Toward a Grammar of Rhetorical Reason

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“Toward A Grammar of Rhetorical Reason”


Dr. James M. Tallmon

© 1997-2017

Neither is this use [of topics] (truly taken) only to furnish argument to dispute probably with another, but likewise to minister unto our judgement . . . to direct our inquiry. For a faculty of wise interrogating is half a knowledge. . ..
–Francis Bacon (1605)

Rhetorical analysis provides a way of addressing the central questions of collective existence in an organized and consis­tent, but not rule-bound way. … Rhetoric in the highly expanded sense in which I speak of it might even become the central discipline for which we have been looking for so long–which “science” has proven not to be–by which the others can be defined and organized and judged. –James Boyd White (1985)

Bacon’s keen insights regarding special topics notwithstanding, modernity has seen that the long term effect of his (and, more precisely, Descartes’) revo­lution was to derogate the oral, particular, local, timely, and concrete in favor of the abstract and uni­versal (Toulmin 1990). As a result, rational­istic and scientistic methods of inquiry are inadequate to the demands of the central questions of collective existence. Science has not proven to be the central discipline that Enlightenment thinkers hoped it would be because logic and science deal in black and white; life deals us shades of gray. Rhetoric holds promise as a central discipline precisely because it abides, even thrives, where certainty is unavailable; as “the collaborative art of addressing and guiding decision and judgment” (Farrell 1993, p. 1). How does rhetoric operate as a guide to decision and judgment? The general answer to this question is rather obvious; working out the particularities has engaged American rhetoricians now for a quarter-century.

The various working groups of 1970’s National Developmental Project on Rhetoric (Rhetoric Project), met to tackle a central question: “What conception of rhetoric is needed in our time?—or, what are the primary dimensions, terms, and problems involved in elaborating a new rhetoric?” (Bitzer and Black, p. 238).[1] The Rhetoric Project’s conclusions are instructive: “Our recognition of the scope of rhetorical theory and practice should be greatly widened”; “A clarified and expanded concept of reason and rational decision must be worked out”; “Rhetorical invention should be restored to a position of centrality in theory and practice” (Bitzer and Black, 238-9). These themes constitute a call for conceptualizing rhetorical invention as an architectonic art.

The tack of scholarship that aims to conceptualize rhetorical invention as an architectonic art is, generally speaking, to underscore the limitations of formal logic and argue that “rhetorical logic” or “informal inference” fills the void (thereby challenging the hegemony of hypothetico-deductivism). While such scholarship does help widen the scope of rhetorical studies, fundamental ques­tions regard­ing thefunction of rhetorical invention deserve more attention. Of course it would take an exhaustive genealogical survey of the works of the alumni of the Rhetoric Project and their students to support such a sweeping claim. Perhaps the above claim may be sufficiently supported, given present concerns, by touching on surveys and collections of essays by and about alumni of the Rhetoric Project and the movements they initiated: Robert L. Scott (rhetoric-as-epistemic); Herbert Simons (rhetoric of science/inquiry); Wayne Booth, Richard McKeon and E.P.J. Corbett (composition rhetoric); and Wayne Brockriede (argumentation).

Leff (1978), Warnick (1983) and Brummett (1990) all conclude that rhetorical epistemologists demonstrate a preoccupation with challenging the hegemony in academic discourse of deductivism. Such a preoccupation is productive of critical lines of inquiry regarding the scope of rhetorical invention and establishes key definitions and matters epistemological. These are all issues that must be settled in order to give the discipline theoretical elegance, but what of practice? Brummett posits that the epistemic rhetoric movement “perished from starvation, as academic warriors endlessly sharpened spears and arrows and complained about each other’s weapons, while hardly anybody actually left the cave to slay and roast a real discourse” (1990, p. 71). Rhetoric will not be restored to a position of centrality in both theory and practice until its practical utility is established beyond the cave. If rhetoric is utterly academicized it will eventually be trivialized, then marginalized.

The rhetoric of inquiry and science movements are similarly motivated to challenge the hegemony of deductivism, but they respond to the felt need to “slay and roast” real discourse. Proceedings from the two conferences that launched this project (they are one project in the sense that rhetoric of science was broadened to include all academic inquiry), Nelson, et al (1985, pp. 65-73) and Simons (1990) suggest a preoccupation with criticism. A recent article of Michael Hyde’s exemplifies the best scholarship in this vein.

Hyde’s (1993) “Medicine, Rhetoric and Euthanasia,” is a critical appraisal of the rhetoric of euthanasia in which he reads as a case study recent discourse, from the journals of medical ethics, about a famous biomedical controversy: “It’s Over, Debbie.” Hyde’s is a rhetorical reading (that employs postmodern criteria) of ethical discourse in professional journals which aims to open discussion about medical praxis. Another recent, highly regarded work, Farrell’s Norms of Rhetorical Culture demonstrates, from cover to cover, the critic’s preoccupation. He defines rhetorical inquiry, at the outset, as a critic would, “the study of public communication” (1993, p. 1) and his parting thought evinces the critic’s impulse: “Where rhetorical study is concerned, engaged critical practice revives one of our deepest human cravings: to reengage the rich, elliptical adventure of civic life” (1993, p. 321). Farrell engages there in a philosophic enterprise–to explore the role of rhetoric in the restoration of communitas–but that philosophy is elaborated by means of criticism. The above is not intended as a statement of deficiency, but of orientation. Farrell’s unique union of theory and criticism is laudable. Criticism is a necessary and fruitful enterprise; but it is, after all, an exclusively academic enterprise. That is, criticism serves to expand the theoretical scope of, rather than delineate practical applications for, rhetorical inquiry; it may illuminate practice, but its primary aim is contemplation, not action.

The composition rhetoric movement is more practical in nature than the two mentioned above, but their conception of praxis is limited, for the most part, to the practice of writing good essays. Moss (1986) and Lunsford, et al, (1989) edited the proceedings of two important gatherings of composition rhetoricians; both reflect a preoccupation with pedagogy. Again, the cultivation of good writing is vital, I do not wish to belittle the aim, only to suggest that a differnet aim may promote the sort of practical utility we are after. Argumentation studies reflect a more general interest in praxis in a variety of contexts (Trapp and Schuetz, 1990). One interesting study in argumentation even studies the function of Chaim Perelman’s taxonomy of argument schemes in actual ethical discourse (Warnick and Kline, 1992). Rhetorical invention does not function exclusively as a techne of argumentation. This essay will focus on the faculty of discovery endemic to rhetorical invention in hopes that clarifying the distinction between discovery and argumentation will hasten the restoration of rhetorical invention.

Carroll Arnold concludes of Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin’s The Abuse of Casuistry (1989) that it brilliantly describes and illustrates the structure of casuistical argument (which the authors wish to revive as a means of resolving moral dilemmas in clinical practice), and clearly establishes its practical utility. Arnold concludes his review of The Abuse by calling for “specific, field-dependent criteria for sound casuistical reasoning in field after field. We need to know what compe­tency and exhaustiveness are in, say, ethics, in clinical medicine, in case law, and in other fields. Discovering various intra-field criteria for sound case reasoning remains an open project that beckons scholarly readers of this journal …” (Arnold 1989, p. 495). More recently, and similarly, Farrell calls for the close study of actual durational rhetorical experience as a means of reviving the rhetorical forum (Farrell 1993, pp. 285-88). In short, both Arnold and Farrell evoke the very question raised at the outset: How does rhetoric function as a guide to decision and judgment?

