The Logic and Validity of Emotional Appeal in Classical Greek Rhetorical Theory
by Bryan Register
Date: 1 May 99
Forum: University of Texas at Austin
Copyright: Bryan Register
Thus far, I have spoken to distinct issues in relative isolation, examining small parts of a larger process somewhat microsopically. I will conclude by relating the texts considered into a broader (but not quite grand) narrative.
We began with Gorgias's theory of emotions and rhetoric. Not only did Gorgias's theory of rhetoric rest on the theory of emotions, the theory of emotions was highly analogous to the theory of rhetoric. In rhetoric, propositionally structured messages are infused into the hearer's consciousness, and if correctly structured, function to drug the hearer and deliver her will into the hands of the speaker. Likewise, emotions are propositionally structured messages transmitted by the senses to the soul, which typically overpower the critical mentality and cause non-autonomous choices.
Now that we have Aristotle's theory, I can explain why I put so much effort into proving that Gorgias held that emotions are propositionally structured. The obvious relations into which rhetorical propositions enter are logical relations. But logical relations obtain specifically between propositions. So, the obvious place to look for the means by which rhetoric manipulates (drugs) its hearer is to find a logical relation between the hearer's emotions and the speaker's propositions, such that the emotions can be created by a kind of process of proof. Gorgias had some of the necessary equipment to make such a claim, and therein I believe is the genius of his approach. But his general scepticism and his lack of a formal logic prevented him from taking the final step and bringing the emotions in contact with rhetoric. He leaves us without a theoretical account of the power of rhetoric.
It is because Gorgias leaves us without a theoretical account that Plato, who sought rational articulation of all processes, refused to allow that Gorgianic rhetoric was anything but a knack some people happened to pick up. Since Plato also believed that any mode of discourse which was not rational would interfere with the search by the soul for contact with the Forms, he rejected rhetoric in the most thorough terms. He was also clearly reacting against the democratic, demagogic, and imperialistic impulses present in rhetoric as it was practiced by some of the students of sophists like Gorgias.
But Plato leaves much of Gorgias's theory untouched. He tacitly admits that emotions are not a means of cognition. Indeed, his early view of emotions is either more primitive or less well-articulated than Gorgias's, because he simply treats the emotions as a kind of physical effect, only tangentially related to cognition if so related at all. The Greeks tended to regard the senses as involved with the physical and the mind as in some sense distinct from the body, and Plato was no exception. So when Plato treats the emotions as physical and Gorgias treats the emotions as originating with the senses (treated as autonomous from the mind), they are agreeing on the general outlines of the nature of emotion.
As Plato matured, he tended to revalue the body and the phenomenal world. One consequence of this was his reassessment of emotions. While the emotions are clearly a kind of physical manifestation, the middle Plato does not regard this as disqualifying them from being a means of cognition; a way of knowing the good. As a consequence of this, he was able to move to a more realistic view of rhetoric. Since rhetoric typically involves the emotions in some way, if the emotions are good things (albeit ones to be cautious about) then rhetoric can be a good thing, too, as long as it remains within the restrictions of good methodology. Plato's transition gave rhetorical theory the potential to be rendered epistemically rigorous and thoroughly valid.
But it was Aristotle, who moved almost entirely past the old Platonic mysticism in ways that Plato had not, who filled in the details and really made rhetoric something worthwhile from the perspective of epistemology.
Aristotle brought to rhetorical theory two major insights. The first dealt with metaphysics and biology. For Aristotle, the soul is almost completely to be associated with the body. Cognitive phenomena are not disjoint from the physical in most cases. Cognitive functions are natural functions of organisms, and the means of survival of all non-vegetative life is cognition at various levels. Moreover, all animal motion requires an explanation in terms of some kind of intelligent motivation, and its typical success requires an explanation in terms of some kind of valid cognition. When these two functions are brought together and rendered fully biological, a strikingly sophisticated view of the passions emerges. The passions are a way of identifying objects the pursuit of which fulfills the natural functions of the organism, and are simultaneously the cause of the pursuit. While the emotions can, of course, go wrong or be misled, they will not typically err and even when they do, they can be checked by reason. The emotions thus emerge as highly rational and absolutely necessary for the fulfillment of human life.
The second insight involves formal logic. Aristotle was the first philosopher to prepare any kind of proof theory and define the principles of logical validity. He had insights, only touched upon in this discussion, which logicians are only now beginning even to fully realize in contemporary theory, much less improve upon; though to be sure, the core of his syllogistic is extremely constricting and excludes a vast array of perfectly valid arguments.
When these two insights are applied to rhetoric, rhetoric acquires a remarkable epistemic validity for even the narrowest realism. Rhetoric is no longer necessarily a means of manipulating people in ways that we don't really understand, but is a means of justifying conclusions according to logical laws that are perfectly comprehensible. Emotional appeal, which is often at the core of rhetoric, is no longer necessarily a way of tricking people and avoiding critical response, but can be a way of bringing facts to people's awareness and providing individuals with rational motivations.
