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Farrell’s Moods

From: Philosophy and Rhetoric
Volume 41, Number 4, 2008
pp. 337-355 | 10.1353/par.0.0019

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It is difficult to write of the dead and their work, especially when one counts them as friends but does not wish to engage in simple epideictic. Scholarship might well be an unending conversation, but death limits speaking privileges. This undermines the conversational ideal. It certainly has robbed Thomas Farrell of his right to reply to anything that I will now say. For he and his legacy to be treated well, the burden of speaking justly falls to others, who cannot count upon him to offer gentle correctives or collegial objections.

In reflecting upon Thomas Farrell’s work, I am struck by the fact that he was simultaneously one of the field’s most respected and yet underappreciated theorists. The esteem in which he was held requires little by way of demonstration. Those who knew him will attest to his erudition and ease with theory. He is oft cited and was regularly called upon to discuss movements or developments in philosophy and rhetoric. Indeed, the very fact that this issue is dedicated to his thought testifies to the regard in which he was held. And so, why do I consider him underappreciated? Quite simply, because few of his colleagues have sought to take up fully his work on its own terms.

There are several reasons for this, which I will elaborate briefly below, but they ultimately follow from the fact that Farrell was engaged in a philosophical project in a field not well disposed to philosophical treatise. I am certain that this sounds odd. More than most fields in communication studies, rhetorical studies has a philosophical patina, and rhetorical scholarship is philosophically informed. Furthermore, philosophy and rhetoric meet regularly on the pages of this journal. Nevertheless, I contend that in the “field,” by which I mean the community of scholars of which Farrell was a part, mostly identified with “speech communication” or the National Communication Association, the development of full-blown philosophies of rhetoric is a marginal pastime. This should not be surprising: philosophers are concerned with very general questions, whereas rhetoricians focus on particulars. Philosophers seek to develop comprehensive representations of grand systems, whereas rhetoricians are pragmatists who focus on practical debates, and given that contingent practical questions are always more pressing that speculative ones, philosophies of rhetoric are for the most part of little immediate interest in rhetoric unless they offer a lever for doing criticism.

And so, philosophy typically only has two modes of appearance in rhetorical studies: (1) as a bad object in the neurotic repetition of rhetoric’s foundational gesture, when Plato’s condemnation is reanimated to again be refuted; and (2) as an authoritative excerpt or fragment appropriated to bolster arguments regarding rhetoric’s ontic and epistemic status. Rarely is rhetoric’s nature systematically scrutinized in order to rewrite rhetorical practice. Rhetorical theorists, even when informed by philosophy or by “Theory” (aka French and German thought in ethics, hermeneutics, poststructralism, and philosophy) usually do little more than develop and elaborate a small number of concepts that can then be deployed in the analysis of texts. While each of these is subtended by philosophical commitments, be it to the role of reason or to the relationship of texts to the real, these are usually only alluded to or treated summarily in short “forum” articles that counterpoise grand categories, such as empiricism, postmodernism, and so forth. Hence, rhetorical theory in large measure appears taxonomic to the novice. Directed toward oratorical or critical practice, rhetorical theory presents itself initially as a catalog of situational and textual concepts, such as audience, exigence, enthymeme, style, trope, ideograph, and so on. Though rhetorical theorists and critics are quite adept in deploying these concepts, to either identify the salient elements of a speech or make a claim regarding some aspect of rhetoric’s effectivity, greater questions are usually bracketed or deferred.

Baldly put, rhetoric is case bound: theory construction depends on the analysis of rhetorical episodes. Rhetorical analysis is typically directed toward understanding or theorizing a case rather than constructing a theoretical edifice. This norm in rhetorical studies colors habits of reading and works against a full appreciation of Farrell’s project. Furthermore, it inflects his very mode of theorizing. Notwithstanding...

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