The above sketch suggests that, in order to best answer the question, one ought to: (a) examine ordinary discourse, (b) focus on functionality, (c) emphasize the discovery aspect of invention over the techne of argumentation, and (d) stress practical applicability. Returning briefly to Hyde’s (1993) essay helps illustrate key distinctions; distinctions that both situate the present work and suggest how it contributes to the restoration of rhetorical invention. Both the present study and Hyde’s treat discourse in medical ethics, only Hyde’s aim is to assess the rhetorical strategies of medical ethicists; mine is to conceptualize the procedures of moral reasoning employed by medical practitioners in terms of classical rhetorical doctrine. (By “conceptualization” I mean the systematic detailing of constituent parts of a complex concept–the result of which is a methodology or a grammar.) Hyde concerns himself with the rhetoric of medical ethicists; this work examines the method of rhetorical reason employed by medical practitioners; the former features the techne facet of rhetorical invention, the latter features the process that precedes argumentation. So then, in a sense, this work may be necessarily preparatory to Hyde’s.

I have proposed that the term “rhetorical reason” be used uniformly (in lieu of various ascriptions: “rhetorical logic,” “informal inference,” and the like) to signify the faculty of discovery, endemic to rhetoric, that precedes argumentation (1994, 1995a & 1995b). Rhetorical invention, understood broadly, is an art of building lines of argument. However, as Cicero emphasizes, before one “turns to the topics” in order to invent arguments, one must understand the case and study it in order to discover the issues at stake.[2] The discovery element of rhetorical invention is cognitively prior to the techne of rhetoric because the best lines of argument are those which address most productively the issues at the heart of the case. This move is both preliminary to argumentation and a very subtle mental operation.

Now this distinction is admittedly artificial; of course discovery and argumentation are simultaneous mental operations. However, it is a valid distinction to maintain for the sake of both analysis and pedagogy. Maintaining that distinction makes it possible to isolate the method of an elusive reasoning process and stabilizing the method of rhetorical reason, as will be made clear later, is a vital antecedent to its restoration in practice. Isolating and stabilizing the method of rhetorical reason will render it accessible and also practically useful in ways that abstracted treatments of the subject will not. Detailing rhetorical reason, qua heuristic instrument, will focus attention on rhetoric’s most practical side, which will contribute to its restoration in practice better than rhetorical critique of academic discourse. That is so because the faculty of discovery endemic to rhetorical invention serves as a useful guide to the resolution of hard cases; it has broad, practical utility when significant matters are at stake and, ironically, where the issue at stake is unclear. The more technology progresses, the more practitioners must daily confront dilemmas that do not admit of demonstrative proof. Therefore, an accessible (because fully articulated) conception of moral inquiry should be well received. Recent developments in medical ethics, as Arnold suggests, provide fertile ground for such researches.

Toward a Rhetorical Ethics

On an earlier occasion I gestured in Jonsen and Toulmin’s direction because their treatment of casuistry shows promise as a means of illuminating the function of rhetorical reason (Tallmon, 1995a). That is so because, not only do parallels obtain between the two, but, as Jonsen himself asserts, “the form of reasoning constitutive of classical casuistry is rhetorical reasoning” (Jonsen, 1991a, p. 297). Casuistry is a method of case reasoning especially useful in treating cases that involve moral dilemmas, and a moral dilemma “is made of maxims in conflict.”[3] Examples of the type of maxims which reside in biomedical cases are: “Do no harm,” “Patients ought to have autonomy in matters of treatment,” and “Relieve suffering whenever possible.” So, for example, a medical dilemma could hinge on a con­flict between the physician’s obligation to “do no harm” and a patient’s autonomous preference to discontinue a life-saving treatment. Jonsen teaches clinicians to conduct lines of inquiry, guided by topics, in order to clarify the maxims in conflict at the heart of a given moral dilemma as a precursor to rendering sound moral judgment.[4] It is important here to distinguish, once again, between practical and academic inquiry. The most important use of casuistry is as a guide to actual clinical practice, and, as a result, Jonsen does not teach clinicians to merely discuss interesting cases, but to render sound judgment in a timely fashion, for the sake of the patient. The aim is not contemplation (academic inquiry) for personal edification, but acting (practical judgment) in another’s best interest.

Though Jonsen has done a commendable job clarifying the role of rhetorical reason in casuistry since The Abuse, his primary interests lie elsewhere. It is incumbent upon rhetorical scholars to provide a more nuanced account. Hence, detailing the methodology of casuistry helps conceptualize, by analogy, rhetorical reason (Tallmon, 1994). The present study is the next phase of that project; it will supply needed detail and explore nuances. Talk of a detailed an nuanced case study evokes the spectre of tedium, but my hope is that, given the above, the reader finds the study worthwhile, for, as Farrell (1993) notes, this sort of yield comes only through the analysis of “real durational experience” in the arena of actual rhetorical practice (287). Actual rhetorical practice is messy.

Following, then, is my attempt to “slay and roast” actual discourse in order to isolate the process of inquiry, implied in the talk of an ethics committee, to illuminate how that talk first, guides inquiry, then culminates in the grounding for, a particular and local and actual, moral judgment. The case study serves to illustrate the manner in which rhetorical reason guides this particular moral inquiry; I do not conceive of myself generalizing from this study a model of reason. The body of my essay constitutes an extended example, the aim of which is to isolate key components of a method that is long established, but elusive because it involves such tacit mental operations. The essay closes with a brief examination of some important theoretical implications of rhetorical reason so conceived. (A more complete discussion of implications is, to tame the more “beastly” characteristics of the project, handled in a companion essay here!)  A close study of actual durational rhetorical/ethical practice should fill select lacunae in rhetorical studies and pave the way for a stable view of the heuristic instrument endemic to rhetorical invention signaled in The Prospects of Rhetoric.

A Methodology of Rhetorical Reason in Shared Moral Inquiry

Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric, “The faculty of observing, in any given case, the available means of persuasion,” presupposes also the distinction between a techne of speech­making and a cognitively prior faculty of discovery. That is so because, before one argues a case, one must discover what is at issue. How, for example, does one discover available means of persuasion? One does not simply frolic through fertile fields of topoi, randomly gathering materials with which to build lines of argument. There is a method endemic to rhetoric which guides the search for those lines of argument that are most relevant because they speak most directly to the issue. George Kennedy explicates the distinction when he writes that the work of rhetoric, in Aristotle’s view, “is ‘to discover [theoresai] the available means of persuasion’ (1.1.1355b25-6). It is thus a theoretical activity and discovers knowledge. This knowledge, which includes words, arguments, and topics, is then used by the orator as the material cause of a speech. There is thus a theoretical art of rhetoric standing behind or above the productive art of speech-making” (emphasis added, 1980, p. 63). Rhetorical invention, then, involves more than a techne; it is also a faculty of discovery (dunamis to theoresai)–rhetorical reason.

