Re: Re[2]: Rhetorical Theory

Steve Finley (Finley@TTDCE1.COED.TTU.EDU)
Tue, 6 Aug 1996 14:00:03 +0000

To M. Hamende:

This is getting to be a really interesting discussion, and I'm seeing
the point I should've seen before--that your definition of a
good rhetor is quite different from the one I've seen so many people
in the field using, and frankly, I think I like yours better. But as for
some more specific banter:

"Is that because they inherently make sense or because the people
listening to [Helms] don't know any better? (I mean they don't understand

See, this seems to imply that the audience for an effective
rhetor has to understand something about rhetoric, which seems wrong
to me. On the other hand, maybe this gets back to my tendency to
think of a "good rhetor" as one who is convincing to a certain
audience, an amoral position that, when examined, I'm not all that
crazy about but that seems very prevalent within the field. I'm
beginning to wish everyone were making this distinction that you
make, if I understand it right--sort of a remarriage of ethics (and
even the "m" word--morality) to academics, rather than the
hypersterile, distanced way, removed from all human concerns, of
determining values and methods in academic study.

And by the way, I'm not particularly prone to using extremes just
because I question your use of phrases and terms such as "false
authority" by asking whether you mean that all authority is false
(which your own point seemed to imply, since you left no room for
what would occur with substantial or "true" authority). I agree in
principle, though perhaps not in degree, with your idea that much or
most "authority" not only now but always has been suspect, but again,
I'm not talking about officially recognized authority as much as I am
the speaker's character as the audience perceives it.

"Because a few people believe something, does that make it true? Or
'right?' Or ethically sound? Or even desirable? I think not."

Of course not. But again, I was talking about what was effective,
not what was true or right, which is of course the more important
question (the latter, that is). But by the way, the "be like
Mike" style of advertising doesn't reach just a few people; the point
is, it's not necessarily a wide consensus that determines what is
true, right, and all that stuff, unless you're saying (and I don't
think you are) that whatever is widely accepted IS right and good.
But maybe I'm wrong about what you think here, because later you
seem to assert that the fact that your opinion is probably more
universal than mine makes your idea "better rhetorically." I'd say
it makes it more persuasive, maybe, to a larger number of people, but
according to your own definition, the idea of "better rhetorically"
entails more than that. Anyway, it seems to me that ideas of truth
and goodness and all that need more than the power of consensus.

Oh, brother--now we're into whether "good" is socially determined or
whether there's something else behind it. Never mind. I know what I
think about that, but let's just back up out of that alley and stick
to the subject.

"The disagreement is right there. I do not believe, at all, that
'falsely won and/or unexamined and unchallenged character' is EVER a
good and true thing. And it will never (for me) make this thing
'more likely to be true than that one.' In fact the opposite is true, for

But I'm NOT saying that all notions of ethos as character involve
perceptions of character that are falsely won. I'm saying that in
some cases, the rhetor's audience may be wrong in believing
the rhetor to be truthful, expert, well-intentioned, etc., and in
other cases they may be right to believe it. But the fact that the
audience might be wrong doesn't mean that there's no validity at all
to assigning more worth to what this speaker says than what the other
one says. That's why the concept of "preestablishment" is important,
though difficult. One speaker establishes more validity than another
because of things she's said previously; this validity avoids the
reinventing of the wheel every time the speaker's credibility is an
issue. On the other hand, once that credibility has been assumed
over and over again, it's only natural for the audience to begin to
wonder whether that sense of credibility is being misapplied or has
any remaining validity, especially after going more or less
unchallenged for some period of time. Thus, there seems to be some kind
of cycle that repeats itself with speakers and writers who do their
thing over long stretches of time to more or less the same audience.

