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  • Rhetoric and Philosophy
  • Martin Warner

Peter Ramus continues to muddy the waters where philosophers meet rhetoric. Aristotle defined rhetoric in terms of the modes of persuasion as an independent discipline, the counterpart of dialectic. Ramus’s sixteenth century revision of the intellectual map reclassified it as at best an adjunct of dialectic, to be conceived in terms of elocutio and pronunciatio, an approach that in the English-speaking world led to its reduction to mere ornamentation—the application of figures and tropes—opening the way to Stoppard’s (anachronistic) debasement: 1

Guildenstern: What in God’s name is going on?

Rosencrantz: Foul! No rhetoric. Two-one.

Both approaches are current, which makes for confusion. Two characteristic examples will suffice. The approach to rhetoric of Jeff Mason’s Philosophical Rhetoric is broadly Aristotelian but Roger Crisp’s review criticizes the book on the ground that “some philosophers just do not employ rhetorical techniques,” techniques which are broadly identified with the figures and tropes. Similarly, my own introduction to The Bible as Rhetoric opens by defining rhetoric in Aristotelian terms, but the Times Literary Supplement reviewer—evidently a closet Ramist—takes one of my contributors to task for using the word “rhetoric” in his title but providing “very little in the way of an examination of . . . linguistic features.” 2

These examples illustrate the way two main conceptions of rhetoric appear to be at play when philosophers discuss the topic; one is concerned with the means of persuasion, the other with qualities of [End Page 106] style. Of course these cannot always easily be separated, for it may be that certain qualities of style figure prominently among the available means of persuasion, but a useful test of the conception an individual has of the topic may be judged by how he or she reacts to the (deliberately provocative) opening sentence of my introduction to The Bible as Rhetoric: “Rational argument is one of the most effective rhetorical modes we know.” Mason’s conception of the “plain style” of the philosophical logicians as rhetorical style fits this Aristotelian approach well, but for the more Ramist Crisp such examples are “unlikely candidates” for rhetorical status and Mason’s conception “forced.” So it may be as well to consider contemporary work on the philosophy/rhetoric borderline under two heads: the Ramist and the Aristotelian. But that borderline itself invites a further distinguo; philosophical analysis of rhetoric and rhetorical analysis of philosophy, though this distinction, too, is not absolute. This gives us a convenient set of quadrants, so for expository purposes I shall consider the contemporary relations between rhetoric and philosophy under four main heads.

First, philosophical analysis of “rhetoric” understood in a stylistic or Ramist sense. Here the most significant work has been on metaphor, conceived as a “trope,” and related rhetorical devices. Whereas with “figures” the meaning of each individual word remains the same inside the figure as outside it, with the trope the matter is different. Quintilian defined a “trope” (or “turn”) as “the artistic alteration of a word or phrase from its proper meaning (significatione) to another,” 3 which suggests that use can determine meaning—and with this claim we are at the heart of a philosophical storm centre.

It is conventional to distinguish between syntax (the study of formal relationships between expressions), semantics (in the narrower sense, as the study of the relations between linguistic items and the non-linguistic items to which they typically apply), and pragmatics (the study of the relations between linguistic expressions and the use or users of these expressions). One very powerful strand in contemporary philosophy of language sees matters concerning meaning and truth as analyzable in terms of the first two categories without any essential reference to linguistic use or users. Behind this lies a history going back at least to the Enlightenment project of a universal language or “character” in which each word would relate to a different idea and the syntax be transparent; Leibniz’s logical work was in part intended as a contribution to the syntax of the universal character, and although the semantics proved intractable, the logical positivist movement—with post-Leibnizian [End Page 107] logical syntax providing the framework within which...

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