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  • Judgment, Rhetoric, and the Problem of Incommensurability: Recalling Practical Wisdom
  • Yancy Smith
Judgment, Rhetoric, and the Problem of Incommensurability: Recalling Practical Wisdom. By Nola J. Heidlebaugh. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001; pp 192. $29.95.

The violent attack on the World Trade Center a few months after the July 2001 publication of Nola J. Heidlebaugh's Judgment, Rhetoric, and the Problem of Incommensurability: Recalling Practical Wisdom underscored the urgency of the debate concerning incommensurability with the realization that something must be said, understood, and done in a fractured world of increasing ethical tribalism. How can people who come to a discussion with incompatible assumptions actually communicate rather than attempt to dominate or talk past each other? Heidlebaugh shows that classical rhetoric may provide heuristic tools for the solution of current problems assumed unsolvable.

In 1960 Thomas Kuhn gave us the evolving concept of "incommensurability." For Kuhn, incommensurability describes the relationship between rival visions of data. Just as two people looking at a gestalt "illusion" picture capable of being seen as distinct images may both be observing the same dots on a page, what they "see" cannot be described in the terms of any other vision interpreting the dots. The only way to "see" a different picture is to experience a kind of conversion or gestalt shift. Thus no unassailable standards of rationality exist to adjudicate between rival paradigms. Though Kuhn sought with this notion to expand the idea of rationality in science, many saw him as denying the rationality of science altogether.

Visually conceived, incommensurability provided a rational basis for radical ethical pluralism. However, incommensurability, conceived in Kuhnian terms, also led to the dilemma, commonly accepted today, that judgment consists in applying unassailable standards that do not, in fact, exist. Thus incommensurability lent rationality to the assumption that moral debates are essentially intractable and helped clog practical ethical reasoning for Western postmoderns with interminable debate, which became little more than emotive demonstration. In essence the dilemma of incommensurability led to the view that radical pluralism in society is in itself absolutely virtuous. [End Page 519]

The "problem" of incommensurability is how to value it for affirming the legitimacy of minority voices without remaining trapped in the consequent intractability of ethical debate, not to mention social breakdown. Heidlebaugh enters the incommensurability debate by asserting that the issue needs refocusing. For her,

Incommensurability . . . is not . . . logically intractable, with one hierarchical system unassailable by the terms of another: it is seen as a moment in an ongoing conversation—which is an active, intellectual "matrixing"—at which the weave has become too tight on each side for the fabric to continue to be made. Incommensurable frames, thought of in this way, are points of stasis, not unassailable justificatory systems.


Thus Heidlebaugh reformulates incommensurability in oral/aural terms as just one moment in an ongoing conversation. For the rhetor speaking into a situation of incommensurate positions, such a reformulation offers opportunities for "pragmatic novelty" (27).

Heidlebaugh criticizes Cartesian and post-Cartesian epistemology on the grounds that they tend to privilege "spectator judgment" rather than "artistic judgment" in a particular time and place (24). Since Descartes, public speakers have tended to see their craft as the presentation of truths previously established by philosophers or scientists. However, in the current cultural climate, confidence in all previously established "truths" is low. In response to this state of affairs, Heidlebaugh suggests that the dynamics of debate are radically changed when the rhetor has a personal stake in the outcome. That is, the rhetor who accepts the moral imperative of the moment of conflict between rival communities understands that solutions must be forged that both preserve peace and respect the ends of the rival communities. She suggests that this perspective represents a recovery of the traditional wisdom enshrined in classical rhetoric.

Conceiving incommensurability in such terms weakens the absoluteness of incommensurability, making room for inventiveness and artistic judgment. A spectator uses the passive judgment of summary and decision. Someone using artistic judgment is more nimble than the visual conception of incommensurability allows, like that employed by a captain at the helm of a ship. Classical rhetoricians understood that inventiveness in the moment of impasse (kairos...


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pp. 519-522
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