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Philosophy and Rhetoric 34.3 (2001) 183-206

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Design and the New Rhetoric: Productive Arts in the Philosophy of Culture 1

Richard Buchanan

In a seminal article on the study of rhetoric in the Middle Ages, Richard McKeon proposed a strategy for inquiry that illuminated the development of the art in a period where traditional histories had found little of intellectual significance. 2 He argued that instead of studying rhetoric as a simple verbal discipline with a more or less constant subject matter drawn from style or the interpretation of the works of poets and orators or the law, one could study the changing conceptions of subject matter and purpose by which rhetoricians thought to distinguish and oppose their doctrines. By studying the basic philosophic differences that are implicated in changing conceptions of rhetoric, one could discover intelligible patterns in the development of the art that otherwise may appear whimsical, haphazard, arbitrary, or merely verbal. What followed was the discovery of how the doctrines and devices of rhetoric in the Middle Ages spread with little recognition to subject matters far from those ordinarily ascribed to it. McKeon summarized the patterns in three lines of intellectual development. First was the tradition of rhetoricians themselves; second was the tradition of philosophers and theologians; and third was the tradition of logicians. The article concludes with a discussion of how these lines of development were extended in the Renaissance, with implications for the changing relationship of art and science that continues to unfold in the twentieth century around the development of technology.

What would a study of rhetoric in our own period look like if rhetoric were explored by McKeon's strategy? Among rhetoricians the record of past meetings of organizations such as the Rhetoric Society of America provides evidence for how the lines of intellectual development revealed by McKeon are extended in contemporary culture. For example, we find continuing attention to the study of rhetoric as a simple verbal discipline [End Page 183] with a more or less constant, traditional subject matter of style and literature. The problems of writing and speaking remain with us, and the traditional resources of rhetoric continue to inform new investigations. In addition, we find growing interest in expanding rhetorical studies to incorporate the interpretation of new kinds of literature as well as other creative works in the cultural arts, philosophy, and the sciences and technology. These studies are often innovative, though they are also easily recognized as an extension of traditional rhetorical arts. As Thomas Conley has remarked, "the present in rhetorical studies is prelude to an encouraging future." 3

Following McKeon's strategy, however, the study of rhetoric in our period would not stop with the work of formally recognized rhetoricians and scholars of rhetoric. McKeon argued that rhetoric is an unusually clear example of a general tendency among the arts and sciences for doctrines and devices to move across disciplinary boundaries and stimulate innovation in new circumstances. Rhetoric provides this example precisely because it is universal in scope and shared among all intellectual disciplines. Furthermore, only rhetoric is traditionally characterized from antiquity by many of its leading theorists and practitioners as an art of invention and discovery. Whatever their primary focus in subject matter and purpose, all disciplines are concerned at some point with invention and the eventual disposition of inventions in a medium of communication and application. Therefore, it is only proper that whatever our concern about the problems of writing and speaking well, rhetoricians should also direct their attention to innovations in other fields and disciplines, particularly sensitive to the movement of their own doctrines and devices and the consequent innovations that have occurred as a result. The focal question is one of the central issues that concerned McKeon in his study of rhetoric in the Middle Ages. How may we profitably consider the many innovations that have occurred in fields far removed from those traditionally associated with rhetoric, but with a degree of independence from the field in which they are usually celebrated?

This is what McKeon himself pursued...