* A note to the reader: Please disregard the highlighting. It is an annoying quirk of my computer to highlight words at random, and that highlighting appears to be indelible. At least until I figure out what is wrong with the thing.
I love symbolic logic because it has a lovely mechanism. If my argument is sound, then someone has to eat up my conclusion. Learning how to construct (and dissect) arguments was one of the most helpful things I learned at university, and it annoys the hell out of everyone because it is rather hard to win an argument against me. It is a wonderful skill!
However, as I learned while I was working on my philosophy minor is one must define one’s terms and argue from a “place.” It can either build off of someone else’s argument, or be more original than that. Premises must be stacked, and they must support each other. It seemed that, after reading many many articles and arguments, everyone was arguing out of their own philosophy, with their own terms, and own strands of reasoning. The only connections that philosophers really had were a shared history of the discipline. I thought about this while I read Winterowd’s “The Classical Tradition and Composition/Rhetoric.”
Plato/Socrates, Aristotle, and Isocrates all have their own perception of truth and whether or not it was possible to know truth. I’m not to going to get into whatever fallacies they may or may not have committed on the journey because this isn’t that kind of space. (And thankfully! I love philosophy, but it takes me an extraordinary amount of time and effort to write it). What interested me the most is how much voice and personal perception colors a philosopher’s logic. This really was a new thought to me, as I rarely make philosophy personal. I argue better when I am detached, so I typically only argue about topics that I am interested in, rarely topics that I am passionate about. I will focus on Isocrates… he seems to be the strongest example. His belief that truth could not be found in a chaotic world full of imperfect people seemed to come from his own experiences of a rather terrifying time in history. His world was chaotic. People were killed seemingly without reason. How could this world have any truth? How could such a thing exist? His terms, his premises, and his argument all reflected this. Plato and Aristotle both had premises, similar terms, and a similar way of arguing their case… but their voices were different. They reflected their persons. Reading one compared to another is like reading about completely separate topics. One is ideal and comes from god, one is real and is found in the world, and one was never there at all.
I see this on a day to day level as well. As I was reading through students’ papers in my internship, I came across one that argued that the author had THE MOST complicated life. I had to stifle a laugh. She gave her premises, defined her complication, and presented her argument. My thoughts immediately flicked to my grandmother’s life. She grew up in Nazi Germany. She is Romani-Gypsy. That is a very complicated life. However ridiculous I found this student’s claim, I had to remember that she felt she had the most complicated life out of all the lives she knew (her life). She was arguing from her own philosophy, her own definitions and experiences. But even then her argument falls flat, because how could anyone prove that he or she has the most complicated life? There isn’t a grading system. We can’t know all lives. Even within her own philosophy, it doesn’t work, because it still exists within a wider discourse because she is referring to that discourse (ie: the world. The most complicated life [in the world]). I’m not saying her life was uncomplicated. That’s not really the point. But it was clear to me then that rhetoric is even more important in the classroom than I thought.
People make sweeping claims (like that one, for example!), and writing is convincing when it is believable. Generalizations can’t be entirely believable. They don’t have enough evidence. That’s why philosophers debate for centuries about enormous topics such as truth and
reality tv beauty. But they debate not because their personal voice gets in the way of their argument (though sometimes it does), but because these topics are big, complex, and hard to prove. Personal voice in a well-argued article can enhance the piece. It’s part of the magic of rhetoric. It’s adds color and persuasion. It seems that voice might be a source, or at least inspiration, for these arguments. But voice alone cannot drive a paper. It needs to be sound and it needs to make sense. It seems that we are teaching our students not only to use their voice, but to use it within rhetoric, because that is what makes it effective. Especially in smaller-scale, easy to prove arguments that one finds in personal essays. It is crucial for the writing to have a strand of logic because there is simply no room for those kinds of errors. They are too glaring, and too easy to fix to be overlooked. For instance, my grandmother always says she is a weed. By this she means she is tough like a weed. It is an interesting metaphor, considering her reasoning (which she has walked me through).
Weeds are undesirable to some people.
Some weeds survive extermination.
Romani-Gypsies were “undesirable” to the Nazis.
My grandmother is Romani-Gypsy.
She survived Nazi extermination.
My grandmother is akin to a weed in this way.
Her logic, though metaphorical and personal, is easy to follow. It’s an easier claim to support than a claim like “I have the most complicated life,” which really could never be demonstrated so neatly. And perhaps that is the point. Metaphors and claims and all those wonderful things are a part of writing, but they are also a part of our wider discourse. We are not born knowing how to make sense. Rhetoric is worth teaching. Even if all these writings are coming with their own definitions, voices, and premises, they are still communicating something, and bridging that meaning between people is what rhetoric does. Otherwise, it is all just a babble of voices.