The Aristotelian approach to invention further assumes that reasoning employed in decision-making is a kind of probable reasoning. “It assumes that, although the contingencies of nature and of individuals prevent our obtaining certainty about future politi­cal and social affairs, we still can use our reason to discover the best course to pursue. Such reasoning applied to human affairs to make decisions about what should be done is rhetorical rea­soning issuing in praxis (Moss 1986, pp. 2,3). Taken together, the above suggest a very distinct conceptualization. Judgments about what ought to be done in the future are generally matters of counsel, (or shared inquiry) and always contingent (based on probability). Shared inquiry, following Wayne Booth, can be under­stood as “the art of reasoning together about shared concerns” (1988, p. 108). That is, shared because the judgment is discursively negotiated with reference to both the crux of the case and in the best interest of some other. One must take care to distinguish between senses of the word “moral.” By moral inquiry I mean inquiry into practical matters (as opposed to speculative inquiry or scientific inquiry). Hans-Georg Gadamer uses “moral” in this same sense in Truth and Method (p. 314); Jonsen and Toulmin write that “moral knowledge is essentially particular” (1988, p. 330). An inquiry is moral, not because it involves questions of moral­ity, but because it makes determinations of what is the right thing to do in contingent cases; where such judgments are not made deterministically. Moral inquiry is conducted in the contingent realm, and is concerned with the particular case.

The Case of Baby Anthony

The object of the present study is a consult (held in May 1992 in Washington State) attended by a medical direc­tor, the attending physician, an ethicist, a resident, a social worker, a nursing manager, two nurses and the author. They convened to discuss the fate of baby Anthony; a premature infant, born to a drug-abusing mother, who was not responding to aggressive (and somewhat experimental) treatment for lung disease that had lasted 22 days and cost the hospital $50,000. Anthony was born after 26 weeks’ gestation, with a birthweight of 709 grams, to a mother with a history of illicit drug use, no prenatal care, and unfulfilled intentions early in pregnancy to have an abortion. He had severe infant respiratory distress syndrome, a disease asso­ciated with surfactant insufficiency and lung immaturity common at his age. He was placed in neonatal intensive care. On his fourth day of life, he had bleeding in the ventricles of the brain; interstitial emphysema (lung damage from mechanical ventilation) was noted on chest radiographs. Because of increasing problems with gas exchange, on day 6, he was put on an oscillating ventilator. The following day, his lung disease worsened and his blood pressure began to fall; his mother was informed that death was imminent and that she should consider discontinuing life support measures, but before a decision was made, his clin­ical condition began to improve. On day 8, he developed a pneumothorax (free air in the chest cavity) and required an incision through the chest wall for insertion of a chest tube to continuously drain the air. Over the next few days, he had gradual deterioration in his pulmonary function despite an increased level of mechanical ventilation. On the night before the confer­ence, at 21 days of age, he developed new pneumothoraces requir­ing placement of chest tubes on both sides. Anthony was given barely any chance of living, but it was agreed that, if he did live, he would most likely be severely and multiply handicapped.

Topics in Rhetorical Reasoning

The classical lore of topics “is as confused as the modern efforts to revive it” (Leff 1983, p. 24). There are, however, certain aspects of classical doctrine that contribute to the present discussion. If, for example, one considers how the heuristic role of topics (as an aid to discovery) differs from their technical function (in building arguments), one may avoid compounding that confusion by illustrating a meaningful differentia. Anthony’s case clearly illustrates the difference.

Ethicist OK, can you say something about the two pneumothoraces?

Attending Umm, it’s not unusual for babies initially to have air leak which then evolves and uh, they go on and get progressively worse and their lungs collapse.

Eth With the new oscillating ventilator, should that theoretically decrease the risk of pneumothorax? Is there any differential between the technologies; the conventional and the oscillating?

Att The new ventilator technique, the high frequency oscillator, a lot of initial work was done through the 80s, and the early indications were positive.

Medical Director For the prevention of air leaks, animal studies have been miraculous in this ability, in like lambs and baboons particularly.

Eth And in Anthony’s case the the second pneumothorax was on the oscillating ventilator?

Att That’s right, the second air leak occurred while he was on the oscillator.

The above line of inquiry consists of a line of questions prompted by the spe­cial topic Jonsen calls Medical Indications, and is motivated by the need to determine which features of Anthony’s medical condition are most relevant. It is important to note here that the above is not an argumentative exchange; it is an act of discovery prior to argument. The group is still in the process of discovering points of stasis. Hence, the time has not yet come for argument. The ethicist begins the line of inquiry with a general question about the significance of the pneumothoraces, follows it up with a question about the differences in technologies, then narrows the inquiry to establish the relative significance of the fact that the second pneumothorax occurred while Anthony was on the oscillating ventilator; a medically significant feature of the case. The manner in which the ethicist moves within the topic of medical indica­tions, narrowing his focus, attempting to discover any particularly relevant issues is also noteworthy. The special topic “cordons off” one aspect of the moral dilemma into a manageable part, and then, by the function of those subtopics which arise naturally from the issues indigenous to Anthony’s case, it prompts questions which help illuminate which issues are most relevant with regard to the need to render a moral judgment. Note that the topics do not determine relevancy: one could say that the eide topoi present the issues for consideration, while the act of ascribing relevance is itself a function of phronesis. The symbiotic relationship between special topics and practical wisdom is treated below.

Every field of argument has special topics which generate questions regarding vital issues in that field. The grounds of their relative importance is varied; various topics predominate in different types of inquiry within the same field. However one aspect of special topics is constant: they “issue” from the field; they are field-depen­dent. When collected together for the purpose of case argument, they are known as “stock issues models” or simply, topologies. Some examples are the stock issues model for policy debating (Ill, Blame, Cure and Cost), and Jonsen’s topology for dilemmas in patient care in medicine and nursing. Jonsen’s topology is a good example of a specialized topology because it is appropriate for treating cases in only one sub-field of medical ethics: patient care. Jonsen’s is a topology designed for use by medical practitioners in clini­cal ethical dilemmas. Cases in other areas of medical ethics (e.g., medical research) may be ordered around different sets of special topics. Arguments are constructed by means of answering the questions posed by special topics, and, if all of the stock issues are addressed, the case is said to be prima facie.[5] Such is the role of special topics in argumentation. We are, however, presently concerned with a different slant on special topics, one introduced in Aristotle’s Topica, taken up by the Peripatetics and developed in Cicero.[6]

Hopefully, we need not be reminded of the nuances of the Hermagorian stasis system; we are particularly familiar with Otto Dieter’s (1950) seminal treatment of the subject. Dieter was the first to bring to our attention how stasis came to represent, by synecdoche, the stasis system; a collection of questions one asks in order to discover the issues most relevant to successfully pleading a given case (1950, p. 359). Considered thus, stasis connotes a system that operates heuristically; as an aid to discovery. In their discovery role, special topics help establish parameters for the discus­sion–to distinguish what is relevant from what is not–and prompt questions during the course of studying the case. The narrowing function of topoi in casuistry is then accomplished in a twofold manner: (1) They guide the inquiry by prompting questions. (2) They set parameters by (along with phronesis) ascribing degrees of relevancy to issues.

Each topic has an inner logic which suggests subtopics, and by following the lines of inquiry suggested by the subtopics, the group parses the case in order to reveal the issue at stake. Questions arise until each topic is exhausted. When each topic is exhausted, the inquiry is complete, and the issue at stake should be clearly in view; if it is not, then, by definition, the inquiry is unfinished, more discussion is in order. I wish to underscore that this is not an academic inquiry; the aim is praxis, not contemplation. Special topics also help the ethics committee distinguish between the more relevant and less relevant issues by bearing on the relevance of each issue, all the while directing inquiry toward the heart of the matter. The crux of the matter is composed of the most relevant of the relevant issues. Irrelevant issues, on the other hand, merit little if any consideration; for practitioners to expend con­scious energy reflecting on the relevance of such points is, one could say, counter-reflective: reflecting on irrelevancies makes no more sense than deliberating about the impossible. However, one area for negotiation in shared practical inquiry is issues whose potential relevance is in doubt.

