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Monday, February 7, 2011

Feelin' Aristotelian: Rhetoric: Book 2 Chapters 12-26

If Aristotle is right when he claims, “When we know a thing, and have decided about it, there is no further use in speaking about it,” (II, viii, 1391b 7-9) then why is he still speaking? Perhaps it has to do with “the manner and means of investing speeches with moral character.” (II, xviii, 1391b 22-3) Aristotle’s overarching piece is to find out what moves a particular audience and cater to it. It is generally easier to play on the particular types of resonances that audience members hold and latch on to them, than to inaugurate an entire new world view. Crafting a moving speech does not entail creating new frames or associations, but modifying already held dispositions to fit the case at hand. Aristotle writes, “The orator has therefore to guess the subjects on which his hearers really hold views already, and what those views are, and then must express, as general truths, these same views on these same subjects.” (II, xxi, 1395b 10-12) Aristotle appears to have little faith in a particular rhetor’s ability to challenge an audience’s assumptions, rather they must appeal to already existing cultural values or modes of reasoning in order to gain ground.
Aristotle doesn’t make a claim about the origin of language or its nature overall, i.e. that language exists allegorically, or is structured fundamentally by metaphors or tropes. But he does elaborate the ways in which these devices serve pragmatic purposes. Aristotle further makes no distinction here between writing and speech, or do justice to the performative aspects of speaking. Yet he does apply the general framework of philosophy to language, he writes
In discussing deliberative oratory we have spoken about the relative greatness of various goods, and about the greater and lesser in general. Since therefore in each type of oratory the object under discussion is some kind of good – whether it is utility, nobleness, or justice – it is clear that every orator must obtain the materials of amplification through these channels (II, xix, 1393a 11-15).
What are these “materials of amplification” (II, xix, 1393a 11-15)? Is there an overlap between Aristotle’s metaphysics and his theorization of linguistic laws? For example, are the materials with greatest amplifying power the most moderate or virtuous ones? He outlines an entire spectrum of modes of argumentation, in what way can we assign different weights to the different methods? He claims that exaggeration and invention are sometimes necessary, couldn’t that also imply it is always-already happening?
Aristotle however would prefer not to dive too deep into these waters; “To go further than this, and try to establish abstract laws of greatness and superiority, is to argue without an object; in practical life, particular kinds count more than generalizations” (II, xix, 1393a, 15-18).
On the other hand, when he speaks to the types of uses of ‘Example’ he does differentiate between “the mention of actual past facts” and “the invention of facts by the speaker” (II, xx, 1393a 27-8). He reproaches Socrates for having deployed the latter form, through the use of ‘illustrative parallel.’ He also indicates that fables are more useful when speaking to popular assemblies. The reasoning behind this claim is two fold; 1) The Rhapsode, the poet, and drama were the primary modes of education for the majority of ancient Greeks, learning through narratives or story is thus what these people would be disposed towards and 2) given a larger group of people it would be more practical to deploy a fictional example if not everyone is familiar with the facts. Furthermore, perhaps the use of fables has the power to create a distance between our preconceived notions and the argument at hand. The way that they become abstracted, Aristotle gives an example of a story with animals for characters, forces disconnection. One has to see the whole story in order to see the moral arise and then apply it to the example at hand. A rhetor would pick a relatively narrow fable in which the moral of the story can only be applied to the case in a way that appeals to their larger argument.
If it is a narrative that possesses more cultural import it can be more amplifying to an argument, i.e. the way the left appeals to the ‘nation of immigrants’ narrative to pass visa policy reform. Grand claims about the historical origin of the U.S. can force people to think outside of the confines of the present position they’re in. In the U.S. this can be a very powerful tool, since the story of the founding of the nation can evoke waves of pride and nostalgia. I think that this example problematizes Aristotle’s division of speech types and their correlative appeal type, “that concerned with Amplification is…most appropriate to ceremonial speeches; that concerned with the Past, to forensic speeches;…that concerned with Possibility and the Future, to political speeches” (II, xviii, 1392a 4-7). Perhaps also the line between actual and invented facts should be exposed as arbitrary in many cases. While there may be a real distinction between what we know is a fact and what is not, there is no actual difference when it comes to the way we relate different facts to one another in a speech. The way historical facts are weaved together within narratives shifts the value that facts possess based on context et al. 

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At February 10, 2011 at 1:06 AM , Blogger Eric Yoon said...

You raise an interesting question in your opening paragraph; if in fact "When we know a thing, and have decided about it, there is no further use in speaking about it," what use is all of the advice he just gave us? If rhetoric is about persuasion but persuasion is useless when an audience is decided, then isn't Aristotle wasting his time with Rhetoric? It makes sense that one would have to identify existing beliefs and mold an argument around those beliefs, but it still seems to contradict with what Aristotle said about being decided on something.

I guess all of this might go back to what Aristotle said about the truth, that "things that are true and things that are better are, by nature, practically always easier to prove and easier to believe in" (Aristotle 6). If the truth is in fact, always easier to prove and believe in, then perhaps it's enough to be able to move your audience.


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