Say, for instance, my mechanic tells me that X is the reason my car
is making that sound, and I've known him to do good work up until
now; I'm probably going to believe him more than I would someone I'd
never heard of. That's rational; it would be irrational, though, to
assume that a friend's mechanic would be more likely to be correct
about the diagnosis than would a mere acquaintance's (that's what I'd
call a false sense of credibility). But if, after several rounds of
repairs over a couple of years, I haven't seen anything that
particularly impresses me (because my car runs way better, or because
it cost less than I thought it would, etc.), my impression of this
mechanic as unusually good might wane, and I might start keeping my
ears open for comments on other mechanics who seem to do outstanding
work. The point is, it wouldn't necessarily take BAD work, or
something that was anti-credible; it would only take mediocrity, or
in other words, no re-establishment of credibility for an extended
period of time, for me to start questioning whether this were really
the best guy. (OK, this example really isn't working that well, but
you get the idea.)

By the way, this whole discussion thus far has ignored the fact that
some things MUST be decided either only or mostly by testimony. If I
move into town and have to have a mechanic the second week I'm there,
I'm probably going to have to find a couple of people I trust the
most and ask them who they'd recommend. Even if they tell me stories
about how everything they got fixed over at Bill's stayed fixed and
didn't seem too expensive, I'm still not really basing my decision on
anything close to real evidence, since there's no control group, in
effect--no possibility for comparison. So, I'm still going to this
guy based on how he seemed to the people I trust. In this scenario,
your point about the desirability of something other than mere ethos
being the deciding factor in an argument or decision becomes very

Anyway, I obviously wasn't saying that character falsely won is a
good and true thing. Of course not.

"When dealing with issues of
faith, as I have defined them and which is different from your
definition, you have no choice but to believe what you believe because
you believe it. Issues of faith are unprovable. Issues of faith have
no facts (or phenomena or experiences) associated with them. . .
Politics and ethics are definable. Are based in experience. There
may be disagreements, but the facts are there."

Just briefly, because this is a 55-gallon barrel full of worms, one
of the reasons I don't see this as a very clear distinction is that
even academic ways of knowing things, arriving at conclusions through
logic, etc., etc., all have their basis in some kinds of assumptions
that many or even most people seem to share. In other words, it
seems to me that even logic is based on unprovable notions, ideas
that are so assumed and so close to ourselves that we can hardly see
them at all, and that are themselves unprovable. I'd say real faith,
in the broadest sense, depends much more on what you've said about
direct (meaning unmediated, I think) experience. Alright, that's
brief enough. No way to cover it here.

" I disagree [with the idea that a hypocrite can be an effective
rhetor--circle gets the square]."

Maybe I should have said "an undiscovered hypocrite"? Or maybe it's
the use of "rhetor" instead of "persuader" again. . .

"You are missing the entire philosophy of Derrida, Foucalt, and all the
other Deconstructionists, and Post-Moderns and a whole bunch of
linguists in the last 50 years who say that language is incapable of
clearly communicating anything, especially intention."

Nope, I ain't missing it. I just don't buy all of it, or even much of
it. I heard someone say once that this is what you get when you have
a whole bunch of academic people who really need hobbies, lovers, or
whatever. I don't know if I'd go that far, but it ain't true just
because Derrida et al. said it. Language is quite capable of clearly
communicating many things, as it is capable of obfuscating anything,
and as far as I'm concerned, its inherent approximations and
inexactness do not render it incapable of being clear enough to
at least make a reasonably accurate stab at intention (with
disclaimers as to the possibility of error, etc.).

" But given his position in a national office and that position's
ability to influence national and international affairs and events
Jesse's influence is not limited. And I think it is indeed a threat.
The Helms/Burton Law that is in the news comes to mind."

Yeah, you're right about this. Maybe that's the "flaw in the
democratic system" you were talking about--maybe there oughta be
something that says the damage any legislator can cause ought to be
limited only to that legislator's constituency. But then, somebody
has to figure out what's "damage" and what are "difficult decisions
for the better of society," etc.

Yeah, I understand the emoticon ":-)" and whatever. Didn't have to
explain that one, but maybe I should use it more often. Anyway, the
fact is, I AM a bad guy, so your faith that I'm not, having no basis
in phenomena or experience whatsoever, is useless. (Just ask both
my ex-wives.)

Steve Finley