What is good rhetoric?

The subject of economics hardly pays any attention to rhetoric. But it is so important.

This piece by Tushar Irani, Prof  of  Philosophy at Wesleyan University is a good read on the topic:

Philosophers have had a longstanding problem with rhetoric. The standard view of the quarrel is well-known: philosophy is a truth-directed activity concerned with reasoned argument, while rhetoric is uninterested in truth and concerned merely with persuasion. This view is often traced to Plato, but it is too crude. As Plato himself recognised, philosophers need to present their ideas in persuasive form if they are to gain acceptance, and there are uses of rhetoric that can further our commitment to truth rather than frustrate it. The power of an effective speaker to captivate an audience is apt to arouse our suspicion in democratic politics, yet we should also acknowledge that the practice of rhetoric can serve a civic purpose. The real question here is what distinguishes good rhetoric from bad rhetoric.

He quotes from Lincon’s Gettysburg Address saying it as an example of a good rhetoric:

The great power of the Gettysburg Address, full as it is with feeling and urgency, comes from its invitation to the listener to consider the basis on which the US was founded. The persuasiveness of the speech consists not just in its ability to stir the passions of an audience and instil conviction, but also in its ability to get ordinary Americans to think more conscientiously than they had previously about the coherence of their own ideals and the application of those ideals in practice. The audience is moved, but also (in Plato’s sense) self-moved, to the extent that they are led to think for themselves.

If this is right, we can see why the assumption that rhetoric serves as a pale substitute for reason and argument is too simplistic. Good rhetoric also does the work of reason, though in a different form than philosophical argument. Plato came to be pessimistic about the rhetoric of his contemporaries in democratic Athens, which might be why he set up his Academy as a place where the practice of independent thinking could flourish. Yet there have been moments in history since then that should leave us more hopeful about the prospects for good rhetoric – or at least less doubtful. The important question for us today is: ‘Can we conceive of a piece of political rhetoric that is both highly persuasive and at the same time spurs independent thought?’ That is not a rhetorical question. If we can’t, we might be in trouble.

Lots to think about..

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