The final thing to note about this transition is that it was made possible by, on the one hand, Aristotle's thoroughgoing realism and robust epistemic optimism, and, on the other, his 'materialism' and biological functionalism. As against Gorgias's sceptical approach, Aristotle maintained that epistemic confidence is possible and that logic, itself newly understood, is a key means of justifying conclusions. If rhetoric can be shown to be valid by some kind of appropriate logic, then, rhetoric is epistemically valid. But, in contrast with the early Plato, who sought for knowledge and the human good specifically outside the physical realm, Aristotle maintains that (much of) our knowledge serves biological and psychological human needs. So the kinds of logical criteria required cannot be so unrealistically demanding that knowledge is not available to meet those needs. Moreover, Aristotle seems to have been able to come to know the psychological principles of the emotions in a way that Gorgias's scepticism disallows. But, transcending early Platonic dualism, Aristotle allowed for these phenomena to be fully physical and to play an exclusively worldly role. So Aristotle's theory (and to a lesser degree that of the later Plato) should be seen as transcending the limitations of Gorgias's scepticism and Plato's mysticism. Realizing simultaneously the potentialities and the limitations, the context and the extent, of human cognitive powers, Aristotle shows us the way to validate an ever-widening array of items and modes of knowledge. His theory shows that rhetoric can, while remaining distinctly rhetorical, achieve a high degree of epistemic validity.
I want to skip from Aristotle's time to ours and place Aristotle's theory into the contemporary context as described by Richard Bernstein in Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Bernstein suggests that
From a manifest perspective, many contemporary debates are still structured within traditional extremes. There is still an underlying belief that in the final analysis the only viable alternatives open to us are either some form of objectivism, foundationalism, ultimate grounding of knowledge, science, philosophy, and language or that we are ineluctably led to relativism, skepticism, historicism, and nihilism. (Bernstein, 2-3)
Let me say that I am outdated enough (already!) to accept this alternative, even though I am uncomfortable with the options as they present themselves. Moreover, I am even so primitive as to take the 'objectivist' side of the issue. But by no means must I thereby not be alive to the difficulties involved with the defense of 'objectivism'.
Consider what Paul Feyerabend has to say about 'R'eason:
The assumption that there exist universally valid and binding standards of knowledge and action is a special case of a belief whose influence extends far beyond the domain of intellectual debate. The belief... may be formulated as saying that there exists a right way of living and that the world must be made to accept it. (Feyerabend 1987, 11)
Feyerabend enters into his defense of relativism because he is concerned that western imperialism is exporting rationalism and creating a worldwide uniformity of 'R'eason, and that this is not only unfair and brutal to those whose beliefs are being squashed, it is unreasonable because reason has no special claim to knowledge.
But consider his statement. Feyerabend concludes his second sentence with a conjunct. Reason is just one version of: 1) there is a truth AND 2) others must be brought to accept it. Let me say that the variant of 'r'eason that I support accepts 1 but absolutely denies 2 - on grounds that 2 is irrational (unless it means voluntary conversion following open debate, as opposed to violent suppression or monopolistic haranguing, but I don't think that's what Feyerabend has in mind).
This brings us to the classical objection to relativism: that it is just another form of dogmatism, and self-refuting at that. The relativist is in the position of having to say both that nothing is true from all points of view and that relativism is true from all points of view. (If she does not make the second claim, then her relativism will be true only for her. Then she will be argumentatively at a loss when I claim that my absolutism is true for everybody. She may retain her relativism, but only as a prejudice.) Feyerabend, then, by saying farewell to reason, is saying farewell to the claim that there is a truth, but he is doing it only in favor of a different 'truth'. The only way to be a consistent relativist, then, is to do it without exposing oneself to arguments - that is, quietly. (In what has got to be the most extreme version of this argument shy of violence, Ayn Rand, objectivist par excellence, once suggested that those who didn't like her foundational convictions "...shut their mouths, expound no theories, and die.")
Relativists, being both clever and rather noisy, will of course look to find a way to talk anyway. Bernstein notes that
Because... the edifying thinkers... see the trap of trying to prove that the objectivist is fundamentally mistaken, they employ a form of indirect communication and philosophic therapy that is intended to loosen the grip that objectivism has on us - a therapy that seeks to liberate us from the obsession with objectivism and foundationalism. (Bernsein, 9)
According to Bernstein, then, the relativists see that once they start arguing in an objectivistic, foundationalistic manner, they have already lost the game. Thus, instead of confronting their detractors head on, they try to perform a kind of 'gentle persuasion' on us, trying to coax us into giving up our childhood fears of not having a foundation. This is surely the right move to make and some of their endeavors have been very impressive; Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, for instance, is one of the most sublime creations of the human mind which I have ever had the pleasure to study.
Many of the most sophisticated relativists, then, do not seek to solve, in some new relativistic way, old philosophical problems. They seek, rather, to dissolve them by showing us that philosophy has no particular ground for proposing solutions. Thus they move to deconstruct both our questions and our answers. Some of these deconstructions are exactly right. One takes the impression, for instance, that the pernicious Cartesian mind-body duality is currently (and finally!) going down in flames. But many people still don't regard the problem as solved; rather their concern with it has been dissolved by astute relativist critique.
