Making and Unmaking the Prospects for Rhetoric: Selected Papers from the 1996 Rhetoric Society of America Conference

By Roxanne Mountford; Carolyn Miller et al. | Go to book overview

LEAH CECCARELLI Pennsylvania State University


The Ends of Rhetoric: Aesthetic, Political, Epistemic

In 1970 Wingspread Conference participants were asked to develop "the essential outline of a conception of rhetoric useful in the second half of the twentieth century." Twenty-five years later, we have the opportunity to reexamine their answers, and project the future for "a conception of rhetoric" in the next century. My paper will argue that there is no one conception of rhetoric that could be said to dominate the thinking of scholars, either today, twenty-five years ago, or even twenty-four hundred years ago; consequently, there is no reason to believe that there will be a single definition sufficient for rhetoricians of the future. Instead, rhetoric will continue to grow along at least three parallel lines that correspond to the three different ends of rhetorical thought. These ends are the aesthetic, the political, and the epistemic. It is the assumption of this paper that an "essential outline" of these three ultimate goals will help us to better appreciate, use, and understand the various multiple conceptions of rhetoric that appeared in our past, inhabit our present, and will emerge in our future.

In the first half of my paper, I will trace the ends of rhetoric for the ancient Greek thinkers Gorgias, Isocrates, and Plato. Through a close reading of primary texts, I will argue that Gorgias sought a rhetoric that extolled the power of eloquent speech to affect an audience, Isocrates sought a rhetoric that produced practical discourse to work for the good of the community, and Plato sought a rhetoric that assisted the soul in its efforts to disclose the truth. These three conceptions of rhetoric competed with each other because they corresponded to three very different views of the proper purpose of rhetorical thought and action.

In the second half of my paper, I will propose that contemporary rhetoricians are guided by variations of these three competing ends. Some are most interested in the persuasive artistry of a discourse, some are most interested in the way that discourse inspires humans to recognize and act on civic values, and some are most interested in how rhetoric aids humans in their attempts to gain knowledge. It is my argument that many of the conflicts between and within various schools of rhetoric can be attributed to the different ends that guide our scholarship.

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