Notebooks

Rhetoric

19 Apr 2015 14:22

Animals communicate to manipulate the behavior, present or future, of other animals. The most basic mood is the imperative: "Do this!" Animal communication is one nervous system reaching out for control over another.

In some animals, the nervous system controls behavior not through direct reflex action, but through the mediation of representations of the world --- ones which are more or less sophisticated and enduring. In such animals, an effective way of manipulating behavior is manipulating these representations. Such animals are accordingly very likely to have evolved ways of communicating that affect representations. These are still commands, but the action being commanded is now "Think this!"

This is also true of human beings, though our representational power, and our dependence on it, is (apparently) unique. Rhetoric is, classically, the art of persuasion; human speakers (and writers and signers) intend their audiences to come to believe and feel certain things. (The distinction between beliefs and feelings is so porous that I shan't keep on making it, and just speak of "thoughts".) That is to say, we are still, like our forebearers and cousins these last several hundred million years, engaged in manipulating the behavior of our fellow creatures; the behavior we want to manipulate is that of thinking, because among us thought drives action. There are, of course, cases where we want to manipulate behavior directly: the historically most important form is military drill and words of command, where we learn to associate words with automatic actions, essentially by means of conditioning which also work on our pets.

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, that is, of the manipulation of thought. It thereby takes, implicitly, all the communicative acts people make as its domain. In practice, rhetoric has focused, reasonably, on linguistic communication --- speech, writing and signing. By saying that rhetoric is the art of persuasion, I mean (following the tradition) that rhetoric is a practical body of knowledge, which seeks to teach people how to persuade better --- to elucidate the practice of effective persuasion. Obviously, to gain this knowledge, one must study something of how people are actually persuaded (or not), but the enterprise is technological (how-to) rather than historical (how-did).

To get someone to think P, you don't have to tell them "think P", or even tell them "P". It is often much more effective to tell them something else, Q, say, which will lead them to think P. Thus if you want me to rush into my house and pull out as many things as I can, it is much more effective to tell me that it is on fire, than to tell me that to do that. It is for this reason that rhetoric impinges so closely on psychology. There are very pronounced regularities in how people interpret statements, or draw inferences from them (as you like), and these are important for rhetoric. One, well-known since ancient times, is that we tacitly supply premises which seem relevant, so that the speaker needn't say them. (Aristotle is clear, if characteristically dull, on this point.) If the tacit premises are sufficiently common and sufficiently tacit, they may pass utterly unremarked, and be all the more effective thereby. Hence cliches, even implicit cliches, can be very effective rhetorical tools. Conversely, if you want to know what people "think for granted", a good place to start is arguments they find compelling, but taken literally are non sequiturs.

(One could argue that the logical, propositional model implicit in my talk of premises and inferences is inappropriate to what actually goes on in the brain. I don't mean to make any neuropyschological claims by talking like this; it's merely a way of describing the performance --- certainly people act very much as if they had implicit premises. But one could implement the same behavior with a radically different architecture, one where tacit premises are either not represented as propositions (e.g., a production system), or not explicitly represented at all (e.g., a connectionist neural net). To say that such an agent "had" premises could only mean that "we find it convenient, as a short-hand, to speak as if it had premises, and used a different architecture than it really does". Nobody, I think, knows enough to even have an opinion about whether human beings fall into this category, though as Stephen Turner says, a lot of "social theory" explicitly assumes propositionality. In any case, let us return to our sheep.)

Relevance.

Fiction.

Logic and systems of argumentation.

(I was being deliberately provocative when I used words like "manipulate" and "control" to characterize communication. The connotations of those words are such that nobody wants to be manipulated or controlled by another [or at least, it's a minority taste, and even then generally not just anyone will do as the controller]. I am not, however, recommending that we stop our ears and close our mouths on that account; communication is manipulative, but not all manipulation is unethical. To continue with an example above: you see that my house is on fire, and you tell me so, desiring me to run there and save what I can from it; I do so; you have successfully manipulated my behavior, and I for one would count it as a good deed, presuming, of course, that you didn't first set the blaze, etc. etc.)

See also Cognitive science; Literary Criticism; Semiotics; Universal signs, images and symbols


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