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Mencius on the Mind: Experiments in Multiple Definition

This text prompts three directions of inquiry – first as a comparative study of Mencius’s conception of mind or psychology; second as an examination of either the perspective of Richards, his rhetorical methods for articulating the ideas in this work, or both; and third as a proposition for a comparative methodology.

Mencius

Mencius

For Mencius, human psychology is innately, primarily, or naturally “good” though the influences of society can corrupt that goodness. Comparing the four basic virtues to “sprouts,” he sites reverence, shame, empathy/commiseration, and “the mind of right and wrong” as the beginnings of wisdom that may be cultivated into a state of sagehood in some people (20). The main argument of Mencius is that “the mind which cannot endure the suffering of others” is that with which it is easiest to rule the world, if Rule and Mind be combined as a form of governance (19). Though the term “heart-mind” is not used in this interpretation of this text, it is later noted that “there is no officially recognized war in the Chinese mind between the Soul and the Body, between will and desire,” thus in the view of Mencius, to live in harmony with one’s true nature would be to effortlessly and naturally practice the principles of compassion (74-5). Additionally, this “Righteousness” is “definitely social” in nature, complying with or fitting into already established mores and values within his society (21).

Mencius also attempts to describe nondiscursive states, or unmoving mind, cautioning his disciple to not attempt to put into words that which is either not ready to be formulated verbally or cannot be (32-3). This attention to the non-verbal or inarticulatable actions of the mind reach toward or point to a psychology that is beyond the framework of psychology that is extant (still) in Western traditions, and yet is dealt with frequently in the texts we have read that originate from within non-Hellenistic epistemologies.

Richards’s positionality within or to the work under analysis is somewhat problematic, as it is neither described explicitly nor articulated. In a comparison to both Western psychology and philosophy, Richards discusses how very different this stance and presentation appear, so much so that he at times seems apologetic for, or judgmental of, the different type of logic presented by Mencius. It is difficult to ascertain if this is/was his actual view of these ideas, or if he, so aware of rhetorical techniques and the expectations of his audience, purposefully frames or speaks in these ways in order to persuade the intended readers (Western academics) through his comparative text. At times, his exposition takes on a decidedly Western-centric bent, attempting to compare Mencius to Plato or Aristotle (45), wondering why it does not occur to Chinese commentators to “further” their inquiry with analytic logic (47), deeming analogy as a less sophisticated form of argument (47), equating “modern” and “Western” as synonymous (48, 57), labeling explanatory schemas “fictional” (64), calling an interconnected worldview a “magical frame” that “we must stretch our modern seriousness to grasp” (76-8), and offering “proof that our cultural sources are more varied and that our psychology attempts therefore to describe a larger range of the mind’s possibilities” (80). All of these stances either arise from a very Western-centric worldview or are directed toward an audience that purportedly holds that worldview – it is difficult for me, as a reader many years after this book was published, to discern the reasons for these assumptions.

At the same time, Richards does appear to take on an etic/emig (to use Mao’s terminology) approach to studying this text and may be attempting to walk his audience through a very different way of approaching psychology, mind, and human nature. He states that “it will plainly be best to start from the passage which seems nearest to the forms of discourse familiar to us in Western meaning,” which implies that he is aware of, and includes himself in, his audience’s perspective (44). Because of this stated awareness of what is familiar to his audience, I feel willing to give him a more charitable reading when it comes to his apparently Western-based biases. Additionally, from his other work, I am aware that he was often trying to debunk or argue against the empiricists (Locke, Bacon, Hume, etc.) and believed that language shaped knowledge, rather than language being an unproblematic tool with which to transparently expound upon experiential knowledge. Because of his other work and stated stances on rhetorical practices where “Rhetoric… should be a study of misunderstanding and its remedies,” I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as it pertains to his, at times, apparently Western-centric biases. Largely, I choose to interpret it, along with his stated modesty and nods towards his own inadequacy as a researcher, as carefully designed rhetorical moves that work to lead his audience from a place of familiarity toward a stance of curiosity and openness to new ideas without having to confront their own egoic or cultural shortcomings.

In this work, Richards both enacts a methodology and suggests one for future use in comparative work. What is interesting is that he first shows this methodology in action as he applies it to the work of Mencius, specifically in the areas where Mencius discusses the nature of mind. Then, after carefully giving multiple definitions and discussing the issues in translation, Richards offers “A Technique for Comparative Studies,” which he labels a method or habit of “Multiple Definition” (86-131). What is interesting to note is that he has already in this work discussed the propensity of Western thinkers to value the abstract over the concrete, whereas Mencius uses the concrete in all of his examples. Richards, likewise, begins from the concrete by showing how the method of multiple definitions works as applied to a non-Western text before discussing the abstract system that he has already used.

This approach of multiple definition is very reminiscent of other more current theorists in the field that we have read, and I wonder how much of these contemporary ideas owe their foundations, at least in some part, to Richards. For instance, Richards, in asking whether we “can maintain two systems of thinking in our minds without reciprocal infection and yet in some way mediate between them,” offers the idea of a “third system of thought” as a possible way of negotiating the difficulties in cross-cultural comparative analysis, which reminded me of Mao’s tertium quid. Richards also discusses how a method of multiple definitions, which offers both the “senses and the gestures of a word,” leads to “vaguer senses…. cloudy senses out of which reflective analysis may crystallize (99, 102). This is reminiscent of the idea of “productive vagueness” advocated by Hall and Ames that seeks to expand understanding, not through deciding once and for all what a word or concept “means,” but rather to allow for the constellations of meaning to coalesce, providing at once more, and yet more unstable, conceptualizations. Though Richards discusses some of the challenges with this method, he also notes that “there is at least a chance that a persistent study of the general forms of ambiguity…might give us a greatly increased control over our thinking and provide – in an expanded ‘logic’ – the general technique that we need” (129-30). Like Hall and Ames, Richards does not believe that a reductive approach to language and meaning will serve the purpose of comparative analysis, and though some may balk at the idea of this type of approach, Richards shows how, even with

Interpretative Triangle

Interpretative Triangle

familiar words (e.g. Truth, Beauty, Order, etc.) meaning is difficult to pin down. He calls, instead, for a “word-consciousness” that takes the ambiguity in language into account, works with it, and uses it to expand, rather than solidify, meaning. This approach, consistent with is idea of the relationship between thought, symbol, and referent as a way that language and usage combine to create meaning, offers a beginning for comparative work from more than eighty years ago, much of which remains relevant methodologically today.

Work Cited:

Richards, I.A. Mencius on the Mind: Experiments in Multiple Definitions. London: Harcourt, Brace and Co, 1932. Print.

