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  • Style and Spirit in Dreams of a Spirit-SeerSwedenborg and the Origin of Kant's Critical Rhetoric
  • Scott R. Stroud (bio)

It seems to be almost a cruel joke to foist the burden of finding a positive sense of "rhetoric" in Kant upon anyone, including oneself. Why look to the arch-champion of the enlightenment for a defense of the art of rhetoric? What hope does persuasion have in a thinker who explicitly castigates rhetoric in his 1790 Critique of the Power of Judgment, a cornerstone to modern aesthetics? Indeed, the lack of a sensed hope in these matters has led to a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, with many rhetorical scholars failing to examine Kant's rhetorical thought because they are sure that the reasons that have caused a tradition to abandon him are good reasons for all critical interpreters. For instance, Clifford Vaida points out that "Kant's explicit comments on rhetoric are few, casual, and derisive. Consequently, he has not been studied closely by rhetoricians" (1996, 373). Brian Vickers connects Kant to Plato's [End Page 1] attack on rhetoric and thereby quickly dismisses him: "like Plato, he made much use of binary categories to privilege one discipline and dismiss another" (1988, 201). These commentators are not negligent, of course. The mature work of Kant that we typically fixate on does seem to contain a snarling dismissal of the arts of speaking as a mechanical misuse of the agency of others. In his important Critique of the Power of Judgment, he infamously dismisses rhetoric in the following manner:

Rhetoric, insofar as by that is understood the art of persuasion, i.e., of deceiving by means of beautiful illusion (as an ars oratoria) and not merely skill in speaking (eloquence and style), is a dialectic, which borrows from the art of poetry only as much as is necessary to win minds over to the advantage of the speaker before they can judge and to rob them of their freedom; thus it cannot be recommended either for the courtroom or for the pulpit.

(2001, 5:327)

This passage sets the tone for those who see him as denigrating any communicative practice beyond mere straightforward philosophical argumentation, but it also contains the seed for unearthing a confused Kantian sense of rhetoric. Notice the binary that is constructed, once one sorts through the misleading clarity induced in any act of translation—"rhetoric" (Beredsamkeit) is aligned with "the art of persuasion" (die Kunst zu überreden), and both are united in opposing merely "skill in speaking" (Wohlredenheit). The latter concept is parenthetically explained by Kant as being composed of "eloquence and style" (Eloquenz und Stil). Thus, we can see the confusion below Kant's aggressive denunciation: something denoted by "rhetoric" and "art of persuasion" is harmful or worrisome, but some practice denoted by "skill in speaking" is praiseworthy. After one decides to dig this deeply into Kant's denunciations of rhetoric, one faces the not-so-minor challenge of making sense of all of this. The tide has turned in rhetorical studies, and a growing number are embarking on this project of reclaiming what sense of rhetoric Kant finds beneficial (see Ercolini 2012; Gehrke 2002; McCormick 2005; 2011; Stroud 2011; 2014; 2015b; Tinguely 2015). Yet here I want to focus on a part that has been left out of this recovery of rhetoric in its critical or educative forms but that is plainly evident in the above passage: the notion of style. [End Page 2]

Kant's denunciation of rhetoric definitely evinces a style that drives away all but the most sympathetic and imaginative of readers, and he builds into his notion of "good" rhetoric (Wohlredenheit) a component of style (Stil). What do we mean by style? One way of parsing this term is by referring to its merely surface components—things that adorn a message but do not matter much to the truth or import of that message. What I want to explore is a sense of style extracted from Kant at a deeper level, the level that rhetorical scholars such as Barry Brummett explain as "a complex system of actions, objects, and behaviors that is used to form messages...


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