This review originally appeared in Philosophy and Rhetoric, 23, 2 (1990) 136-141. Copyright © 1990, Peter Suber.
Review of Jeff Mason, Philosophical Rhetoric Peter Suber, Philosophy Department, Earlham College
Jeff Mason, Philosophical Rhetoric: The Function of Indirection in Philosophical Writing, Routledge 1989.
Can we interpret human reason simultaneously as a product of neurochemistry and natural selection and as a transcendental standard? Jeff Mason asks the analogous question of philosophical writing. Can we interpret philosophical discourse as "rhetorical," embodied in language, and designed to persuade historical audiences, and at the same time preserve its traditional intention to disclose truths that transcend language, history, and audiences? Mason argues that these polar attitudes toward philosophical writing are untenable precisely when they exclude each other. This is a significant project with important literary and metaphilosophical consequences.
Philosophers inherit from Plato, Mason believes, a pejorative and one-sided model of rhetoric. According to this model, argument serves truth and rhetoric serves persuasion. Rhetoric is ornament that may be vital for the political end of converting members of the audience, but entirely superfluous for the philosophical end of establishing truth. At best, rhetoric cheats in a good cause; at worst, it cheats in a bad cause. The central strength of Mason's book is his intention to overcome this pejorative model, while the central weakness is his inconsistency and incompleteness in doing so.
Mason's rejection of the pejorative model of rhetoric moves on several fronts. His first argument seems to be that Plato's pejorative view of rhetoric presupposes an absolute truth and an avenue for attaining it that bypasses all rhetoric (still conceived as the art of persuasion). Mason does not argue that Plato is wrong about this, but observes that most philosophers reject Plato's view here, at least in practice.
In "the world as presently constituted" (xi), argument for truth and rhetoric for persuasion are two aspects of the same thing, like the phenomenal and noumenal character of a person in Kant (74-75). In a different universe with different institutions for the transaction of philosophy, or in Platonic heaven, argument might shed its association with rhetoric (128, 142). Our world is "second best" only if we make Plato's "demand for absolute certainty and timeless truth" (7). Mason does not (always) make this demand himself, and holds that on subjects, or in epistemologies, for which everything is "up for grabs" (33, 34, 84), then "rhetorical argument is all there is and no longer second best to something else" (7). He implies that when there is no timeless truth to be established, or when claims to know it are essentially contested, then there is no proper argument but only persuasion. This overstates the case against non-Platonisms radically, but Mason seems to mean it. He says of Nietzsche, "[i]f truth is perspectival...then support for truth can only be rhetorical" (34), and insists that Nietzsche offers no arguments, only perlocutionary effects (30, 33, 95), as if no proper arguments could be made for perspectival claims, only marketing ploys. This is an oversimplification of Nietzsche and perspectivism. Perspectivism and argument would only be incompatible if all (valid) arguments established truths absolutely, not just relatively to their premises. Even perspectivists can argue deductively in the sense of restating their premises tautologously.
Mason rejects the appeal to objective truth in order to vindicate rhetoric and prevent our world from becoming a "second best", but uses the appeal himself continually (at least to objective truth as a regulative principle) in his argument that disputation and rhetoric require a notion of truth that transcends agreement (e.g. xii, 74, 82, 87-88, 92). Beyond this inconsistency, he supports his appeal to objective truth with some question-begging and condescending arguments against Descartes' doubt (55-56, 58) and relativists who speak (142). Fortunately, Mason has two stronger arguments for the inseparability of philosophy and rhetoric.
1. Argument works only where there are shared premises. Argument alone cannot warm up the audience, provide a radical re-orientation or paradigm shift preparatory to argument (xiii, 47, 53, 58, 72, 81, 96, 126-27, 132, 158), or establish first principles (23-25). Hence philosophers turn to rhetorical devices, particularly metaphor, again and again to establish the conditions in which their strict arguments can move minds. "To succumb to Plato's philosophical rhetoric is to become susceptible to logical argument" (80). Mason is more radical when he says that "[g]ood arguments are seen to be good only from a point of view. Philosophical rhetoric works to create the point of view from which the arguments will be seen to be good" (75). This strong thesis, implying that argument has no force of its own, would quickly establish the inseparability of philosophy and rhetoric, but Mason does not elaborate upon it.
2. If philosophy and rhetoric are inseparable only in the "world as presently constituted" (xi), then how is the world presently constituted? For his purposes, the important frame of philosophical discourse is that arguments and theses are composed and published in a "climate of contention" (126). Since writing is addressed to audiences, philosophers writing for fractious audiences will leaven their arguments with rhetorical tropes. Philosophical audiences have been disputatious and disagreeable from the beginning. Historically this fact of life is contingent, but for us it is universal. Mason is astute to highlight the institutional constraints within which philosophy lives, even if he sometimes seems to believe that philosophy always lived in modern universities (142-45).
Sometimes Mason can (128, 154) and sometimes he cannot (142) imagine a different world for philosophy. While a small inconsistency in the text, this reflects a larger ambivalence of theory. Are philosophy and rhetoric strictly inseparable (7, 26, 47, 72, 141) or inseparable only under certain contingent institutions (xi, 128, 142)?
Mason makes good use of Austin's concept of the perlocutionary effects of language in discussing how philosophical writing can influence audiences. Even if he is imprecise to use "indirection" as shorthand for these perlocutionary effects, Mason is quite right that philosophical discourse, like every other kind, does work by saying something distinct from what it does in saying something (42, 43). By limiting his discussion of metaphor, analogy, and irony to their perlocutionary effects, however, and in a few more direct statements (xiii, 152), Mason leaves the false impression that these tropes have pragmatic but no cognitive function, or perlocutionary but no locutionary effects. But it is certainly true that they have a perlocutionary side that has not been sufficiently explored in the study of philosophical writing.
