Towards a Rhetorical Ethics

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Toward a Rhetorical Ethics


Dr. James M. Tallmon

© 1995-2017

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. . . . Let men be assured that the solid and true arts of invention grow and increase as inventions themselves increase. –Francis Bacon, Advancement of Learning (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, Heracles’ Bow (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. [1] As a result, rational­istic and scientistic methods are ill-suited to address 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; the gray regions. Yet, the confluence of the Cartesian and Baconian Revolutions produced a deluge that flung the rhetorical tradition on the banks of academic obscurity for several hundred years. What is needed is a dynamic conception of rhetorical invention that will restore rhetoric to a place of centrality in both theory and practice.

The general tack of scholarship that aims to conceptualize rhetorical invention as an archetectonic art is 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 establish the scope of rhetorical invention, fundamental ques­tions regard­ing its function are typically unexplored. [2] Yet, rhetoric will not be restored to a position of centrality until questions of its function are fully explored; it must be understood in the entire conspectus of both its scope and its function. More to the point, rhetoricians must focus more on the heuristic function of rhetorical invention because it is that aspect of rhetoric that will contribute most to rhetoric’s restoration. That is so because, the faculty of discovery endemic to rhetorical invention serves as a useful guide to the resolution of hard cases. Practitioners, who are technically trained professionals, are not, by and large, educated in moral reasoning; they have need of a means to render sound moral judgments in cases that do not admit of demonstrative proof. Therefore, an accessible conception of moral inquiry should be well received in many disciplines today because the more technology progresses, the more practi­tioners must daily confront dilemmas. In other words, rhetorical invention shows promise as an instrument of shared inquiry to help moderns address the central questions of our collective existence. [3]

To that end, I have argued 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, but logically prior to argumentation. [4] Rhetorical invention 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. [5] This move is both preliminary to argumentation and a very subtle mental operation. The discovery element of rhetorical invention is logically 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. So then, rhetorical invention entails both a faculty of discovery and a techne.

George Kennedy makes precisely this distinction when he writes that the work of rhetoric, in Aristotle’s view,

[I]s ‘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 mine). [6]

Rhetorical reason is the theoretical activity that constitutes a faculty of discovery (dunamis to theoresai) which guides inquiry into the heart of the case.

I will not here bother the reader with a recapitulation of the entire methodology of rhetorical reason conducted in my related case study. Those findings will be synopsized, but this essay focuses on key implications of rhetorical reason so conceived, set aside in that work for treatment here in a separate (less encumbered) chapter.  The four implications upon which this essay focuses are: (1) That shared inquiry is more desirable than individual inquiry in the moral realm because (2) shared inquiry provides for the rigor appropriate to the moral realm. (3) That understanding the role of special topics in rhetorical reasoning contributes to topical doctrine in a long anticipated fashion, and that (4) Rhetorical reason so conceived clarifies the domain of rhetoric. Rhetoricians will readily note that questions of communal applications of rhetorical invention, of rigor conceived in other than hypothetico-deductive terms and of applications for special topics entail practical concerns at the heart of the restoration of rhetorical invention.

My conceptualization of rhetorical reasoning is supported by interpreting the reasoning processes implied in the talk of a medical ethics committee who met to resolve an actual moral dilemma. [7] The means for interpreting that talk are suggested by Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin’s The Abuse of Casuistry. [8] Jonsen and Toulmin advocate the rehabilitation and revival of casuistical inquiry as a means of resolving moral dilemmas in medical practice. [9] In their historical treatment of the roots of casuistry, Jonsen and Toulmin discuss the rich contribution of classical rhetoric to casuistry; that casuistry is essentially rhetorical reason applied to moral dilemmas, and that rhetorical reasoning may be understood in terms of the combined function of topics, stasis, maxims and phronesis. [10]

In their discovery role, topoi serve a twofold narrowing function: (1) They guide inquiry by prompting questions. (2) They set parameters by (along with phronesis) ascribing degrees of relevance to the issues encountered during the course of inquiry. 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 the case, it prompts questions that help delineate which issues are most relevant with regard to the need to render a reasonable judgment. Special topics are issues that guide inquiry; they prompt questions in order to “hunt out relevant issues” as it were. [11] Special topics function in rhetorical reason by perpetually raising the question: Out of this parade of particulars, which are relevant and which are not? As the relevant issues are brought in closer proximity, the various relations that obtain between competing issues become clearer; exigencies arise which prompt ques­tions. Issues in question are stasis points.

