This article examines the fields of rhetoric and psychology, each from the perspective of the other, and both from the meta-perspective of a psychologist-turned-rhetorician who retains equal measures of respect (and disrespect) for both. Rhetoric and psychology each study persuasion but from radically different approaches that reflect their contrasting origins in the humanistic and scientific traditions of communication studies. With a view toward advancing consideration of the issues that divide rhetoric and psychology, we can imagine their representatives as engaged in a conversation of sorts on questions of relative worth to their students, to the general advancement of knowledge, and to each other.
Psychologist: I don’t know what I’m doing here. You’re not even an academic discipline.
Rhetorician: What’s that you say?
Psychologist: To qualify as an academic discipline requires a clearly defined and distinctive area of inquiry, and a method or methods capable of adding to the stock of knowledge. You fail on all these counts, and I’ll sit with you just long enough to tell you why.
Rhetorician: I’m all ears. Indeed, I’m honored that you’ve taken the time from your busy schedule to converse with me.
Psychologist: Busy indeed! These days we psychologists are active on many disciplinary fronts, both pure and applied. And that leads me to my critique of rhetoric as something less than a discipline. I’ll start with the related problems of incoherence and lack of distinctiveness. From reading Kenneth Burke’s “Traditional principles of rhetoric,” I gather that rhetoric has accrued a great many meanings over the centuries, from the clearly self-celebrative to the pejorative, including among the latter the “art of proving opposites.” Applied to itself, this definition is potentially self-damning. Assuming a reasonable definition of “proving” as demonstrating that something is the case, rhetoric would forever be undermining its own truth claims. What could possibly be the value of that?
Rhetorician: Interesting that you lead with so misleading a definition. But perhaps we can profit from it nonetheless. Let me ask you, are there not issues on which reasonable individuals might legitimately differ?
Psychologist: Of course. But . . .
Rhetorician: And are there not disputes within your own hallowed discipline of psychology on which even the experts take opposing views? Don’t you psychologists continue to argue over the very definition of psychology, for example – without consensus as to whether psychology is the study of mind or of behavior?
Psychologist: I’ll concede the point for now. But . . .
Rhetorician: My larger point is that not all differences can be resolved, even in your own field, by way of appeal to pure logic or indisputable fact. Indeed, the most interesting questions are of this sort, are they not?
Psychologist: I suppose.
Rhetorician: I could go on with this line of questioning, but I think I’ve said enough to suggest that continuing controversy is not necessarily a bad thing, nor premature consensus a good; furthermore, that not all issues, even scientific issues, lend themselves to demonstrative proofs, if by “demonstration” is meant proof beyond a shadow of the doubt.
Psychologist: Are you saying, then, that you rhetoricians don’t really “prove opposites”?
Rhetorician: Yes and no. Rhetoric isn’t about issues of pure fact or pure logic. Its concerns are with issues of judgment rather than certainty, and on these issues it offers instruction in how to argue opposing views, much of it time-tested and richly illustrated by way of critical accounts of rhetorical practices. It’s in this sense that rhetoric “proves opposites,” providing thereby wonderful preparation for law, politics, and for analysis of persuasion in the guise of objectivity in such fields as your own. That is surely one of our distinctive contributions. Rhetorical proofs are different from demonstrative proofs; they are extra-factual and extra-logical, but not necessarily counter-factual or illogical. And while rhetoric is an advantage-seeking art, it needn’t disadvantage those persuaded by it. Over the centuries, we rhetoricians have learned a good deal about how to persuade and also about how to defend against the con artists who sully our good name. If we had time, I’d “prove” to you how precisely these sorts of proofs are used by psychologists when they are not preoccupied with proving what is trivially true.
Psychologist: I think you’ve spoken long enough. Indeed, until now I barely have been able to get a word in edgewise. You’ve said that you rhetoricians have learned a good deal about how to persuade. I’m willing to go toe to toe with you on that issue, pitting what meager tools you rhetoricians use for accumulating knowledge about persuasion against those in our scientific arsenal. Won’t you concede that even your own field’s textbooks on persuasion borrow heavily from social psychological theory and research? Applied fields of persuasion such as advertising, public relations, marketing, and political consulting do likewise. They turn to us because our methods are scientific, enabling us psychologists to develop falsifiable theories of persuasion and to exercise controls over potential sources of error in research, such that we can be surprised by our data. That’s the defining feature of a modern discipline; its hallmark is objectivity. Some say that you rhetoricians are too wedded to the theorizing of the ancients; others that you are congenitally ill disposed to generalizing, preferring to wallow in the idiosyncratic particulars of every new case. You had a promising beginning back in Aristotle’s day, but you haven’t advanced very far since. Aristotle put forward some interesting hypotheses – about the effects of demographic variables in the use of emotional appeals, for example. We’ve tested them. You haven’t!
Rhetorician: For a psychologist you aren’t too bad at persuasion, albeit the sophistic persuasion of hyperbole. I take it that you haven’t read our research on forms and genres of persuasion and on the situations that give rise to them. That scholarship surely moves beyond “idiosyncratic particulars,” as you put it. But it is true that we rhetoricians tend to prefer “muddleheaded anecdotalism” over “simpleminded empiricism,” the former case-driven and storied in its telling; the latter typified by a “variable-effects” approach to the study of persuasion. If we had more time, I’d love to tell you more about it.
Psychologist: Since you rhetoricians are so good at proving opposites, perhaps the next time we meet you’ll do a better job of representing my views.
- Billig, M. (1996). Arguing and thinking: A rhetorical approach to social psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Burke, K. (1969). A rhetoric of motives. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Burke, K. (1969). Traditional principles of rhetoric. In A rhetoric of motives. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, pp. 49–180.
- Simons, H. W. (1978). In praise of muddleheaded anecdotalism. Western Journal of Communication, 42, 21–28.