These arguments for the inseparability of philosophy and rhetoric assume that for institutional reasons answering critics and changing minds have become as essential to philosophy as clarification, criticism, and exploration undertaken without polemical animus or defensive circumspection, in a spirit of play, piety, curiosity, and wonder. Mason does not argue for this assumption and, if one rejects it, then much of Mason's case dissolves. This is odd because Mason distinguishes philosophers from con artists and mere rhetoricians by saying that the philosopher's motivation is not instrumental (46-47), and may even be "a spirit of play and exploration" (42).
Although he recognizes a significant role for rhetoric in philosophy, Mason does not succeed in overcoming the pejorative model of rhetoric. He merely argues, in effect, that writing for the audience has survival value in our institutionalization of philosophy. A hard-line proponent of the pejorative view would certainly admit this, but use it as symptom of the degenerate state of philosophical inquiry and admonish philosophers to sacrifice their institutional interests and the glory of war for the love of wisdom.
If the pejorative model holds that argument serves truth and rhetoric serves only persuasion, then one of its essential moves is to sever argument from rhetoric absolutely. Mason does not extricate himself from this vestige of the model. He suggests that argument per se, or at least deduction, can be free from rhetoric (10, 73, 97, 143, 151). Just as often he uses the pejorative language he tries to overcome: "tropes and figures...litter even the tidiest of philosophical texts" (24); Kierkegaard "is not above using invective, satire, irony, jokes, parables, and all the rest" (28); Plato "uses every rhetorical trick in the book" (80); he doubts that philosophy can appear "without rhetoric, poetic tropes or any kind of mystification" (128).
In a book so largely on perlocution, metaphor, and indirection, it is surprising that Mason finds the concept of "directness" so non-problematic. "There is a rough and ready sense of 'literal meaning' which it makes very little sense to contest" (127). He implies that non-metaphorical direct meaning and non-rhetorical direct argument are possible (29, 35, 49, 131, 143-44, 156) and not in need of defense or explanation.
Mason comes close to the opposite view that language is inherently metaphorical when finds he finds it difficult to "imagine a philosophical writing which excluded all metaphor and analogy" (128). Similarly, he comes close to the view that truth-claims are inherently rhetorical when he says that "if any truth can be expressed in words, its expression will have a rhetorical shape" (93). Together these passages suggest that "directness" of meaning and argument are unattainable. Here the problem is less inconsistency than a lost opportunity to explore the more plausible thesis. He does not allow these insights to influence his major thesis. By supposing (in most passages) that direct language and argument are possible, he allows the pejorative model to conclude that rhetoric is irrelevant to argument in itself but has been shackled to it by certain pernicious institutional incentives.
Mason was trained as an analytic philosopher and only when he was beyond the control of his teachers did he discover the texts that constituted philosophy in the West for two millenia. His intended audience seems to be the analytic philosophers who have never read these texts with sympathy or attention to their rhetorical (or philosophical) richness (xi, 93, 132). (Who else would accept a statement like this at p. 71: "Anxiety over the verifiability theory of meaning has never prevented anyone from adopting logical positivism"?) His corrective to the analytic tendency to perpetuate the pejorative view of rhetoric (see x-xi, 75) is badly needed and cast in terms that might do some good. To readers who specialize in Greek and European philosophy (as I do), his recognition of the rhetorical dimension of philosophical writing is unremarkable and his readings are insubstantial and facile. (Nietzsche's message to readers: "Just say 'no' to metaphysics. Say 'yes' to imagination" 95.)
The book is marred by the inconsistencies noted, superficial readings in the case studies, delay in defining key notions (none of "perlocutionary" until 36 or of "rhetoric" until 52), and the frequent difficulty he creates for the reader in distinguishing his voice from his many personae. His metaphors can fall very flat:To read something like the Concluding Unscientific Postscript is like trying to unwind on a deserted beach after a hectic time in the city. At first you have to remember not to run from the water to the bar. Later, if the vacation is loing enough, everything slows down. So what if it takes four minutes to reach the bar rather than two? Since there is nowhere to go and nothing to do, you get used to it after a while. (28)
He writes with an awkward mix of recent continental jargon ("Even Derrida's own writings act out their complicated dance on a space inscribed within the everyday world of human existence" 80) and grinding cliches. Schopenhauer "bit the bullet" (23), and the reader is urged to avoid a "knee-jerk rejection" (26) of Mason's thesis. Nietzsche tries to persuade readers "with all the stops pulled out" (34) and "is willing to throw his hat into the ring" (34).Nietzsche throws down the gauntlet to whoever picks up his writings. He puts the reader on the spot and leaves matters up in the air. The reader is seduced into the heights only to be left hanging without support. (33)
More important, his language is often imprecise on the central concepts of his book. To take examples from just three pages, he says that Nietzsche's writing "is full of 'literary' devices, poetic indirection, persuasion, and the rest" (95). Does he know what it is for writing to be "full of...persuasion"? He tells us that philosophical rhetoric "uses indirection as the means" to affect audiences (96), as if indirection were a means of doing anything. He probably means "uses indirect means" here, and on p. 97, in place of "indirect impact" means "direct impact by indirect means". He tells us that philosophers battling logocentrism turn to "the language of rhetoric itself" (96). Is there a language of rhetoric itself? What is it? In a book on rhetoric, language this hazy and careless is a sign of deeper trouble.
Department of Philosophy,
Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, 47374, U.S.A.
email@example.com. Copyright © 1990, Peter Suber.