As the various points of stasis are treated, the crux of the matter comes into view. Stasis plays a relatively passive role in rhetorical reason in the sense that it is the target at which inquiry aims. That is so because the topics quide the inquiry and phronesis informs the actual judgment regarding whose interpretation of the question at stake is most reliable. Maxims are important in rhetorical reason because arguments about conflicting interpretations of what is at stake often end when a maxim is hit upon.

Maxims provide focus in moral inquiry by (1) signalling the close of a line of questioning, or (2) alerting those involved that the line from specificity to abstractness is about to be crossed. In any given moral inquiry there exists a line from specificity to abstractness, and if it is crossed too often, the group’s principle charge (rendering a reasonable judgment in the case at hand) may be jeopardized. Maxims operate as an alarm; keeping the inquiry on task. 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. Maxims are decisive; to challenge a maxim in the context of practical inquiry would show a lack of prudence. [12] Maxims are decisive in moral inquiry by virtue of the power exerted by dialectic on mental operations of this sort.

George Kennedy writes that, for Aristotle, the functions of rhetoric and dialectic,
“are parallel movements, virtually identical in con­tent; both deal with matters which are common subjects of knowledge among men; neither falls within any distinct science.” [13] The domain of rhetoric, as Cicero established, is the realm of the particular case; dialectic operates in the domain of the general proposition. The point at which a given inquiry discovers a general proposition stated in maximal form may be understood as a dialectical moment. Contradictions (or conflicting interpretations) are clearly illuminated, and the inquiry progresses only when one of the contradictories is embraced and the other rejected. A spouse might, for example, decide to discontinue life support for her husband whom, she concluded would prefer not to live in his present state because, being terminally ill, ventilator dependent and heavily drugged is, in fact, more like “existing” than “living.” The wife’s decision in our example is grounded squarely on a dialectical distinction. Again, dialectic and rhetoric are parallel faculties that operate in different domains. The reasoning process illustrated by means of the example is utterly dialectical, however, the concern is not with securing the truth of a general proposition, but with establishing which maxim is most reasonably applied to the instant case. Although the example functions dialectically, the domain is rhetorical: by virtue of its concern with good action on behalf of a particular patient it is more accurately viewed as a rhetorical operation. [14] The above also illustrates that the maxim, “One ought not be forced to continue in a situation that is more like existing than living,” is decisive because, to contradict it is clearly not in the patient’s best interest. That care givers ought always act in their patient’s best interest is an unchallenged principle in biomedicine. (The difficulty comes in determining, in the given dilemma, what is in the patient’s best interest!) The above helps illustrate two things: (1) How dialectical and rhetorical inquiry are related, and (2) Why maxims are decisive in practical inquiry.

Maxims are properly granted presumptive truth in practical inquiry; philosophic inquiry, on the other hand, begins with the critique of premises. In other words, the degree of disputation one encounters in philo­sophical discourse is inappropriate to practical discourse. In this sense one could say that philosophic inquiry begins where practical inquiry leaves off. Or, as John Henry Freese puts it: “Maxims are to enthymemes as premises are to syllogisms.” [15]  Maxims, topoi and stases all help guide the inquiry toward its mark, but these alone are insufficient to guarantee success. The procedures of rhetorical reasoning discussed above guide moral inquiry; phronesis provides the movement.

