Words of Power

Aristotle at the Louvre
Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC)

Back in the old, old days, when the Greeks were playing around with this new idea called representative government, one of the key areas of education was rhetoric. The most important written work on rhetoric was aptly named Rhetoric and written by (or written down by) Aristotle, arguably Plato’s most famous student.

Rhetoric is, simply, the art of making arguments to convince people of things. As such, it can be a tool for good or evil, reflecting the ends to which it is put. The most famous part of Rhetoric (and one I’ve always relished teaching and slipped into just about every class I’ve taught) comes in Book Two: the three appeals — the appeal to logic (logos), the appeal to authority (ethos), and the appeal to emotion (pathos).

While Plato himself was ambivalent about the study of rhetoric (arguing in different places for its danger and utility), Aristotle places it as one of the three key elements of philosophy: logic, dialectic, and rhetoric. What we can take away from their disagreement on the matter is that rhetoric, as an area of study, is terribly powerful.

Modern Parallels

If we were to draw modern parallels to these practices, these fields of study end up looking like science, academic publishing, and marketing.

Logic is the process through which philosophers (thinkers) make observations and draw conclusions —  it’s the process of rigorous thought. Dialectic is what happens when philosophers get together and discuss their ideas — it’s something like intellectual dueling. And rhetoric is the way that people take their ideas and sell them to others — it’s about having a convincing argument, rather than the right one.

The scientific method is a matter of applying rigorous thought to the collection and analysis of data. That doesn’t mean that all philosophy is simply science in disguise, but it means that every scientist owes a debt to all the philosophers (writ large) out there. In the time of Isaac Newton, in fact, scientists weren’t scientists; they were “Natural Philosophers.”

We live in a world of sloppy realities. We’re not just the inheritors of  the Western tradition of thought; we’re also slightly-hairy primates with a penchant for territoriality, violence, and tool use.

That being said, the idea of an academic discipline — as in a disciplined way of thought and study — is a philosopher’s dream. Through education and repetition, we learn to marshal our thoughts and force them through what amounts to a QA process. Have you ever wondered why is education hard? It’s like teaching monkeys to march.

Dialectic is how trained philosophers engage each other in debate. This isn’t discussion for the purpose of winning, but collaboration for the purpose of generating a more accurate “truth.” It’s not a bargument, it’s a way of testing the validity of an idea across multiple perspectives.

Thinkers need to work together because any one human mind is too darned small to process the data of the whole world. It doesn’t matter how smart the philosopher, it’s simply impossible for someone to take in enough data to make perfect models of the world all by themselves. Dialectic is the “rules of the game” for engaging in productive debate.

Unlike mass publishing, the process of academic publishing asks questions about the quality and importance of ideas. Articles and books undergo a process of “peer review” by which the ideas are vetted before they’re given to a more general audience. Does that mean that everything published in academia is “true”?

No, probably not. But it means that at least a couple of experts agree that the ideas are sufficiently plausible to merit discussion. Again, this is part of a QA process for ideas.

Ivory Towers on Chancery Lane
This is a picture of the “real” Ivory Towers, now part of King’s College.

And that leads us back to rhetoric. Rhetoric is the field of study that bridges the world of the philosopher and the real world. It is the gate from the Ivory Tower down onto the streets of the city. No wonder Plato went back and forth on the matter! A philosopher might imagine a better world where we’re all philosophers…but we’re all just primates, here. The best ideas in the world will profit us nothing if we face better rhetoricians.

If logic is about generating good ideas, and dialectic is about refining those ideas through collaborative work, then rhetoric is about selling those ideas to non-philosophers. Without the gate of rhetoric, the Ivory Tower is sealed away, and is no more than a useless decoration.


2 thoughts on “Words of Power”

  1. Hey,

    I have been trying to explain this, “[A debate] isn’t discussion for the purpose of winning, but collaboration for the purpose of generating a more accurate [truth.]”. Up till now, I never knew there was a term regarding it or that this is how it was done in ancient times. You say, “Dialectic is the “rules of the game” for engaging in productive debate.” I will have to look this up, thank you for making me aware of it. These “rules of the game” could serve as a bridge the the “ivory tower” instead of marketing. I find it worrying that you refer to communicating ideas to non-philosophers as “selling” them. Selling can be very counter-productive to information – in some cases economical – exchange and proliferation. Selling is usually a short-term goal that, although good at “breaking the ice”, often leads to feelings of “ticked” and a subsequent rejection of ideas (or product). Anyway, I like the post and it has given me a good idea for a writing topic. Thanks ^-^/

  2. First and foremost, thanks for reading my blog.

    I understand your point — though I argue against it. “Selling” here refers to getting the idea accepted outside of dialectic argument.

    I agree that “selling” can be counter-productive to information. But here I want to recognize that people outside of academia have a very different relationship with information than people inside. Trying to change the whole world’s view of information is a laudable goal. It’s the idea that the world would be a better place if everyone were a philosopher first. Then we could all take part in the dialectic.

    Until that happens, it will continue to be necessary to take good ideas and boil them down to actionable items and good advice.

    Have you ever noticed that, outside of academia, it is considered odd to be able to argue both sides of a discussion? The strongest example of this is when we try to use the formulation “on the one hand, Plan A (with these advantages and problems) and on the other hand, Plan B (with these advantages and problems).

    Most people just hear Plan A. Or worse, interrupt somewhere early on.

    That’s because the “Plan A vs. Plan B” construction is dialectic, not rhetoric. It requires that the other person know the rules, and be willing to play by them.

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