Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Knowledge and Performance in Argument: Disciplinary and Proto-Theory

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Knowledge and Performance in Argument: Disciplinary and Proto-Theory

Article excerpt

That there is a role for rhetoric in the production and dissemination of knowledge seems no longer to be a live issue but a presumption behind a considerable body of rhetorical analysis and criticism. That much has changed since Robert Scott first characterized rhetoric in epistemic terms ("Viewing"). Still, our field enjoys deciding periodically what is alive and what is dead in the recent tradition - from neo-Aristotelianism to the rhetoric of science. Perhaps, like Jefferson, we believe that the tree of liberty must be nourished periodically with the blood of patriots. In the 1990 Quarterly Journal of Speech Forum on the "demise of epistemic rhetoric," Barry Brummett (who, it seemed, came both to bury and praise it), wrote the following:

There is still the hope that a new scholar will come, preaching critical analysis and application, to bid epistemic rhetoric take up its bed and walk. And there are the daughters of epistemic rhetoric; several scholars have extended some of its principles and contentions into two areas in particular, argument theory and rhetoric of science. Both subdisciplines seem more inclined to link theory to actual analysis" (71)

There is some disagreement as to whether that hope has been met in the rhetoric of science literature, but that is clearly an area where the effort is being made (See, for example, Campbell and Benson; Krips, McGuire, and Newman). An especially useful bibliography by Randy Allen Harris documents the case (xi-xlv).

Rather than let rhetoric of science pass as an offspring, I would be more inclined to say that it shares a common ancestry with epistemic rhetoric. This literature turned an eye toward the relevance of rhetoric in those discourses purporting to be about knowledge in order to thematize it, emphasizing argument and persuasion there. And that did frame the knowledge question in a fresh way. For even if the usual scope of rhetoric - the default position, so to speak - were the doxastic rather than the epistemic, as some have insisted, it would still have to be said that rhetoric of science is concerned with the claiming of knowledge (both in the sense of asserting and in the sense of staking a claim), as well as with the rhetorical deployment of the cache of science in non-scientific contexts. This loosely defined project has in its own way foregrounded epistemological issues in the context of specific knowledge formations, such as the academic disciplines or the literature of science. The closely related rhetoric of inquiry literature has been particularly interested in the various disciplines as fields of argument (Lyne; Nelson, McCloskey, Megill; Simons).

The discourses that thematize, or purport to be about knowledge, I think, comprise a relatively special but not rare sub-set of rhetorical discourse. We might say that theirs is a rhetoric of the epistemic, to the extent that they deploy the topoi of knowledge and the quest for it. Scott's epistemic rhetoric is a broader category, netting social discourses that construct what passes for knowledge without necessarily marking themselves as knowledge producing.

To take the knowledge theme as focal is not to deny many other things besides the creation and dissemination of knowledge are at play in those same discourses - power, for instance, or aesthetics. Nor is it to ignore civic culture. Most of the post-positivistic ways of thinking about knowledge are profoundly cultural. Most of the discourses studied as rhetoric of science - biology, sociobiology, physics, economics, the creationist debate - have a very complicated relationship to the general culture, however. Terms such as 'knowledge,"rationality,"truth' and so on, the coin of the epistemic tradition, are glossed in relation to that culture, and to different contexts and practices. Whatever its successes or failings, this has at least been an attempt to bring theory and criticism together; to trace the contours of the discourses of knowledge, in batches or one at a time (as per the University of Wisconsin Press series on Rhetoric of the Human Sciences); to consider relationships among different contexts and audiences. …

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