If there is any hope of rendering moral judgments in a timely fashion, and without lapsing into arbitrariness, one must take a methodical approach to managing the particulars and stay close to the case until the crux of the matter comes into view and the correct judgment is relatively clear. Rhetorical reasoning provides the method; practical wisdom drives rhetorical reason in a variety of ways: Whenever parties involved in the inquiry bring to bear on the instant case past experiences, analogous cases, legal precedents, or even intuition. In order to be considered reasonable, a given judgment must acquire its moral force by the operation of practical wisdom. As practical wisdom brings together the combined moral force of all the probabilities that converge at the heart of a dilemma, moral certitude builds.

So then, rhetorical invention may be divided into a faculty (dunamis) of discover­ing (to theoresai) the crux of the matter in any given moral case and of the art of inventing a reason­able defense of the judgment rendered therein (techne). Francis Bacon considered the heuristic aspect of rhetorical topics as most useful to his project. Central to Bacon’s very conception of the prospect for the advancement of science is the idea that, as technology evolves (inventions increase) the means of inquiry will experience a concomitant advancement. In other words, as new disciplines develop, new topologies must develop in order to serve as guides to inquiry. Ironically, the advance of science has eventuated in the need to conceptualize a mode of inquiry suit­able for untangling the dilemmas caused by scientific progress, and the same “part of rhetoric” is most useful to that project, but the art of rhetorical invention “has not been taught seriously and widely for at least two hundred years.” [16] That dynamic, generally use­ful method of inquiry must combine (in due proportion) the dunamis to theoresai, with phronesis and the techne of case argument, and it must entail a communal (not a combative) ethic.


The above sketch resonates with recent work by Michael Hyde and Thomas Farrell, and with a not so recent essay by Henry W. Johnstone, Jr. [17] Hyde’s is also a case study of medical ethics discourse; only his approach offers a useful contrast to my own. “Medicine, Rhetoric and Euthanasia” is a critical appraisal of the rhetoric of euthanasia in which Hyde reads as a case study recent discourse, from the journals of medical ethics, about a famous biomedical controversy (“It’s Over, Debbie”). Hyde’s case study is a rhetorical reading of ethical discourse in professional journals; mine is of an actual ethics consult. Hyde’s aim is to assess (by postmodern criteria) the rhetoric of medical ethicists; mine is to conceptualize the procedures of moral reasoning employed by medical practitioners in terms of classical rhetorical doctrine. Hyde’s work focuses on the rhetorical strategies of medical ethicists and mine focuses on the method of practical inquiry employed by medical practitioners; the former studies the techne facet of rhetorical invention, the latter studies the process that precedes argumentation. Much that is said above regarding Hyde holds true as well for Thomas Farrell’s Norms of Rhetorical Culture. Farrell there engages in a philosophic enterprise, to explore the role of rhetoric in the restoration of communitas, but he elaborates his philosophy by means of criticism. Hence, Farrell’s closing thought, “. . . where rhetorical study is , engaged critical practice revives one of our deepest human cravings: to reengage the rich, elliptical adventure of civic life.” [18] Henry Johnstone, on the other hand, is given to a pure pursuit of philosophical inquiry.

Johnstone has dedicated the bulk of his distinguished career to exploring the vital link between ethics and rhetoric. Insofar as this project is similarly motivated, Johnstone’s “Toward an Ethics of Rhetoric” serves as another fruitful contrast to my own work. Johnstone there formulates a “Basic Imperative” from two presuppositions: “that man is a persuading and persuaded animal” and “what is distinctively human in man ought to be perpetuated.” Hence, in its most Kantian construction, the Basic Imperative may be expressed in the following terms:“So act in each instance as to encourage, rather than suppress, the capacity to persuade and to be persuaded, whether the capacity in question is yours or another’s.” [19] Johnstone’s aim in that essay is to develop a parsimonious theory of ethical rhetoric that avoids making rhetoric rely for its moral force on external ethical standards.“Toward an Ethics of Rhetoric” epitomizes the benefit of the philosophic analysis of rhetorical practices. It also helps illustrate, by way of contrast, how one might, taking a different tack, analyze the rhetorical dimension of ethical practice. Johnstone’s aim is to adumbrate principles of ethical rhetoric; the goal of this essay is to assess the value of conceptualizing ethics in terms of classical rhetorical doctrine.