The ethicist, for example, inquired into the significance of some finger movements that were mentioned when Anthony’s case was first presented to the ethics committee. The resident who presented the case apparently thought the “little finger movements” were worth mentioning, and, no doubt based on his lack of familiarity with that particular area of neonatology, the ethicist presumed they were, therefore, potentially relevant. If they are worthy of mention, one would assume that they are potentially relevant. Perhaps they suggested the extent of neurological damage and would, therefore, have diagnostic value. However, the resident replies that the finger movements only suggest a recivity; a simple contraction. The finger movements are, for him, irrele­vant. By virtue of the fact that nobody else challenged the resident’s interpre­tation of the finger movements, I would conclude that there was consensus in the healthcare team that those movements were indeed irrelevant. The important (and subtle) point here is that the entire exchange is driven by a need to determine, out of a potentially limitless parade of particulars, which are relevant.

The essence of the enterprise of shared moral inquiry is defined by a single question: “What is relevant and what is not?” This is so because managing the particulars of the case is such a crucial part of placing oneself in a position to render judgment in the case. Special topics guide inquiry by prompting questions which cohere around lines of inquiry into the relevance of particular issues. The question of relevance is guided by the need to ascer­tain the crux of the matter. The special topics work to both prompt questions that arise naturally during the course of the moral inquiry, and to establish which lines of questioning will predominate; that is how rhetorical reason­ing determines the range of questions in moral inquiry. If no range of ques­tions is established, if the crux of the matter is not discovered by means of discourse, each moral inquiry could last indefinitely. But lines of inquiry are not granted relevance willy-nilly. One overarching criterion determines the degree of relevance (and therefore the relative worth) of a given line of in­quiry: Where does this line of questioning take the inquiry? Truly rele­vant lines of inquiry lead most directly to the crux of the matter–to the stasis.

Stases In Rhetorical Reasoning

As I noted, relevancy is not granted issues willy-nilly. Neither is that determination made deterministically—via demonstrative method. Such determinations are made discursively; they are discovered in the sense that they “come into view” as the inquiry proceeds. This is precisely the sense in which one could say that points for dispute (stasis points) “issue” from the case. The questions at issue in a given case are not predetermined; they must be discovered and negotiated. Of course one could hit on those issues intu­itively; however, having a method provides a degree of rigor to such deter­minations, and that method is a rhetorical art of discovery. Stasis does not perform a role as active in moral inquiry as special topics. The role of stasis in moral inquiry is passive; it provides a target at which topics aim, the movement of which (in tandem with phronesis) guides inquiry. More simply put, by aim­ing at the stasis, the group stays on task (see Conley 1990 pp. 30-33 and 78-80). Garnering the questions at issue, and summarizing them, positions the group to render judgment. Judgment follows, almost as if by necessity, from one’s view of the crux of the matter.

Consider, for example, the point at which Anthony’s healthcare team attempts to establish consensus about what is at issue in his case. That episode is interesting because three participants (the attending physician, nursing manager, and ethicist) simultaneously advance their views about what is at issue. The group’s inquiry into Quality of Life spills into an examination of Context (socioeco­nomic factors) as they relate to Quality of Life. Having established that Anthony’s survival chances were not very good, the ethicist asks:

Eth Who’s uh, paying for care?

Social Worker Medicaid.

Resident We are.

Att Since he was born we’ve probably spent somewhere around $40 or $50,000.

Eth And, at very best, he’s going to be here another ten months, at very best. (pause) The reason that, I think that the so-called futility judgment, uh is a convergence of all these aspects we’ve discussed. . . . It’s extremely important to get some data about how the baby will do, and under a variety of conditions. But it’s only one part of the futility judgment, which really develops, I think, from a set of factors, um, parental response to this baby is one of those factors, and future quality of life is another one, and then other issues, like uh, cost and so forth. It seems to me that, in looking at all of those things, the futility is a result of saying that “there is nothing very good anywhere in that sort of situation” and I think that-that’s a hard conclusion to come to because,. . . you would really want to make it as clean as possible, and so you want to have all those conditions that Jack mentioned uh, you’d want to fulfill them.

For the ethicist, the case hinges on the futility judgment, and the futility judgment is a convergence of: (1) medical indications, (2) parental response to the baby, (3) future quality of life, (4) cost and other factors external to the child. The futility judgment emerges, for the ethicist, when the following points of stasis converge: That Anthony’s prognosis was very bleak; that, should he survive, his quality of life would be low (and that in a questionable environment); and that, given its limited financial resources, perhaps the state should help patients with better prognoses.

Furthermore, that there is no “clean” point at which to make a futility decision is an issue that looms large in Anthony’s case. The one most readily identifiable point of stasis has to do with timing: How long ought one con­tinue treating, and trying alternative courses of treatment, before saying, “It is enough. This case is futile.” The ethicist continues:

You can’t take this baby into surgery and “fix” it. And so, the futility problem runs along a timeline: How long do you keep doing it? Or finding new ways of getting, see … And I don’t know that there’s an answer to the “How long?” Except that, it may be reasonable to pose–put an arbitrary point–say, “We’ll go one month.” Uh, but it is arbitrary. This is a little less arbitrary, because you’ve got one month data to work with, but you could say, therefore, “Let’s try the one month rule.” You could make a six week rule or a two month rule, but you probably need to make a, you need to make a timeframe for a case where there’s so many negatives, on all sides. Does that make any, does that make any sense?

The ethicist’s view of the heart of the matter culminates in his suggestion for action. In other words, the inquiry gives way to argument about what is at issue, which results in judgment. A moment later, the nursing manager articulates her view:

Nurse Manager But I think, at least from my perspective, I’m questioning, why are we continuing on when we know that, from our best knowledge level, that this baby’s going to die?

Att At this point we don’t know that. We can infer that from the data that’s available at a month of age. But up to this point … Gosh, I hope nobody would argue that, at a week of age we should’ve stopped the ventilation.

This exchange is very illuminating because the point of stasis is so evident. The nursing manager’s statement makes it clear that, for her, enough time has passed to justify the futility judgment; which is not surprising given her (and, especially her subordinates’) daily vigil at Anthony’s bedside. The attending physician voices caution and patience. As a result of the above negotiations, the inquiry is beginning to produce a shared conception of the heart of the matter, but the timing aspect now gains ascendency in the inquiry because it is the instant point of stasis.

The two physicians consider the timing issue by reflecting on personal experience. The attending first suggests that the group is being hasty and, after some reflection, he grants (with some reservation) that Anthony is close to the point of futility. However, he makes it clear that he is not convinced that terminating care at this time would be appropriate. The ethicist and the attending physician then argue about the relevance of the social setting.

Att But we have no control over the social situation.

Eth No. But you do have control over the fact that the baby continues to live.

Att The difficulty I have with suggesting that our decisions about whether babies live or die should depend upon what kind of a world they’re going to enter after their survival.

Eth Only to the extent that that world affects their quality of life.

