human perception, and thus limited by the boundaries of our particular physiology, evolutionary processes, personal experiences, sociocultural forces, etc, etc. Meaning outside of human perception is not worth talking about because, quite  honestly – and quite ironically – we can’t talk about it in any meaningful way. We can, however, analyze our perceptions and the perceptions of others to our heart’s content.

The second assumption builds directly upon the first. If all we have is human perception to play with, and our perception is limited, flawed, and problematic as Hume astutely put it,  then the grand bulk of human communication will necessarily have to be a series of arguments about the nature of the world. We will constantly be trying to communicate our perceptions – or at least what we want others to think are our perceptions – to others, who, limited by their own perceptional filters, will try to communicate back to us, and will be forced to deal with exactly the same problem in reverse. Imagine the human race as a giant room filled with brains in vats, who can do little more than send each other a constant barrage of garbled text messages  and then argue over the contents of these messages using precisely the same medium. The simplified medium in this metaphor stands for the whole human sensory suite – sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing, vesticular system, etc. In other words, all communication, all our efforts to communicate in this perpetually confused state, is rhetorical and epistemic by nature. As such, rhetoric is a kind of applied philosophy and vice versa.

The third assumption builds on the second. The observation that all communication is rhetorical and epistemic is not terribly useful by itself.  Our order-seeking, category-hungry brains prefer simpler fare in order to avoid overload, confusion, and general insanity. And so we are drawn inexorably to classify the communication that we use and encounter by genre, by tone, by purpose, by anything, really – the taxonomic urge, the pleasure of stereotyping, is quite powerful. With this comes the realization that while all communication might be rhetorical, some of it seems really, really rhetorical, whereas other texts are far less so. This is a byproduct of our preference for simpler fare; effective rhetoric is almost always hidden in some way, for if it is noticeable, then it becomes suspicious and challenges our worldview. Remember, we don’t want to fully acknowledge the extent of how all communication is rhetorical and epistemic – it’s just not possible to live with such a fundamentally bleak assumption second-by-second. So we simplify. Naked persuasion becomes undesirable as it exposes the constantly refreshed epistemological white lie that allows us to get through a simple conversation without going nutters. The good rhetorical critic, therefore, knows that much of what seems at first to be bereft of persuasion will turn out, with close attention,  to be rhetorical, though there is no telling in many cases until some careful reading of the text in question is performed. But there is a necessary limit to this where insanity lurks and we start theorizing about the rhetoric of bowling. Good rhetorical critics lurk near the edge, but they don’t go over.

The fourth assumption might be the most important: rhetorical critics cannot escape from this strange communication system with anything like objectivity. The good rhetorical critic knows he or she is embedded and complicit in whatever medium and text that he or she chooses to study. There is no magical  scholarly impartiality; those who pursue it like the Holy Grail, interestingly enough, tend to end up the most compromised, trapped within their own methodology. This corruption is everywhere, and everyone knows about it; a good rhetorical critic, however, embraces it like an old friend, shines a light on it, and reminds everyone about it, all the while noting and admitting their own complicity. This is why talking about ‘rhetorical criticism’ absent of its agent feels a little dishonest to me; there are as many flavors of this activity as there are practitioners. The term is useful shorthand, but it has limits.

The fifth assumption is a bit more mundane than the rest; this is where “methodology” finally creeps in (you might have been wondering when it was going to make an appearance). Holding the previous assumptions, the good rhetorical critic realizes that genre and its ilk, playing off of the brain’s propensity for order in an inherently chaotic world, are the key to understanding how texts persuade. The reason for this is that it is impossible to do good rhetorical criticism without knowing what kind of text you are examining. If the initial classification is poor, then the resulting analysis is near useless. This means, fortunately or fortunately, that rhetorical criticism is an art, not a science; that initial classification is made more by gut instinct and experience than by evidence, especially if evidence is hard to come by. Furthermore, that initial classification cannot be fixed in stone. It has to have some serious give. If you kick it, it should shift an appreciative amount.  Otherwise, all your analysis can ever do is prove your initial assumption and you are reduced to pronouncements, not arguments, when you choose to tell others about texts. The sciences know this, generally, but not always the arts.

The sixth and last assumption is more obviously a special topic or a value than the others:  namely, a good rhetorical critic thinks rhetorical criticism is worth doing, much like Ebert thinks talking about films does wonders for humanity. Calling attention to how the previous assumptions apply to certain texts – namely, that persuasion is going on – is a good idea. And it’s a good idea because rhetoric tends to be hidden, misunderstood, and used for nefarious purposes as much as for good ones; understanding how it is used, how it works, and what the ethical dimensions are contributes to the general human enterprise. It also makes it far easier to teach speaking and writing  if the teacher knows how to deal with rhetoric on an abstract level that is not wedded to any specific genre or context. And it’s certainly a good idea to promote more effective communication between human beings.