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NonEuroAmerican Rhetorics – Methodologies and Studies

The text distills the drama of human condition into an image of a naked, newborn body about to be captured by words. On stage are the midwives, hands bloodied and minds occupied with the medical necessities and cultural imperatives associated with childbirth; off stage and narrating are the voyeuristic and education- minded friars documenting and analyzing the failure of language and the failure of education. The child is delivered; the placenta is delivered; the word project aborts. (Romano 77)

Must. Baptize. The Babies.

Must. Baptize. The Babies.

This very visceral description of the intersection between the discursive and the body provides a powerful narrative/analytic backdrop for this interpretation by Romano of the clashing of ideological and biologic imperatives between the colonial friars and indigenous midwives in the early eighteenth-century post-colonial period in Latin America. Romano shows how this imposition of ideology upon the rhetorical performances of the midwives was resisted in their refusal to comply to the demand of baptism as coming before the health or life of the mother delivering the baby. By further describing the rhetorical performances of these midwives where they were expected to speak to and about the process of birth in particular ways, it is significant to note that their refusal to comply with a divergent set of priorities (i.e. the importance of “salvation” in the Catholic sense over the life of the mother or baby) by their refusal to comply with the training of the friars. This refusal demonstrates an act of resistance where Latina women used their role within their communities to reject, albeit silently, the imposed rhetorical practices of a colonizing force.

I am always fascinated by the complex methodology that Romano employs, and particularly enjoyed the combination of the Burkean anecdote with New Historicist methods to highlight a rhetorical moment that can then be used as a lens through which to view the clashing ideologies and rhetorics of the male, Spanish colonizers and the female indigenous people living at this place and time. Using “baptism…as a live topos in colonizing rhetorics,” Romano shows how this topic and this anecdote can speak to “the process of establishing relations between raced and gendered human beings and their language activities” (76). Methodologically, the idea of utilizing particular topoi as organizing ideas or principles is one that Romano has employed before, as in her work “The Historical Catalina Hernadez: Inhabiting the Topoi of Feminist Historiography” (RSQ 2007). I am always struck by the narrative nature of Romano’s work, where scholarship is both academically-minded and human-based, where the women whose writing she examines are given voice, where these “performances are not sidelined, not positioned as supplements, not rendered as afterthoughts” (76). This past summer at the RSA Seminar, she was one of the four facilitators who oversaw the archive seminar I attended. It was really interesting to speak with her about her methodological choices, about how and why she utilizes the particular analytic lenses she employs in order to tell the stories she wants to tell. The complexity of these frameworks is always fascinating to me, as is the way that the women whose rhetorical practices she examines “come to life” even when all that is known of them are fragments that have otherwise gone overlooked.

Rather, enacting the art of recontextualization in today’s world means negotiating between developing a localized narrative and searching for its new and broader significance within and outside its own tradition, between looking for rhetoric where it has been categorically rules nonexistent and rejecting a concomitant temptation to reduce rhetorical experiences into facts of essence and equate heterogeneous resonance with either sameness or difference, and between using the other for transformative agendas and resisting methods and logic that continue to silence or make invisible the same other. (Mao 220)

In this article, Mao also discusses Burkean “representative anecdotes,” showing how they can highlight “incongruities…[that]… further expose the increasingly blurred boundaries between, for example, the indigenous and the exogenous, the past and the present, and the local and the global” (211). Mao urges scholars in the field of comparative rhetoric to move beyond the etic/emic approach, to move away from facts of essence to “address both facts of usage and facts of ‘non’-usage,” advocating for “practicing the art of recontextualization as a discursive third” (213-17). Recontextualization calls for “scholars to bring both their own contexts and those of the other into simultaneous view” where these shifts if context require a recursive recontextualization of both the work/culture under study as well as one’s own position to it (218-19). Second, this approach is founded in a dialogic stance that “insists on developing terms of interdependence and interconnectivity, aiming not merely to revers our evaluation of the self/other binary or any other binary for that matter, but to recalibrate it or to replace it,” or “what may be called ‘togetherness-in-difference’” (219-20). Third, recontextualization demands ongoing negotiation and awareness of differences, while at the same time connecting these to a larger context (see quote above). This art of recontextualization may help to more effectively and ethically navigate incongruities and specifics as a “cross-cultural dialogue with an abiding sense of self-reflection, interdependence, and accountability” (222).

This approach to comparative rhetoric offers a meta-stance from which to examine or enact comparative work that focuses on both the specific and the general, the small and the large, the exceptions and the rules, while simultaneously and recursively noting one’s “loci of enunciation” that encourages accountability while fostering a sense of interdependence and respect of difference. I find this approach to be very ethically resonant and appreciate the focus on examining simultaneous sites as a way of holding or approaching binaries that is neither reductive nor hierarchical. Rather than “choosing” one binary or/over the other, recontextualization asks us to choose both/and, seeing the relationships between the general and specific, self and other, here and there, then and now, etc., as simultaneously legitimate. I am curious how this approach would/will/does look in particular scholarship and wonder if this is an attainable goal, or rather a stance to take but which perhaps cannot be wholly realized within any one (limited) project.

I found the other three articles (Schoen, Campbell, Hallden) interesting studies in Victory_Stela_of_Piyeparticular rhetorical practices that are not centered upon EuroAmerican cultural traditions. While each of these had their merits, and certainly contained scholarship that is important to the field, I found myself less interested in the particulars – or rather if I write about them I will largely be summarizing their findings rather than extending their thinking, methodologies, or practices. These articles offered perspectives and analyses of heretofore unstudied sites, showing both the similarities and differences between Western rhetorical practices and those found in various parts of Africa and Islamic cultures. Each of these attempted to examine the rhetorical practices of non-EuroAmerican cultures on their own terms, showing how some practices and prerogatives were similar to, and yet different, from Hellenistic traditions.

Works Cited:

Campbell, Kermit E. “Rhetoric from the Ruins of African Antiquity.” ISHR 24.3 (Summer 2006): 255-274.

Hallden, Philip. “What is Arab Islamic Rhetoric? Rethinking the History of Muslim Oratory Art and Homilectics.” Middle East Studies 37 (2005): 19-38.

Mao, LouMing. “Beyond Bias, Binary, and Border: Mapping Out the Future of Comparative Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 43.3 (2013): 209-225.

Romano, Susan. “’Grand Convergence’ in the Mexican Colonial Mundane: The Matter of Introductories.” RSQ 40.1 (2010): 71-93.

Shoen, Megan. “Rhetoric of the Thirstland: An Historical Investigate of Discourse in Botswana.” Rhetoric Review 31.3 (2012): 271-288.