The attending here operates on an implicit maxim: Only those aspects are relevant over which we have control. The ethicist responds by arguing again for the relevance of the social situation in Anthony’s case because the attending is still uneasy about allowing that issue to impinge on the judgment about what ought to be done. The above suffices to illustrate how special topics guide casuistical inquiry by perpetually raising the question: “Out of this parade of particulars, which are relevant and which are not?” When the dust settles, as it were, if the case involves a dilemma, the question at stake will be expressed in terms of conflicting maxims.

Maxims in Rhetorical Reasoning

A moral dilemma may be defined as a case which contains maxims in conflict. Boethius proffered a useful definition of maxim (Stump 1978). In Book One of his De topicis differentiis, Boethius wrote that the maxim is, “known per se, in such a way that there cannot be anything more known by which it could be proved. Since these proposi­tions produce appropriate belief in themselves by nature, they not only need no argument from without for belief but also are generally the starting point for the proof of other things” (De topicis 1176B 26-30).” One knows one has considered an issue fully when one arrives at a maxim, because, as Boethius puts it, maxims are decisive: they either introduce a new topic or signal the end of a particular line of inquiry. That is not to say that it is impossible rationally to critique a maxim. However, once that move is made, the group has moved into the philo­sophical (read “abstract”) realm, and is poised at a non-productive trailhead. Philosophical inquiry is fundamentally productive, to be sure, but its method is not well suited to manage the particularity involved in making practical judgments.

Maxims, then, provide focus in moral inquiry by (1) signalling the close of a line of questioning, (2) alerting those involved that the line from specificity to abstractness is about to be crossed. Insofar as staying close to the case is tantamount in practical inquiry, the role of maxims in casuistry is critical indeed. However, such a conception of maxim is incongruent with its ordinary meaning.

The term “maxim” ordinarily connotes a pithy saying that expresses a general rule of prudential conduct. There are various genres of maxims. For example, when Americans speak of maxims, we usually mean statements like: “A penny saved is a penny earned,” or “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” These are what I call, for obvious reasons, the “Poor Richard’s vari­ety: they are general maxims. Special maxims are, to borrow from Toulmin, field-dependent. In clinical biomedical ethics, for example, some of the most prevalent maxims are: “Above all else, do no harm,” “Patients’ autonomous wishes regarding matters of treatment should be honored,” and “Patients should never suffer needlessly.” These are also pithy sayings that express a general rule of prudential conduct; but these maxims abide within a disciplinary matrix. That is, they are special in the same way special topics are special.

There are four instances in Anthony’s case where special max­ims occur, and each illustrates the twofold function mentioned above. Rather than examine each episode, I will discuss the most critical and illustra­tive instance and take it as indicative of the other three. The most critical incident is when the nurse manager and the attending both assume maxims in their individual assertions about the heart of the matter. This discourse event clearly illustrates the manner in which maxims alert the discussants that they are about to enter the abstract realm. Their maxims are in direct conflict with one another; they constitute the question at stake in Anthony’s case.

NM But I think, at least from my perspective, I’m questioning, why are we continuing on when we know that, . . . this baby’s going to die?

Att At this point we don’t know that. We can infer that from the data that’s available at a month of age. But up to this point … Gosh, I hope nobody would argue that, at a week of age we should’ve stopped the ventilation.

The nursing manager’s statement, coined as a maxim would be: We ought not continue when we know that, from our best knowledge level, he’s going to die. The maxim implied in the attending’s statement is: One must not take such a drastic step prematurely. So then, explicitly articulated, the question at stake is: “Why are we continuing on if he’s going to die?” versus “We don’t know that (for certain) yet.” -or- Are we sure Anthony’s case is futile? Various lines of epistemologi­cal and phenomenological inquiry crowd in at this point, but the casuist must resist the impulse to abstraction. Certainly questions like “How certain must we be?” or “How futile is futile?” bear a degree of relevance to Anthony’s case, and ought to receive some attention (which they did). On the other hand, the questions that lurk just below that level—questions like “By what means does one achieve the sort of certainty we require?”—entail larger, dissertation-length, inquiries. Even at that, such questions will never be settled once and for all.[7]

I wish the reader to here envision an imaginary line; let us call it the line from specificity to abstractness. In any given moral inquiry, such a line exists, and when it is crossed, the group knows it, and they realize that, if it is crossed too often, their primary aim will be frustrated. Maxims operate as an alarm; keeping the inquiry on task. The exchange between the nurse man­ager and the attending illustrates how, at least in one instance, principles came to bear on the practical judgment, without tyrannizing the practical nature of the inquiry into violating the need to stay close to the case. Maxims may be compared to rules (as opposed to principles) and, of the latter, Nussbaum observes that practical wisdom uses rules “only as summaries and guides; it must itself be flexible, ready for surprise, prepared to see, resourceful at improvisation” (1986, p. 305), and, again, rules act as “summaries or rules of thumb, highly useful for a variety of purposes, but valid only to the extent to which they correctly describe good concrete judgments, and to be assessed, ultimately, against these” (1990, p. 68).

The rhetorician is quick to note that, the maxims implicit in both the nurse’s and attending physician’s views per­form an enthymematic function. That is, because practical inquiry differs from philosophic inquiry, commonly held assumptions sometimes rest at the starting place of a given argument. Maxims lie very close to the point at which discovery ends and argumentation begins; they signal that point, in fact. So, when Boethius asserts that maxims are decisive and are the “starting place for the proof of other things,” his statement should be understood in relation to the distinction between speculative and practical inquiry; between syllogistic/demonstrative argument and practical/enthymematic inquiry. Maxims are not unquestionable in the philosophical sense; but rather in the sense that, to challenge a maxim in the context of practical inquiry, would show a lack of prudence. Maxims are granted presumptive truth for the sake of practical inquiry; philosophic inquiry begins with the critique of premises. In other words, the degree of disputation one encounters in philo­sophical discourse is inappropriate to practical discourse; philosophic inquiry begins where practical inquiry leaves off.[8] Or, as John Henry Freese puts it:“Maxims are to enthymemes as premises are to syllogisms.”[9]

The role of maxims in argumentation (which is the concern of Aristotle, Boethius and Toulmin) is not so critical for current purposes. The concern here is with how the group that is sensitive to maxims–espe­cially to what they signal in a moral dilemma–is equipped to hit the mark of practical inquiry: correct action. Maxims, topoi and stases all help guide the inquiry toward its mark, but these alone are insufficient to guarantee success. The rhetorical reasoning processes sketched above guide moral inquiry, phronesis provides the movement.

