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Rethinking the Rhetorical Tradition

Rethinking the Rhetorical Tradition: From Plato to Postmodernism

Copyright Date: 1997
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Rethinking the Rhetorical Tradition
    Book Description:

    What is the role of rhetoric in a civil society? In this thought-provoking book, James L. Kastely examines works by writers from Plato to Jane Austen and locates a line of thinking that values rhetoric but also raises questions about the viability of rhetorical practice. While dealing principally with literary theory, rhetoric, and philosophy, the author's arguments extend to practical concerns and open up the way to deeper thinking about individual responsibility for existing injustices, for inadvertently injuring others, and for silencing those without power.Challenging the traditional claim that Plato is the chief opponent of rhetoric, Kastely contends that he was its most sophisticated theorist. Plato, Sophocles, and Euripides, the author asserts, recognized an essential paradox: while urgently believing in the need for rhetoric in a world where injustice cannot be eliminated, they nevertheless regarded the possibilities of rhetoric with skepticism. Tracing the modern recovery of a skeptical rhetorical tradition to Jane Austen, the author argues that Sartre's work displays the incoherence within modernist thought on discourse and reveals the tensions between two strains of postmodern thought--deconstructionism and Marxism. Kastely concludes by showing how the rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke has returned to the insights of classical rhetoric in order to balance a skeptical stance toward persuasion with a commitment to act in a world with persistent injustice.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14646-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. 1 Refutation: Rhetoric as a Philosophical Problem
    (pp. 1-26)

    Rhetoric has returned; this has become a truism among theorists of discourse in the late twentieth century. But postmodern rhetoric, according to John Bender and David E. Wellbery, is a very different intellectual practice from that of the classical tradition:

    The contemporary return of rhetoric presupposes, through its very structure as return, an end of rhetoric, a discontinuity within tradition, and an alteration that renders the second version of rhetoric, its modernist-postmodernist redaction, a new form of cultural practice and mode of analysis. To understand the significance of rhetoric today is to understand why and in what ways it is...

  5. PART I Socratic and Tragic Skepticism

    • 2 In Defense of Plato’s Gorgias
      (pp. 29-49)

      Although rhetoric emerged as a force in Greek life at the beginning of the fifth century bce (Barilli,Rhetoric, 3), the history of rhetoric can be read as a series of responses to Plato (Hunt, “Plato,” 3–7). Plato’s use of eloquence inGorgiasto interrogate the practice of eloquence initiated the argument over the integrity of rhetoric and the status of writing (Barilli,Rhetoric, 6–9; Kennedy,The Art of Persuasion, 14-1e; Vickers,Defence, 1–213). For the standard histories of rhetoricGorgiasis an attack that condemns the practice as a knack by which rhetors use deceit and...

    • 3 Persuasion and Refutation: Meno’s Challenge
      (pp. 50-78)

      Plato’sSeventh Lettertestifies to his literary and philosophical selfconsciousness.¹ Its recognition of the inadequacy of language for communicating an accurate or stable understanding of thought is as thoroughgoing a critique of representation as that of any poststructuralist. Like the poststructuralists, Plato argues against reading a text solemnly, as if its understanding can best be uncovered through an exegetical fidelity to authorial purpose. But, as most who comment on this letter immediately remark, Plato wrote. This then leads to the inevitable question: what did Plato seek to accomplish in and by his writing, if he thought that language was incapable...

    • 4 Sophocles’ Philoctetes and the Crisis of Rhetoric
      (pp. 79-113)

      The issue raised by Plato in theMenoof the intractable audience and the threat that it poses to rhetoric is given an even darker turn by Sophocles in thePhiloctetes. Both Meno and Anytus begin from privileged positions, and their refusals to stand for refutation are personal choices. But in thePhiloctetes, Sophocles presents a character whose refusal to listen arises from a far more complex motivation. Philoctetes refuses to listen to reason because he has been educated by the duplicity of those in power and has come to see reason as merely a cover for force. For Philoctetes,...

    • 5 Violence and Rhetoric in Euripides’ Hecuba
      (pp. 114-132)

      While Sophocles explores the problems of crediting public discourse when the public trust has been abused by those in power, Euripides makes the possibility of addressing the powerful the central theme of hisHecuba. He subjects to a skeptical interrogation the possibility for noncoerced agreement in which persuasion rather than force determines action. The attractiveness of positing persuasion as an alternative to force is easy to understand. It allows reason a role in human affairs and presents an account of the world in which people have some control over their lives. Rhetoric is thus intimately connected to freedom and essential...

  6. PART II Classical Skepticism and Postmodern Rhetoric

    • Briefly Rethinking the Fate of Rhetoric
      (pp. 135-144)

      The legacy of skeptical rhetoric has had little impact so far on the contemporary theory and practice of rhetoric. In part, this is because the mainstream tradition followed Aristotle and conceived of rhetoric as an art of practical discourse that, while subject to occasional and individual abuse, was justified by its social utility. Then too, the skeptical legacy has made little impression on current rhetorical theory because its history has yet to be told. Finally, its limited effect may be a consequence of the stance of some postmodern historians who seem to consider any pre-Enlightenment rhetoric as irrelevant to modern...

    • 6 Persuasion: Jane Austen’s Philosophical Rhetoric
      (pp. 145-167)

      The interrogation of rhetoric by classical skepticism always returned to the location or recovery of moral responsibility for the polis. Plato, Sophocles, and Euripides directed their skepticism at the contexts within which rhetoric must act. Plato argued for a human embeddedness in language; Sophocles explored the way in which a history determined by past acts of injustice foreclosed the possibility of public speech; and Euripides looked to the ways in which the present configurations of power precluded rhetorical action. For all three, the underlying and abiding problem was injustice. In this concern for an injustice that was irremediable, they differed...

    • 7 Refuting Sartre: Modernism’s Equivocation on the Reader
      (pp. 168-194)

      InPersuasion, Jane Austen explored discursive preclusion as a theme of a novel that set forth a rhetorical crisis evolving from the social, economic, and philosophical reorganization of liberal society. Sartre moves the problem of preclusion from a theme that literature explored to a condition that threatens and defines the possibility of literature, or at least the future of prose. Sartre argues that the crisis of writing in the mid-twentieth century derives from the larger historical problems of alienation and abstraction that have undermined both the community and the individual.¹ InWhat Is Literature?he attempts through both inquiry and...

    • 8 Refuting de Man
      (pp. 195-220)

      The formalist impulse within postmodern rhetorics perhaps can be seen most clearly in the work of Paul de Man. In a casual aside in the essay “Semiology and Rhetoric,” de Man offers a working definition of rhetoric as “the study of tropes and of figures (which is how the termrhetoricis being used here, and not in the derived sense of comment or of eloquence or persuasion)” (Allegories, 6).¹ So considered, rhetoric would be a formal study of linguistic transformations. De Man takes this definition to be sufficiently self-evident and noncontroversial that he feels no need to justify or...

    • 9 Rhetoric and Ideology
      (pp. 221-258)

      Ideology occupies the present recovery of rhetoric in a way that parallels the rhetorical tradition’s concern with the problem of individual abuse of rhetoric. At issue is the accidental or inherent distortion of meaning by the demands or operations of power on discourse. The movement from worrying about rhetorical distortion as a problem of an aberrant will to conceiving it as a problem of structural relations is indicative of the way in which the current recovery of rhetoric both moves toward the skeptical critique with its concern for the relation of language and injustice and extends the scope of the...

  7. Notes
    (pp. 259-270)
  8. Glossary of Greek Rhetorical Terms
    (pp. 271-272)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 273-282)
  10. Index
    (pp. 283-293)