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Historiography and Comparison

This selection of readings proposes some interesting questions about comparison, history, and the construction of knowledge within and across various academic fields (e.g. rhetorical studies, philosophy, history, etc.) that can be, or have been, naturalized to the point of invisibility. These articles attempt to tease apart and make visible the hidden assumptions within methodologies and epistemologies, as well as demonstrating the reciprocal relationship between these two sites where one arises from, and subsequently reproduces, the other. The relationship between ways of knowing and methodologies, as well as the implications of these activities to dynamics of power, are explored in a constellation of ways within the articles by Rorty, Radhakrishnan, Friedman, Wang, and Powell, supplying an array of heuristics and challenges to consider upon taking up any act of comparative analysis.

The Usual Suspects

The Usual Suspects

Richard Rorty, in his discussion of the various ways of approaching philosophy historically, offers examples of useful and not so useful means, methods, and motivations for the ongoing “conversation” within the Western philosophical canon, questioning the way in which that canon is conventionally or traditionally constructed. For Rorty, the least useful method is what he refers to as “doxography,” whose “roots are in the past—in the forgotten combination of transcended cultural needs and outdated intellectual history which produced the canon it enshrines” (71). Unlike scientific or mathematic fields that are free to discount the findings or beliefs of scientists and mathematicians from centuries ago, philosophers still often feel the need to engage “anachronistic reconstructions of great dead philosophers” as a part of their professional and intellectual endeavors (56). Unlike their colleagues in the sciences, philosophers are expected to entertain what past thinkers would have said or believed if only they had lived in a different time. He offers the term “intellectual history” as a way of disentangling these past conventions, offering four genres, three of which “are indispensible and do not compete with one another” as ways of approaching these historic philosophical issues in the present, as well as for grappling with more present challenges (67). Instead of preserving the canon as it is, he also calls for more examination of lesser-known but sometimes highly influential thinkers (such as “all those unfamiliar people…who turn up in the footnotes to Foucault’s books” (69)) to disrupt a singular, seamless notion of what philosophy is or should be. This discussion complicates the traditional view of how philosophy is “done” and what its history “means.” This highlights how the methodology utilized in approaching philosophy and/or its history, is influenced by, and thus continues to influence, the beliefs about our current and/or past social constructions, institutions, and beliefs.

Radhakrishnan’s article, “Why Compare?” begins with an anecdote about discussing cross-cultural driving habits with a person in India, which was interesting to me as I have engaged in a very similar conversation with people who live in India (e.g. Tibetan refugees) and how the driving conditions are very different. Unlike Radhakrishnan, I did not find these comparisons to be “inevitably tendentious, didactic, competitive, and prescriptive” at all, and while the comparison of two anecdotes does not make a very compelling or convincing body of data, I found myself at the outset somewhat resistant to the argument, specifically because it was apparent that “the aggression of a thesis” was held as an inevitable precondition for the entire discussion (454). At the same time, I found much of the rest of the article very useful, and do understand what is being said regarding the “unevenness” (457) of many comparative undertakings and Radhakrishnan  raises many pertinent. While I found myself sometimes writing things like “No, it isn’t” in response to the implied assumptions about the performance of empathy (463) I did particularly appreciate the sentiment, near the end of the article that “there is a way to simultaneously celebrate the world as one, and honor the world as the ongoing effect of heterogeneous and relational worldings” and the idea that “comparisons, to be educative, need to happen in a site that belongs to no one” (470). Thus, while I found myself resistant to the argument as it was unfolding, I later found myself in agreement or resonance with the place that it arrived. Either way, Radhakrishnan also shows how methodologies in comparison arise from within epistemologies and can, if they are not closely attended and critically interrogated, serve to further inscribe the “unevenness” of already unequal power relations.

comparison

Susan Stanford Friedman addresses the opposite (and same) question as Radhakrishnan, asking instead “Why Not Compare?” Friedman specifically links epistemologies and methodologies at the outset of her piece, noting how these sites are embedded in the very question of comparing or not and what is meant by that (np). While she notes that “the reasons not to compare are legion,” she still arrives at a claim that “for all the problems of comparison, in the end it is worse not to compare than to compare” (np). She further claims that “comparison is rudimentary for human cognition, identity, and culture,” then goes on to support these claims with inter-disciplinary research, including cognitive psychology. Having studied some of these areas myself, as well as practicing modalities and ways of being that specifically ask or require one to “set aside” the act of comparing, I am not wholly convinced by this argument. The act of differentiation/generalization necessary to learning is not the same as comparison, and especially in the discussion of cognitive development, Friedman seems to conflate the two. However, I did appreciate the idea of juxtaposing that she suggests, using collision, defamiliarization, and collage as models. Her hope is that these methods might offer “strategies for comparison that potentially avoid the problems of epistemological hierarchy, instrumentalism, and stasis” (np). Friedman postulates that these methods may inform and potentially alter the link between epistemology and methodology that can, inadvertently, reinscribe unequal power dynamics in sites of comparison, hoping to reclaim “comparison’s utopian potential” that arises from an ability “to cohabitate with, listen to, and consider alternative stories of those who are different” as envisioned by Mary Layoun.

Bo Wang, in her article examining early twentieth century Chinese women’s rhetoric, employs “some major methods of feminist historiography – recovering, rereading, recuperation, and extrapolation” in her examination of two particular Chinese women rhetors at this time. Rather than subsuming these women’s voices in the male rhetorics of that era, or viewing them as strictly imitative of Western rhetorical practices, Wang seeks “to look at the ways in which Chen’s and Yang’s use of the essay and redefinition exemplifies a Chinese feminist rhetoric” (390). These women altered and appropriated rhetorical strategies and genres to challenge conservative gender norms situated within the socio-historic context of both the women’s movement and the anti-imperialist movements, making this a particularly rich and unique site of inquiry. This study compares women’s writing in China during this time period alongside cultural events specific to that time and place while simultaneously taking into account the possible effects of Western influences and liberal feminism, while at the same time highlighting the specific rhetorical situation of Chen and Yang within that. This is an example of a comparative analysis, I think, that would be supported by authors such as Radhakrishnan and Friedman where the methods undertaken in the analysis support an epistemic stance that does not privilege discourses of power, but instead allows voices to emerge which may have been otherwise unnoticed.

