Willem Erauw, SOMA/CEGES, Brussels
Although the importance and relevance of rhetoric has been a recurrent theme in the theory or philosophy of history, I hope to shed some new light on the subject by inserting a neglected concept of rhetoric into the theoretical debates that have been carried on against the background of a major discord that characterizes the Anglo-Saxon theoretical arena, namely the divide between postmodernists and their opponents.
In daily life as in intellectual discourse, rhetoric has a bad name, in the sense that it is often taken as a synonym of dishonest or untruthful speech, aiming to persuade, manipulate or seduce an audience by using mere beautiful words. All speakers fear being accused of "empty rhetoric". On the other hand, we do appreciate great works of historiography for their rhetorical quality. Whether one is conscious of it or not, every historian who writes a book or an article has rhetorical decisions to take about the basic shape and coherence of his/her narrative. Even the most ardent positivist would recognize that writing history always involves rhetoric.
The ambiguity about commonsense opinions on rhetoric is reflected in the philosophy of history, in which different currents conceive rhetoric in opposite ways. They either embrace rhetoric as a key concept, or only attach a subordinate role to it. However differently the role rhetoric is conceived, it is still implicitly placed opposite (to) such notions as reason, logic, truth and knowledge.
The role of rhetoric has been indeed highlighted by the so-called "linguistic turn", which has revolutionized theory as well as practice of history in recent decades. Most influentially formulated by Hayden White (a quarter of a century ago), postmodern theory presents rhetoric as the core of their philosophy of history that focuses on aspects that had been neglected until then. Instead of posing epistemological questions as to whether knowledge of the past and the historical truth could be reached and how or whether past reality could be investigated, understood and explained, the postmodernist or narrativist approach has focused on the constructed, imagined, fictional and rhetorical aspects of all historical representation.
Narrative structure and rhetorical strategies bring coherence to the story, and are based on an initial perspective or basic metaphor that enables one to select, classify and organize a certain amount of relevant facts and causal relations, and neglect others. This general orientation as to which facts are considered significant or unimportant and stressed or neglected, is based on subjective, often ideological value convictions and judgments, for which we haven't objective criteria, as we do have for factual statements.
Though they cannot be proved as true or false, perspectives, value judgements and rhetorical strategies are conceived as essential, without saying anything about truth, knowledge or reality. This postmodern absence of objective criteria, empirical and logical verifiability has indeed far-reaching consequences. With reference, investigation and explanation replaced by intertextuality and non-referential language theory, historical narrative is conceived as an aesthetic object, historical writing as a rhetorical activity par excellence. By means of the most ingenious rhetorical strategies, the historian creates an illusion of reality, "un effet de réel" as Roland Barthes influential suggestion. Within a postmodern point of view, questions concerning knowledge, objectivity, truth and logic are henceforth to be left aside as superfluous, as mere intellectual overhead.
Such kind of provocative opinions emphasize once again the dichotomy between postmodernist attitudes and those of their opponents, who never get tired of warning about the phantoms of irrationality and relativism unleashed by the narrativist and rhetorical currents in the philosophy of history. In their plea in defense of a venerable historical discipline, notions such as closeness to the facts, empirical verifiability, logical correctness, rational argumentation and the search for historical truth are once again placed opposite to rhetorical contrivance. The argumentative battlefield on which the two parties are engaged, seems thus to be split into two incompatible and incommensurable agenda's and conceptions of what history and the activity of the historian is about.
These opposite camps can be characterized by their two semantic territories: knowledge, truth, evidence, logic, rationality, reality on the one side; aesthetics, rhetoric, narrative, invention, imagination on the other. They constitute two languages spoken along side each other, blaming each other of the most exaggerated idiocies in an often politicized and moralized debate. Postmodernists blame their opponents for their naive realism, as if they would conceive language as a transparent window on reality. In the opposite camp narrativists are ridiculed for idealistic lingualism, as if they would simply deny material reality.
The dichotomy in which rhetoric and true knowledge are cut off from each other by these conceptual barriers, could indeed be traced further back in time than the few decades since postmodernism has occupied the scenery. It reminds us of the struggle between Plato and the Sophists; Plato and the legacy of an absolutist, transcendent and metaphysical concept of knowledge and truth, against the sophists as the first proponents of a linguistic turn. The century-long supremacy of Plato's legacy has not only marked the history of philosophy, it has also caused the degeneration of rhetoric itself. From its political necessity in Greek democracy and the Roman Senate, the art of rhetoric declined into an auxiliary art of beautiful speech.
With notorious fore-runners such as Vico and Nietzsche, the postmodern revaluation of rhetoric has been an instrument in the struggle against the Platonian-Cartesian-positivist tradition and has indeed interrupted this decline and even reversed it. But, in its defense of aesthetics against epistemology, the concept of rhetoric in today's narrative theory of history therefore has failed to break through the age-old dichotomy.