A similar distinction obtains in contemporary medical ethics; between applied and clinical ethics. Applied ethics is a theoretical approach to the resolution of moral dilemmas. The applied school begins with principles (like autonomy and justice) and attempts to deduce correct moral judgments in particular cases. Clinical ethics, on the other hand, begins with the circumstances of the case and works rhetorically to negotiate a reasonable judgment. The former is a deductivist approach; the latter is casuistical and practical. [20] The problem with the applied school is that principles can never take us more than part of the way toward resolving moral dilemmas because such cases are hedged about by a host of particulars and principles are ill-suited to treating particulars. Johnstone concludes his essay with a strikingly similar comment regarding the limitation of his project: “One common criticism of [Kantian ethics, and, hence, of Johnstone’s construct] is that it does not enable us to determine what to do if duties conflict.” [21] So the limitation of theory-driven ethics of medicine surfaces also in the theory-driven approach to ethics of rhetoric. It also happens that they have a common cure: the case-driven approach. Johnstone set out to develop a theory of ethical rhetoric; my aim is to detail how practitioners use rhetorical methods of inquiry to resolve tough cases.

Another noteworthy contrast between the two is that Johnstone concerns himself strictly with individual virtue; my conception presupposes a need for a meeting of minds. Which is to say, once again, rhetorical reason’s proper function is as a mode of shared moral inquiry.

Shared Moral Inquiry

Wayne Booth refers to rhetoric as “the art of reasoning together about shared concerns.” [22] “In the ancient terminology of rhetoricians,” Booth explains, “we seek to discover the topics, the topoi, the places or locations on which, or in which, a shared inquiry can take place. Whatever conclusions we come to as we confer, we shall be practicing, well or badly, the arts of rhetoric.” [23] I wish to take seriously Booth’s idea of shared inquiry, because the quest for rhetorical reason is, too a large degree, a quest for a communal rhetoric. [24] That is, the kind of rhetorical activity that seeks out the common good and values the interplay of viewpoints as opposed to the kind that emphasizes “one way” persuasive discourse (sender to receiver) with an adversarial undertone.

Booth envisioned a type of rhetoric, used by all disciplines, except inso­far as those disciplines have available apodeictic proofs, that functions not as a dressing added to the case to make it persuasive, but as an art of discovery.

This art, which I will call “rhetoric-B,” is a marvel and a wonder. A scholar-teacher might honorably spend a whole career master­ing its subtleties and passing the mastery along to students. Obviously it is a much more important subject than what most people call rhetoric. … It comes into its own in every part of life where simple appeals to obvious facts or unquestioned logical proofs are not available–and that surely means most of what we do, even as scholars. … It is the very lifeblood of our daily lives together. [25]

Shared moral inquiry is most certainly the lifeblood of biomedical ethics committees. The casuistical approach to ordering the deliberations of an ethics committee aims at precisely the sort of discursive activity Booth appreciated: reasoning topically toward resolution of a moral dilemma by negotiating a judgment that is reasonable though not grounded in apodeictic proofs. 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 manner in which Stephen Toulmin critiques Rudolph Carnap in The Uses of Argument pro­vides a felicitous means of answering that question.

The Question of Rigor

Toulmin accuses Carnap of stripping “probability” of its ordinary meaning by attempting to scientize it. He argues for the status of informal logic based on a study of ordinary language usage and indicts Carnap for assuming that extra-scientific talk is vague and unimportant:

Not only does he want to turn logic into the minerology of logi­cal relations. He also regards all but scientific probability-state­ments as vague, inexact, in need of explication–in his own word, ‘prescientific’. … It is one thing to point out the comparative precision–i.e., numerical exactness–of statements in the math­ematical sciences, and its lack in extra-scientific talk. But to interpret this lack as a lack of precision, and to criticise extra-scientific talk as vague and hazy is a questionable further step. [26]

In essence Toulmin here indicts scientific crusaders for being preoccupied with the allure of the rigor of physics. So-called scientific crusaders 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 conflicting values and interests. 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.