Charles Eastman

Charles Eastman

Malea Powell, in her chapter describing her experiences as an archive researcher and Native American, poignantly highlights the position and voice of one who seeks to write, study, and potentially compare rhetorical practices across cultures, but from a place where one’s own discourses are not those of the privileged. Just as Wang hoped to employ elements of feminist historiography, Powell, in examining archival documents written about Native Americans for imperial purposes more so than by them for their own ends, examines the possibility that maybe she can “tell different stories about them with them, through them” recognizing that “the fact of empire doesn’t relieve me of my human obligation to their continued existence” (121).  By presenting her self-reflexive perspective as an archival researcher within and outside of a system of domination and imperialism, Powell enacts or resists a “war of words” by arranging and presenting her views in a non (Western) conventional manner, choosing instead to tell stories meant to be read out loud alongside and as part of her scholarship. This juxtaposition (to borrow a phrase from Friedman) works to bring forth a different type of rhetorical tradition, serving as “comparison” insofar as the side-by-side meshing of codes[1] (Native American/poetry/storytelling/Western academic discourse) allows for a new ground to be created wherein perspectives can be shared that may not have a place to stand otherwise. This methodology belies an epistemic stance that both challenges and expands notions of academic discourse, language, convention, and genre allowing for the educative possibilities suggested by Friedman in her article.

In all cases, whether at the meta/philosophic or the practical/case study level, all of these articles have something to say about the relationship between epistemology and methodology. Though there are (always) places in the arguments of others where I would have reason for debate, overall every one of these investigations offers something to consider, places to be careful, and quandaries to ponder. On the one hand, the problems and potential pitfalls of comparative work might lead to possible paralysis where fear of moving forward unethically, or at the least inadequately, could lead one to give up the exercise entirely. At the same time, to do so is to lose the possibility of larger dialogs, of the potential celebrations of the world seen as both one and utterly heterogeneous like Radhakrishnan imagines, where both similarities and differences can be honored, recognized, and explored. Perhaps through careful and considered methodologies we might, as researchers, explorers, and co-habitants of the world, make steps toward creating and/or supporting epistemologies that further the cause of this celebration in the world and that help to create more reasons to celebrate.

Works Cited:

Friedman, Susan Stanford. “Why Not Compare?” PMLA 126.3 (2011): 753-762.

Powell, Malea. “Dreaming Charles Eastman: Cultural Memory, Autobiography, and Geography in Indigenous Rhetorical Histories.” Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2008.

Radhakrishnan, R. “Why Compare?” New Literary History 40 (2009): 453-71.

Rorty, Richard. “The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres.” 49-75.

Wang, Bo. “Engaging Nuquanzhuyi: The Making of a Chinese Feminist Rhetoric.” College English 72.4 (2010): 385-405.


[1] This idea is further inspired and articulated by the work of Vershawn Ashanti Young in his work on code meshing.

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Adversaries and Authorities

Purely uncritical moment: This was an amazing book. I appreciate how Lloyd enacts his comparison between Chinese and Greek science by addressing what are surface or “apparent” differences and then complicating that with details that may go against the common assumptions. It reminded me of the argument by Hall and Ames in Anticipating China, as both texts are very careful about not overstating claims, but rather discuss predominant trends in approaches or thinking, and yet are still clear to offer instances of where this narrative is not seamless. I appreciate this type of scholarship very much as, to me, it increases the ethos and perceived academic integrity of the author(s) as well as pointing toward the actual complexity in any attempt to “unravel” issues as multi-layered as historic epistemologies and practices.

There was nothing in this book that didn’t interest me. I am fascinated by both the conceptions of science, the relationship of rhetoric to philosophy and “truth” in Western thinking, and the strands of epistemic cross-overs, differences, and relationships in the very deep histories of various world cultures. I wanted more and more and more from this book, not because it didn’t offer a lot already, but because it inspired so many questions. I fight the urge to email Sir Geoffrey Lloyd in the middle of the night to ask him six hundred different things. This blurb from his self-written research site states:

My most recent work concerns various aspects of the problem of the psychic unity of humankind.  There has been extensive debate in recent years between universalists and relativists on topics such as the cognition of space, colour, causation, the emotions, personhood.  My own contribution aims (ambitiously) to take into account the most recent work in the domains (a) of the neuro-sciences and evolutionary biology, (b) in social and linguistic anthropology, and (c) philosophy, as well as adding a historical dimension from studies of ancient Greece and China, in order to clarify the key issues.  I do not side either with the universalists or their opponents.  My aim is rather to show more clearly than has been done in most other studies the limits there must be to claims for the psychic unity of humans, and how differences are to be explained where they exist.

Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 3.29.20 AM

 

But I digress. Back to the text……

The idea that Greek thought and its marked contentiousness arose from its political system is one that is presented here (somewhat) differently than in Hall and Ames, but is also complimentary to that. In fact, the treatment by Lloyd goes even more into detail (deeper rather than wider with much specific description) in the various ways and reasons that contentiousness was valued in Greek society. Further, it was persuasion of one’s peers that sparked this debate and set its tone, unlike China where persuasion generally happened from ministers, philosophers, advisors, or scientists to the Emperor or other high-ranking officials, thus altering the rules of conduct for that persuasion (81).

Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 3.32.21 AMIn his discussion about the relationship between epistemology and methodology, Lloyd states that “epistemology can be taken to refer to whatever may be thought to imply a claim to know or whatever might allow us to investigate how such a claim, in a given context, might have been sustained” (49). While the relationship between epistemology and methodology is clear, that one informs and ultimately reinforces the other, what is less clear is which came first or why particular epistemologies and methodologies are eventually privileged over others. While Lloyd is clear that attempting to uncover origins is not possible in this sort of inquiry, and while I agree, I found myself intensely curious about the intricacies of these reciprocities as well as the nagging question of why. Why this and not that? Why these and not those? And while the process of this “natural selection” in Western thought is outlined, or at least postulated, I kept wondering WHY this line of thinking, this epistemology, this posture toward science, politics, and worldview and not others? Because of the diversity of thought, why did some ways of thinking “win out” over others? While Lloyd makes a very sound argument for the privileging of “objective truth,” at least as it was conceived of by those from the dominant Greek schools of thought, this “truth” is very much rhetorical.

