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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Epistemology, invention, and the aims of rhetoric Quon, Dennis J.


A major objective of contemporary writing instruction is to equip students with skills that enable them to communicate information in clearly organized prose. In particular, the formal inventional strategies of argumentative discourse assist students in imparting information in logically consistent structures. Unfortunately, when emphasis is placed mainly on formal and organizational concerns, the activity of writing seems to become for students an end in itself, detached generally from any genuine communicative purpose and any actual context outside the writing class. Argumentative writing that emphasizes formal structures can appear to students to be little more than an exercise which affords them opportunity to demonstrate their facility with organizational and formal logical skills, an exercise which appears essentially to isolate writers from their ethical commitment to, and responsibility for, the impact and consequences of their arguments for their readers. Another indirect yet nonetheless major consequence of the emphasis on formal argumentative skills is that students tend to overlook the vital function that argumentative discourse performs in the realm of sociopolitical, cultural, and humanistic issues and disputes. In effect, students are less likely to realize that informal argumentative skills can improve their effective access to this realm. One of the major aims of the composition class then should also be to prepare our students for their roles as responsible literate contributors to the well-being and maintenance of their society and culture. In order to participate effectively in this realm, students require informal inventional skills (that is, strategies for discovering, judging and selecting the most effective arguments for a particular piece of discourse) that accommodate the contingent and variable subject matter and issues that characterize sociopolitical and cultural discourse: opinions, values, beliefs. Students require not only strategies for organizing information, but also strategies for analyzing the peculiarities and specific features of audiences and context, and ultimately for incorporating these characteristics into the discourse. The purpose of this paper is to argue that contemporary composition pedagogy should complement formal argumentation with instruction in informal argumentation. One way of achieving this culturally and politically valuable objective is to revive, with some modification to suit contemporary students and circumstances, the model of informal argumentation and invention posited in classical rhetoric. The ancients based their inventional strategies for persuasive argumentation on the complex relationship between the aims of rhetoric and epistemological concerns, strategies that reflected the ethical and emotional, as well as logical, components of most cultural and sociopolitical discourse. Chapter One describes the classical model of informal argumentation. This chapter details the array of informal inventional strategies prescribed in the Greco-Roman rhetorical tradition of Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian. These strategies derived from a profound understanding of the ethical, emotional, and logical interplay characteristic of the aims and context of political, judicial, and civic disputes. During the Middle Ages, rhetorical pedagogy privileged not informal argumentation, but modes of discourse that responded to this essentially non-democratic period. Relying not on effective public oratory to conduct its civic, cultural, and political affairs but rather on formal and stylistic arts, the Middle Ages privileged ars praedicandi (the art of preaching), ars dictaminis (the art of letter-writing) and ars poetriae (preceptive grammar). The Renaissance, with its emphasis on civic humanism, revived the classical tradition of informal argumentation. The influence of Aristotle but mainly Cicero and Quintilian is evident in the representative rhetorics of Erasmus and Thomas Wilson. Towards the end of the Renaissance, the classical tradition of informal argumentation encounters its severest interruption, as Chapter Two explains. Due to the overwhelming influence of the New Science and Logic on all branches of study during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, subsequent rhetorics incorporated formal treatments of invention and argumentation, thereby replacing informal argumentation in rhetorical pedagogy. Responding to the efforts of Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, and John Locke in the seventeenth century, and to David Hume and David Hartley in the eighteenth, to devise empirical and rational methods that would generate a body of certain, undisputable truth and knowledge about the material as well abstract worlds, eighteenth-century rhetoricians such as George Campbell, Hugh Blair and, in the early nineteenth century, Richard Whately, adopted definitions of logical reasoning, proof, and evidence derived from the New Logic. The influence of Campbell, Blair, and Whately on nineteenth-century composition instruction was extensive. Popular composition rhetorics such as those of Alexander Bain, Henry Day, and John Genung also privileged formal argumentation. The tradition of formal argumentation dominates contemporary writing instruction. As Chapter Three argues in its examination of composition texts by Frank J. D'Angelo, William E. Messenger and Peter A. Taylor, and James A. McCrimmon, the bulk of current composition rhetorics and handbooks privilege formal argumentation. Formal argumentation is not particularly effective in the realm of sociopolitical and humanistic affairs. A number of contemporary theorists recognize this shortcoming; theorists such as Maxine Hairston, Janice Lauer, Gene Montague, Andrea Lunsford, and Janet Emig, Linda Flower, and Rise B. Axelrod and Charles R. Cooper propose models of informal argumentation. In order to reinforce the need to complement formal argumentation with informal argumentation, Chapter Four highlights the insights of modern rhetoricians such as Kenneth Burke, Richard M. Weaver, Wayne C. Booth, and Chaim Perelman. Reviving in many basic respects the fundamental yet profound wisdom of classical rhetoric, these rhetoricians expound insights into the nature of human disputes, communication, and interaction that highlight the cultural, sociopolitical, and humanistic aims and responsibilities that rhetorical pedagogy should promote. In essence, their discussions support this thesis' claim that contemporary composition pedagogy needs to revive a framework and model of informal argumentation that assists our students in responding to these very aims and responsibilities.

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