Rhetorical reasoning derives its rigor from the methodical treatment of the particulars, by staying close to the case, and weighing relevant particulars one against another, all the while searching for the crux of the matter. 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. [27]

This state of affairs will never satisfy the logician: “Such judgments are only arbitrary and subjective!” he will claim. For the logician, more-geomet­rico is the only means whereby moral judgments are secured because more-geometrico provides unas-sailable rigor. He presumes, as a result, that rhetor­ical reasoning lacks sufficient rigor to support a correct moral judgment. Chaim Perelman approaches this problem 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.” [28] 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). [29] Perelman’s analysis is buttressed by the further consideration that one may not participate in common sense apart from community. The question of rigor must finally be addressed in light of the notion of shared inquiry. Thomas H. Murray makes precisely this move and, in the process, develops a useful distinction: between Rigor and Rigidity: [30]

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.” [31] One can achieve a heuristic rigor by 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. [32]

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 inter-pretation 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]. [33]

Heuristic rigor is a product of rhetorical methods; logical deductivism is productive of rigidity. Rhetorical methods cannot operate without practical wisdom and equity; deductivism tramples them.

The prospect of attaining a heuristic rigor solves the problem created by approaching moral dilemmas exclusively with hypothetico-deductive methods. When moral inquiry is practiced in the way here prescribed, consensus about the issue at stake emerges discursively rather than deductively. Furthermore, because competent and responsible professionals (and others with a vested interest in the outcome)
demonstrate consensus that the judgments reached are sound, it follows that the methods of inquiry employed provided rigor sufficient to satisfy them of the appropriateness of their decision. To conclude otherwise places one in the precarious position of asserting that professionals and patients’ families are satisfied to act arbitrarily. 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.

Rhetorical reason enables one to manage the ambiguity that inheres in the case and attains moral force both from the heuristic rigor derived from methodical immersion in the instant case and relevant lessons brought to bear on the instant case from analogous cases. Deductivism presupposes a rigor derived primarily through logical necessity and internal consistency; it is a quest for certainty that requires the elimination of ambiguity. Heuristic rigor, on the other hand, is achieved by groups of experienced persons methodically following lines of inquiry to discover the question at stake. Rhetorical reason helps them to manage the ambiguities that would otherwise militate against timely resolution of the dilemma. Another important implication of so conceiving rhetorical reason is how it answers Carolyn Miller’s call for renewed scholarly interest in special topics. [34]

Special Topics in Moral Inquiry

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.” [35] 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 topics.” [36] Miller’s essay eloquently points to an historical deficit in topical doctrine; a deficit remedied by understanding the practical aspects of rhetorical inquiry.

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. [37]

A theoretical understanding of rhetorical theory, 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 wrote, “the solid and true arts of invention grow and increase as inven­tions themselves increase.” As it turns out then, beyond the problem of being academ-icized, even special topics, if they are only generally applied, will be deemed archaic rather than architectonic. In other words, the study of rhetorical reasoning teaches more than argumentative strategizing. Training people to plead a cause has inestimable educational worth, to be sure, but in order to address the practical aims of this project, one must follow the lead of scholars like Booth, Toulmin, Perelman, McKeon, and Miller who suggest communal applications for rhetorical reasoning, narrowly defined: the faculty of discovery propadeutic to argumentation.

Having now detailed the most important implications of the method­ology, one is positioned properly to consider the overall value of such a conception. Thus far I have established that conceiving of rhetorical reasoning as a method of shared inquiry: (1) Clarifies the function of rhetorical invention. First, by uniquely clarifying rhetoric’s relation to dialectic. Emphasizing the discovery aspect of rhetorical invention helps clarify the role of dialectical inference in rhetorical reason. This essay promotes a productive view of that relationship insofar as it resists pitting them against one another. It emphasizes viewing dialectic and rhetoric simply as antistrophes, without fretting over which mode of inquiry is privileged. Second, it clarifies the function of rhetorical invention by detailing how special topics work in inquiry (i.e., that they ought to be in­dexed to progress in order to maximize their work). (2) 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. (3) Illustrates the practical value of rhetorical invention by the combined effects of all the above.

