Academic journal article Communication Studies

Douglas Ehninger: Modernist Rhetorician and Master of Rules

Academic journal article Communication Studies

Douglas Ehninger: Modernist Rhetorician and Master of Rules

Article excerpt

I still remember that hot afternoon in September, 1963. The open windows in the basement classroom didn't help stir the air. The only movement of the atmosphere was caused by the flurry of pens and pencils whirling madly to tranform oral into chirographic discourse. When Douglas Ehninger said "Pencils poised?" that afternoon, he meant it. It would take poised pencils, digital dexterity in using them, and cognitive processes capable of handling a torrent of perfectly outlined ideas to survive his opening two-hour lecture in "Modern Rhetoric." There wasn't enough 3.2 beer in Iowa City that day to rehydrate the body and recalibrate the mind.

He had transported that seminar from the Second Sophistic to the period we would study: starting in Rome with Harry Caplan's position (1944) on the decay of eloquence, slamming his way through the early and mid-Middle Ages (the Boethian revolution, Abelard's Sic et Non along with Richard McKeon's [1942] "Rhetoric in the Middle Ages," the rhetoric-and-poetic treatises), the coming of the artis praedicandi et dictaminis, and the rise of the rhetorically conscious dialecticians such as Rudolph Agricola, and so preparing us, finally, for a close look at Leonard Cox's The Arte or Crafte of Rhetoryke (1530/1899). As I look back at the notes that I typed up from the transcription, they are amazing. They are beautifully outlined--certainly not because of me--and shaped into clearly defined conceptual streams. They seemingly took us everywhere we had to go between the glory that was rhetoric in Greece and pre-imperial Rome to the revival of rhetoric in the neoclassicism of sixteenth-century England. And that was only Day One of the class. Pencils poised, indeed.

Douglas Ehninger (1913-1979), I will argue, was the consummate modernist rhetorician who, along with Wilbur Samuel Howell (esp. 1961), perfected the conceptual practice of using a history-of-ideas approach to describe multiple strains of rhetorical theorizing within the confines of historically specific cultural conditions. His was an orderly mind, modernist in its cognitive habits of definition, classification, and inference. Further, those same habits are visible in his studies of argument theory and practice, with one important difference: in theorizing argumentation, he was attracted by the rules paradigm (see below), breaking from his search for generalizations characteristic of his purer forms of rhetorical studies. His historically based rhetorical ventures, therefore, had a texture quite different from his philosophically toned forays into argument studies.

Ehninger's academic background in part accounts for these features of his scholarship (and teaching). His B.S. in Honors from Northwestern University (1936) included work as a debater, while his M.A. from the same School of Speech (1938) had breadth in the rhetoric-and-public-address curriculum of the era, yet with a focus on argumentation, discussion, and debate. After teaching at Purdue (1937-38) and Western Reserve University (1938-43), he moved to Washington, DC, as a civilian employee of the War Department. That prepared him for his two years in U.S. Army intelligence. (1) Returning to school, he found that he could actually complete a Ph.D. faster at Ohio State than Northwestern, so he switched schools, working with rhetorical historian Harold Harding on his dissertation, "Selected Theories of Inventio in English Rhetoric: 1759-1928" (1949). His post-doctorate teaching career carried him from the University of Virginia (until 1950) to the University of Florida (1950-1961) and then on to the University of Iowa (1961-1978). At Florida, he became one of the deans of the debate circuit; at Iowa, he cursed the years that he thought he had wasted in debate, extending his scholarship on modernist rhetoric and, more important, exploring argument theory with even more concentration than he ever had before.

His grounding in rhetoric and argumentation at Northwestern, his venture into Ward-to-Whately British rhetoric at Ohio State, and his work as teacher, scholar, and debate coach at Florida, especially, prepared him for the intellectual life of modernist rhetorician and master of (argumentative) rules. …

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