Rhetoric 1, 2 & 3

I posted about Wayne Booth previously , crossing paths with Pirsig and McKeon in Rhetoric at Chicago, and then again when he died last year.

Came across this excellent Wayne Booth article today, via Wilf Berendsen on Friends of Wisdom. Interestingly Wilf was picking up on the cross-discipline university approach mentioned by John Spencer at Liverpool Uni and mentioned his own involvement with Academia Vitae in Holland

The Booth article is 20 years old, and towards the end, has some “futuristic” predictions (already passed) about things that might happen in future education establishments. Some wonderful ironies, in a very interesting piece … just a sample here.

  • business school professors founding centers for “decision research” and “cognition and communication,” with the purpose of discovering just how minds are changed;
  • classicists studying the history of the goddess Peitho, the goddess of persuasion;
  • cognitive psychologists repudiating behavior modification models and studying ways in which the mind performs “constructionist” operations that escape full formalization;
  • “comparative religionists” studying how myths are made persuasive by embedding them in the factual;

[Post Note : the three rhetorics are :
Rhetoric-1 – what the author intends as objective facts and rational argument
Rhetoric-2 – more persuasive language added by the author
Rhetoric-3 – the approval of third-party experts in the author’s field.
The point being that we (honestly) rely on all three, particularly when we do not share the same specialist field as the author, and that therefore a sound understanding of how to evaluate all three rhetorics, and the intentional behaviour of the parties involved, if knowledge is ever to be regarded as true beyond a specialist field. Thus the network of expert approval (not just critical analysis) is recursive but nevertheless essential to the process, and that rhetoric is therefore a cross-specialist subject, as important as any in its own right.]

24 thoughts on “Rhetoric 1, 2 & 3”

  1. Well written and thoughtful piece by Booth about the strategies of discerning the quality of knowledge outside our specialty. I read that Isaac Newton intentionally wrote his masterwork, Principia, in Latin, and made it technically demanding besides, to keep smatterers at bay. Newton was extremely sensitive to lesser lights who thought they understood his ideas, but didn’t, and made critiques of his work that were wrong, foolish, or misplaced.

    Booth says that charlatans squeak by in every field because they have mastered the rhetoric that let’s them escape rhetoric-3 detection. MOQers take note.

  2. I don’t know about the specifics of Newton’s ploy, but there is a line of thought that says that is the right thing to do intially – to use dense technical language sharable with only a select few, in “controlled” correspondence before developing writing for a wider readership. If you don’t you risk being misinterpreted wrongly even if largely right.

    But it is no escape for going through the whole process. The importance of “3” – third-party approval remains crucially true though, and hence the underlying theme of Booth’s that what you are really judging is “intent” of the individual and the “approving” peer group. Behaviour.

  3. Newton didn’t correspond for peer review during the writing or pre-publication of Principia. He knew his ideas were right, he
    knew their import, and he didn’t want to risk anyone else claiming credit. He was also personally motivated not to present the ideas contained in Principia to a wider readership. He only wanted people who were intellectually
    equipped to read it, and further, he hoped they would be the only ones capable of
    even beginning to understand it. He despised the thought of wasting time and energy
    answering to critics who didn’t know what they were talking about.

    I don’t see Booth having an underlying theme about judging the “intent” of the parties involved. Did I miss something? 🙂

  4. Hi Glenn,

    When I said “I’m not familiar with the details” of Netwon’s publishing actions, it’s me politely saying they are irrelevant. You are not suggesting the process you described adds any value to the truth of his “laws” are you ?

    Underlying intent ?

    Booth uses the idea of “trust” many times in the piece, this is just one example quote “But nobody I’ve talked with has claimed that the process depends on a trust that is utterly blind, totally a matter of non-rational power-grabs or log-rolling or backscratching or money-grubbing.”

    Not-totally, not-utterly, say to me that recognising these motives is an important part of the process, even if it is not the exclusive case.

    He also talks about the cumulative re-inforcement and occasional denting of trust, in later sections, which says to me it is about studying actions / behaviours (pronouncements) over an extended period.