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.” [38]

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. [39]

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 the defense of their relevance, must now be made a part of the approach to the difficult case. Questions of relevancy arise less often in communities where agreement exists regarding fundamental questions. So, in a medical community today, for instance, before judgment can be rendered in a hard case, a moral inquiry must be conducted in order to settle initial ques­tions (that may be in conflict), and to arrive at a consensus about what is at issue. This is not an insurmountable problem, but it is a problem that was less troublesome to Aristotle because his polis was relatively homogeneous. Modernity’s pallid consensus justifies the sort of attention given to what was once left to common sense. [40]

The foregoing analysis underscores that aspect of rhetorical invention that has been lost for two centuries (but has not been featured by rhetorical theorists for even longer). But that knowledge is alone insufficient to restore rhetorical invention to a place of centrality in theory and practice. It must be appropriated wherever practitioners daily contend with tough cases. This study suggests how practitioners may contend with tough cases by means of a method of shared moral inquiry that is sensitive to the rigor and exhaustiveness appropriate to their given field. All that is needed to complete the process is the sort of expertise and practical wisdom that rhetorical theory cannot provide. Where does the group turn for that essential knowledge? To itself. Or, as Francis Bacon put it, “a faculty of wise interrogating is half a knowledge”—the other half is supplied by the group’s reliance on professional standards, common sense, phronesis, and experience.

Hopefully, the insights gleaned above justify the time spent in repose on this high vista. In a sense, the once obscure bank is now an outpost from which one may view, not only the river below, but also the frontier beyond. Exploring those particular environs may open the way to architectonic rhetoric. A scouting party should be dispatched at once; the winds of revolution are stirring again, and they are favorable.


[1] Stephen Toulmin argues this thesis in Cosmopolis: the Hidden Agenda of Modernity (New York: Free Press, 1990).

[2] A genealogical survey of related literature is perhaps apropos at this point. However, current purposes preclude such a protracted review. Chapter one of James M. Tallmon’s “Casuistry and the Quest for Rhetorical Reason: Conceptualizing a Method of Shared Moral Inquiry,” Ph.D. diss. (Seattle: U Washington, 1993) discusses how the rhetoric-as-epistemic, rhetoric of inquiry, and composition rhetoric movements all contribute to the restoration of rhetoric, but that all three movements generally stop short of detailing the function of rhetorical reason, focusing rather on questions of scope. Michael Leff’s “In Search of Ariadne’s Thread: A Review of the Recent Literature on Rhetorical Theory,” Central States Speech Journal 29 (1978): 73-91; Barbara Warnick, “A Rhetorical Analysis of Episteme Shift: Darwin’s Origin of the Species.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 49 (1983): 26-42 and Barry Brummett “A Eulogy for Epistemic Rhetoric.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 9 (1990): 69-72 are all useful reviews of scholarship by Robert L. Scott and other rhetorical epistemologists. John S. Nelson, Allan Megill, and Donald N. McCloskey eds., The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences, (Madison: U Wisconsin Press, 1984); John Lyne, “Rhetorics of Inquiry,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 71 (1985): 65-73; and Herbert W. Simons ed., The Rhetorical Turn, (Chicago: U Chicago Press, 1990) all discuss the aims of rhetoric of inquiry/science and all demonstrate a preoccupation with challenging the hegemony in academic discourse of deductivism (again, questions of scope). The composition rhetoric movement is more practical in nature than either of the other two but, their conception of “praxis,” is limited to, for the most part, the practice of writing good essays. The composition rhetoric movement is foremost, a pedagogical movement. See especially: Jean Dietz Moss ed., Rhetoric and Praxis: The Contribution of Classical Rhetoric to Practical Reasoning, (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic U of America Press, 1986) and Andrea Lunsford, Helene Moglen, and James F. Slevin, eds., The Future of Doctoral Studies in English, (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1989). Some work in argumentation is also aligned with the above movements (see, for example, David Zarefsky’s overview in Robert Trapp and Janice Schuetz eds., Perspectives on Argumentation, [Prospect Heights, Il: Waveland Press, 1990], especially 291).