The two separated semantic territories in which the arena of today's theory of history is divided, are standing in straight continuation of it. This stale-mate involving two conceptions locked up within their own semantic borders is a result of the Platonic, anti-rhetorical mainstream in Western philosophy, modernist and post-modernist attitudes being the opposite sides of one coin, both products of an anti-rhetorical conception of knowledge, truth, logic, and reason.
While observing this dichotomy, one could ask if there is no way beyond the modern/postmodern divide in conceiving the role of rhetoric. This question forms the crux of my paper. The answer lies in a concept of rhetoric that stands in contrast with modernist and postmodernist theories of history. This concept, called New Rhetoric, has been developed in philosophy, esp. in juridical theory, and gained worldwide reputation since several decades. Initiated and developed by the Belgian philosopher and logician Chaim Perelman (1912-84), professor in philosophy and juridical theory at the Free University of Brussels, this concept of rhetoric could be helpful to theory of history because it pays respect to both modernist and postmodernist semantic territories. It brings rhetoric again in connection with reason, knowledge and logic, again, because it reframes the neglected and despised tradition of Aristotelian Rhetoric.
The dilemma with which Perelman was confronted during his inquiry into juridical argumentation was very much the same as that of narrativism in the theory of history: there is an insurmountable barrier between clearly defined laws and value-laden jurisprudence, an insurmountable barrier between facts and value-judgements that has all to long been neglected.
Value-judgements cannot be logically demonstrated and verified, in the same way as factual statements. The key-question for Perelman when he started his quest was: "Is there a logic of value judgments that makes it possible to reason about values instead of making them depend solely on irrational choices, interest and prejudice?" His analysis and classification of different types of arguments used in jurisprudence made clear that he had rediscovered a part of Aristotelian logic that had been long forgotten, ignored and despised along with the centuries-old degeneration of rhetoric. For, next to his fundamental work on formal logic and analytical reason, Aristotle also described another way of reasoning, aimed at gaining adherence through persuasion with reasonable argument. This so-called informal logic and dialectical reason formed the main pillars of his Rhetoric, and has been overshadowed by the Platonian-Cartesian tradition of seeking for fundamental, absolute truth by means of analytical reason and formal logic.
Analytical reason and formal logic, the bedrock of science, are not applicable to those activities where value-judgement and rhetoric form the heart of the matter, such as philosophy, politics, jurisdiction and historiography. In contrast with the Cartesian clear and distinct ideas, these human activities are characterized by vague concepts, a notion of capital importance to the New Rhetoric. Basic concepts are called vague, because they are under constant reinterpretation and redefinition. Progress or evolution in those disciplines is marked through confrontation of opposing perspectives, rather than through classifying ever more data according to an agreed common point of view.
For example, the historiography of the French Revolution has been marked through reinterpretation of the same events, rather than through more information within a fixed interpretative frame-work. Hence the postmodernist observation that there are no permanent objects in history, only vague concepts, which are permanently redefined because we don't have objective rules at our disposal to determine which one fits best to reality.
So far the correspondence between New Rhetoric and postmodern theory of history. In New Rhetoric however, unlike in postmodernist theory of history, this does not mean that reason and logic have to be given up, and rhetoric removed to the domain of the aesthetic. For, without being able to demonstrate a perspective or point of view by means of formal logic and plain evidence, one can indeed use reasonable arguments to defend one's position, to persuade an audience and try to gain adherence for it.
A lack of verifiability, checks and proofs, does not mean that everything is possible, that the door is open for irrationality and relativism, as some opponents of narrativist theory of history profess. Without agreement on definitions for basic concepts, we do nevertheless agree on what is not tolerable. Historians do not produce free-floating aesthetic representations from whatever point of view. Their reasonable debate implicates borders that are not to be transgressed. There is for instance much discord on the interpretation of the holocaust, but within the academic community we do agree on the fact that it is not tolerated to call it a minor event or a detail in 20th century history.
Argumentative procedures have of course been analyzed by several scholars in theory of history, but mostly they describe the kind of logic only as a less rigorous or a diminished mode of formal logic. The Aristotelian heritage, rediscovered by the New Rhetoric, emphasizes the opposition between two forms of logic and reason. On the one side formal logic and analytical reason, as a means to prove what is true or false; on the other side informal logic and dialectical reason, as rhetorical means to persuade and gain adherence for a particular point of view.
Theoretical issues such as the role of rhetoric do not lend themselves easily to a 20-minutes talk. That is why I sharpened some contrasts between different currents in theory of history. I hope though that a conception of rhetoric that does pay respect to the important postmodern insights, without however neglecting traditional concerns about reason and logic, could shed some new light on the role of rhetoric in the practice and theory of history.