    Perhaps “process” would be clearer than intent or motive, but everything is process in my world view. so hopefully my “intent” is clear 🙂

  5. If you studied Newton’s actions and behaviors over an extended period you would find that he did some unsavory things to ensure his exalted place in history, not the worst of which were power-grabs. But what Booth is implying is that you can know all about your candidate’s motives and intent – you can know, for example, that Newton wrote in Latin and made Principia intentionally difficult so that he could mute criticism; but if your job is to read it and evaluate its worth, you do it with a process that, for the most part, looks past this to the heart of the matter: is the content correct, informed and is something new or important or revealing being communicated?

    This is the emphasis of Booth’s:
    “But nobody I’ve talked with has claimed that the process depends on a trust that is utterly blind, totally a matter of non-rational power-grabs or log-rolling or backscratching or money-grubbing.”

    Genuine talent rises to the top DESPITE the sideshows, and Booth is saying that it is our obligation to employ a process that gets it right.

    You’ve turned Booth’s emphasis around for your own purposes, it would seem? 🙂

  6. Glenn, I’ve not turned Booth’s emphasis around at all … please follow along.

    Booth is a writer. He’s a rhetorician in fact. He chooses which words to put in his sentences … for some reason and communication purposes.

    In the sentence I quoted and you repeated, he included two qualifying adjectives, where the sentence would have made (different) sense if he’d left them out. So why did he include them, what did he mean ?

    In what is a negative statement, starting “nobody … claimed” he added in “totally” and “utterly” in front of the two adjectival clauses.

    He said “[not] utterly blind” instead of “[not] blind”. Meaning “not not blind” ie to some [significant] extent blind.

    He said “[not] totally a matter of [intent]” rather than “[not] a matter of [intent]”. Meaning “not not a matter of [intent] ie to some [significant] extent a matter of [intent].

    As far as Newton’s tactic and Booth’s point we are talking past each other again. The point is there is no “objective” content “past” [independently beyond] the rhetoric and intent. The content has to be understood “in the context of” the rhetoric and intent. That is the point your (admirably) logical mind fails to appreciate. The very point.

    This is rhetoric not logic.


  7. Ian,
    If somebody starts off an article with the sentence, “When I asked Edith to marry me, I was not completely blinded by her looks”, what do you think will be emphasized in the rest of the article?

    a) Edith’s beauty
    b) one or more of Edith’s other desirable qualities

  8. Dear Ian,

    You might be interested to know that Wayne Booth enjoyed Pirsig quite a bit (though I can only speak to ZAMM). In fact, he was going to serve on the committee for my Dewey-Pirsig dissertation–at his suggestion–but had to be overseas during the likely time of my defense.

  9. You dipstick Glenn,

    If someone “started” an article that way, (or led me up to that point with humour and irony, rather than serious rehtoric) I’d probably assume they were being ironic, and would think neither of the above … ie edith’s lack of beauty.


  10. Whereas,

    If it was an academic article about some third-party situation and it inlcuded the sentence,

    “her beauty was not the whole reason he was attracted to her”

    What would you conclude ?


    Context, motive and behavioural history are everything (nearly). How can someone so entirely miss the point ?

    Ah, I know, because they assume logical positivism before they even start.

  11. Hi David,

    How am I not surprised ? 🙂

    It was Henry Gurr, another ZMM fan that first raised Booth above just any other Chicago name in my consciousness.

    When you say “at his suggestion” do you mean Wayne’s or Bob’s ? Did I miss something or did you already have Chicago connections too – how did Booth come to be close to your work ?

    Anyway, thanks for the info / contact. I may be in touch on other subjects.

  12. It isn’t often that people are blinded by someone’s lack of beauty, so I think my statement was clear enough. In any event, you figured out what I meant yet you still didn’t answer the question. a) or b) ?

    This isn’t to say that beauty is unimportant, no more than it is to say that intent and motive are unimportant. They are. It’s just that these aren’t the things emphasized in Booth’s article, and he set these aside to examine the things that are more important and thus more enduring:

    – does the writer contribute, synthesize, or reveal something new and important about his field?

    and then Booth tells us how people go about deciding on these things.

    The reason I bring Newton into this is to illustrate this point. His legacy is much less the bitter feuds with Hooke or his dictatorial ways as Royal Society President, than the genius of the science he left behind. I’m sure the intents and motives that drove Newton to do what he did during his lifetime are interesting from a biographical standpoint, but his enduring contributions lie in the content of his scientific papers. I imagine if people had judged these papers on his intents and motives we would have lost a great contribution to civilization. And from a proper reading of Booth’s article, I have to believe that Booth would agree.

