The example of genre also suggests how rhetoric stands in the middle of an interdisciplinary study of human life, intertwined, as human life is, with our intentional and reflective use of language. But rhetoric gets transformed as it enters in dialogue with the human sciences, which over the last century have documented and contemplated much about our lives. The last time there was a thoroughgoing attempt to rethink rhetoric in light of our understanding of the human was in the eighteenth century -- addressing the kinds of psychological and interpersonal problems posed by Hume, but that initiative ossified as it found temporary answers in sympathy, then sentiment, and then belles-lettristic aesthetics. In this century we have had some sporadic attempts to rethink rhetoric in light of new observations about humans and human society by a few individuals, most notably Burke, but these have been partial and had little systematic impact. They were expressed more in the hopes than in the practice.
Genre's interdisciplinary history suggests how such a rethinking of rhetoric might proceed. The rhetorical tradition contains a series of concepts that point to features of language use that have appeared salient to language users within a group of related cultural traditions. These reflective categories are clues as to what people have made of language and thus provide some strong clues about what language has become. However, these uses of language need to be compared to the explicit reflections on language used in other cultures (as is now beginning in the comparative rhetoric movement) and to the actual practices, whether or not an explicit reflective vocabulary has developed for them and whether or not the practices themselves follow that reflective vocabulary. Then we need to place our understanding of these language practices and reflective vocabularies within a much broader inquiry into the role of language in human life, in its many dimensions. At that point we will be in a better position to examine the relationship between the explicit vocabularies and pedagogies of language use and the actual social practices. And we will be in a better position to develop new reflective vocabularies and pedagogies to fit the changing communicative needs of historically evolving societies.
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