Rhetoric as Epistemic

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Rhetoric as commonly understood for centuries is the art of persuasion. Many have attempted to offer definitions of rhetoric which all lead to the art of persuasion and to some the art of trickery; because of this misuse of rhetoric it now bares negative connotations. Rhetoric is not simply the art of persuasion but also bares an epistemic function- it serves as a way to discover what is known and what can be known. Epistemic rhetoric, therefore, unlike the belief of many is an attempt to generate knowledge. In this paper the idea of Rhetoric being epistemic is examined through the perusal of the works of Robert L. Scott and Richard Weaver. Richard Weaver in his essay “Language is Sermonic” examines the significance of rhetoric in a world where science is given the highest recommendation. Weaver explores the decline of the importance of rhetoric. Rhetoric having once been upheld as a discourse of utmost prestige; to teach rhetoric one had to be well versed in the art of rhetoric as it required great knowledge and skill. It was considered to require qualifications undisposed to the “plodding sort of professor” (201), whose job was merely to impart information to the students. However, in today’s educational dynamic, the roles have been reversed; the teacher of literature is more highly esteemed than the teacher of rhetoric whose position has now been reserved for “anyone who will take it” (202). According to Edmund Burke: “[b]beginners, part-time teachers, graduate students, faculty wives, and various fringe people, are now the instructional staff of an art which was once supposed to require outstanding gifts and mature experience” (202-203). Apart from the decline in the competence of the professors of rhetoric, the course itself has departed from philosophical understanding to what is merely conventional, “decline from one dealing philosophically with the problems of expression to one which tries to bring below-par students up to the level of accepted usage” (203).While Weaver admits that Literature is a “demanding profession” (202), given the “elaboration of critical techniques and approaches” (202), he does not fully comprehend the “relegation of rhetoric” (202), that is, the rhetorician and the nature of rhetoric itself to the point of disregard as almost insignificant. The world’s movement towards industrialization and science encourages humans to be scientific and unemotional even though emotion and passion are natural parts of the human mind. Weaver argues that this deposition of rhetoric is an extension of man’s reliance on science; something has happened “in the recent past our concept of what a man is” (203), something that may be “best described in by the word ‘scientistic’” (203). Weaver argues that the “method of scientific investigation” (204) is “the method of logic…applied to the method of phenomena of nature yielded the results with which science was changing the landscape…” (204), hence it was known that men ought to be scientists. The influence of science on today’s world has extended beyond the scope of natural phenomena to deal with philosophical subject matters, and as a result, the only part of humanity now viewed worthy is rationality, with emotion held as a “liability”. Weaver identifies the “properties of humanity” (204) and makes clear that in light of all that science stood for – progress, and rhetoric being associated with humanity anyone who “looked forward to a scientific Utopia were inclined to think that humanness had been a drag on his progress…” (204-205). In order to facilitate progress, man must denounce his humanity and make himself a “more efficient source of those logical inferences upon which a scientifically accurate understanding of the world depends” (205), in essence man must become logic machines. It should be no surprise then that rhetoric was relegated to such low esteems. However, to look at a human being through purely scientific lens is to disregard...
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