Notes from “The New Rhetoric” (Perelman, Olbrechts-Tyteca)

The authors seek to examine the “dialectical relationship between thought and action.”

2y1-305-1-perelmanTheir starting point is that men “adhere to opinions of all sorts with a variable intensity.” This means that we accord all our beliefs different truth values, based on the evidence and reasoning we have to support them.

“Those who hold facts and truths to be the sole norms for guiding opinion will endeavor to attach their convictions to some form of evidence that is indubitable and beyond discussion.” But is there such a thing? Maybe in theory, but what about the real world of human affairs? We can’t afford to “scorn and reject all the techniques of reasoning characteristic of deliberation and discussion” (argumentation). As soon as controversy arises, whenever we don’t have absolute proof, we are in the realm of argumentation.

They point out the common philosophical distinction made between “judgements of reality” and “value judgements.” This distinction has not been successfully maintained, because we can’t figure out a science of value judgements and we haven’t been able to define what makes one reality and another a value.

If reality judgements are going to be effective, they must be free of all ambiguity. They must mean the same thing for everyone, without any controversy. There are only two possible positions that could support this: the idea that language reflects reality or that language is an arbitrary creation of an individual.

Neither are true.

41vxd9spa1l-_sx313_bo1204203200_What is missing is the social element.  “All language is the language of a community.” Words and their meaning can only be understood in the context of a society. Like other elements of culture, it is our agreement about their meaning that gives them that meaning. This means that the way we use language is never indisputable. It is always up for debate, subject to change as a society changes.

“Only the existence of an argumentation that is neither compelling nor arbitrary can give meaning to human freedom, a state in which a reasonable choice can be exercised.” Freedom and argumentation are inextricably linked. If all language and all arguments were purely representative of reality, if language could speak an undeniable truth, there would be no choice, and man would not truly be free. He would be predetermined to act according to the laws of nature.

On the other hand, if man was purely irrational, there would be no argumentation, only suggestion and force. Argumentation, and rhetoric, operates in the space between these two positions.

“The theory of argumentation will help to develop what a logic of value judgements has tried in vain to provide, namely the justification of the possibility of a human community in the sphere of action when this justification cannot be based on a reality or objective truth.”

Argumentation (and rhetoric) has been neglected for too long because the truth it has produced is not necessarily objective. But objective truth is possible only in theory. To be able to act effectively in our world, we need rhetoric to guide us to a probable truth in the absence of a compelling reality. To act in the world, we need to be satisfied with what is likely.

Doubt is uncomfortable, but certainty is absurd. -Voltaire




Beauty will no longer be forbidden

I’ve been wanting to read The Laugh of the Medusa  by Helene Cixous for years, and today I finally sat down and read it all at once. It did not disappoint.

The 20-page essay not just about female writing, but about female being, our way of inhabiting the world.


Cixous writes that we have been kept from living fully by the expectations placed on us. Phallocentrism (male privilege) dictates that we be chaste, that we suppress our desires not only for sex but for life.

This feeling of exclusion and shame is nothing new to me, and probably not new to so many other women.

“And I, too, said nothing, showed nothing; I didn’t open my mouth, I didn’t repaint my half of the world. I was ashamed. I was afraid, and I swallowed my shame and my fear. I said to myself: You are mad! … Where is the ebullient, infinite woman who, immersed as she was in her naivete, kept in the dark about herself, led into self-disdain by the great arm of parental-conjugal phallocentrism, hasn’t been ashamed of her strength?”

I didn’t repaint my half of the world, I never made it mine, I never claimed my own territory because I was afraid to speak.

Cixous writes that men have made for women an antinarcissism. That rings so true. For many years, I struggled to even have a sense of self separate from others, to be my own person. It seemed so arrogant to me that I could have needs, and even worse, that they might be fulfilled.

“Men have committed the greatest crime against women. Insiduously, violently, they have led them to hate women, to be their own enemies, to mobilize their immense strength against themselves, to be the executants of their virile needs. They have made for women an antinarcissism! A narcissism which loves itself only to be loved for what women haven’t got! They have constructed the infamous logic of antilove.”

Cixous encourages us to write our bodies. To write our desires, to put into words our love of life and of the world. Why write? Because:

“…writing is precisely the very possibility of change, the space that can serve as a springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural structures.”

She says that the future woman will be an insurgent that smashes the boundaries of the past.

