A Rhetorical Conception of Practical Rationality

By Quinn, Kevin | Journal of Economic Issues, December 1996 | Go to article overview

A Rhetorical Conception of Practical Rationality


Quinn, Kevin, Journal of Economic Issues


. . . Just when I thought I couldn't stand it another minute longer, Friday came. (Accounts of that have everything all wrong.) Friday was nice. Friday was nice, and we were friends. If only he had been a woman! I wanted to propagate my kind, and so did he, I think, poor boy. He'd pet the baby goats sometimes, and race with them, or carry one around. - Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body.

And then one day they came and took us off.

Now I live here, another island, that doesn't seem like one, but who decides? My blood was full of them; my brain bred islands. But that archipelago has petered out. I'm old. I'm bored, too, drinking my real tea, surrounded by uninteresting lumber. The knife there on the shelf - it reeked of meaning, like a crucifix. It lived. How many years did I beg it, implore it, not to break? I knew each nick and scratch by heart, the bluish blade, the broken tip, the lines of wood-grain on the handle . . . Now it won't look at me at all. The living soul has dribbled away. My eyes rest on it and pass on.

The local museum's asked me to leave everything to them: the flute, the knife, the shrivelled shoes, my shedding goatskin trousers (moths have got in the fur), the parasol that took me such a time remembering the way the ribs should go. It still will work but, folded up, looks like a plucked and skinny fowl. How can anyone want such things? -And Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles seventeen years ago come March. - from "Crusoe in England," Elizabeth Bishop [1983, 165-66].

What happens, then, if we choose to begin with our knowledge that we are essentially creatures made in symbolic exchange, created in the process of sharing intentions, values, meanings, in fact more like each other than different, more valuable in our commonality than in our idiosyncrasies: not, in fact, anything at all when considered separately from our relations? What happens if we think of ourselves as essentially participants in a field or process or mode of being persons together? If man is essentially a rhetorical animal, in the sense that his nature is discovered and lived only in symbolic process, then the whole world shifts: even the usage of words like I, my, mine, self, must be reconsidered, because the borderlines between the self and the other have either disappeared or shifted sharply . . . All we need do is honour what we know about who we are and how we come to be, in language. Once we give up the limiting notions of language and knowledge willed to us by scientism, we can no longer consider adequate any notion of "language as a means of communication" . . . It is, in recent models, the medium in which selves grow, the social invention through which we make each other and the structures that are our world, the shared product of our efforts to cope with experience.

- Wayne Booth [1974, 134-35]

The quote from Wayne Booth, one of the most important contemporary practioners of rhetoric, conveys the promise that a full-blown rhetorical approach to human agency holds. "Rhetoric," in Booth's hands, is much more than the "art of speaking well"; it constitutes, I will argue, a radical challenge to the picture of human agency offered by rational choice theory. Importantly, it offers a critique of inherited notions of rationality, both theoretical and practical, not in the name of "the irrational," but in the name of a "thicker" concept of rationality itself.

D. N. McCloskey's wonderful and controversial work on the rhetoric of economics has made the profession aware of the challenge offered by rhetoric to its "modernist," foundationalist, Cartesian picture of theoretical rationality. But, except in fairly sketchy and allusive ways, the potential challenge rhetoric offers to rational choice theory - the conception of practical reason that virtually defines neoclassical economics - has been missing from her work. McCloskey has used rhetoric to present an alternative picture of the knowing subject but has - again with some exceptions - stopped short when it comes to the implications of rhetoric for the acting, doing subject. …

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