Homo Dialecticus

After reading through Aristotle’s Rhetoric, reading Burke (not ever having read Burke) lends interesting insight into the development of rhetoric as it is more commonly used today, i.e. the myriad “rhetorics of …” Whereas Aristotle looked to the categorization of the means of persuasion (in terms of audience, enthymeme, example, etc.), I can see in Burke’s text the opening up of these strictures and positing rhetoric in a much broader sense. It is no longer the “either this or that” relationship found in Aristotle (where there are clearly very right and/or wrong ways to conduct a speech, for example the use of example only if a proper enthymematic argument can’t be found) but rather a more open relationship between things that allows for mystery (“magic”) and that which lies outside of the linguistic. I find his discussion of rhetoric as identification to be particularly interesting as it, again, widens the scope of what rhetoric is and/or can do. Rather than rhetoric simply being the art of determining all available methods of persuasion in oratory or speech writing, or as the “good man speaking well” in terms of eloquence, rhetoric can be internally derived as well as externally imposed (e.g. Burke’s discussion of bureaucracy/heirarchy or psychological malingering), again separating “New” rhetoric from classical rhetoric:

“Classical rhetoric stresses the element of explicit design in rhetorical enterprise. But one can systematically extend the range of rhetoric, if on studies the persuasiveness of false or inadequate terms which may not be directly imposed upon us from without by some skillful speaker, but which we impose upon ourselves, in varying degrees of deliberateness and unawareness, through motives indeterminately self-protective and/or suicidal” (35).

Thus, rhetoric can be internal/external, applied to things other than the strictly linguistic, and can be either used in a creative capacity (rhetorica utens) or as a means of study (rhetorica docens)–reminiscent, as well, of more recent arguments (Mailloux/Davis/Muckelbauer) of rhetoric as necessarily hermeneutic. This opening up of rhetoric as the bridging of divides between people (and, arguably, things) by means of identification, according to Burke, also collapses the thesis/antithesis relationship of rhetoric and dialectic (as we discussed in terms of Plato/Socrates) exposing the rhetorical nature of dialectic:

“The dialectical method would also be rhetorical in this sense. But we may note its use of other rhetorical elements likewise: First, there is the rhetoric of the dramatic agon, the clash of the partisan rivals, each of whom seeks to overthrow the others; next, there is the rhetorical appeal of the dialectical resolution, the formal satisfaction that comes of transcending such conflicts by systematic means; and finally, there is the rhetoric of enargeia, as the New Vision” (207).

All in all, what I found most compelling about Burke’s argument is the expansion of rhetoric to include certain things under the heading of rhetoric that “would not have been traditionally labeled ‘rhetoric'”(43) and to move past the idea of rhetoric as merely “persuasion” as such and instead the means with which different classes (hierarchies, etc.) or people/things can communicate, thus moving them to act through identifying with each other. This, to me, adds interesting dimensions to Aristotle, because although the classification of the means of persuasion is important, it leaves out the element of relationship between communicators and communicative symbols that Burke’s identification adds.


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