Phronesis In Rhetorical Reasoning

Following John Henry Cardinal Newman’s lead, I view the moment of judgment in a moral case as an act of phronesis. Newman’s Grammar of Assent posits a phenomenological account of how it is that one derives a certitude from merely probable premises (Newman 1979). Most logicians of his day denied the very possibility of deducing a certitude from probable premises, yet Newman’s reflections on ordinary reasoning told him that peo­ple do in fact hold such certitudes all the time. In short, Newman argues that, over time, probabilities, facts and experiences can converge to produce a certi­tude about questions that do not admit of demonstrative proof.[10] Phronesis introduces moral certitude into rhetorical reasoning in five distinct ways: (1) By bringing to bear ethical principles where appropriate, (2) By bringing to bear past experience on present situations, (3) By generalizing from analogous cases to present ones, (4) By working in tandem with the special topics to guide inquiry, and (5) By grounding judgments by combining all of the first four aspects to bring together probabilities in their convergence. All five facets of phronesis are present in the ethics committee’s discussion of Anthony’s case, and are, for the sake of brevity, only synopsized below.[11]

At one point in Anthony’s case the medical director and the attending physician recollect past cases (generalizing from clinical experience) in order to test an assumption about the likelihood of Anthony recovering. Insofar as they brought to bear on Anthony’s case past experience, they were exercising practical wisdom. Another example of phronesis exemplifies, in precise terms, how phronesis builds moral force in rhetorical reasoning. Anthony’s attending argues, reductio ad absurdum, that, if neonatology’s goal were to ensure strong babies, “then we should just close the unit. Because it would be ‘survival of the strongest.’ And anybody who had any life-threatening illness at all would perish.” That hypothetical is clearly unacceptable to the neonatologist; his reductio utilizes a hypothetical in order to set up a situation that is clearly wrong (i.e., in the same sense that the genocide practiced in Nazi Germany is paradigmatically repugnant). It is important to note how the moral force is then brought to bear on the particular judgment: “… but uh, to me, it’s back to the issue, I’m very uncomfortable on the data that we have, saying that on a baby two weeks old our measures are futile” (emphasis added). The moral force, derived from the hypothetical, builds the rhetorical potency of the attending’s argument that the careteam ought not rush a futility judgment just because Anthony seems hopeless: their job is, after all, to salvage babies who would otherwise perish.

Phronesis, by means of the combined function of topics, stasis and maxims, also enables the group to apprehend the question at stake. For that reason, I call this the stasiastic function of phronesis in rhetorical reason­ing; it is the essence of practical inquiry. The stasiastic movement of the inquiry sanctions judgment and culminates in praxis. Given both its complexity and centrality, the manner in which phronesis facilitates the actual resolution of a moral dilemma warrants extended treatment.

The above clearly illustrates that phronesis works by means of converging probabilities. That is, Anthony will probably die; if he does live, he will probably be severely and multiply handicapped; and placing him in the same social setting would probably not be in Anthony’s best interest; ergo, the committee is reasonably certain that Anthony’s case is futile. That moral certitude is the result of converging probabilities, viewed in the light of practical wisdom.

Probability: Common Denominator Between Ethics and Rhetoric

When it comes to giving or gaining assent in the contingent realm, weighty probabilities, combined with other relevant facts, demon­strations, examples and testimony all con­verge to achieve per­suasion. This is so because the amplitude of a weighty probability is sufficient, when combined with other particulars, to produce a certitude. It is this sense of probability that Newman emphasizes in the Grammar, and his emphasis helps complete one’s understand­ing of the methodology of rhetorical reasoning.

By “converging probabilities” Newman means, probable reasons viewed in their convergence and combination. These constitute a “real, rea­sonable, but not argumenta­tive, [syllogistic] proof” such that a certitude is derived from them (1979 p. 260). As they converge, these probabilities confirm and check one another. Certitude is then based on an implicit, com­plex act of judg­ment focused on these probabilities in their convergence over time. This knowledge is important because practitioners must make moral judgments, and those judgments must not be arbitrary. That is, they must hold a moral certitude that their judgments are correct. The analogy here between “moral certitude” and the jurisprudential concept of reasonable doubt is a strong one. What does rea­sonable doubt mean? It means that, even in the absence of absolute proof, a judgment of guilt is still reasonable—given the accumulation of sufficiently strong probabilities.

Similarly, an ethics committee, after having conducted a thorough inquiry into a given matter, may responsibly arrive at a certitude for which they hold no demonstrable proof. This should not be taken as an invitation to slipshod ethics, but rather as an acknowledgement of the contingent nature of ethical decision making. “But how rigorous is that?” the skeptic demands. That important question is taken up presently. We must first consider the dialectical aspect of Anthony’s case, because a brief note on the role of dialect in rhetorical reason completes the conceptualization.

Rhetorical Reason and Dialectical Inference

The domain of rhetoric is the particular case; dialectic operates in the domain of the general proposition. Let us revisit the attending physician’s reductio ad absurdum to illustrate this critical distinction.

The attending was dismayed by the ethicist’s contention, mentioned above, that the baby’s social situation was a relevant consideration.

Att The difficulty I have is with suggesting that our decisions about whether babies live or die should depend upon what kind of a world they’re going to enter after their survival. . . .

Eth But it seems to me that neonatology has always had this problem to some extent, given the population from which a lot of babies–um, but, um–the objective of a neonatologist is to send as strong a baby out into any environment, if possible. And to send a baby out, that has major compromises, um doesn’t do that baby any favors.

Att Now see, I agree. But we’re seeing by definition the the weakest of the babies of this society to begin with. And if it were to ensure strong babies then we should just close the unit. Because it would be “survival of the strongest.” And anybody who had any life-threatening illness at all would perish and we’d have … uh I’m being facetious, I belabor the point, but uh, to me, it’s back to the issue, I’m very uncomfortable on the data that we have, saying that on a baby two weeks old our measures are futile. I don’t think that … Unless we need that bed. I think after you’re three or four weeks into it you can make that assessment fairly. But what I’m talking about, what we’re trying to do basically is to declare lung death, and Anthony, I think, is negative.

Eth Would there be any problem with setting a date? . . . and taking the one month seriously, and saying, “That’s the date for declaration of death unless something radically different happens.”

Note how the attending physician’s reductio ad absurdum is developed dialectically. In fact, the above serves almost as well to exemplify the Socratic method as a Platonic dialogue. In the above discourse we see the establishment of a dialectical proposition; the drawing out of implications, and the identification of a contradiction (futility judgments must not be rushed; we’ve not given Anthony enough time). One must also realize, however, that the attending apparently felt uncomfortable straying too far from the case at hand, because he apologizes (“I’m being facetious, I belabor the point . . .”) and brings to bear on Anthony’s case the point dialectically secured.[12] The procedure is dialectical; the domain is rhetorical.

The methodology demonstrates how rhetorical reasoning is a mode of dialectical inference, because dialectic and rhetoric are parallel faculties that operate in different domains. The more particulars, the less dialectical—hence, more rhetorical. So that, although the above example functions identically to dialectic, by virtue of its concern with good action on behalf of a particular patient, it is more accurately viewed as rhetorical reasoning.

Working from Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric, we now have a complete account of precisely why rhetorical reason is a counterpart of dialectic and that rhetorical invention entails both a techne of argumentation and a faculty (dunamis) of discovery (theoresai) that relies for its efficacy upon phronesis.[13]

Rhetorical reason, conceptualized systematically, will entail the following key elements:

  • case centeredness
  • discursive moral inquiry guided by topical logic
  • stasiastic doctrine
  • maxims
  • phronesis
  • a mode of dialectical inference

For much of history the dunamis to theoresai of rhetoric has been left to chance or native ability, and thetechne aspect of rhetoric has been privileged so that invention has been associated primarily with building arguments and neglected as a means of inquiry.[14] The art of rhetorical inquiry “has not been taught seriously and widely for at least two hundred years” (Bitzer and Black 1971, p. 239). The foregoing methodology responds substantively to such neglect in four ways: First, it helps to promote a fuller understanding of both the function and scope of rhetoric. Second, it capitalizes on Jonsen’s casuistry by means of a close study of actual durational rhetorical practice. Third, it suggests why conceptualizing rhetorical reason is especially important to the success of rhetoric’s restoration to centrality in both theory and practice, because the method of rhetorical reason must be stabilized before its practical utility will be realized.[15] In the final analysis, this conceptualization of rhetorical reasoning has the potential to broaden the domain of rhetorical inquiry to include precisely those practical fields that need it most and will testify to its utility as an architectonic art. Specifically, this project, because it details how rhetorical reason guides discovery in moral inquiry, demonstrates why rhetoric is epistemic indeed.

