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Philosophy and Rhetoric 40.1 (2007) 108-118

Rhetorical Criticism and the Challenges of Bilateral Argument
Stephen H. Browne
Department of Communication Arts and Sciences
The Pennsylvania State University

To assume editorial responsibilities for Philosophy & Rhetoric after Henry W. Johnstone was to have assumed rather a lot. He was, for starters, a philospher, and I am not. This much appeared to bother Henry not a bit, and in fact it proved the occasion of many productive discussions and facilitated my apprenticeship in ways for which I am still grateful. By trade a rhetorical critic, I was particularly interested in what might be called philosophical style, and in what sense that style might differentiate itself from modes of expression that characterize my disciplinary conventions. Pressed on the subject, Henry observed that one such distinction turned on our respective ways of initiating an argument. Philosophers, he said, start their arguments in mid-sentence.

Now that is a curious thing to say, even by Henry's standards, and I have dwelt on it frequently in the years since his passing. At first I thought he must be referring to the various stratagems with which scholars inaugurate a line of thinking—the appeals to established literature, the staking of terrain within a crowded field of commentary, the documentary requirements that can burden the opening of a case nearly unto death. And indeed there is something to this, as any quick comparison will attest: let us recall first the manner in which most essays in the humanities begin, and turn then to Johnstone's own:

In philosophy there is nothing in principle more authoritative than argument.

(1959, 21)

All valid philosophical arguments are addressed ad hominem.

(1959, 121)

It is only fair to say that while I am the editor of a quarterly journal, I am not an expert.

(1971, 78)

On reflection, it is clear to me now that what is involved here is something more than style, or at least more than the ordinary sense of style. To begin an argument "in mid-sentence" is to forego the trappings of erudition familiar to most of us; it is, further, to acknowledge without saying so the capacity of one's interlocutor to understand what one is saying; there is presumption of a type at [End Page 108] work. But above all it is to lay bare and grant immediate access to the structure of one's principles, claims, and arguments. Such an opening is strategic, to be sure, in that it represents a willed effort to establish a certain relationship as obtaining between disputants; it in effect extends an offer of contract, in which I agree to expose my reasoning at the outset under the expectation that you will do the same by way of response.

Johnstone's singular contribution was to establish a general theory of argumentation, of which philosophical argument was one subset. I wish here to suggest that another such subset is rhetorical criticism, and to explore how the practice of rhetorical criticism may benefit from this general theory of argument. What kinds of presumptions and obligations, like those noted in the above paragraph, might be said to apply to critics, seen now as practitioners of argument? The aim here is not to offer up an ethics of criticism, if by that we mean appealing to an independent set of norms as a way exposing the moral grounds of a given argument; it is rather to identify the obligations indigenous to rhetorical criticism conceived as a form of argument. The stakes here would seem to suggest more than an exercise if we are to take seriously Johnstone's oft-repeated insistence that argument is a medium for the disclosure of our selfhood and humanity. Taking that claim as a premise, it follows that as a subset of argument generally, rhetorical criticism is similarly one means through which we expose our structure of reasoning, acknowledge the agency of our interlocutors, and sustain our commitment to the ongoing practice of argument itself.

The following argument is exploratory...


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