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  • The Philosophical Basis of Rhetoric
  • Henry W. Johnstone

I want to begin by distinguishing between what has a philosophical basis at all and what has none. Science, history, morals, and art have a philosophical basis. Fishing, tennis, needlecraft, and carpentry do not. The criterion that determines membership in each list is simple: an activity has a philosophical basis if, and only if, the practice of it distinguishes man from the animals. It must be disqualified on the ground that some animals, as well as men, fish. It might be argued, however, that there is an art of fishing requiring tools utilizable by man alone, and that the ability to fish in this way distinguishes man form the animal. To be sure, in some cultures fishing with appropriate tools is necessary. In others, carpentry is. But if we came across a culture in which fishing did not occur, we would not say, "This creature does not fish; hence he is not a man'; and the same for carpentry. It may seem that the same question arises for science and history. Not all cultures are scientific. If science is indeed, as I maintain, necessary for men, what then prevents us from visiting some primitive tribe and saying, "These creatures have no science; hence they are not men"? The answer is that the culture we have encountered is prescientific. Even though its participants have at the moment no science, science is somehow "in the cards" for them. We would not characterize the nomads of Afghanistan as being in a pre-fishing era. We would not say that fishing was in the cards for them. Of course if the desert should become a sea, they will become fishermen, and there will have been a pre-fishing era. But it is not necessary to the character or status of the nomad that he represent either a pre-fishing or a fishing, or, for that matter, a post-fishing era. It is not necessary for man, however, that he be either prescientific man or scientific man or postscientific man. I add the last rubric to accommodate not only the tragic possibility of a cataclysm that could wipe out all humans capable of maintaining the tradition of science but also the ironic possibility that man might some day simply turn away from science. In either eventuality, man would be essentially characterized as a being living in a [End Page 15] postscientific era; that is, not merely as a being bereft of science, but as a being living a life either oriented to the cataclysm that had shattered the tradition of science or else oriented to the conviction that science is a thing of the past. The non-fishing nomad, on the other hand, need not take any position at all with regard to the nature or value of fishing. The possibility of fishing need receive no mention in any characterization of him.

The principle I have roughly stated and exemplified implies that if rhetoric has a philosophical basis, it is necessary to man, in the sense that all men live in either a pre-rhetorical culture, or a rhetorical culture, or a post-rhetorical culture. Each of these cultures is characterized by a disposition toward rhetoric. In the pre-rhetorical era, even though man does not engage in any form of rhetoric that we can recognize, we can see rhetorical activity as in the cards for him. Perhaps someone will object that there never has been such an era; as long as man has existed, he has engaged in rhetoric. So much the better for my argument; for then it is all the more clearly the case that rhetoric is necessary to man. But if man has gone through a pre-rhetorical phase, he is distinguished form all nonhuman creatures in this respect. No one would say of rats, cats, or cows that they are not yet engaged in rhetoric, but that once the idea occurs to them they will be. But man is either rhetorical from the outset or fated to become so once a certain idea dawns upon him—this, at any rate, is what anyone would be claiming who asserted that rhetoric has a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2079
Print ISSN
0031-8213
Pages
pp. 15-26
Launched on MUSE
2007-04-16
Open Access
No
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