- Philosophy Taken Seriously but Without Self-Loathing:A Response to Harpine
William Harpine's critique of the debates surrounding Robert Scott's "rhetoric-as-epistemic" thesis aims to hold rhetoric to allegedly "philosophical" standards of conceptual definition. I argue that these standards are ultimately illusory, seen both in terms of the history of philosophy and even in contemporary analytic philosophy, on whose authority Harpine draws. Nevertheless, philosophy's own failure to define its terms satisfactorily—especially on matters of knowledge—is itself quite instructive, even heartening, and certainly worthy of careful study by future defenders of Scott's thesis. In this response, I focus mostly on "certainty," a term that figures prominently in Harpine's own analysis.
Who says definitions matter in philosophy?
Harpine provides an admirably straightforward diagnosis of why "rhetoric-as-epistemic" has failed to yield intellectual dividends beyond the payment of lip service: "The philosopher's most fundamental obligation is to define terms with care. It is precisely in this respect that the rhetoric-is-epistemic theorists have fallen short" (2004, 335). Nevertheless, Harpine's argument betrays the specialized nature of his acquaintance with philosophy. In fact, the task of defining terms has been accorded an overriding significance only in a minority of philosophical schools. One such school is contemporary analytic philosophy, whose practices Harpine presumes to have dominated the entire discipline since Plato. The point matters because the rhetorical force of Harpine's argument depends on a mobilization of philosophy's disciplinary authority, as in, "rhetoricians have walked onto Plato's playground and must expect to play by Plato's rules (that Athenian was always a stickler for definitions)" (336–37). Therefore, if only to relieve [End Page 72] rhetoricians' doubt, it is important to counter at the outset that philosophy has not univocally decried the use of vague terms in argument. Even in the heartland of analytic philosophy—no less than by the current Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford—the futility of definition has been recently reasserted in a form that carries major implications for the branch of philosophy that most concerns Harpine, epistemology.1
Of course, philosophers have rarely, if ever, denied the practical virtues of definitions. These virtues were perhaps most clearly brought out in the twentieth century by the logical positivists, who insisted on definitions mainly to keep track of whether—or to what degree—purported claims to knowledge are redeemed by what actually happens. For the positivists, the most significant kind of definition was "operationalization," namely, the specification of theoretical concepts in terms of observations, measurements, and other empirical indicators. Such definitions were "conventional," i.e., any concept could be defined by any operation, as long as it was done consistently, thereby allowing for a transparent tracking of its logical and empirical consequences. In the present discussion, it is worth underscoring that the positivists did not see definition as a uniquely philosophical activity. Indeed, their revolutionary rhetoric, which led to the consignment of huge swathes of discourse to the realm of the "meaningless," involved urging philosophers to follow the example of mathematicians, who had secured the autonomy of their discipline from physicists, engineers, and statisticians by wresting control over the definition of key concepts (Collins 1998, 697–728).
In contrast, philosophers (and rhetoricians like Harpine) who take their marching orders more directly from Plato and Aristotle have invested the definition of terms with metaphysical momentousness. Such philosophers have equated definition with the identification of the nature, or essence, of the thing defined. One key difference between the positivists' rather pragmatic view of definition and this more essentialist view is that, in the former case, a definition is only as good as the illumination it brings to the phenomena of interest to the inquirer. In that case, definitions are expected to come and go, as well as vary across definers. In contrast, an essentialist view of definition ultimately imposes a normative order on the phenomena that would effectively blame them for failing to meet the definition. The history of science displays both attitudes toward definition. The conventionalist attitude has enabled scientists to abandon long-standing definitions and start anew when too much of what interests them has fallen into...