Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

John Dewey's Eloquent Citizen: Communication, Judgment, and Postmodern Capitalism

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

John Dewey's Eloquent Citizen: Communication, Judgment, and Postmodern Capitalism

Article excerpt

Of all affairs, communication is the most wonderful (Dewey, 1925).

Perhaps no philosopher since Aristotle has more to offer the rhetorician than does John Dewey. (Burks, 1968)

The quest for "universals of communication" ought to make us shudder (Deleuze, 1995).

John Dewey provides a fertile point of departure for imagining democracy as a form of communicative action. For Dewey, "a democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated life, or conjoint communicated experience" (1916, p. 101). James Carey (1997), one of the strongest representatives of a Deweyan inspired view of communication, argues: "what we mean by democracy depends on the forms of communication by which we conduct politics. What we mean by communication depends on the central impulses and aspirations of democratic politics" (p. 234). While Carey (1989) uses Dewey for the purpose of normative critique, rhetorical studies puts Dewey to work on the subject who speaks, argues, and judges. For rhetorical studies, Dewey provides both concrete methods and abstract concepts for manufacturing more democratic citizens who might reasonably deliberate on the public issues of the day. According to Christopher Johnstone (1983), Dewey's emphasis on the attributes of democratic inquiry offers a modern translation of phronesis or practical wisdom. Within the orbit of this Deweyan vision of phronesis, rhetoric and argumentation theory provide the tools for the moral development of the eloquent citizen. The purpose of this paper is to challenge the efforts to underwrite citizenship with such aesthetic-moral theory of communication.

After a fifteen-year hiatus from serious discussion, Christopher Johnstone harnessed John Dewey's thought on "aesthetics, ethics, and the philosophy of knowledge" (p. 186) to the project of building the eloquent citizen. For Johnstone, Dewey's work contributed to making citizens by cultivating the faculty of phronesis. (1) To imagine the eloquent citizen though the faculty of practical wisdom means to think of good citizenship as an ability to deliberate without appealing to general or abstract principles. As Johnstone notes, however, Dewey did not write from the perspective of someone self-conscious of the rhetorical tradition nor did Dewey speak about the classical concept of phronesis. Dewey did write about art, he said many things about communication and his emphasis on moral selfhood and "creative intelligence" offers Johnstone an opportunity to translate Dewey's conceptual heritage into the rhetorical idiom. Johnstone reads Dewey for the purpose of adding him to the rhetorical canon, and rhetorical stud ies, in return, gets a "contemporary vision of wisdom" (p. 185). In other words, Dewey offers rhetorical studies a critical vocabulary to begin the philosophical modernization of phronesis. This essay will take Johnstone's emphasis on inculcating the rhetorical subject with the attributes of phronesis to explore the emergence of an aesthetic-moral theory of communication. The primary claim advanced in this essay is that Dewey provides a modem solution to democratic crisis that may no longer be relevant for a post-modem understanding of capitalism. Put as simply as possible, the tendency to translate communication into an aesthetic-moral theory of eloquent citizenship puts argumentation studies to work for, rather than against, new forms of bio-political control. To unpack this claim I want to pinpoint two crucial processes: the emphasis on rhetorical studies as part of education's role in cultivating the citizen and the aesthetic notion of communication that re-writes rhetoric as contributing to the moral dev elopment of the subject.


The initial reason for Christopher Johnstone's appropriation of John Dewey requires an appreciation of how Dewey's approach to the relationship between community and communication contributes to the process of an ethical pedagogy. …

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