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Rhetoric and its abuses

mardi 29 janvier 2008 par Guy Haarscher

It is difficult to measure the importance of Vico’s 1708 address for our time. What he said – in particular his criticism of the Cartesian philosophy of education – has been validated many times, notably in the second part of the XXth Century. It seems thus that the revolutionary edge of his discourse has been lost precisely because of its contemporary success. Chaim Perelman began his Treaty of argumentation. The new rhetorics, which was published just 50 years ago, by criticizing the dominant paradigm of Descartes’ idées claires et distinctes’. He wanted, as it is well known, to rehabilitate the ancient, essentially Aristotelian, rhetoric, by insisting on the necessity of educating people in dealing with an existential and social reality that is inaccessible to the methodology of clear and distinct ideas. In brief, if people thought that the only authentic rationality were Cartesian, then the human and social reality would be considered totally irrational. Perelman’s aim was to build a new rationality – he called it the “reasonable” – that would be less demanding in terms of conviction than geometry and formal logic.


It is here that, it seems to me, a fundamental question must be raised, which concerns both Vico and Perelman. How can we make a meaningful difference between “good” rhetoric and a confused, irrational discourse, full of paralogisms, that is, involuntary errors of reasoning, or – worse – a deliberately manipulated speech (sophistry) ? This is an essential problem, as a recourse to phronesis, good reasons (being less powerfully convincing than mathematical rationality) and common sense gives a new legitimacy (as Hannah Arendt rightly emphasized) to doxa. But how can we be sure, the Cartesians will say, that the “weakening” of rationality that is entailed by new
rhetoric and the use of general and particular topica, will not open the door to demagogues and sophists ? Vico was accused of being an anti-intellectualist, and of wanting to educate people to become courtiers instead of philosophers. This is a very important point : paying court to someone always involves an element of flattery, at least of strategy. And thus, will such an education lead to the following alternative (or dilemma) : domination or instrumentalization of the audience ? If the latter must be persuaded, will not the orator be tempted to flatter it or to disorient it by playing on passions and emotions ? Indeed, if one must persuade an audience of the validity of a position, the
only possibility of avoiding to blindly accept what it already knows (its own “premises”), the only possibility of getting one’s way, will be in manipulating the audience. Vico himself recognizes that there is a tension between individual judgment and authority : in his autobiography, he explicitly
affirms that he does not want to go back to the domination of authority, but that he would like to find a synthesis between the latter and Descartes’ individualism19. Such a tension is reflected in the ambiguity of rhetoric : common sense, prudence, opinion, verisimili, etc. can be interpreted in a
conservative way as involving a respect of traditions and the “authority of the eternal yesterday” (to use another Weberian expression). But on the other hand, one can develop – as Hannah Arendt did – an “open” conception of opinion, being related to the art of democratic controversy. One thing is
sure : if people are educated in the Cartesian way, they will confuse the “probable” and the false ; they will not be able to discriminate between sound non-formal argumentation and paralogisms or sophistry. One can at least assume that it is only if they have been trained in rhetoric that they will
be able to make a difference between, on the one hand, a reasoning that, although not based on absolute proofs and total clarity of the notions, would be sufficiently convincing to support a reasonable “civic” action , and, on the other hand, pure demagoguery.

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