The conception here developed suggests how the quest for rhetorical reason holds implications for a quest for a communal (as opposed to individual) ethics.[16] The attending physician could have no doubt acted responsibly as a lone moral agent, but an ensemble of minds makes for a fuller deliberation of what is in Anthony’s best interest, and, one could argue, therefore provides for a more rigorous ethical judgment. Finally, rhetorical theorists will appreciate the implications of this project regarding practical applications for special topics.

Theoretical and/or Practical Implications

The case study illustrates that rhetorical reasoning derives its rigor from the methodical treatment of particulars: by staying close to the case and weighing relevant particulars, one against another, on the way to ferreting out the crux of the matter. Hence, it shows how rhetorical inquiry is rigorous even though not formally logical; that rhetorical reason depends not on a rigor derived from logical necessity and internal consistency, but on a sort of “heuristic rigor.” However, a conundrum lurks beneath all this talk of reasonableness in moral dilemmas: moral questions are contingent, so practical judgments do not admit of scientific procedure and certainty. Are practical judgments then arbitrary by definition? If not, by what means is arbitrariness avoided? Can shared moral inquiry—nice as it sounds—ever avoid arbitrariness? This problem may be cast in terms of the question: How does one introduce rigor into such a radically indeterminate enterprise?

The Question of Rigor

The judgments reached in ethics committees are reasonable if they emerge from the combined wisdom of a group of professionals who systematically consider all of the particulars (and exhaust all the topics) relevant to the question at hand, avoid unnecessary diversions, and hit upon a judgment that they deem appropriate. Such judgments are reasonable as opposed to logically necessary.

This state of affairs will never satisfy the logician: “Such judgments are only arbitrary and subjective!” comes the retort. For the strict formalist, more-geomet­rico is the only means whereby moral judgments are secured because more-geometrico provides unassailable rigor. S/he is preoccupied with the allure of the rigor of physics. Strict formalists are guilty of what Alfred North Whitehead calls the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness: they forget the abstractions involved in their constructions and then apply their system in a way that over reaches its bounds. They fail to see that the need of hypothetico-deductive reasoning for absolute consistency renders it ineffective as a means for approaching questions that, by definition, hold in tension incommensurables. Inasmuch as rationalists seek after abstract rules and prin­ciples, they demand both less precision and more certainty than the nature of moral inquiry admits. A moral dilemma is complex and exacting because it is hedged in by a multitude of particulars.

Chaim Perelman attends to this exigence by delineating between the “rational” and the “reasonable.” Perelman argues that the rational corre­sponds to mathematical reason and grasps necessary, immutable truths, and “owes nothing to experience or dialogue” (1979 p., 117). This vision of the rational per­son is dehumanizing in a sense because it renders one insensible to the con­crete. That is, it “shows a unilateral being functioning as a mechanism,” which is the opposite of the reasonable person, “who in his judgments and conduct is influenced by common sense (emphasis his 1979 p., 118). Perelman’s analysis is buttressed by the further consideration that one may not participate in common sense apart from community. The question of rigor is most fully addressed in light of the notion of shared inquiry. Thomas H. Murray (1987) presupposes as much in his discussion of Rigor and Rigidity.

Shared Moral Inquiry

Murray posits that communality itself produces rigor, thereby turning the tables on deductivists who fear that individual interpretations may be faulty or self-serving. “Without question, interpretation can be done well or poorly, or with greater or lesser impartiality. … This is, quite simply, an ever-present dan­ger wherever interpretation is necessary. … [but] interpretation is inescapable if we are to speak to practical issues at all. Sound, sensitive moral judgment requires interpretation as well as immersion into the particularity of the case” (1987 p., 640). One can achieve a heuristic rigor when groups of experts (together with others who have a stake in the outcome) immersing themselves in the particularity of the case and following methodical inquiry that guides interpretations.[17] Murray writes further that:

Some proponents of deductivism fear that interpretation will lead inexorably to laxness. They desire to preserve rigor and asceticism by holding interpretations that excuse conduct to a bare minimum. They do so by allowing few distinctions and by minimizing the effect particular circumstances will be allowed to have on the interpretation of general prohibitions. The danger in this approach is that in our desire to avoid laxity we will create instead a rigid and legalistic ‘tyranny of principles’ that tramples equity [18] (1987 p., 640).

Heuristic rigor is a product of rhetorical methods; rigidity is a product of logical deductivism. Rhetorical methods cannot operate without the practical wisdom and equity gleaned from an ensemble of minds; deductivism tramples them. The “normalized” rhetorical forum, writes Farrell, “provides loose but recognizable admission criteria as to who may speak, what may be spoken about, and how they are to be held accountable for what they say and do. In a very general sense, each of these sets of contraints [sic] may be subsumed under the larger category of the appropriate, which is perhaps the closest we can come to a congruence between emancipatory reason and phronesis” (1993, p. 288).

Furthermore, because competent and responsible professionals (and others with a vested interest in the outcome) demonstrate consensus that their judgments are sound, it follows that the methods of inquiry employed provided rigor sufficient to satisfy them of the appropriateness of their decision. Despite the circularity of my assertion, common sense suggests that, as a rule, loved ones and professionals, when working in concert on behalf of a patient, will not act arbitrarily. A professional has, by definition, internalized ethical and legal standards: what would happen if a doctor seriously proposed an unethical course of action in an actual consult? If one’s concern for a loved one is truly suspect, then a proxy decision maker will generally be secured. In short, the apparent circularity is problematic only when considered in vacuo academicae. To conclude otherwise commits one to the position that professionals and patients’ families are satisfied to act arbitrarily, but such a position fails the test of reflective equilibrium, or at least, the common sense of those who work closely with medical practitioners. Rhetorical reasoning, as a method of moral inquiry is then, rigorous even though not formally logical, and shared moral inquiry, far from encouraging arbi­trariness, actually ensures the most satisfactory outcome. That is, it introduces the degree of rigor appropriate to the enterprise of moral inquiry.

Special Topics in Moral Inquiry

Another important implication of this project is how it answers Carolyn Miller’s call for renewed scholarly interest in special topics (1987 pp., 61-70). Miller echoes Sir Francis Bacon’s sentiment regarding topics,that “there is indeed some slight mention in some writers, but they have not been fully handled, according to the dignity of the subject”(De Augmentis 6.3). It is striking to consider that, in 1987—nearly four centuries after Bacon’s lament—rhetoricians still write of “the bleak history of the special topic” (Miller 1987 p. 61). Miller suggests a cause for such neglect:

The special topics are not useful, or manageable, I suggest, in rhetoric conceived of as an academic subject; instead, by serving as conceptual connections between human reasoning and the particularities of practical situations, they lead our attention out­side the academy to rhetoric as it occurs naturally in human societies. As rhetoric became academicized, the topics became “academic” (that is, they lost their relation to social situations), then scorned for being academic, and finally abandoned (1987 p., 61).