So that’s it, really: all meaning is limited by human perception,  all communication is rhetorical and epistemic, some texts are more rhetorical than others and rhetoric tends to be hidden for effectiveness as well as general sanity, subjectivity needs interrogation, genre identification is key, and examinations of rhetorical texts promote better understanding of human communication. That’s rhetorical criticism in a nutshell. I suppose I could go on to talk about specific things to look for in texts, reading strategies, terminology, etc, but these assumptions, at least to me, are far, far more important.

Pragma-Dialectics and Wrenches

While in the midst of boning up on argumentation theory, I recently read Fallacies and Judgments of Reasonableness: Empirical Research Concerning the Pragma-Dialectical Discussion Rules by van Eemeren, Garssen, and Meuffels, a welcome emperical investigation of pragma-dialectical theory that contains, among other things, a restatement of the commandments of the pragma-dialectical method.

In short, P-D theory is a set of rules, or, rather, a machine or heuristic, for detecting fallacies, which are defined as errors or mistakes in argumentation under P-D. The theory could also be viewed as a form of ideal argument or dialectic to be aspired to. It has all the obvious connections to speech-act theory. But it has its problems, and  I was reminded of them while reading.

I have always been struck by how Commandment 4, “Standpoints may not be defended by non-argumentation or argumentation that is not relevant to the standpoint,” is hopelessly, hopelessly idealistic, even by the ideal standards of pragma-dialectic, and furthermore betrays an unnecessarily narrow and non-epistemic conception of rhetoric.

Behind a lot of P-D’s commandments is the questionable assumption that anything resembling a wrench in the gears of an argument is bad. I have found rhetoricians in general to be rather comfortable with the idea of such wrenches, as well as their continuing and often random presence, as they are understood to be necessary accidents in the long, messy process of making knowledge; rhetoric is epistemic. And this is a good thing, because without it we would be hidebound to syllogistic logic and unable to decide or accomplish almost anything. It would be impossible to do even the simplest of tasks – say, brushing my teeth – without the option of arbitrarily choosing from competing options for my time that have no obvious answer. A scene from Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising comes to mind, where the anti-missile system on a carrier fails to fire at two incoming missiles because it cannot decide which one to target first; the carrier is hit by both missiles.

This is why I enjoy walking through the P-D rules with such minor, yet non-trivial, questions as “Is this the best time for Mike to brush his teeth?” or “Should Mike walk his dog in the next 15 minutes?” or “Should we buy the 12 oz or 18 oz box of Cheerios?” It’s very hard not to break, say, Commandment 2, “Discussants who advance a standpoint may not refuse to defend this standpoint when requested to do so,” almost immediately, because the standard defense to most reasonable positions on these pressing issues is, “Well, I think this is about right, so…” C4 falls, also; C7 follows quickly, as does C8, C9, and C10 like dominoes. The qualitative guesswork of daily life just doesn’t cut it in this system.

That said, I’m a big fan of C1: “Discussants may not prevent each other from advancing standpoints or from calling standpoints into question.” It’s not like anyone actually follows this rule with any consistency, but it’s pretty to think so.

Then again, I don’t like C2: “Discussants who advance a standpoint may not refuse to defend this standpoint when requested to do so,” because it is impractical to assume the burden of proof for all statements or arguments one might make; this leads directly to one of the more diabolical debating maneuvers, that of demanding that your opponent explain every single claim they make and calling them out when they fail to do so. Unless immediately pointed out and countered, the result is usually a waste of time for all involved. In other words, C2 can be a nasty weapon that avoids, rather than promotes, productive dialogue, one of the key points of P-D.

However, let me reserve my deepest concerns for C10: “Inconclusive defenses of standpoints may not lead to maintaining these standpoints and conclusive defense of standpoints may not lead to maintaining expressions of doubt concerning these standpoints.” Well, the second part is ok, I suppose, but that first clause is a doozy. I can’t hold a position that I can’t conclusively defend? That throws out every religion in existence. It also keeps me from brushing my teeth at midnight. The authors do allow a “zero standpoint” of “pure skepticism” (194 – why am I suddenly citing pages? I never cite pages here) but only after a long set of chapters where it escaped mention. My agnostic brain likes that concept, but why can’t I lean in one direction or the other without some sort of syllogistic reasoning? It would seem to me that most important questions are under debate because the answers are non-obvious, and this  situation is brought into being via a lack of applicable evidence; the natural result of any debate, then, is very small shifts of opinion after the initial judgment, far too small to be described by merely three positions, “Yes,” “No,” and “Zero.” P-D’s empirical measurements of its rules on real people allow for a very fine range of opinions of the rules themselves, but once you start using the rules, they seem far more rigid on actual content and arguers.

These aren’t the shades of blue you’re looking for

Rereading Hume’s Enquiry has brought the so-called “missing shade of blue” problem to my attention again. I have never accepted that it is a problem, and while I was driving yesterday, I thought of a few ways to demonstrate this.