Which brings me to my next point of interest: Lloyd’s attention to the split in Western thinking between philosophy and rhetoric, between the “true” and the “probable.” Lloyd brought up several issues in this split that I have always found problematic such as the idea that “every scientific work aims to persuade, though that goal generally remains implicit and is not spelt out by the author” (74). This is true in most science writing today and apparently has a long history in the Western tradition – to disavow any reason to persuade since one is offering the “demonstrable truth” is a rhetorical trope that apparently has roots well back into antiquity. Having read Aristotle’s Rhetoric several times, I’m aware of this privileging of demonstration and axiom as the means of proving “truth,” as well as the rhetorical variations of that as represented in the enthymeme and paradigm. That Aristotle “proved” this rhetorically is….. well, somewhat ironic. Both Plato and Aristotle denigrated rhetoric and yet employed it whole-heartedly within their own work – the act of arguing against it, or rather arguing for the supremacy of philosophy, entailed the employment of the very thing they both derided, an irony not lost on Lloyd in this text. As he notes, “the highest style of philosophy owes more to rhetoric than it lets on, even at the point where it strives to distance itself from rhetoric. For, after all, it does not escape its own rhetoric” (91-2). I find it doubly ironic that this contradiction, rather than being addressed or resolved paradoxically as it might have been in another epistemic paradigm, is ignored or overlooked by Plato and Aristotle, though a deeper understanding of how dichotomies and opposites were conceptualized makes that apparent oversight a bit more understandable.

I enjoyed Lloyd’s discussion of the various ways that opposites and dichotomies FalseDichotomyare/were treated in ancient Greece and China, with the former pitting them against each other as wholly separate categories, and the latter noting their relationship and inter-dependence. This, again, reflects so much of the political and epistemic climate of each culture, and while over-generalization is to be cautioned against, the political underpinnings of these different ways of handling opposites is quite compelling. Where “Greeks very much stressed the opposition between them…on the Chinese side… the relationship between yin and yang is one of mutual interdependence Yin-Yangand reciprocity” (121). This says and explains so much to me about not only Greek ways of thinking, but also the epistemologies that self-consciously claim arising by way of tradition from those modes of thought. Even when the relationship between various parts of a whole are (to me) clearly dependent upon one another, in the Western model, it is only the “higher” or “freer” or “more powerful” of the two that is attended to or focused on as normative. Even in the climate of privileging democratic ideals, as Lloyd points out, this is not then “one of total agreement, so much as one of the due management of disagreement” (133). Again, this explains so much of the contentious nature of rhetoric, politics, and individualism as it is imagined in the West and helps to answer questions I’ve had for…. Well, since I was able to think.

Among the many, many points of interest that I found in Lloyd’s book, I also noted – and wanted more discussion of – various schools of thought that did not become the predominant Platonic/Aristotelian ones, such as the times that he mentions the Stoics. I have been interested for years in the schools of Western philosophy that did not come to predominate – specifically the Stoics and the Cynics – and how I have seen some relationship to their ways of thinking and what I know of Eastern ways of thought. While Lloyd is clear about the differences between Stoic and Chinese thought in his chapter on various conceptions of the infinite, he does note that “a general similarity with yin and yang might suggest itself, even though the Stoics never developed the systems of correspondences with which those principles eventually came to be associated in China” (148). Lloyd mentions the Stoics a few times in this book, as well as the harsh criticism that they received from the more dominant schools of thought (a criticism that is even leveled later toward them in the times of Cicero) but does not really postulate much about why their divergent ideas were so thoroughly criticized, nor why those criticisms “won the day” in those debates. Further, he says, in a way of differentiating the Stoic conception of the universe of infinity, that “the more important difference from the Chinese yin yang is that they, yin yang, are, as we have said, essentially functional and relational, and as such not basic qualifications of matter” (148). This statement somewhat confused me, given the understanding of matter that we have now as a relational continuum between energy and form. These are not distinct categories – a basic understanding of quantum physics tells us that – and yet they are viewed here, apparently, as an essential difference. I would perhaps argue that only from a Newtonian model of physics could such a claim be made and that, at this point in history, we have moved passed a simplistic notion of matter as either solid or stable, thus the Stoics and the Chinese version of the infinite in this case may be less divergent than Lloyd allows.

(If I had all the time in the world I would, here, discuss a likewise different reading of “harmony” from both the Chinese and Pythagorean models, but that would take a long time and require me retrieving several different texts. Suffice to say I have basically a similar criticism of the reading of “harmony” as I do of “matter” above.)

Throughout this work, Lloyd discusses the arguments put forth by both Plato and Aristotle that appear to have shaped so much of what is privileged as truth, proof, and knowledge in Western thought. In his final chapter, in a discussion of what constitutes direct evidence as viewed by Greek thinkers, he notes that “both Plato and Aristotle especially develop the contrasts between proof and persuasion in part in order to drive a wedge between, on the one hand, true philosophy of the kind (or rather kinds) they practise, and, on the other, the inferior styles of reasoning they associate with sophists, politicians, and orators” (215). From having read both Plato and Aristotle (as well as criticism of them), I wholly agree with this and see it, as well as the other very contentions dealings with binaries also apparent in their texts, as one of the bases of this way of thinking that is still so apparent today in Western thought. My question, still, is WHY??? Why this way of thinking and not another? What made Platonic/Aristotelian thought the way upon which subsequent Western thought was based? According to some sources (e.g. Diogenes Laertius) Plato was not even the best student of Socrates and that it was actually the Cynics who most captures the wisdom of that elusive teacher. SO WHY PLATO AND ARISTOTLE????

This question has plagued me for years (decades?) since my very first undertakings in the study of Western philosophy, and while Lloyd’s text has offered a much greater understanding in how this way of thinking compared to other methods employed in divergent cultures, as well as hinting at the turns that Western thought could have taken, I feel no closer at all to answering the “why” of how it took the turns that it did. It is this desire to understand, not for the sake of fabricating an origin, but rather to more deeply comprehend where and how to create arguments against it as it persists now, or at least that push against its agonistic boundaries. All understanding deepens this process, and while I still have questions, I feel closer to that understanding through this deep description that can at least inform that process as it is becoming.

Lloyd, G. E. R. Adversaries and Authorities: Investigations into Ancient Greek and Chinese Science. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.

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Molecules, Neorons, and Paradox: The Applicaiton of Daoist Rhetoric to Everyday Life

I appreciate the effort by Steven Combs to apply the ideas of Daoism to rhetoric, offering a very readable, easy to follow overview and application for examining texts through this lens. While there are surely things that I could critique, I prefer to focus on some aspects of this text that I found particularly useful or thought-provoking:

“Furthermore, context does not imply causation. Daoists reject linear explanations of events. Texts are not caused by situations but are part of them” (13).