A theoretical understanding of rhetorical invention, of common topics, of informal logic, even of the limits of formal logic, are none of them substitutes for practical knowledge of the method of rhetori­cal inquiry. Modernity is increasingly complex, so topical schemes, if they are to be of practical use, must respond to that complexity. If the rhetorician’s art is to reestablish its former centrality, rhetorical theorizing must be somehow indexed to that increasing complexity. This is what Bacon had in mind when he penned the famous parallelism: “the solid and true arts of invention grow and increase as inven­tions themselves increase.” As it turns out then, beyond the problem of being academicized, even special topics, if they are only generally applied, will be deemed archaic rather than architectonic. In other words, the study of rhetorical reasoning offers more than pedagogy in argumentative strategizing. Training people to plead a cause has inestimable educational worth, to be sure, but in order to restore rhetoric to a position of centrality in practice one must follow the lead of scholars like Booth, Toulmin, Perelman, McKeon, Farrell and Miller who suggest communal applications for rhetorical reasoning, narrowly defined: the faculty of discovery propadeutic to argumentation.

This essay broadens the scope of rhetoric by underscoring its heuristic function and showing how rhetorical reason may contribute to shared moral inquiry. The emphasis in this study on shared inquiry is a promising means of promoting wider applications of rhetoric, especially considering how shared inquiry produces heuristic rigor. Though this project argues for rigor through systematicity, it systematizes rhetorical reason only so far as is necessary to make it widely useful, which further demonstrates the importance of making sensitivity to particulars an integral part of any rhetorical system of inquiry. Martha Nussbaum reminds us that the particularities of a tough case can actually present us with direct contradiction: “They reflect our disagreements and ambivalences. The first step must, therefore, be to bring conflicting opinions to the surface and set them out clearly” (Nussbaum, 1986, p. 246) But a rhetorical system alone is insufficient to the demands of practical dilemmas. As Bacon put it in our epigraph, “a faculty of wise interrogating is half a knowledge.” To where does the group turn for the other half? To itself. The expertise and practical wisdom that rhetorical theory cannot provide is provided by the group’s reliance on professional standards, phronesis, experience.

During the 1960s, a broad consensus about basic values broke down and “even professionals whose good intentions had earlier been un­questioned (first, physicians) found their integrity being called into question. So there began a discussion of issues in professional ethics—first in medicine, subsequently in business, law, and other fields—that has continued ever since” (Jonsen and Toulmin 1988, p. 304). That loss of consensus suggested to rhetoricians, as it suggested to Jonsen and Toulmin, that a rhetorical mode of inquiry is needed today more than ever:

Most of our problems, including the great social and political issues, are moral, or humane; the analysis and resolution of humane problems requires the application of methods to uncover facts, to be sure, but also to determine relevant criteria, to form new definitions, to critique values and hierarchies of value, to bring sentiments and feelings into relation with thoughts. These functions have always belonged to the art of rhetorical invention (Bitzer and Black 1971, pp. 239-40).

The restoration of rhetorical invention entails a concomitant restoration of practical wisdom. What was relevant (and why it was relevant) in a given case was probably more evident to a group discussing the good of the polis in ancient Greece; ours is a less homogeneous world. Hence, attention to the relevant particu­lars, and to a defense of their relevance, must now be made part of the approach to difficult cases; modernity’s pallid consensus justifies systematic reflection upon a method once left to common sense.


[1] Highlights of the proceedings are chronicled in Lloyd Bitzer and Edwin Black eds., The Prospect of Rhetoric, (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971).

[2] See De inventione 1.18-19; Topica secs. 79-95, and De oratore 2.23-28.

[3] From the author’s lecture notes, Seminar in Clinical Ethics, University of Washington, 11 April 90.

[4] Jonsen’s topology (collection of special topics) is: Medical Indications, Patient Preferences, Quality of Life, and Context. Jonsen teaches that, in order to render a prima facie defense for a moral judgment in any given case in the care of patients in medicine and nursing, the arguer must address all four issues. Each issue, in turn, has attendant subtopics: For example, the issue of competency is an important subtopic of patient preferences because the preferences of an incompetent patient carry little weight compared with those of a fully competent one. The topology operates heuristically by prompting questions that, when taken together, form lines of practical inquiry.

[5] Walter Jost (1991) and Miller (1987, pp. 61-70) both elucidate this view of special topics.

[6] See Kennedy (1980) chapters 4 & 5 for a concise yet thorough overview.

[7] Cf. the critique of “calm dialectic” in Nussbaum (1994, pp. 34-46 & 99).

[8] Toulmin, et al note the important relationship between maxims and warrants in ethical reasoning (1984, pp. 408 & 9) and then write, “In the course of everyday argumentation, we commonly take the standard ethical maxims as not in dispute and so as needing no explicit backing” (emphasis theirs, 409). Again, from the chapter on ethical reasoning, “… Calling in question the backing for our ethical principles … moves the issues in debate away from the practical level and onto a more philosophical one”(410).

[9] See Freese on Γνώμη, Aristotle’s Rhetoric (1926, p. 473).

[10] Jost’s (1989) is a cogent overview of the significance of Newman’s project for rhetorical theory. See also, Tallmon “Newman’s Contribution to Conceptualizing Rhetorical Reason.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 25 (1995): 197-213.

[11] An exhaustive examination of the role of phronesis in rhetorical reason entails a project of immense proportion. Farrell (1993) and Nussbaum (1994) have effectively initiated the project. Nussbaum (1986, pp. 304-6) develops a similar conception of phronesis; and quite handily!

[12] The attending apparently sensed that he had crossed the line from specificity to abstractness. (The attending decided to wait one week in order to see how Anthony responded to steroid treatment. Baby Anthony died three days later.)

[13] Joseph Dunne’s (1993) Back to the Rough Ground: ‘Phronesis’ and ‘Techne’ in Modern Philosophy and In Aristotle is an important study of the relation of techne and phronesis, one that holds singular implications for rhetoricians.

[14] This position has been often repeated since first being voiced by Antonius in Cicero’s De oratore.

[15] Nussbaum enumerates characteristics of an ethical view informed by the medical analogy. Item # 8


In medical argument, the teacher discourages the sympathetic dialectical scrutiny of alternative views.Just as a doctor does not urge the patient to experiment with alternative medications, so the teacher does not encourage cognitive pluralism (1994, p. 46-emphasis hers).

Nussbaum’s point here is also grounded in the need for practical utility: cognitive pluralism has its place, but the aim of practical judgment is frustrated by excessive concern for alternative views; the goals of medicine are also frustrated by excessive tampering by the patient.

[16] Carolyn Miller’s thoughts on communal rhetoric in Enos and Brown (1993) are well worth the read.

[17] I am ambivalent as to whether heuristic or hermeneutic rigor is the best appelation. “Heuristic rigor” resonates more strongly with the classical notion of rhetorical invention, and moral inquiry can said to be rigorous if all relevant issues are systematically discussed. That is, “Heuristic rigor” is apt insofar as moral inquiry attains rigor through the combined wisdom of those involved in the discussion. On the other hand, “hermeneutic” would be more in keeping with current trends, and, in every case I studied, the practitioners argue for their various interpretations of what is at issue.