It is worth noting that those who seek to dissolve philosophical problems and answers are not all seeking to dissolve philosophy. G. E. Moore, for instance, practiced a kind of philosophical therapy by analysing the propositions of people with whom he disagreed, showing that they were meaningless or, when clarified, obviously incoherent. The logical positivists sought to dissolve all philosophical problems into linguistic confusions, but they still saw a role for philosophy as the clarifier of scientific discourse. So distant a figure as Bishop Berkeley spilled much ink in his Three Dialogues trying tirelessly (and tiresomely) to persuade us that, by giving up a world external to our minds, we weren't really giving up anything at all.
Let me make a more daring proposal. Let me suggest that objectivists as such need and can have their own form of philosophical therapy. Relativists won't argue with us - they're too smart for that - let us therefore try to allay their fears of us. Consider, for example, Feyerabend's point that reason is just one excuse for some people to impose their will on others. Surely it is a point in favor of reason if we can show that reason is violated by the cultural imperialists who claim to champion it? If reason is, as I believe, consistent only with a pluralist, libertarian, and internationalist social order in which the rights of minorities are respected, the initation of force is forbidden, governments are fully empowered to protect their people from abuses, the lines of communication are fully open to all persons (and not just their often-treacherous leaders) all the time, and sincere dialogue is the norm, then surely Feyerabend cannot accuse it of being a trick to legitimate violence and oppression. If G. E. Moore, who was certainly an objectivist in the sense I'm using, could employ a kind of therapy, then there is no reason why modern objectivists can't, too (and indeed the techniques of analytic philosophy are no doubt used to good advantage for the clarification and dissolution of relativist claims).
Such a form of therapy might work as follows. There are canons of reasoning which are definitely valid, which are within the circle of the reasonable. Deductive and inductive logic, minimally, are the paradigms of reason. (That is not to say either that these are the limits of reason or that other kinds of reasoning must be reducible to them to be valid. If such a reduction is possible, then all the easier, but it is not necessary.) The therapy will consist in looking at communicative and mental phenomena which may be validly cognitive, or which one would hope are validly cognitive, and putting every effort into including them without the ever-expanding circle of the reasonable. Relativists have sought to defend the legitimacy of the things outside the circle, but as that circle expands, they will have less and less cause to complain. Of course, many things will be left outside the circle. Direct appeals to faith or authority, paradigmatically, are obviously not amenable to reason.
This thesis has been, I see now, just such a form of philosophical therapy. (I did not see this at the outset and it is probably the most important thing which I have learned.) Many contemporary objectivists share Plato's distaste for rhetoric. Yet rhetoric is how ideas are communicated to the masses and how those masses are swayed into action (either just or unjust). If rhetoric is invalid, then the civil rights movement, the American Revolution, and democracy itself are all invalid as well. Thus we should investigate rhetoric from all sides to see if there is any way to show that it is valid, after all.
I have tried to bring into the circle the passions and rhetoric which appeals to them. Indeed, the process is rather easy at a conceptual level: the emotions are judgments, rhetoric affects them by the rather obvious technique of logically proving them, and thus both are amenable to reason. Naturally, discovering this theory in Aristotle is not so easy, but once found, it can be immediately placed into therapeutic practice even if Aristotle didn't really hold the theory - though it is my sincere conviction that he did.
I would like to characterize, then, two kinds of realism or objectivism. One kind is instantiated by Kant, the early Wittgenstein, the logical positivists, and many others and should be called 'exclusive objectivism' or 'exclusive realism'. This kind of realism seeks to shrink the circle of reason, to exclude modes of reasoning which are not favored. The other kind, 'inclusive objectivism' or 'inclusive realism', takes the opposite line. Everything is to be accepted that possibly can be. Aristotle is the best exponent of this view; despite his rigid hierarchies of kinds of knowledge, he did accept modes of understanding other than formal logic. In more recent times, ordinary language philosophers (Stephen Toulmin leaps to mind) have made moves in this direction, as have, I think, phenomenologists and existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre. Ayn Rand's radical Objectivism is also in this tradition, and has been the foundation from which I have written this thesis - overturning in the process Rand's exclusivist claim that the emotions are not a means of cognition.
Finally, let me point out that the trichotomy of exclusive objectivism, relativism, and inclusive objectivism is not new to these concluding remarks. It emerges from the dialogue into which I tried to place Plato, Gorgias, and Aristotle. The early Plato is our exclusivist, seeking to eliminate anything not conducive to the ascent to the Forms and the narrow but alluring vision of dialogue as pedagogy. Gorgias is our relativist, not concerned with foundations. Aristotle, then, is the inclusive objectivist who adheres to objective standards of logical inquiry and argumentation but also accepts - albeit somewhat tepidly, in the full context of his philosophy - the passions and rhetoric into the widening circle of reason. Such a view is needed in today's debate between objectivism and relativism, lest objectivists lose the day due not to the falsity of their view but their puritanical conception of 'R'eason.
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