While this quote is specifically discussing the texts of Daoism within their historic context, it made me think about the discussion/debate about the rhetorical situation

The Rhetorical Polyhedron

The Rhetorical Polyhedron

and exigency, whether the response occurs because of the situation itself, or whether the rhetor creates the exigency through the rhetorical act (e.g. Bitzer and Vatz). From a Daoist perspective, both of these things are simultaneously true and exist in relation to one another. If a particular instant is “frozen” in order to examine it, foregrounding a particular aspect, then it may appear as though one is causing the other, whereas from a Daosit perspective they exist interdependently, where one is causing the other causing the other, and etc. The rhetor both responds to and co-creates a situation – it is a dynamically moving rhetorical triangle polyhedron where rhetor, text, audience, message, history, culture, etc., etc., share a relational dynamic, rather than a static snapshot of linear cause and effect. In this respect, the “debate” over causality is mute.

“A study in Daoist rhetoric is a study in working with the fluctuating ineffable with imperfect tools. It is because these challenges that we can learn much from the rhetoric of the Daoist sages” (21).

I am excited about the idea of looking at texts through a Daoist rhetorical lens, especially those texts to which I seem most drawn, i.e. to those that may be described as attempting to represent the ineffable. I am drawn to texts that seem to attempt to move beyond words, that use verbal constructs as a means of pointing toward “something else” that goes beyond the words. In Western thought, there often IS nothing else acknowledged, even when the texts examined are written from within that tradition. Western methodologies have thus far (in my experience) not yielded much in the way of analytic tools that are of use when applied to these concepts beyond (speakable) ideas, and yet these texts exist, out of reach by conventional Western methods. A methodology based upon Daoist principles seems to 1) have a precedent and 2) offer those tools.

“Thus, at a molecular level, ‘solid’ objects are mostly space, and the constant movement of vibrating particles of energy enlivens the space” (27).

All that space...

All that space…

This acknowledgement, known for quite some time now in Western science, is (to me) astonishingly overlooked in Western epistemologies, at least as they are commonly internalized and used within Western culture. How is it that solid, unchanging reality is still even a viable construct within Western thinking? How do people look at a table (for instance) and still continue to see it as a solid, unchanging object? How do people see themselves as separate as they stand there exchanging electrons? How has this NOT informed the way that we interact with the world and each other to a greater extent? This fluidity makes up the basis of reality, not just at a philosophical, but also at a material level. Why is this not more apparent or acknowledged in the larger culture?

“Paradox functions rhetorically by forcing the audience to confront inconsistency that is posed as consistent. The incongruity is meant to be uncomfortable, spurring insight by challenging habitual assumptions” (35).

I found this a helpful way to look at paradox, something that I will be working with extensively in the text I plan to examine throughout the semester. This quote led me to think about the purpose of paradox as a way of communicating the incommensurability of essentialized binaries where their instability as residing comfortably within those categories is challenged and disrupted by pairing them together as unified within a larger whole, rather than opposing one another through separation. “Because the Dao is the unification of all things,” it allows for paradox to exist peacefully – the discomfort only arises if one is attached to the idea that opposites are opposing (40). For ideas that are beyond the scope of language, whose actual meanings are outside of the text, paradox works to use words to point toward those meanings without attempting to contain them. In this way, a Daoist approach is helpful to me in my ongoing analysis.

“This juxtaposition tends to radicalize the comparison, provoking the hearer to reconcile what seems odd, shocking, the hearer into potentially new insights” (48).

This idea, which pertains to parables, also works together with the method of paradox within a text that seeks to convey meaning that goes beyond words. By juxtaposing ideas alongside one another, it forces the hearer/reader to consider relationships that are novel and that create a larger whole that encompasses all of these elements. Using this as a lens not only for creation, but also for the analysis of extant texts, provides a means of speaking about ideas that are not easily contained by/within language.

“Daoism, like postmodernism, rejects foundationalism and energizes social critiques of universalizing theories and metanarratives. It fosters critiques of power and hegemony and empowers marginalized discourse. Yet, it is distinct from other critical perspectives because, in true Daoist paradoxicality, it retains a basis for normativity, consensus, and unity” (137).

 

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“Derrida’s antifoundationalism commits him to a stance that there is nothing besides the perceivable world… While Derrida sees the play of signifiers as infinite, with no underlying stability, Zhuangzi never loses faith in the immutable Dao” (146).

This entire section had me thinking about neuroscience and the different views held about the role of neurons versus glial cells. In a way, this is a very fitting metaphor or representation of the same issue. Predictably, Western science has focused almost solely on neurons, believing (up until very recently) that glial cells, which form approximately 90% of the brain, essentially did nothing except hold the brain together (glial means glue). The neurons have long been assumed to be the root of thought and function in the brain with glial cells almost entirely overlooked. The networked

Glial Cells & Neurons

Glial Cells & Neurons

dynamics of neurons reminds me very much of Derrida’s “interplay of signifiers with no end to the iterations of meaning,” in that they can fire in essentially infinite ways and pathways, though of course their use (just as language) becomes habituated. The glial cells, on the other hand, I equate to the Dao, especially given more current research. These cells, the changing but stable basis of the neurons, actually control their action, reactions, and formation much more than was thought until recently. (My husband specifically studies glial cells – this is where I wish that I could access my “external hard drive” as I like to call him.) I see this discussion of the difference between postmodernism and Daoist thought to be like this – both recognize the infinite interplay of thought/words, but whereas Westerners find this infinity of non-fixed meanings to be disorienting or fragmenting, a Daoist would recognize the underlying but very flexible “glue” that creates a field/space within which all of this can happen but which is, itself, not rigid.

There is no language to speak of these things that isn’t moving. Every time I write a response I find myself frustrated in attempting to express what I can’t express with words that remain static on a page. I want to turn every word into a cloud – the visual, moving images that I see in my mind when I think of these things are so much closer to the point than these static linguistic representations. But this is what I have for now.

From: Steven C. Combs. The Dao of Rhetoric. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 2006. Print.

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The Rhetoric of Way-Making

Thinking about the rhetoric of the Dao as well as the idea of discursive fields or constellations of meaning, I found myself pulling out words that clustered around concepts, inter-linked and interdependent. This (somewhat) pictorially represents my thinking about those terms as central and peripheral terms in relationship to the meanings of the text.

Dao Wordle 2

So what does this mean for rhetoric? How is rhetoric addressed, or how might we imagine a rhetoric of the dao based upon the principles presented here?

Just looking at these words in relation to each other shows clearly that what rhetoric is, means, or does is very different than would be found in a Hellenistic-based, second-problematic framework. The “point” of a rhetoric based upon Daoist principles would be rooted in relationality, non-contention, community, deference, and interdependence. Rather than a second-problematic rhetoric based in individuation where one can be a “winner” or “loser” in a debate or argument, a Daoist approach acknowledges beforehand that “self-regarding is also other-regarding,” thus there is no separation of these parties beyond the conventional. What case can be made for “winning” in this environment?

