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Some points which may or may not be useful:

  1. Rhetoric is a tool of persuasion, not of factual analysis. It was originally developed by lawyers and philosophers who wanted to know how best to sway crowds, judges and juries.

  2. Arguing with people isn't rhetoric, it's arguing. Debate isn't necessarily rhetoric, although anyone who's skilled at debate will use rhetorical techniques - not always consciously.

  3. You can be good at rhetoric and useless at arguing, and vice versa. You can win a debate with rhetoric and have no idea what you're talking about otherwise. You can be totally clued-in and in posession of an accurate picture of the facts, but still lose a debate to someone who's better at rhetoric than you are.

  4. It's very hard to find classes in rhetoric now. It was once taught as a formal skill, because it was so useful. I assume politicians still learn it somewhere and somehow, because pols do rhetoric for a living. But if you're looking for useful rhetoric and not just a list of obscure grammatical constructions, it's not so easy to find that.

  5. Rhetoric is mostly dishonest slight of mind. It doesn't do substance, it does appearances. E.g. one example of a simple rhetorical technique is that you can sometimes appear to invalidate a general position by apparently invalidating a small and inconsequential part of it.

  6. Rehtoric is based on narrative logic, not on scientific logic. Narrative logic creates stories which sound plausible, but the connection between facts and conclusions can be anywhere on a scale from approximately plausible to ridiculous and non-existent. In narrative logic everything is confused and out of proportion, and connections don't stand up to scrutiny. But it feels convincing, so it can seem persuasive.

  7. Neo-liberal economic theory is mostly rhetoric. The Laffer curve, trickle down, deregulation - these are all rhetorical positions supported with narrative logic.

  8. Rhetoric works because people mostly think in narrative terms, not in scientific terms. Thinking scientifically, in a truly reality-based way, is hard. It's even harder not to slip back into rhetorical positions even when you've made a scientific start.

  9. Narratives rely on unconscious ethical positions. The reason some rhetorical points are 'obvious' is because they're based on a moral - i.e. emotional - argument. If you can sway an audience emotionally by appealing to its prejudices, it doesn't matter how silly - or not - your facts are.

  10. Everyone has prejudices. No one is immune to rhetoric.
by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Dec 4th, 2008 at 12:30:16 PM EST
5 people so far are persuaded that this merits a 4. Time for a critical look :-)

Let's look at this as a piece of rhetoric, e.g. first limit the definition of the subject to suit one's attitude towards it:

1. Rhetoric is a tool of persuasion, not of factual analysis. It was originally developed by lawyers and philosophers who wanted to know how best to sway crowds, judges and juries.

But let's look at the very useful site linked above and we find the broader defintion I suggested was more appropriate in an earlier comment:


Rhetoric is the study of effective speaking and writing. And the art of persuasion. And many other things.

In its long and vigorous history rhetoric has enjoyed many definitions, accommodated differing purposes, and varied widely in what it included.
...
Because rhetoric examines so attentively the how of language, the methods and means of communication, it has sometimes been discounted as something only concerned with style or appearances, and not with the quality or content of communication. For many (such as Plato) rhetoric deals with the superficial at best, the deceptive at worst ("mere rhetoric"), when one might better attend to matters of substance, truth, or reason as attempted in dialectic or philosophy or religion.

Rhetoric has sometimes lived down to its critics, but as set forth from antiquity, rhetoric was a comprehensive art just as much concerned with what one could say as how one might say it.

http://rhetoric.byu.edu/

Then let's look at the Higgins article recommended by TBG:


In English, when we use the word "rhetoric", it is generally preceded by the word "empty". Rhetoric has a bad reputation. McCain warned lest an electorate be "deceived by an eloquent but empty call for change". Waspishly, Clinton noted, "You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose." The Athenians, too, knew the dangers of a populace's being swept along by a persuasive but unscrupulous demagogue (and they invented the word). And it was the Roman politician Cato - though it could have been McCain - who said "Rem tene, verba sequentur". If you hold on to the facts, the words will follow.

Cicero was well aware of the problem. In his book On The Orator, he argues that real eloquence can be acquired only if the speaker has attained the highest state of knowledge - "otherwise what he says is just an empty and ridiculous swirl of verbiage". The true orator is one whose practice of citizenship embodies a civic ideal - whose rhetoric, far from empty, is the deliberate, rational, careful organiser of ideas and argument that propels the state forward safely and wisely.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/nov/26/barack-obama-usa1

This has implications for the correctness, or should I say "persuasiveness", of 2, 5, 6, 9 and 10 at least.

2. Arguing with people isn't rhetoric, it's arguing.

Am I arguing or engaged in rhetoric ? Perhaps both ? In the broader sense, argument is indeed a form of rhetoric.


7. Neo-liberal economic theory is mostly rhetoric. The Laffer curve, trickle down, deregulation - these are all rhetorical positions supported with narrative logic.

These examples hardly justify the term "mostly" - the criticism is more appropriate to some simple political and journalistic defenses of neoliberal economic theory - the latter has a BIT more substance (which is not to defend it).

