In 1967 the assertion that rhetoric is epistemic attracted immediate attention from rhetorical scholars. The assertion was taken to imply that rhetoric generated a sort of knowledge. The purpose of the claim was to establish a fresh justification for the study and practice of rhetoric. In short, it was an answer to a line of reason beginning with Plato, who argued that rhetoric was a form of deception, practiced only under questionable circumstances by suspect persons.
The dominant response to the strong tendency to view rhetoric with suspicion was to present the art of persuasion as vital in making the truth effective. The problem with that position, adherents of the claim that rhetoric is epistemic argued, is that it implies that rhetoric is only necessary under questionable conditions. If truth can be known, but cannot be explained sufficiently by those who know it to gain the assent of others whose assent is somehow necessary, then a sort of lie must be told to the latter by the former. Put differently, those not able to grasp truth must be deceived into thinking that they do. That implies that those who know truth are not in a position simply to demand adherence and perhaps ought to be. Therefore, rhetoric, if justified as making the truth effective, is antidemocratic.
Epistemology, taken as the theory of knowledge, seemed to a number of scholars to be a better platform on which to justify rhetoric; that is, the practice of rhetoric was a way to create a sort of knowledge. The term “epistemology” arose in the sixteenth century. Before then, thinkers simply seemed to assume that we knew what we knew; in short, knowing was not problematic. Philosophers began to take knowing as posing a question: how can we know? Answers to the question varied, but the discussions helped fix “an age of reason.” Descartes is often cited as a helpful time-marker in the beginning of the discussion.
Juxtaposing “epistemology” with “rhetoric” as a fresh beginning in justifying rhetoric anew immediately became controversial. In part the controversies arose from the term “knowledge.” The question “how can we know?” was treated as if it were “how can we be certain?” Descartes argued for an indisputable starting place for thought. With that foundation, reason must be followed. That entailed setting aside emotion. Emotional responses were, in this realm, improper guides. (Some advocates of the linking of rhetoric and epistemology would argue that this move was the same as setting aside commitment.)
Since rhetoric has always been associated with arguing for probabilities not certainties, the historical thrust of the quest of epistemology is contrary to the claim that rhetoric is epistemic. Quite frequently, however, writers about epistemology have tended to interchange “knowing” and “understanding” in their discussions. For the most part the proponents of rhetoric as epistemic have taken “understanding” as a qualified claim to knowledge rather than taking “knowing” as synonymous with “certainty.” These would argue that twentieth century science worked toward probabilities, which can be verified by traditional methods provisionally but are ever open to further research and reinterpretations.
Many rhetoricians hold that science and rhetoric interact in that the gradual establishment of traditions of scientific research has been a result of a constant conversation that is essentially rhetorical, and that the entire enterprise has resulted in an ethical code that scientists must observe in order to assure the integrity of the pursuit of truth, as provisional as that term may be.
In the final section of The uses of argument, a book that influenced many rhetorical scholars in the latter twentieth century, Stephen Toulmin writes, “The status of argument has always been somewhat ambiguous.” The essential question of “how we think” seems to be a psychological one. “Considered as psychology, the subject is concerned with intellectual, or ‘cognitive’ processes” (1958, 211, 212).
The claim discussed here may be even more important in the twenty-first century, in which, thus far, cognitive science has flourished. Antonio Damasio firmly sets aside the mind/body problem, arguing in Descartes’ error (1994) that the question of how we think is material and that we now have the techniques to reveal the activity of the brain. Moreover, we must take the brain as part of the entire nervous system. Damasio argues further that emotion cannot be dismissed as disruptive to reason. Thus commitment is relevant to human action. In a later book, Looking for Spinoza (2003), he makes a highly provisional attempt to trace human values as seated in adaptive evolution of brains.
Rhetorical theorists must attend carefully to such developments. Cognitive scientist Walter Freeman has argued that it is not sufficient to study the activity of isolated brains, and that the overriding questions of cognition are how brains interact (1995, 2000); he explicitly says that cognitive scientists must address the phenomenon of communication. These sorts of studies will pose a number of obstacles and challenges for all rhetoricians and surely impact heavily on the claim that rhetoric is epistemic.
- Brookey, R., & Schiappa, E. (eds.) (1998). The epistemological view, thirty years later. Argumentation and Advocacy, 35, 1–31.
- Cherwitz, R., & Hikins, J. (1986). Communication and knowledge: An investigation in rhetorical epistemology. Columbia, SC: University of South Caroline Press.
- Damasio, A. R. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York: Putnam.
- Damasio, A. R. (2003). Looking for Spinoza: Joy, sorrow, and the feeling brain. Orlando, FL: Harcourt.
- Freeman, W. J. (1995). Societies of brains: A study in the neuroscience of love and hate. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Freeman, W. J. (2000). How brains make up their minds. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Scott, R. (1967). On viewing rhetoric as epistemic. Central States Speech Journal, 18, 9–17.
- Scott, R. (1976). On viewing rhetoric as epistemic: Ten years later. Central States Speech Journal, 27, 258–266.
- Scott, R. (1993). Rhetoric is epistemic: What difference does that make? In T. Enos & S. Brown (eds.), Defining the new rhetorics. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, pp. 120–136.
- Toulmin, S. E. (1958). The uses of argument. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.