The entire nature of power is reconfigured in the Daoist model and thus all resultant knowledge systems would likewise rearrange in relation to these principles. How can “power” as a “power over” model mean the same – or mean anything – outside of an agreed upon duality that posits opposites as inherently separate and unequal? In a yinyang model where that-is-always-becoming-this as this-is-becoming-that there is no over nor under to be found, or rather if it is found, it is discovered as it is already becoming its other. This, to me, is why Western binaries have never made sense other than at a very superficial, captured by happenstance in this particular moment, way. Perhaps it is the attachment Westerners have to permanence that makes these fluctuations difficult to acknowledge. Is it a fear of chaos? Instability? Uncertainty? Perhaps, but there is no order, stability, or certainty in insisting upon a solid ground that is ever-shifting. Does it not make more sense to acknowledge the changing nature of, well, everything and adapt legs to stand upon shifting foundations?

I think that the yinyang dynamic has the potential to intervene if it is repeatedly and rhetorically paired (re-paired) as a dynamic rather than as a thing. Though there is some recognition that its representation is a symbol, it is so often misunderstood that it has come to represent a static image of opposites – complimentary perhaps (which is an improvement over the one-up binary that Westerners are used to) but still a never-mixing, never-changing static image. Perhaps it should always be viewed in motion – perhaps everything should be viewed in motion – all representations.

Just as the Dao is not “THE way” but the way-making, the yinyang is always changing, one into the other, so that distinctions of “other” become almost superfluous other than as a conventional label AND as constituted in one particular moment and place.

This gets at the nature of the essentializing force of Western language, or potentially any language. Naming, in the conventional sense, has the potential to “freeze” a concept in stasis, or give the sense that it is or represents that thing itself, rather than something always in the process of becoming. Nouns do not verb very well in Western linguistic syntax. (Verb itself is not a verb, though it probably should be.) The Dao Do Jing speaks to this “function of language to separate out, isolate, and arrest elements within it…[where]…an uncritical application of language might persuade us that our world is of a more stable and necessary character than it really is” (113). Thus, deeper meanings cannot be directly spoken, only spoken toward and “rare are those in the world who reach an understanding of the benefits of teachings that go beyond what can be said” (145). This idea, that there even is anything beyond language or words, is one that is highly contested in Western thought with many believing that nothing lies outside or beyond the discursive. How, then to intervene within/into a paradigm made of binaries that tends toward believing that the discursive is all there is, IS reality, or can at least completely define/describe it? That what is beyond words is not really there? Or that it is not “simply cognitive ‘knowledge’ that is the site of knowing” (188)?

Perhaps it happens with a consciously created discursive field, with a rhetoric designed from the outset to re/pair particular words within an effective/affective rhetoric that speaks to and yet beyond the language conventions familiar to those steeped in second-problematic epistemologies. This, to me, is the larger and/or different project in cross-cultural or comparative rhetoric – not only speaking across “cultural” divides, but also across epistemological divides. I, having lived in this culture for forty-three years, cannot often speak of my ways of knowing to others who are likewise soaking in the same cultural stew.  (True story: When attempting to speak of experience that fell outside of the discursive in a graduate level class, I was once told that the idea itself was “just dumb” by the professor.) This rhetoric that speaks across these problematics may need to employ multimodal compositional practices that refuse to allow images, representations, and/or words to remain static – these are principles that need to be demonstrated rather than spoken of. Only in that way, I think, can the simply cognitive be communicated a/effectively to an audience in a way that may at least be partially grasped in the manner it is intended. Words alone are not enough – they have the appearance, syntax, grammar, and habit of stasis and essentializing noun-constructs.

Beyond that, intervening into binary paradigms occurs within relationships, often one-on-one relationships, where words can be used as a pointing-to rather than the thing itself. This takes time and individual tailoring to fit that occasion with that person, which is of course fine. But how to communicate that as a rhetoric to a larger audience….? I think about the references to water in the Dao De Jing and connect that (in my thought/concept constellation) to way-making, which is at its heart noncoercive. I imagine this way-making as perpetually moving and flowing, of finding its/one’s way as going in the directions where one naturally flows, as in

The highest efficacy is like water.

It is because water benefits everything (wanwu)

Yet vies to dwell in places loathed by the crowd

That it comes nearest to proper way-making….

It is only because there is no contentiousness in proper way-making

That it incurs no blame. (87)

theo-allofs-meandering-river-in-the-kimberley-region-of-western-australia-aerial-view_i-G-61-6157-WZXG100Z

This, too, may speak to a rhetoric based in Daoist principles where the time to speak is where it will be not contentious and toward the benefit of everything. I think about the tributaries and rivers mentioned in the text, and how way-making includes all of these (water) ways, thus even the smallest inroad of reconfiguring oppositional binaries is a step on that way toward a more fluid understanding of them. All things count – the focus/particular/local and the field/general/global. In those ways intervention is possible, whether that be in the classroom, over coffee, or on television. All tributaries flow toward the ocean, thus all “make way” in those endeavors.

I found myself thinking of Western rhetorical practices a few times while reading this, and as it has probably been ten years since the last time I read this text (and of course none of the versions I’ve read previously were this particular translation), this was a new way of seeing these passages. Though there are places where (assumedly empty or insincere) eloquent speech is mistrusted, what struck me more to the point were the passages that had to do with war. Western agonistic rhetoric has often been imagined as a type of verbal warfare where the point is to “best” one’s opponent and “win” the argument. If one applied the passages about war to contending with words, the message is clear that agonistic means do not lead to “winning” in the end:

I would not think of taking the offensive

But only of defending my ground;

I would not think of taking an inch

But only of giving up a foot.

This is what is called

Deploying forward without bringing the troops,

Throwing a punch without raising a hand,

Grasping tightly without having a weapon in hand,

Launching an assault without confronting an enemy….

Hence, when two armies, evenly matched, cross swords in combat,

It is the side that laments the need to do so that wins the day. (186)

This, to me, is a more long-sighted view of rhetorical practices (if we can, for a moment, read it that way) where “besting” one’s enemy leads to exactly that – maintaining an enemy. Rather than being about relationship, Western rhetorical practices are about separation. Only, I think, when binaries are resolved will those who live inside that paradigm and call it “real” realize that there is no “outside” or “other” or “separate” to which they can escape with their “winnings.” I think that texts such as the Dao De Jing have the potential to inform a new rhetoric that potentially crosses, bridges, or at least points toward/across the gap between first and second problematic thinking, showing the/a way of deploying rhetoric in service of greater understanding that “self-regarding is also other-regarding,” a concept so clear in this text.