In fact isn't this an example of 5. ... "a simple rhetorical technique is that you can sometimes appear to invalidate a general position by apparently invalidating a small and inconsequential part of it." :-)

 Hayek is usually seen as a key figure in neoliberal economics, cf. "Friedrich von Hayek, the father of neo-liberalism." http://www.voltairenet.org/article30058.html

But, even if one rejects his ideas, they were not just simplistic narratives:


Hayek may have believed at this early point that the economics profession had or soon would understand the full significance of Mises's book. His own efforts, then, could focus on the intertemporal coordination made possible by unhampered credit markets and the intertemporal discoordination caused by misguided bank policy. If anything, the 1937 article marks Hayek's realization that the profession had in fact not absorbed Mises's insights at all. Hayek's fellow economists could not appreciate Prices and Production because they lacked a fundamental understanding of the market economy. In an attempt to overcome this obstacle, Hayek began to deal in a more explicit way with the coordination of individual plans on the basis of dispersed and incomplete information.

      With this alternative interpretation, Hayek's "technical economics" and his subsequent political philosophy can be seen as exhibiting a certain continuity of thought--the later phase involving more fundamental and even remedial concerns.

http://auburn.edu/~garriro/amagi.htm

 Hayek himself complained about over-simple approaches, so it's rather unfair that by association, his work is condemned for their inadequacies (whatever his own might have been):


The libertarian economist Walter Block has observed critically that while the The Road to Serfdom makes a strong case against centrally-planned economies, it appears only lukewarm in its support of pure laissez-faire capitalism, with Hayek even going so far as to say that "probably nothing has done so much harm to the liberal cause as the wooden insistence of some liberals on certain rules of thumb, above all of the principle of laissez-faire capitalism" [9]. In the book, Hayek writes that the government has a role to play in the economy through the monetary system, work-hours regulation, social welfare, and institutions for the flow of proper information.[10]


9. ... The reason some rhetorical points are 'obvious' is because they're based on a moral - i.e. emotional - argument. If you can sway an audience emotionally by appealing to its prejudices, it doesn't matter how silly - or not - your facts are.

This slips in another narrow definition - that moral arguments are emotional ones - they may be, but also may not be - as arguments (cf. Kant), though some premises will involve basic values. At the same time this reinforces the general, narrow, rather cynical view of rhetoric.

10. Everyone has prejudices. No one is immune to rhetoric.

This example from TBG seems to have been persuasive for some. In this case I'm immune  :-)

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Thu Dec 4th, 2008 at 07:25:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Ted Welch:
This example from TBG seems to have been persuasive for some. In this case I'm immune  :-)

That part I maybe don't understand. I think we agree that there are no blank slates. As for the 10 point list, it is adequate for purposes of narrative, but not science, and in that sense it has a loveable recursivity.

Philosophically, the differences are overdrawn, there are differences between a narrative logic and a scientific logic but they are not opposites; establishing concordance is not only possible but highly conducive to science and at a certain level you might say the use of narrative is inevitable.

As for 'neo-liberal economic theory', that term alone is an admirable rhetorical feat, which identifies the theory with the political programme and thereby does validate the claim TBG makes.

To spoil the fun, of course that's no field a sizeable share of academics would identify with; they'd say they are neoclassical or Austrian school or new institutional economists, if they can be bothered to identify with a research programme at all.

by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Fri Dec 5th, 2008 at 05:47:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Rhetoric is mostly dishonest slight of mind.

LOL, best freudian pun today!

if you meant _sleight.

here's an interesting slant i've not seen here yet.

when someone says 'i was speaking rhetorically', or 'it was a rhetorical question', there is a whiff of insincerity, or self-indugence implicit in that. something fictive, ersatz.

just to further highlight the intense moral ambiguity in the word's dna.

it's pretty much a noble-sounding antique term for what they call 'spin' these days. it used to often come with 'flowery' appended to it...

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Thu Dec 4th, 2008 at 10:21:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
ThatBritGuy:
4. It's very hard to find classes in rhetoric now. It was once taught as a formal skill, because it was so useful. I assume politicians still learn it somewhere and somehow, because pols do rhetoric for a living. But if you're looking for useful rhetoric and not just a list of obscure grammatical constructions, it's not so easy to find that.

In Sweden at least, formal greco-roman rethoric fell out of style in the late 19th century with the advance of the mass movements. The formal rethoric become a suspect marker of a trained liar and replaced with a very dull style marketed as sincere. The a very common start in the latter tradition is "I am not a speaker, but ..." to build up your ethos as a person to be trusted. Very little use of pathos, though that does not guarantee it is factual, only that it is dull.

The learning of this dull rethoric style is made in-house in the political parties and sharpened through years of training in faction battles in youth organisations, student politics etc.

An interesting note is that the US seems to have a more continous tradition from the greco-roman style, in particular the tradition of debate clubs. Viewed from the lens of the dull swedish rethoric, the US political rethoric seems rather over the top, and not seldom quite silly.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Fri Dec 5th, 2008 at 05:15:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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