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  • Introduction:Philosophy and Rhetoric - Rethinking their Intersections

I begin with an anecdote. While a senior at a small liberal arts college, I participated in a year-long senior seminar on evolution. The central questions were how we come to be human and, more basically, what it means to be human. Units were taught from the perspectives of biology, various traditions of philosophy, theology, education, history, and world literature. Faculty were drawn from across the curriculum, each taking units and assigning readings from their discipline that addressed our central questions from an evolutionary perspective. Importantly, the faculty leading seminar discussions also attended each session, so that every meeting possessed the possibility of full-scale intellectual battle not only with and among the students but (oh joy!) among the esteemed faculty. The first unit was led by two biologists who assigned Charles Darwin's On the Origins of Species (1845) and Theodosius Dobzhansky's Evolution, Genetics, and Man (1955). Ours being a Jesuit institution, we were required to enroll in eighteen credits of philosophy, twelve of which had to center on Thomism or related topics, along with sixteen hours of theology. We students were curious as to how the priests, especially, would respond to an evolutionary perspective that did not begin with a creator and had humans crawling out of the genetic swamp's primordial ooze, so to speak.

We were not disappointed. In fact, when we detected that norms of civility and decorum were keeping pointed disputation in check, we asked sniggling questions, having learned from our Jesuitical training how to be provocateurs. Although there is nothing remarkable to recount from their disagreements, because we had been educated by Jesuits we understood perspective meant everything, and the seminar's jousts were nothing if not contests waged from divergent starting points. What does linger is a [End Page 371] question born of the way the biologists were appropriating Darwin and Dobzhansky, pushing them beyond scientific inquiry to address existential considerations. The dissonance between what we assumed motivated a scientist's disciplinary curiosity and the way these scientists were thinking prompted a humanist in our class to query one of our professors as to why he studied biology. His answer was that he thought it gave him his best shot at understanding what it means to be a human being. We had not anticipated that. Pursuing science to answer ontological and metaphysical questions about being seemed at odds with our curriculum's foundational appropriation of the ratio studorum to achieve a specific (moral) perspective on the world and on human existence most particularly through theology, philosophy, and literary subjects. Our professor's answer accepted the humanistic values of a Jesuit education while affirming there were many roads to Rome. To oversimplify, it reinforced the search for productive perspectives, such that when considering multiple paths to understanding (more on this later), the question was not which road you took, but a) whether the road led to your destination, and b) what you discovered along the way.

Ever since Greek antiquity, rhetoric has been understood as an art of influencing audiences through arguments, emotions, and character; through persuasion (movere), instruction (docere), or delight (delectare). Moreover, that art has been understood as both a regime of instruction (docens) and use (utens). Without passing into the sociology of knowledge, it is worth spending a moment to remind ourselves of rhetoric's complex history. I focus on rhetoric because, as the journal's founding statement suggests, Philosophy and Rhetoric is concerned with rhetoric as a philosophical category. We are led to ask, therefore, what it means to be a "philosophical category." In its most basic sense, it is a domain of speculation about philosophy's first principles, about its relationship to how we come to understand our world (epistemology) and experience (ethics), and possibly it is related to our being in the world (ontology). But it also can mean to be under the rule of a superordinate system of thought, of philosophy itself—whatever that might be, whatever that might mean.


In 1949, P. Albert Duhamel published his important essay "The Function of Rhetoric as Effective Expression." Duhamel followed the intellectual fashion of the...


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