  13. Ian,

    Yes, all of this occurred when I was working on my doctorate at the U. of C.

    I knew of Booth’s work from having read his seminal The Rhetoric of Fiction and, later, The Company We Keep. I subsequently met him at the home of my advisor, education scholar Philip Jackson. Wayne and I got to talking about my thesis and that’s when he suggested the possibility of serving on my committee.

    Jackson, who got me interested in the Dewey-Pirsig parallels (and to whom my book is dedicated), was for a time on the Ideas and Methods Committee with Richard McKeon. However, I believe this was before Pirsig came to the U. of C.

    Booth mentions both Jackson and McKeon in his fine book The Vocation of a Teacher and, interestingly, claims that McKeon was “on most occasions…not a nice man” and that he “produced many moments of distress” as a teacher (290). Booth, in fact, was himself a student of McKeon’s in the early 1940s and recounts an experience that resonates strongly with ZAMM. To McKeon’s great dismay, Booth had supposedly tried to read Plato’s Republic “as if it were a novel” (290).

    Another U. of C. link, of course, is Booth’s one-time colleague in the English Department John Cawelti of “Ringer to Sheehy to Pirsig: The ‘Greening’ of American Ideals of Success,” which appears in the DiSanto and Steele volume.


  14. Glenn, we really are talking past each other again. I am ahead of you onto something more subtle than the obvious you are trying to point out to me. Situation normal for us.

    You simply place too much concreteness in “underlying objective facts” and don’t seem to notice that your view of how good Newton’s “facts” might be is seen through 300 years of hindsight, experience and authoritative social commentary.

    Until you can discount this, we will continue to talk a different language past each other.


  15. It’s true that you and I have 300 years of hindsight to judge Newton’s contributions, but the people who honored him in his lifetime did not, and most of the people alive then who could vouch for his genius did not even like him.

    Still, Newton’s work was hailed quickly considering the speed with which information spread in the 17th century. He was a star within his own lifetime, famed throughout Europe, and buried with the honors bestowed to kings.

  16. Glenn, I don’t disagree, but what has this to do with rhetoric and objectivity ?

    I say roses are red, and you disagree by saying violets are blue ?


  17. The first part of your complaint, that I ‘simply place too much concreteness in “underlying objective facts”’ is something I ignored because I thought it was obvious to anyone that Newton’s laws fit the data. Too presumptuous?

    Is this why you are asking what this has to do with rhetoric and objectivity? I must confess I don’t really understand what you mean by this, especially when you say you don’t disagree.

  18. Ian,

    I’m thinking that you might find interesting a book edited by Steven Mailloux entitled “Rhetoric, Sophistry, Pragmatism.” In fact, there’s a reference to Pirsig, in an essay by Don Bialostosky of Penn State, that links him to a number of neopragmatist thinkers in his sympathy with sophistic rhetoric.


  19. While I talked a little about this on my own site (http://www.lucasmcdonnell.com/2006/12/06/how-to-succeed-at-any-project-4-quick-tips/), as I was aiming to keep things on a practical level.

    While “decision research” seems to be a burgeoning phrase, I still think that people who are not well-suited for a task (whether that’s a management task or not) will consistently keep making the wrong decisions. Understanding why is important, but doesn’t provide me with much comfort (maybe I’m just always the eternal pragmatist).

  20. Hi David, I’ll look that up, sound interesting.

    Glenn, there are two lines of response here, one that Newtons laws only approximately fit some of the data, and secondly, even where they do, it is only by convention that we see treat this empricism as evidence of underlying objects and their behaviours.

    I guess I’m saying both of those are irrelevant here, where we were originally discussing another level removed from that; the rhetoric used to communicate and justify such apparent “facts”.


  21. Glenn (Rich) I’ve held your other recent comment in the name of Loggins, since it just seems to be a personal dig at someone else, based on second hand news, that you and I have no intimate knowlwedge of.

    If you still want to post it, for the comic value, can I suggest you use your own site.


  22. Ian,
    I don’t understand your comments in their relevance to the article; treating underlying facts as conventions doesn’t seem to be the direction intended by Booth. Somewhere this discussion has derailed into the “I’m attaching the philosophy according to Ian to everything I read.”

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