Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Per Canales Troporum: On Tropes and Performativity in Leibniz's Preface to Nizolius

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Per Canales Troporum: On Tropes and Performativity in Leibniz's Preface to Nizolius

Article excerpt

Whereas Leibniz's writings hold considerable interest for research into the roles of rhetoric and figurative language in philosophical discourse, their relevance to contemporary discussions of performative language would in contrast appear to be extremely small. It is my goal to demonstrate that Leibniz's 1670 preface to a sixteenth-century text on rhetoric by Marius Nizolius offers a historical perspective on the relationship between figurative language and performativity in philosophical discourse.1 To begin with, I will consider how Leibniz's discussion of rhetoric and prescriptions for philosophical writing are in tension with the rhetorical practices exhibited in that text. For although Leibniz argues throughout his corpus against the use of rhetoric, eloquence, and specifically tropes in philosophical discourse, his prescriptions for philosophical clarity in the Preface to Nizolius nevertheless implicate a "channel of tropes" in what could be described as a retroactive, performative assignation of proper usage. What is more, Leibniz supplies a most significant illustration of the channel of tropes, namely, a tropological explanation of how fatum (fmmfari, to utter) has come to mean what necessarily will come to pass, i.e., fate. Leibniz's analysis of this example connects the channel-of-tropes discussion to the divine fiat by which God decides for this world. The metonymical connection that Leibniz draws between God's decree and its performative efficacy suggests an intrinsic necessity of trope in philosophical accounts of the mechanism of the performative.2

I. Philosophy and Rhetoric in the Preface to Nizolius

Conceived as persuasive speech, elocutionary technique, and figurative language, rhetoric would seem to be opposed to the sober projects of philosophy. The quest after truth, certainty, and goodness and thus the heart of the philosophical enterprise would appear to be better off avoiding the imprecisions and seductions of figurative and rhetorical language. Indeed the elegance and ornateness associated with rhetoric are characterized in Leibniz's corpus as at least irrelevant and at worst dangerous to philosophical discourse. In the Preface to Nizolius the elegance and ornateness of rhetoric are mainly set apart, as if superfluous, from the clarity, distinctness, and proper usage of logic.3 In the Scientia Generalis, in contrast, Leibniz ascribes to the ornaments of rhetorical eloquence the power of obscuring or concealing the truth: "All truths are propositions.... They need only to be stripped of vain ornaments, and to be said in a nice, simple way, such as geometers are accustomed to doing."4 The ornaments of eloquence here threaten the propositions of truth by covering them up, whereas truth in itself is without concealment, it is bare and simple.5 The ornaments of eloquence are also described as vain; they draw attention to themselves rather than transparently allowing the truth to appear. This attention-drawing character of eloquence thus abets the concealment of truth.

Perhaps even more dangerous to philosophical clarity than the concealment of truth by the ornamentation of eloquence is the possibility that such ornamentation covers up and distracts attention from logical weaknesses, thereby allowing a false proposition to pass for truth. In the Theodicy Leibniz writes of William King's book De Origine mali (1702):

But we must listen to our skillful author, from whom the subtlety of a sentiment supported by the famous Schoolmen, as well as ornaments that he himself added from his mind and eloquence, hid the great drawbacks that it also contained.6

The rhetorical ornament is here characterized as both concealing the weakness of the argument and as drawing attention to itself rather than to the falsity that it covers-a double trick that without the saving power of logic would go undetected. In this respect the task of logic is to save truth by stripping both truth and falsehood of the concealment and distractions of rhetoric. …

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