Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Terrible Beauty and Mundane Detail: Aesthetic Knowledge in the Practice of Everyday Life

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Terrible Beauty and Mundane Detail: Aesthetic Knowledge in the Practice of Everyday Life

Article excerpt

In 1967 Robert L. Scott published an essay in which he argued that, contrary to Plato's critique of the art, rhetoric was a way of knowing. Scott's essay remains one of the best statements written in defense of rhetoric as both a social practice and a tradition of study.

As might be expected, the immediate responses to this essay focused on the epistemological implications of his central claim. Counterarguments by Richard Cherwitz and others attacked Scott for not conforming to the most conventional, institutionally established version of reconstructed inquiry in the social sciences - i.e., the intertwined logics of realism and empiricism (Cherwitz, Cherwitz and Hikins). Scott could remain silent because he had, of course, set out to do exactly what he was accused of doing. Others such as Barry Brummett took up the challenge, however, and I believe settled the dispute convincingly in Scott's favor (Brummett). A related contribution came from Michael Left, whose commentary on the essay identified key analytical requirements for developing Scott's claim as a program for inquiry (Left). In particular, Left emphasized attention to intermediate theories that can couple the analysis of particular texts with perennial concerns in the philosophy of rhetoric to provide strong explanations of specific classes of persuasive phenomena.

I suspect that both the appeal of Scott's essay and its subsequent influence depend in part on what he does not say. One of the key characteristics of the essay is its formalism: rhetorical knowledge is largely an empty category. Perhaps this lack of definition was one reason for the subsequent importance of Thomas Farrell's claim that rhetoric is a form of social knowledge: it provided the content to match the formal structure of Scott's perspective (Farrell; Scott, 1976). What is more interesting to me is how Scott shores up the hollow center of his theory from the outside. In place of a definition of what one knows when persuading or being persuaded, Scott places that knowledge (and its codification or development through scholarship) within the context of a deep humanism. This commitment to human freedom, dignity, equality, and fallibility is developed from its intellectual origins in the Greek enlightenment through contemporary philosophies of the human sciences (including, in the original essay, phenomenology, existentialism, Popperian liberalism, and Toulmin's critique of positivism, as well as hermeneutical philosophy in the sequel [Scott, 1976]). This bright horizon of meaning is enhanced further by the relentlessly ethical orientation of the essay - which extends so far as to explain philosophy's suppression of rhetoric in terms of the desire to be good: "The attractiveness of the notion that first one must know the truth and that persuasion at its best is simply making the truth effective rests in large part on man's desire to be ethical" (Scott, 1967, 15). Indeed, Scott's ethical orientation shapes every portion of his essay, and it is most evident in his most lucid formulations. One might wonder whether epistemology really is at issue after all. But this suspicion would be allayed by his final means for orienting the reader, which is his attention to the analysis of argumentation. This emphasis connected with the prevailing scholarly interest of the day, while it continues to compensate for Scott's displacement of instrumental, technical rhetorics. Rhetoric, we can continue to assume, is about arguments, and rhetorical knowing is the complex of cognitive skills and ethical norms suited to arguing well - that is, in a manner that both produces a reasonable consensus to resolve any specific problem while also perpetuating the process of deliberation. These emphases have remained evident in Scott's continuing reflections on the themes of his initial essay (Scott, 1993).

In what follows, I want to suggest that traditional emphases on humanism, ethics, and argument place undue limitations on the full understanding of how rhetoric can be a way of knowing. …

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