–Arts and letters for the modern age–

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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Philosophical Rhetoric

by | Nov 6, 2023

With some notable exceptions, philosophers claim to eschew rhetoric; those uses of language whose aim is not to persuade by means of appeal to a person’s rational consciousness but by way of the sensibility and emotions. The arguments are what should count, we say, and we should follow them wherever they lead. This is supposed to be a part of our unwavering commitment to Truth and Justice, which overrides our personal preferences, allegiances, and causes.

That this is self-serving fiction is not something I am going to try to convince anyone of. There are more than enough instances of philosophers publicly displaying their partisanship, ideological motivations, and sociopolitical capture to demonstrate this to anyone capable of being convinced. That it is a pointless aim, representing an overestimation of the conclusiveness and force of arguments, is also something I won’t take up here, as I’ve addressed it on multiple occasions including in my recent essay, the “Discourse Delusion.”

My subject, rather, is the actual rhetoric philosophers use – such as it is. If you want to understand why we command so little social or cultural authority today, part of the reason is that (a) our views are often unpopular; (b) our arguments are almost always tendentious; and (c) and our rhetoric is godawful.

One particularly awful thing we do is deploy the rhetoric we use inside the profession – a kind of performative hyperbole whose aim is to achieve discursive dominance – in our interactions outside of it. We announce that we are “astonished,” “bewildered,” “aghast,” “stunned,” “perplexed,” and the like, and when in person – at conferences or colloquia or other public events – we supplement these verbal ejaculations with eyerolls, gasps, frustrated fidgeting, exaggerated head scratching, and every other mode of visually conveying distress. (During one colloquium at the CUNY Graduate Center, back in the 1990’s, I watched Jerry Fodor exhibit how much torment one person could express while sitting in a chair.) These sorts of performances have long been a feature of philosophical rhetoric, going back at least as far as G.E. Moore and the Bloomsbury Group, as Alasdair Macintyre observed in After Virtue:

[A]s Keynes tells us, what was really happening was something quite other: ‘In practice, victory was with those who could speak with the greatest appearance of clear, undoubting conviction and could best use the accents of infallibility’ and Keynes goes on to describe the effectiveness of Moore’s gasps of incredulity and head-shaking, of Strachey’s grim silences and of Lowes Dickinson’s shrugs… An acute observer at the time… might well have put matters thus: these people take themselves to be identifying the presence of a non-natural property, which they call ‘good’; but there is in fact no such property and they are doing no more and no other than expressing their feelings and attitudes, disguising the expression of preference and whim by an interpretation of their own utterance and behavior which confers upon it an objectivity that it does not in fact possess. [p. 17]

Why this sort of thing has ever been effective with those whose charge is to engage in deep and critical thinking is a mystery, but it is more popular today than ever, and philosophers employ it not just against one another, within the confines of the Academy, but out in public and especially on social media platforms. Of course, hyperbole is rampant in these places too, but the philosophical version comes across as twee and disingenuous, and I can imagine Joe Public thinking: Really, Dr. Genius? You’re “aghast” that people eat hamburgers? “Bewildered” that everyone hasn’t become a socialist? “Astonished” that bloody atrocities provoke ferocious responses? Spare me, please.

Hyperbolic speeches and performances are only effective when the people you are engaging with are as ginned up as you over whatever it is you’re going on about, and most people are not as ginned up about the things philosophers are going on about as the philosophers make themselves out to be. The average person isn’t losing sleep over what some stranger had for lunch or being driven to apoplexy over the fact that people in other countries, thousands of miles away, fight with and kill one another (inasmuch as this is always the case), or rending his or her garments over the fact that people like having money and enjoy material luxuries. (That people may be reasonably concerned about such things is an entirely different matter.) Outside of the Academy, then, the philosopher’s histrionics are more likely to annoy than to persuade. The people we might encounter on the internet or pass on the street are unfamiliar with our dominance rituals, which means that the gasps and groans and gestures and cries come across as grownups acting out (and acting badly), rather than the deliberate, peacockish performances they are. It’s not good for philosophy that the apt response to so much of our public engagement is: “grow the f*#k up.” 

Things don’t improve when we switch from the accusatory mode to our favorite alternative: smarmy, backhanded ingratiation. Responding to our interlocutors’ objections with, “Good, good, good!” while nodding vigorously, thereby cultivating the impression that we are talking to some insecure freshman; starting off what one knows will be a tense exchange with a chirpy, “Hi [insert first name]!” and continuing to do this with every reply over the course of the conversation, even as one shifts to berating and insult; referring to a loathed opponent as “my good friend,” while endeavoring to eviscerate him in front of an audience; all are transparent and duplicitous; all are juvenile; and all contribute to the unflattering public image of philosophy and philosophers.

We also have made the mistake of adopting social-media born expressions and mannerisms in our public and professional interactions. Prefacing a controversial proposition with “fun fact”; interjecting an insincere consideration of evidence with “checks notes”; asking people to “Imagine ɸ-ing,” where ɸ is something you may think is appalling, but about which many if not most people are relatively unperturbed; this kind of snark is barely tolerable when coming from a sixteen year old, but when employed by highly educated, adult philosophers regarding things that we have deemed Matters of Great Importance, it makes us seem unserious – to one another and to everyone else. 

Both the academic and vulgar uses of these kinds of rhetoric rest on the idea that one can create the reality one prefers merely through the use of words and gestures: that a minority view can become a majority one by calling it a “fun fact”; that a perfectly reasonable position can be made ludicrous by gasping or making faces; or that something most people are fine with – or at least, willing to tolerate – can be made beyond the pale by gesturing at some moral theory or other and pronouncing the thing “impermissible.” In this regard, our rhetoric very much follows the logic of marketing and advertising in the commercial and political arenas, where creating hitherto non-existing realities – customers from non-customers, political supporters from non-political supporters – is the entire point. There is, however, one key difference: corporations and politicians spend enormous sums of money to hire people who have expertise in the area of human motivation and behavior in the relevant arenas (in these cases, the marketplace and the polity) and employ sophisticated techniques involving both overt and covert forms of manipulation to achieve their desired results. Philosophers just behave like a bunch of excitable teenagers, without a second’s thought as to what might actually persuade other people to see or do things our way. And given how little is at stake – unlike in the area of commerce or politics, where successful persuasion translates into profits or electoral and legislative victories, nobody really cares about what philosophers think or do (aside from other philosophers) – this state of affairs is unsurprising though perhaps, lamentable.