The problem is as follows. Hume’s theory of perception classifies all perceptions as either ideas or impressions. Impressions come from sense experience; ideas come from impressions. This theory holds as long as no ideas can be generated without the use of an impression. However, Hume lists an apparent exception: imagine a man who has lived his entire life having seen all the different shades of blue save one. If shown a palette of all the shades of blue that he is familiar with, placed in order, will he be able to detect the absence of a shade? The common-sense answer is yes – and yet Hume dismisses it as a minor if singular expection. Several camps exist on this issue – one holds it really is a exception, and another does not, but it’s not easy to reconcile either position with Hume’s line of argument.

I can think of several reasons that Hume was right to dismiss this objection, though he probably should not have been as mysteriously cavalier about the matter, especially given the rhetorical aims of the Enquiry.

Some of the following suppositions  match preexisting arguments.  I have placed them in order from weakest to strongest.

1.) The situation as given is impossible to replicate. Color is not made of separate shades, but rather a continuum. How can the man be sure he has not seen that shade before? Did a team of scientists keep him in a bubble for his entire life that was drained out that particular shade? They would have to make sure he had never seen a prism or a rainbow. It’s like saying the man has used numbers all his life without ever encountering 42. Could Hume’s man perceive a missing shade without the presentation of all the shades of blue? Probably not. The example is loaded – it assumes, in fact, that there is a missing shade, a problem I’ll address a bit later.

2.) If I accept the situation, the idea of the missing shade is still not independent of impression – it requires extensive knowledge of color, which is dependent on simple sense perception. One individual color on the entire spectrum does not constitute an idea independent of sense perception, especially if defined as a blend of two colors.  Furthermore, the mere notice of a gap in the sequence is built on a foundation of years of experience with color, and the concept of a gap itself is not necessary to mathematics that I know of. This argument is a little too ordinary-language philosophy for me, but it’s important nonetheless.

3.) The perception of a gap in a series, or in any pattern, does not require that gap to actually exist. This, I feel, was Hume’s plan all along – his coming evisceration of causality would render the blue-shade example moot.

Much of the argumentative strength of the blue-shade example comes from our knowledge that there IS a missing shade, but the man in the example does not have that certainty. He only suspects there is one – he cannot prove it, for he has no sensory experience of it. Rather, he can only suggest there is a very high probability there is a missing shade, much like I can only posit there is a very high probability that the Indian Ocean exists (I’ve never seen it) until I have seen it, and even then I may be misled, for our senses are rather untrustworthy.

In the 1985 film Goonies, the Mikey character finds the skeleton of a long-dead pirate called One-Eyed Willy, who is still wearing an eyepatch. Curious, Mikey pulls back the eyepatch… and there is no eye socket, only bone. The expectation was that the patch covered something absent, but Willy never had an eye to begin with. The anticipated missing eye is revealed as non-existent. This line of thinking leads rather quickly to  Schrodinger’s cat; it is not until the moment of sense perception that questions of existence or non-existence can be partially enlightened.

Imagine this scenario – Hume’s blue-deprived man perceives there is a missing shade, and goes looking for it… and never finds it. He experiments with dyes, travels the world, gives talks to breathless audiences, writes furious  monographs. He dies without ever seeing it or without any human being ever finding it. Some scholars, in fact, suggest his perceived “gap” in the color spectrum is actually a fundamental principle of the color spectrum, evidence of a limitation of the human eye, or a mere symptom of the man’s madness-tinged brilliance.

Hume’s notion of causality allows such a scenario, as it allows ALL scenarios. The mere notice of a possible missing shade demands nothing. Take John Couch Adams’s predictions of the existence of Neptune. What if they had come to nothing? Newton’s laws would have to be reexamined.  What if, rather, the measurements made by Bouvard had been incorrect, and there were no discrepancies in the data upon remeasurement? The perception of a gap or discrepancy in a pattern is a sense perception that requires absolutely nothing to follow it. This of course does not require that nothing does – only that deductive logic is useless for such questions.

But, you might, ask, can’t Hume’s colorist have an IDEA of a missing shade that is independent of sense perception without it having to exist? Well, no. I once worked in a eyeglass lab with a color-blind fellow, who oddly enough was very good at color dying lenses; he went solely by darkness of tint and the labels on the dye vats. He knew there was an entire world of color that he did not have access to, and I’m positive he thought about what it might be like on many occasions, but he had nothing save dark/light patterns – anyone who has experienced color knows it is far more than that – and word labels to go on. They could give him an ‘idea’ of what he could not experience, but he has no independent way of confirming if his ‘idea’ matches up, save the unreliable testimony of six billion people or so. His ‘idea’ cannot approach a color-sighted person’s ‘idea’ of that shade (which is itself imperfect in proportion to experience with that shade); it is at best an approximation made up of similar sensory perceptions that he does have access to.