Making and Unmaking the Prospects for Rhetoric: Selected Papers from the 1996 Rhetoric Society of America Conference

By Theresa Enos; Richard McNabb et al. | Go to book overview

HENRY W. JR. JOHNSTONE Pennsylania State University


Some Further Trends in Rhetorical Theory

In 1970, having edited Philosophy and Rhetoric for just two years, I thought I had spotted a number of trends in rhetorical theory, and I listed them in the paper I gave in 1970 at Wingspread under the title "Some Trends in Rhetorical Theory." This paper became a chapter of The Prospect of Rhetoric. The supposed trends that I listed were the following: (1) theories that attempt to give an account of the rhetoric of the New Left; (2) attempts to elicit the ethics of rhetoric; (3) examinations of Wittgenstein's attitude toward rhetoric; (4) discussions of the relation between rhetoric and communication and of the rhetoric of information and of the mass media; (5) inquiries into the ontological and phenomenological basis of rhetoric; (6) approaches to rhetoric from the point of view of ordinary language philosophy, including that of John Austin; (7) rhetoric as viewed from the perspective of General Semantics; (8) the study of Topics as generalized from the status accorded them by Aristotle to cover arguments in science and philosophy; (9) the attempt to vindicate the claim that legal rhetoric is sui generis; (10) work on the relation between rhetoric and formal logic; (11) expositions of the nature of dialectic and of how it is distinguished from rhetoric; and (12) inquiries into the nature of philosophical argumentation.

This list sounds a little like the list of categories in the Chinese encyclopedia as cited by Jorge Luis Borges. Perhaps it is worse. For it is doubtful that the topics I have just listed were all in fact trends, or for that matter that I even actually regarded them as trends. Perhaps I was just kidding myself (I was, after all, only fifty years old!). As I survey the situation twentysix years later, it seems to me that in most cases the topics suggested themselves to me as problems. It is a problem, for example, to state the relation between rhetoric and formal logic, or to expose the ontological foundations of rhetoric; but the attempt to deal with these problems can become a trend only if it has exercised many thinkers over a long period of time, and it is necessary for the culture to have encouraged and sustained concerted attention for many years.

One reason for doubting that all the problems I elicited in 1970 were in fact trends is insufficiency of evidence; no one can be certain that a series of events is a trend until after the series has terminated, and one can see whether the series was a flash in the pan or a genuine trend. The two-year accumulation

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