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  • Rhetorical Humanism vs. Object-Oriented Ontology:The Ethics of Archimedean Points and Levers
  • Ira Allen (bio)

Archimedes of Syracuse has long provided a touchstone for considering how we make and acquire knowledge. Since the early Roman chroniclers of Archimedes’ life, and especially intensively since Descartes, scholars have described, sought, or derided the Archimedean point, defining and redefining its epistemic role. “Knowledge,” at least within modernity, is rhetorically tied to the figure of the Archimedean point, a place somewhere outside a regular and constrained world of experience. If this figure still leads to useful ways of thinking about knowing, we are left with the question of how different modes of making knowledge approach their “Archimedean” points. The question is especially important today as a renewed ontological enthusiasm sweeps through humanities disciplines that have grown wary, perhaps rightly, of epistemological skepticism. I distinguish here between epistemic approaches that focus on the firm ground of the Archimedean point, offering certitude à la Descartes, and approaches more oriented, like Archimedes himself, toward assemblages where “knower,” point, and lever are mutually implied. These approaches, elaborated in more detail below, comprise two opposing epistemic styles: a lever-oriented approach tends to foster an uncertainty with positive ethico-political implications and a point-oriented approach tends to foreclose it. Starting from the (contingent) assumption that our figuring is rhetorical all the way down, I describe these contrasting approaches as epistemic styles in order to highlight that who we are is at stake in how we think we know—even when we claim to sidestep epistemology altogether—and that in the entanglement of who we are and how we know, we owe much to all our others.

Toward a New Rhetorical Humanism

It is, at any rate, not the case that all styles of knowledge-making involve searches for an outside view of things or for firmness and certainty, to take two common ways of thinking about Archimedean points. Since antiquity, rhetorical theorists have regarded knowledge-making as the collection and examination of contingent points and effective levers, [End Page 67] precisely those points and levers whose working forms the knowledge-maker. As such, rhetorical knowledge is at once both broadly anticipatory and intensely local, requiring a knower always in the midst of negotiating the contexts of her knowing. It thus imbricates ethics with epistemology: who we ought to be with how we imagine we know. James Crosswhite puts the implication of this point nicely in Deep Rhetoric, observing that “rhetorical wisdom demands a virtually impossible ethical posture, or at least a fundamentally unstable one” (347). Because rhetorical theory studies language and symbols with the self-critical aim of discovering places to stand and work a lever within a shared symbolic domain, it demands a knower who is intensely attuned to the contingency, temporality, and potential effectivity of her own position. Such a knower owes other symbol-users rather a lot.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, the aims and interests of rhetorical theory were broadly harmonious with other dominant strains of thought in the West, lining up nicely alongside a linguistic turn, postmodern skepticism toward metanarrative, feminist anti-essentialism, postcolonial attention to hybridity, and so forth. Today, however, there arises a renewed and intensified desire for points of certainty, perhaps especially within the fiscally ravaged humanities. Ours is a time of reinvigorated ontological thinking, suffused with an anxious desire to establish firm points regarding the being of being, and thus impatient with what comes to seem, in lever-thinking, a self-involved relativism. And, indeed, there is a basis for such an attitude.1 From Plato to the old warriors of the left, the warning resounds: an easy reliance on relative, effective, local ways of knowing benefits the most unscrupulous members of a society. Witness Sean Hannity or Ann Coulter. My concern is that some avatars of the contemporary desire for certainty, in disavowing what they see as Cartesian roots, grasp after too much and float quite away from the earth out of which knowledge is formed, the typically (though not exclusively) human experience of symbolicity.2

For some today, epistemological skepticism remains commonsensical. But ontology-generating movements have become increasingly attractive across a variety of humanistic disciplines...


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