Things That Go Bump in the Mind

Things That Go Bump in the Mind
Look for a new post every Sunday morning.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Rhetoric and Reality (Part 2)

God, a unicorn, a tyrannosaurus walk into a bar. The bartender looks up from what he is doing and says, “What are you doing here?” God says, “I've been here all along.” The unicorn says, “So what's your point?” The t-rex says, “Do you have any long straws? I have a hard time holding my liquor.”

For as long as humans have had language, they have used words to think about the nature of reality and reality of nature. Soon after developing the ability to use words to reflect upon the world they saw around them, people began to share these ideas with each other, and this is, of course, when the arguing began. Since no one had the technology to record what was being argued about during the first argument (the “proto-argument” or “the mother of all arguments”) we can only speculate who they were and what they were arguing over, but if I had to hazard a guess, I would say a disagreement over whether some food should be shared among a small group or if the meal belonged entirely to the biggest and meanest individual would be a pretty safe bet. The argument over how much to leave for a tip was certainly several millennia in the future.

Regardless of the topic of the first argument, much has happened since the first time someone said something and someone else disagreed. What has stayed consistent, however, throughout the course of human history has been our willingness as individuals to tell others what we believe is right and to argue with them when we think they are wrong. Among the pantheon of great Greek thinkers who were alive around 400 BCE, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were three who fixated on the notion that these two processes (first, knowing what is right, and second, arguing with others who we think are wrong) needed to be identified as two entirely different activities. According to this venerable Athenian trio, “Knowing what is right” is the practice and domain of “philosophy,” and “Arguing with others we think are wrong” is the application and discipline of “rhetoric.” Knowing exactly how each of these important thinkers would draw the line between “philosophy” and “rhetoric” is complicated because practically everything we know today of Socrates comes through his portrayal in the writings of his student, Plato; and Aristotle (who was Plato's student) disagreed with his mentor's ideas about the morality of studying (or teaching) the methods of persuasion.

As a modern rhetorical theorist, I find most of the distinctions that writers want to make between “philosophy” and “rhetoric” a bit tedious because I think separating the cognitive process of finding the truth from the intellectual activity of convincing others of the truth misses the point that both skills are wholly dependent upon each other. Plato has Socrates referring to rhetoric as a form of “cookery” that does nothing but make some ideas more appealing regardless of their truth-value. The problem with such a belief, however, is that even if Plato were right about this, he would still need to use rhetorical methods to persuade us of its truth. Trying to separate rhetoric from philosophy is like trying to separate hydrogen molecules from oxygen molecules; although it can be done in a laboratory, in everyday life, we need water to survive.

Thus, in coming weeks, as I plow through topics on this blog related to all those unconventional beliefs I think might be useful in shining light on how and what we accept as conventional beliefs, I will be relying upon a blend of philosophical and rhetorical terms to examine and challenge our ideas about how we might go about the process of determining a good belief from a bad one. Many of these terms may be unfamiliar to many readers (and a mouthful to say out loud). Next week, for instance, I will introduce a few ideas that come from “epistemology” and “ontology,” two very useful branches of philosophy when it comes to discussing what is and isn't real and how we know what we think we know. Just don't expect me to explain how much we really need to leave for a tip.

By the way, if you'd like to comment on this post or suggest topics for future posts, please leave a comment below. It's not as easy to add comments as I'd like it to be, but if you look for the comment tool below, I think you'll find it.

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