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Philosophy and Rhetoric 36.3 (2003) 277-300

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Toward a Fragmatics, or Improvisionary Histories of Rhetoric, the Eternally Ad Hoc

Cornelia Wells

"Even historical truths are on the move, or truth is not the question."
—my self
"We don't / know much, and are / professors of it."
—from Heather McHugh, "Professional Hazard," in McHugh (1987)

In writing a history of rhetoric, we might want to know before anything else both what rhetoric is and why we should care to be writing about it. Or we might begin with a notion of or motive for history or, more precisely, for doing or writing (a) history or histories (as opposed of course to History with a capital H, History proper, the "true whole" story and nothing else) of, specifically, rhetoric. 1 Or we might begin with a notion of subjectivity, of who this we is that concerns itself with this writing activity. Or we might focus on the writing itself, asking the question What is writing? or Who can do it? or What can it do? or What is it about? all of which may be much like answering or debating similar questions frequently asked about/of/through rhetoric. Indeed, rhetoric and writing, rhetoric and discourse, tend to be confused, or ecstatically intermingled, terms.

Or fixating, as history so frequently does, on the oxymoronic notion of "final" origins, which function backward(ly) as destinations, we might begin with the question/justification of where or when rhetoric itself geographically/historically began and therefore establish the "proper" beginning place for our story of rhetoric to start. But as the contemporary poet Heather McHugh suggests, "where" may be "a narrow inquiry," and also when, for something always came before and generally from somewhere else, so that, ultimately, when and where never can be finally arrived at. 2 So we might, and probably will, follow the indirection or dereliction (as [End Page 277] opposed to direction) of the goddess Dike to Parmenides: "It is all one to me where I begin, for I shall return again." 3 Like Robert Frost, however, I doubt if I shall ever come back. Or not by the same road, believing with Heraclitus, "One cannot step twice into the same river" (or, perhaps less obviously, twice onto the same road) and that anyway it is "weariness to toil at the same tasks and be always beginning," at least beginning in the same place(s) (1979, Fragments LI and LIII). As they commonly say in Australia, a change is as good as a holiday. And anyway change arrives inevitably.

So we may as well (as well as not) change our mind and change our route before it changes itself or us. We may as well turn away, before returning, pause from thinking about writing this particular history of rhetoric, about how or where or why to begin such a task in the "first" place (as if we have never previously occupied any other task or place), and consider instead some of the ways that histories of rhetoric have already been written or told or invented. But why should we make this turn? Well, for reconnaissance, I suppose. To get the lay of the land. To see the other side of the mountain. To show we've done our research. Or because a discipline demands continual recounting. To remain intact or stay in touch. Or for auld lang syne. Or so that improvisionarily, at least, "we shall have agreement on [']known['] premises, and the pursuit of further knowledge" (Rorty 1984, 67). Or to take stock. To see what's missing (as if we could say when the universe is full). Or to justify a point of departure. Or a point of entry into a conversation that preceded and therefore necessarily in some residual sense preempted or determined us. Or for just (only?) or unjust (not only?) cause. Or to establish ethos. Or just because. To show we "know."

Auguring or augering (not arguing) a procedure

Perhaps the best turn is to turn this essay, literally my attempted say, inside out...


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