Things That Go Bump in the Mind

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

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Return to Plato's Cave

    I went to a formal dinner this week for my wife's work, and so I was sitting with some very nice people whom I was meeting for the first time, and naturally, one of the first topics of conversation that came up (as typically happens with strangers) is “what do you do?” I admitted to being an English teacher – which can be risky, because for a lot of people when they hear I am an English teacher, they immediately start to picture me in a grammar nazi uniform. As with most other professions, there are a few bad apples who give the rest of us a bellyache, but the vast majority of English teachers I know are smart enough not correct other people's English in social situations. Not only is the practice of correcting other people's English impolite, it demonstrates a serious misunderstanding regarding the existence of “Standard English.”
     Truth be told there is no single, monolithic “Standard English” but a wide range of Standard English traditions and conventions that need to be adapted depending on where you are, who you are with, and the purpose of your conversation (or writing). The ancient Greeks had an excellent term for this: kairos, which (like most English words) had a variety of meanings, but the one I am referring to meant “a supreme awareness of time and place.” In other words, kairos is the awareness of where you are, who you are with, and what is going on. Teachers who correct other people's English outside of the classroom seem to have an underdeveloped sense of kairos; they are missing an important connection between what they know and how it applies to the conversation at hand. One of the alternative meanings for kairos was “weather” and this, of course, makes a lot sense; anyone who is intelligent enough to know how to dress for the weather should be smart enough to adapt their language for their social climates as well.
     After I confessed to being a writing teacher, a medical doctor who was sitting at the table asked about my Ph.D and my specialization within the field of English. I replied by saying that I wrote my dissertation on the topic of rhetorical theory, and that as an academic, I consider myself a rhetorical theorist. For a brief moment I imagined I could hear the wheels spinning in other people's heads. It was like the sound of milk hitting the Rice Krispies.
     When the medical doctor stated he was surgeon, everyone at the table had an immediate sense of what he does – he uses scalpels to fix people. When I said I specialized in rhetoric, I think the people at the table didn't know what to think. This happens often. Whenever I say I specialize in rhetoric, I get the feeling that many people wonder if I am making it up as I go along. The simple reason for this is lots of intelligent and educated people have never heard the word “rhetoric” or have no memory of hearing the word. Furthermore, for perhaps the majority of the people who do have some mental association with the word, the only time they have ever heard “rhetoric” used has been from politicians and newscasters using the term as an insult (“You cannot trust anything my opponent says in this election; everything he says is just the rhetoric of empty promises). In other words, many people associate the term rhetoric with “whatever people say to get what they want when they really don't mean it.”
     No wonder when people hear I am a rhetorical theorist that they wonder if I'm either a charlatan or someone who specializes in teaching others to be charlatans. But, seriously, folks, I am not a charlatan (I can almost hear Richard Nixon's voice in my head saying “I am not a crook” when I write “I am not a charlatan”). In fact, what drew me into the field in the first place is the discipline's fundamental concern with connecting truth with advocacy. If there is anything reverential regarding the study of rhetoric, it is the understanding that truth itself is sacred. And here lies the paradox: rhetoricians hold truth to be both sacred and suspect. Perhaps the most essential problem for rhetorical theorists is explaining how truth can be both something we need to revere and something we need to challenge.
     Rhetoricians in the time of Plato were known as “sophists.” Sophists were traveling teachers who helped people understand how to make better arguments because in those days people could not just hire a lawyer to argue on their behalf, they had to do it themselves. Plato, who as a philosopher had little regard for the sophists, accused them of “cookery.” By this, Plato meant that if an argument were a stew, then the Sophists were more concerned with how they flavored their ideas in order to make them appealing to others than they were with serving ideas that were wholesome and sound to begin with. In other words, Plato believed that truth did not need to be sugar-coated in order to be accepted.
     The problem with Plato's perspective, according to the Sophists, is that just as there are different types of ingredients that you may want to put into or leave out of a stew, there are different types of truths as well. For Plato, the only truths that mattered were the ones that would be just as true a thousand years from now as they were a thousand years ago (you could call them “perennial” or “eternal” truths). While the Sophists understood Plato's commitment to his type of “philosophical” truths, they also valued the type of “circumstantial” truths that would help people decide whether to invest in a higher wall around the city or spend the money instead on better weapons for the soldiers. Truth, we learned from the Sophists, is almost always contextual, and while people can certainly be shamelessly deceptive by leaving important details out of their arguments with others, the impossibility of including every relative detail precludes the belief in ever getting to the “whole truth.”
     One of Plato's most important lessons comes from his dialogue “The Republic.” Here, Plato (through the character he created from his own teacher, Socrates) tells a parable of people who grew up in a cave, chained to chairs, and forced to watch shadows on the cave's wall. For these people, Plato argues, reality is the shadows they see. Reality then is nothing more than a conflation of illusions we have perceived with our senses. One day in the cave, an extraordinary person is able to free himself from the chair and make his way from the cave. Outside for the first time, the escapee sees the earth for what it actually is. The light of the sun reveals a reality unknown to anyone raised to believe in mere shadows. Plato, of course, meant for the escapee to be a metaphor for the philosopher who can see beyond the illusions of ordinary thinking to witness the true reality that lies beyond. In Plato's story, eventually the escapee decides he has a moral duty to help his fellow citizens escape the cave as well and returns to them to show them how to free themselves from their chains and see beyond the shadows they consider to be reality. The story ends with the citizens killing the escapee because he upset them too much with his talk of an alternative and better reality.
     Here is, then, my explanation for what “rhetoricians” or “rhetorical theorists” actually do. While I am willing to go along with Plato that perhaps it takes a “philosopher” to escape the cave, it takes a “sophist” to convince others to leave the cave as well. If you understand the heightened reality outside of the cave, then you better understand the kairos of your audience inside the cave. This understanding is so important that it is sometimes literally a matter of life and death. In other words, it is not enough to know more than others, it also requires understanding what it takes to explain it to them as well. If not, then you might as well keep your funny ideas to yourself.
     Keep thinking rhetorically, readers, and I'll see you again next week.


  1. So etymologically speaking, is kairos the origin of the word 'context' and Sophist the origin of 'sophistry'?

  2. The Sophists did get their name from the Greek word "sophos" meaning wisdom. We see the root "sophos" in several English words including "sophomore" (being a little wiser than freshmen), "philosophy" (a combination of "philos" meaning "love of" and sophos, thus "a love of wisdom"), and "sophistication."

    As for the connection between "kairos" and "context," I would say that is a mere phonetic coincidence since (as far as I know) the English word "context" comes from a Latin expression meaning "to weave together."

    Thanks for commenting.


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