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  • Introduction:Alva Noë, "In Focus"
  • Daniel M. Gross

Alva Noë, who is a major figure in establishment philosophy, has been producing work that speaks directly to rhetoric in new ways that are important. This "In Focus" project explores how so, with the help of Carrie Noland on dance, Thomas Rickert on music, and, in a previous issue of Philosophy & Rhetoric 53.1, Nancy Struever on the basics of human inquiry including pictorial, which she thinks almost nobody gets right except for R. G. Collingwood, and perhaps now Noë. In each case you will see how "rhetoric" must be stretched by way of these lateral artistic, and at the same time essential, projects in the discipline per se.

"Rhetoric" in these considerations is certainly not a vague notion that the things we do have persuasive goals, or audiences, for example. Though complicated in this discussion with Noë, "rhetoric" has precise meaning it's the job of this introduction to clarify, because it goes to our basic situation and it does so in a way that's unfamiliar.

In Varieties of Presence (2012),1 Noë makes the argument for a rhetoric of experience explicit. Starting with the example of traditional art like song or a painting, Noë explains how mere perceptual exposure is not yet aesthetic experience. Only "through looking, handling, describing, conversing, noticing, comparing, keeping track, [do] we achieve contact with the work/world" (125). But this kind of contact with the world is not neutral; following Kant it falls in the domain of "ought": our response reflects our sense of how one ought to respond to a work of art for instance. Hence rhetoric as persuasion: "aesthetic experience happens only where there is the possibility of substantive disagreement, and so also the need for justification, explanation and persuasion" (126). Is such persuasive rhetoric relevant only to traditional art forms per se? No—and this is Noë's bold move: he is really working on perceptual experience "tout court," with art recapitulating the basic fact about perceptual consciousness and serving [End Page 25] as a model or "guide to our basic situation." "Perception is not a matter of sensation; it is never a matter of mere feeling," Noë summarizes. Instead perceiving is "an activity of securing access to the world by cultivating the right critical stance," or even more directly: human experience has a "rhetorical structure" (128). How do we miss this according to Noë? "The big mistake," explains Noë, "is the overlooking of the aesthetic, or critical, character and context of all experience. There is no such thing as how things look independently of this larger context of thought, feeling and interest [classical rhetoric would similarly list the goals of rhetoric: docere, movere, delectare]. This is plain and obvious when we think of the experience of art. It is no less true in daily life" (129).

Though resonant with the work of Struever and then with her major reference point Collingwood, or with John Dewey as Noë points out himself, this is a major reorientation of philosophy and rhetoric. It puts philosophy right next to other human activities that include the arts like dance, music, and painting. And it does so not as the addendum after basic human activities have wound down. On this mistaken model, philosophy and the arts including linguistic arrive only belatedly, after the real work is finished on the ground. Instead, according to Noë, these artistic and thoughtful activities are exactly what make us human in the first place, as they are the inherent possibilities that shape human activity from the outset: no language without the probing possibilities, like irony, that bind up language in a world flexibly, no music without the capacity for musical reflection that offers up the audible world one way not another, no dancing or for that matter movement without the possibility of the arts that put on display dancing and movement, indeed giving us the very world where things including us get moved around. Movement at its most immediate, to pick up this last example, is always already choreographed though not mechanically so—as Noë explains in his reply it is precisely the choreography that at the same time "sets us...


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