From: Dao De Jing: Making This Life Significant. Trans. Roger Ames and David Hall. New York: Random House, 2003.

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The Glib, the Eloquent, and the Appropriate

Confucius Teaching

Confucius Teaching

There are many ways that I could approach The Analects of Confucius but given that we have been speaking of rhetorics cross-culturally and that I have read different analyses of this text as either supporting or condemning (at least some definitions of) rhetoric, I found myself paying particular attention to aspects of this text that deal with speaking, words, communication, and character. I recall reading a chapter called “The Use of Eloquence: The Confucian Perspective” by George Q. Xu (from the other collection edited by Lyons and Binkley, Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks) where Xu states that “Verbal eloquence was not valorized by classical Chinese thinkers, and on the contrary the views found in their texts reveal a general mistrust of it, a sentiment common to almost all major school of thought despite their fundamental philosophical differences, but it is most conspicuously and extensively reflected in Confucian texts” (Xu 115). At the time that I read the Xu chapter, I had not read Confucius for about twenty years, and thus could only articulate an uncertainty about this position based upon other things that were stated in the same chapter which I wrote about here. Thus, I couldn’t help but think of this while reading this text and to question how rhetoric fits into the overall position or process discussed by (or attributed to) Confucius.

What interested me is the value that is placed upon communication, and while Xu associated “glib speech” with eloquence or rhetorical prowess, I see many instances where appropriate speech is highly valued in the Confucian text. Just as I thought when reading Xu’s chapter, could this not be a different variation of effective speaking? Additionally, glib speech is differentiated from eloquence and also from what is appropriate speech in a given occasion and within a particular relationship. Additionally, speaking well (as in appropriately) is linked strongly to ethos or the character of the person speaking. Glib connotes shallow and insincere speech so it is no wonder that Confucius says, “It is a rare thing for glib speech and an insinuating appearance to accompany authoritative conduct” and that he “hate[s] those with a glib tongue” (1.3, 11.25) Glib people are described as those “who are ingratiating, who feign compliance,” which again implies dishonesty and insincerity (16.4). This reminds me of Wayne Booth’s idea of “rhetrickery,” which he defines as the “whole range of shoddy dishonest communicative arts[1]” where rhetoric takes on unethical aspects where the goal of the rhetor is to “win” (11). This same sort of glibness is likewise maligned by other Western rhetoricians as well, and while there is not a one-to-one correlation between ideas, I find the ideas of speaking appropriately in alignment with, or certainly not in opposition to, Quintilian’s idea of a “good man speaking well.”

In the Confucian ideal, it does not seem to me that speaking well is automatically open to suspicion, but rather that ethos is more important than eloquence – pleasing words do not substitute for right action. Thus, exemplary people “first accomplish what they are going to say, and only then say it” and he is “not sure that anyone who does not make good on their word is viable as a person” (2.13, 2.22). The importance of character or ethos, of being an exemplary or authoritative person, is of such high importance to Confucius and no words by themselves will cover over action that is not in accordance with this. Still, that does not mean that there is not a type of right speech appropriate to the authoritative person or at least possible to engage in. For instance, Confucius says that “an authoritative person is slow to speak,” and it is said of Confucius himself that “he spoke articulately, though with deliberation” (12.3, 10.1). Though one cannot necessarily discern the quality of a person through his speech alone, “the person of excellence is certain to have something to say…[and]….the authoritative person is certain to be bold,” implying that these types of speech are within the range of possibility for the authoritative person when they are appropriate (14.4).  Additionally, when hearing an exemplary person speak, “they appear stern,” which shows another possibility in the range of appropriate speech dependent upon the situation (19.9). All of these pieces of advice, given to specific hearers at specific times, show that there is a range of efficacious speech that can be enacted by the authoritative person, depending upon what is appropriate for the situation. Again, I can’t help but read this rhetorically and say that while glibness is not valued (and other than a few thinkers in the West such as Machiavelli or Ramus, most rhetoricians would not argue with this) other types of speech are, but that these are deeply rooted in an ethical character that precedes and proceeds from speech.

I was also struck by the importance of communication and learning throughout this 7779-confuciustext, where speaking serves a purpose that is not a simplistic mode of persuasion (as it is sometimes reduced to in Western thinking) but rather to instruct and to hold together the bonds of society and family. He says, “To fail to speak with someone who can be engaged is to let that person go to waste; to speak with someone who cannot be engaged s to waste your words. The wise do not let people go to waste, but they do not waste their words either” (15.8). Again, there is an appropriate time to speak – an appropriate audience/listener and situation. Discerning these situations is the product of and produces wisdom, but without speech, people would “go to waste” without learning and communicating. Confucius may not overly value eloquence, or words that are artfully crafted, but instead speaks to the point and in the moment where “in expressing oneself, it is simply a matter of getting the point across” (15.41). How this looks will be different situationally – it is the communication itself that is important.

I found it interesting that, given the importance of relationships and harmony in this text, that the very last entry refers to the importance of words and communication where “a person who does not understand words has no way of knowing others” (229). This thought, as a final note to the collection, left me thinking of the importance of communication to what it means to be human, and to then be reminded of other specifically rhetorical thinkers who have likewise discussed this in some vein or another (e.g. Cicero, Booth, Richards, etc.). It is not that I feel that I need to compare or overlap Confucius as being “like” anyone else, but rather I find it productive to put different ways of approaching something into conversation in my mind, into a constellation of meaning, where various people across time and cultures have grappled with the uses of words and communication and how that relates to ethics, communication, and social formations. I am always drawn to texts, explicitly “rhetorical” or not, that have ethics, character, and care for/relationship to others at their core. Without ethical considerations, rhetoric can easily devolve into coercion or trickery. To me, this is the type of “eloquence” or “glib speech” that Confucius speaks against, whereas other uses of correct speech are in alignment with what it means to be an exemplary or authoritative person. Here, then, the role of rhetoric, broadly defined, may be seen as having the potential to humanize and connect, to instruct and improve, to promote peace and harmony, when utilized appropriately, ethically, and within a framework that is efficacious within a particular society and time. Thus, I have a difficult time (still) as reading this text as being “against eloquence,” but rather as one that places character above words, and actions above verbal art. It is a warning to not be drawn in by carefully crafted discourse without substance and surely to not engage in such behavior oneself. At the same time, effective speech, ethically and appropriately engaged, has the potential to create peaceful and harmonious conditions for individuals and societies. I see this as a major rhetorical contribution from Confucius, one that can be applied and remains relevant.


[1] From Rhetoric of Rhetoric: The Quest for Effective Communication, 2004.

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