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Poetics Today 23.3 (2002) 369-394

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Introduction to the Study of Doxa

Ruth Amossy
French and Poetics and Comparative Literature, Tel Aviv

Inherited from ancient Greece, the notion of doxa as common knowledge and shared opinions haunts all contemporary disciplines that put communication and social interaction at the center of their concerns. To be sure, the specific term is not always used: doxa appears under various guises, such as public opinion, verisimilitude, commonsense knowledge, commonplace, idée reçue, stereotype, cliché. Broadly speaking, however, all that is considered true, or at least probable, by a majority of people endowed with reason, or by a specific social group, can be called doxic. Whether the Greek term is explicitly mentioned or not, the functions of doxa in social life and in verbal exchanges have been the subject of continuous inquiries, if not of sharp polemics, for the two last centuries.

In this domain, francophone literary and linguistic theories, from Gustave Flaubert's studies to Oswald Ducrot's pragmatics and to Chaïm Perelman's "new rhetoric," offer important insights. They seem to have explored the question in two main directions. The first, rooted in the modern consciousness of banality, carries to a paradoxical extreme the obsession with accepted ideas, trite expressions, and (bourgeois) stupidity. In this perspective, doxa is a major obstacle to individual thinking and creativity as well as to genuine communication; as such, it constitutes a source of alienation. This approach is masterfully exemplified by Roland Barthes's essays, widely drawing on Flaubert's heritage. The second direction, going back to ancient rhetorical sources, unveils the constructive functions of doxa and its multifold uses at all levels of human communication. This is the position [End Page 369] adopted not only by Perelman's new rhetoric, but also by structuralist poetics in its explorations of verisimilitude and literary convention and, today, by contemporary pragmatics and argumentation studies.

This issue of Poetics Today brings together contributions written by specialists from various countries (France, Belgium, Quebec, Germany, Israel) who are all closely linked to the French analytical tradition and have devoted a considerable part of their research to the controversial question of doxa in literary and nonliterary discourse. Their essays deal with the main problems raised today by this question in matters of communication, mutual understanding, and the social impact of discourse. They also explore commonsense knowledge in its relation to persuasion and question the belief that the use of doxa is incompatible with genuine literature.

A short reminder of the treatment of doxa in different disciplines during these last decades will help us understand the specific positions presented in this volume. Starting from the Greek origins of the notion allows us to see why and how it has nourished contemporary research in general and theories focused on verbal efficacy and social interaction in particular. This panoramic presentation aims at illuminating the way in which each discipline (rhetoric and poetics, pragmatics and discourse analysis, reception theories and literary analysis) has, at a peculiar stage of its development, dealt with doxa and with chosen affiliated notions. It also aims to show how questions examined in fields that sometimes have little or no contact with each other may present significant similarities.

From Aristotle's "Endoxa" to Flaubert's "Idées Reçues"

It is impossible to understand the contemporary uses of the notion of doxa without examining how the Greek terms doxa and endoxa are interpreted and explained by modern critics and philosophers. It is also interesting to see how references to doxa are explicitly linked to other rhetorical notions (like verisimilitude and topoi) that are often dealt with in themselves, with no direct mention of doxa as such.

It is no coincidence that one of the richest syntheses of the manifold research recently published in France on commonplaces, Lieux communs: Topoï, stéréotypes, clichés (1993, edited by Christian Plantin), opens with an "Introduction to the history of the endoxon." In this text, Peter I. von Moos goes back to the Aristotelian theory developed in the Rhetoric and the Topics, noting that if Aristotle did not...