The invention of a new insurgent, a woman who creates ruptures and transformations in her history on two levels:

  1. Individually. “Write your self. Your body must be heard. Only then will the immense resources of the unconscious spring forth.” “…she has always occupied the place reserved for the guilty…” The phallocentric society desires us to be neither or both at once. Woman as an impossibility.
  2. Historically. History “has always been based on her suppression.” “It is time for women to start scoring their feats in written and oral language.”

Cixous does not define what feminine writing will look like.

“It is impossible to define a feminine practice of writing, and this is an impossibility that will remain, for this practice can never be theorized, enclosed, coded–which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.”

In her eyes, there is no need for definition. The male is the lord of the actual, while woman rules the world of possibility. Man is what is, woman what we can only dream that will be.

“You have only to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.”

Woman is a whole, she does not fear decapitation or castration. She does not fear losing her titles, because she has her body and her life.

“Here, buy my glasses and you’ll see the Truth-Me-Myself tell you everything you should know. … You see? No? Wait, you’ll have everything explained to you, and you’ll know at last which sort of neurosis you’re related to. Hold still, we’re going to do your portrait, so that you can begin looking like it right away.”

This is how the patriarchy perpetuates itself. By not writing, we are victims of appropriation. We must not be silent, we must use language to create ourselves. How many times have I been told who I am by other people? It’s true, they want to put you in a box, define you so you are no longer dangerous to them. If we let others speak for us, we will never own ourselves.


An Aesthetics of the Self

I started reading an article about Michel Foucault after doing some research on The Archaeology of Knowledge. I’ve tried to read Foucault before, with varying degrees of success. But the article I chose to read really broke it down for me and helped me understand his thought.

What I found particularly interesting was the idea of an “aesthetics of the self.” This is  “the self’s creation of a beautiful and enjoyable existence.” Along with his studies of ancient sexuality, this aesthetics “led Foucault to the ancient idea of philosophy as a way of life rather than a search for theoretical truth.”

I find that idea very appealing. After years in grad school, I find myself not believing too much in Knowledge or Truth as commonly conceived. Like Foucault, I think it’s all historical and contigent. Perception and knowledge of the object depends on the constitution of the subject.

I like the idea of philosophy as a search for wisdom, not knowledge. Of finding not what is true in every and all circumstances, but instead of what is appropriate for an individual’s particular circumstances as situated in space and time.

Even more than that, I love the conception of us as artists of our own lives, of philosophy as the aesthetics of living. Although written with a much different intention, this is what Don Miguel Ruiz has to say about ourselves as artists in The Voice of Knowledge:

You are divine, you are perfect, but as an artist, you create your own story and you have the illusion that the story is real. You live your life by justifying that story. And by justifying the story, you are wasting your life.

I’ve stopped believing in the “truth” of my own story, and now I can appreciate it for what it is. I no longer believe in my personal history; instead, I weave beautiful tales out of the elements of experience my life has given me.

I definitely want to learn more about this idea of an “aesthetics of the self.” For those of you that would also like to know more, here are some articles I plan to check out:

Critique of the Aesthetic Self…5



Who is Aspasia?

“To ask questions about Aspasia, is to ask questions about half of humanity.”

-Madeleine M. Henry, Prisoner of History

Unfortunately, little remains in the historical record about one of the first women in rhetoric. There are many reports that she was a hetaera, and that she ran a house of prostitution. However, it is not known if there is any factual basis for this charge, or if the accusations merely stemmed from male historians outraged at the role Aspasia had chosen to assume, flouting social conventions that prescribed what was proper behavior for a woman of her time.

Some historians of rhetoric argue that she could have possibly taught Socrates what is now known as the “Socratic method.” Bizzell and Herzberg write that Aspasia seemed to have an egalitarian view of rhetoric: “Aspasia treats her interlocutors as intellectual equals, not attempting to knock them down with agonistic argument but rather gently drawing them toward her own point of view by means of premises they provide and endorse.”

According to Cicero, Socrates himself preferred to use this method “because he wished to present no arguments himself, but preferred to get a result from the material which the interlocutor had given him–a result which the interlocutor was bound to approve as following necessarily from what he had already granted.”

Although it is impossible to verify whether or not Aspasia in fact taught Socrates the method for which he is known, it is interesting to consider the profound effect she may have had, and wonder at the other contributions made by unnamed women to rhetoric and other fields that remain unrecognized.