Dissertation Excerpt

From the Introduction

Engagement is key to my understanding of responsible rhetoric in this dissertation. Discussants reasoning in an engaged, accurate manner with each other’s positions enact a responsible persuasion. I think the most salient point of contact between rhetoric and writing and argumentation theory is Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca’s discussion of argument in The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation—and in particular their treatment of the idea of responsibility. I will return to The New Rhetoric throughout this dissertation not only for its discussion of responsibility but also for its role as a bridge between rhetoric and argumentation theory. With regard to responsibility, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca say that giving adherence to conclusions of argument for which there is “never a completely necessary proof…does so by an act that commits [us] and for which [we] are responsible” and that “argumentation aims at a choice among possible theses; by proposing and justifying the hierarchy of these theses, argumentation seeks to make the decision a rational one” (62; emphasis added). The responsibility in The New Rhetoric is responsibility to the asking and answering of questions, the defending of choices to others so that their doubts and questions may either be satisfied or that they may raise doubts and questions in your own mind as to your position that necessitate changing your position. The New Rhetoric offers argumentation as an alternative to the false certainty of the ideologue who believes despite contrary evidence and the total skeptic who will not believe even with evidence (62). This responsibility does not mean that facts and evidence have no role to play. On the contrary, discussants engaged in responsible argumentation will forward evidence and, more importantly, respond to evidence forwarded by others. However, the responsibility in The New Rhetoric contrasts with responsibility defined as accurate apprehension of reality such as Richard Weaver’s idea of “responsible rhetoric” which is “a rhetoric responsible primarily to the truth” (“A Responsible” 82). Persuasion for Weaver depends on speakers having “some understanding of the probative value” of their arguments (82). Truth, however valuable or useful, cannot by itself produce adherence in rhetorical argumentation as Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca explain.

When we engage in persuasion, we take on responsibility for putting forth and responding to arguments knowing that certitude cannot be found. We try to convince others when we believe we are right, but our position is not right in a way that is obvious and incontrovertible to others (or else we would not need to turn to argumentation), as “only the existence of an argumentation that is neither compelling nor arbitrary can give meaning to human freedom, a state in which a reasonable choice can be exercised” (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 514). There are of course different standards against which we can judge arguments to be responsible—standards of consistency, evidence, politics, and ethics. However, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca identify a more basic sense of responsibility that can be lost amidst these standards. Arguments are responsible to accurately hearing and responding to other arguments as made by interlocutors. Irresponsible arguments distort the position of others. No matter how good our reasons are, they are never “compelling reasons” in the sense that others will be unable to object (514). All too often, however, in trying to put forward an irrefutable case, people produce arguments that deny the existence of alternatives or describe them inaccurately. In avoiding accurate engagement, they eschew responsibility.

The pragma-dialectical approach to argumentation provides a way to articulate what happens at the point of rupture between discussants at a finer level than the broad terms incommensurate or incompatible, helping create a framework to analyze irresponsible persuasion and produce more responsible persuasion. Argumentation theory also provides a normative theory for evaluating the quality of arguments, and this normative function can usefully join other methods for testing argumentative quality already at work in rhetoric and writing. However, I do not want to overstate the value of the normative aspect or understate the value of the descriptive aspect. In terms of description, argumentation looks at the symbolic interchange between discussants, offering objects for analysis that can be analyzed more discretely than ethical-political frameworks. With this descriptive focus I do not intend to evade the difficult questions raised by relying on ethical-political frameworks for defining responsible argumentation. Instead, I suggest that using an argumentation framework to describe the activity of persuasion with a focus on symbolic activity (thus stepping back from but not abandoning ethical-political frameworks), will allow us to more clearly perceive conflicting ethical-political frameworks and more readily create means for counteracting problematic rhetorical behaviors….

Rhetoric faces a difficult situation when it comes to the question of responsible persuasion. It justifiably resists putative objective models of rationality, because those models fail to describe argumentative reality. The inhabitation of other positions does not always occur, horizons do not always converge, and veils of ignorance cannot always occlude social contexts and privileges. Historically, arguments have been praised for their reasonableness and propriety while blatantly disregarding concerns for equity. Claims of unreasonableness have dismissed views that are impolitic, counter-hegemonic, anti-majoritarian—arguments that are, in short, against the established order. Reason, however, is not coextensive with the privileged and empowered ideological frameworks within any given rhetorical context, even though the name of reason has been used to maintain the established order. As rhetoric moves away from normative evaluations of persuasion, it opens space for irresponsible persuasive practice where arguments that seem persuasive win the day regardless of their merit. In order to discourage such abuses rhetoric must rely on one or more ways to judge responsible rhetorical practice. The model of reasonable persuasion offered by argumentation theory, as I will demonstrate in the following chapters, can help balance the ethical imperative of inclusion with the need for means of evaluating arguments that may exclude.