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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Linguistic returns : the currency of sceptical-rhetorical theory and its stylistic inscription in the Platonic and Derridian text Wittfoth, Monina


Based on the premise that modernity’s understanding of the linguistic sign has a long history dating back to ancient Greece when the linguistic mediation of knowledge preoccupied thinkers like Parmenides and Plato, this dissertation synthesizes contemporary post-structuralist and rhetorical understandings of language with like-minded findings of other fields of language study. It sees post-structuralist and deconstructive understandings of language as being congruent with the long tradition of rhetorical theory and the infamous linguistic turn in philosophy, that was initiated by the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, as a turn away from the actual phenomena of language towards an idealization of it. Nevertheless the thesis discovers recent findings by some of the beneficiaries of the “philosophy of language” that corroborate rhetorical theory’s insights. Inspired by both Derrida and Plato, this dissertation presents a rhetorical-deconstructive image of language that, recalling the root of the term skopevw (‘I look,’ ‘behold,’ ‘contemplate’), I characterize as sceptical. This study follows the theoretical matrix of de Man, Fish, Culler and Barbara Johnson, who are, of course, themselves following Derrida. It has a holistic attitude to language characteristic of the Bakhtin/Volsohinov approach, drawing insights from classical and contemporary rhetorical theory, post-structuralist theory, findings of systemic functional grammar, recent work in cognitive science and psychology on affect and language use, the scholarship of reported speech, and the ostensive-inferential theory of communication called Relevance. This cross border work in intellectual history, language theory and stylistics examines the interstices of theory and style in the work of figures such as Plato, Aristotle, Bacon, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Voloshinov, Bakhtin and Derrida. Sperber and Wilson, Scholars of Reported Speech and Halliday are central to its findings; the thinking of William James and Silvan Tomkins play supporting roles. It positions Plato as the founder of rhetorical theory and studies the voices of Plato and Derrida as language theorists. I examine both how Plato and Derrida talk about language and what theories of language underlie their styles, determining finally that their sceptical-rhetorical theories prompt their ironic-conversational stylistics.

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