Academic journal article Style

Addressing Souls: Persuasion as a Psychological Praxis

Academic journal article Style

Addressing Souls: Persuasion as a Psychological Praxis

Article excerpt

In the Phaedrus, Plato seems open to the possibility that rhetoric has the potential to be something other than an empeira (knack), for which he has Socrates condemn it in the Gorgias. (1) Having raised questions in the second half of the Phaedrus about the adequacy of current rhetorical handbooks, Socrates develops his criticism of contemporary rhetorical theorists by arguing that their major failure is that they do not provide instruction in the art of rhetoric, but instead offer their students only preliminaries to the art (269c-d). He then sketches out what a true, artistic rhetoric would need to address. An artistic rhetoric would require the rhetor to have both a theoretical and practical knowledge of the soul as well as being appropriately informed about the particular matter of the speech (271c-272c). Socrates himself acknowledges the enormity of the task, and what looks like a promising opening for the rethinking of rhetoric as a legitimate discursive practice quickly becomes an apparently de facto preclusion. (2) By the end of his sketch, Socrates has enumerated a set of conditions that while theoretically grounding rhetoric as a genuine discipline, also, in practice, make it impossible or nearly impossible to teach, learn, or practice. (3) With advocates like Socrates, rhetoric can dispense with its usual critics because its new friends will be sufficient to do it in.

Readers have speculated whether Socrates' new appreciation of rhetoric actually serves as a cover for his antagonism toward rhetoric and merely offers a more effective way to challenge rhetoric's legitimacy. (4) But there is little in the dialogue to suggest that that Socrates' articulation of the conditions for a true rhetoric is a ruse. More importantly, Socrates' concerns have to be dealt with by any theory of rhetoric wishing to develop a complex and adequate account of persuasion. How can one responsibly talk about persuasion if one lacks a grounded account of how the soul works? If one reads Socrates' sketch of the conditions that need to be met by a true and artistic rhetoric (and I am going to argue that we should read them in that way), then they pose a substantive challenge to rhetoric, and if theories of rhetoric cannot meet that challenge, then they can rightfully be criticized as, at best, being incomplete and, at worst, failing to provide an account of persuasion that is sufficiently nuanced to render adequately the complex processes involved in persuasion. In the absence of a theory of the soul, any proposed rhetoric will become simply another version of what the handbooks were proposing, namely a set of untheorized strategies and techniques in service of a mechanical understanding of psychological causality, which, on the briefest of reviews, must strike one as an impoverished theory of mind. Certainly much of the advice given students in contemporary writing courses seems to bear out Socrates' criticisms. Students are often not schooled in anything close to a theory of persuasion or deliberation that sees these as complex and involved actions. As Socrates complained, the students are given only the preliminaries of the practice and are left to themselves to figure out how to persuade someone else (269c). And if it seems quaint or anachronistic to talk about persuading souls, I have no objection to replace soul with mind, as long as mind is not simply reduced to reason. The criticism still holds: how can one teach persuasion as an intellectual practice without at least an implicit theory of mind? How can one teach persuasion in the absence of an account of what persuasion is?

However, once one grants the legitimacy of Socrates' criticisms, the problems expand. His own suggested artistic rhetoric is problematic--not because his requirement that the rhetor have a theoretical and practical understanding of psychology makes the practice of the art of rhetoric virtually impossible but because his account of what constitutes a science of the soul is misleading and ignores the dialogue's own insight into the impossibility of a fixed and final understanding of the soul. …

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