[3] Thomas Farrell similarly defines rhetoric as “the collaborative art of addressing and guiding decision and judgment” and rhetorical inquiry as “the study of public communication” in Norms of Rhetorical Culture (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1993), p. 1.

[4] “Casuistry and the Quest For Rhetorical Reason,” unpublished paper delivered at the convention of the Speech Communication Association, 21 Nov 94; “Casuistry and the Role of Rhetorical Reason in Ethical Inquiry,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 28 (1995): 377-87; “How Jonsen Really Views Casuistry: A Note on The Abuse of Father Wildes,” The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy19 (1994): 103-13; and “Newman’s Contribution to Conceptualizing Rhetorical Reason.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 25 (1995): 197 -213.

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

[6] George Kennedy, Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition (Chapel Hill: U North Carolina Press, 1980), 63.

[7] The primary object of study for my dissertation was an ethics committee discussion about the case of Baby Anthony. Anthony was a three week old premature infant whose mother (with a history of drug abuse) had unfulfilled intentions to abort. Anthony had multiple complications and, after three weeks of aggressive, somewhat experimental treatment (that cost the hospital in excess of $50,000) the careteam was considering whether or not to say “enough is enough; we’ve done all we can for Anthony.” The committee decided to see how Anthony responded to one more week on a course of steroids, but he died three days later.

[8] Albert R. Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin, The Abuse of Casuistry, (Berkeley: U of California Press, 1988).

[9] Jonsen’s topology (collection of special topics) is: Medical Indications, Patient Preferences, Quality of Life, and Context. Jonsen suggests how, 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 of these 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. Jonsen’s topology very much resembles the “stock issues model” known and loved so well by collegiate debaters. (Jonsen details the topology, and its subtopics, in “Case Analysis in Clinical Ethics,” The Journal of Clinical Ethics 1 (1990): 63-65. See also, “How Jonsen Really Views Casuistry.”)

[10] See The Abuse, pp. 83-88, 151 and ch. 15; Jonsen’s work since The Abuse (“Casuistry as Methodology in Clinical Ethics,” Theoretical Medicine 12 [1991]: 295-307 and “Case Analysis inClinical Ethics”); and Tallmon’s “How Jonsen Really Views Casuistry.”

[11] I here allude to Bacon’s metaphor for topical invention: “Nevertheless, as the name has come into use, let it be called invention; for the hunting of any wild animal may be called a finding of it, as well in an enclosed park as in a forest at large” (De Augmentis 5.3).

12 In his Introduction to Reasoning, 2nd ed. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc, 1984) Toulmin notes the important relationship between maxims and warrants in ethical reasoning (408 & 9) and then writes, “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 his, 409). Again, from his textbook chapter on ethical reasoning, Toulmin notes, “… 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).

[13] George A. Kennedy, Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition From Ancient to Modern Times, (Chapel Hill: U North Carolina Press, 1980), 65.

[14] Martha Nussbaum’s discussion of the limitations of “calm dialectical” presupposes the same distinction, although she commits herself exclusively to the philosophic enterprise; opting to change philosophy rather than entertain the notion of a rhetorical ethics (see Therapy of Desire, pp. 34-46 & 99).

[15] See the glossary entry for Γνώμη, The Art of Rhetoric, John Henry Freese trans., The Loeb Classical Library, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926), 473.

[16] Lloyd Bitzer and Edwin Black eds., The Prospect of Rhetoric, (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971), 239.

[17] Michael Hyde, “Medicine, Rhetoric and Euthanasia: A Case Study in the Workings of a Postmodern Discourse,”Quarterly Journal of Speech 79 (May 1993): 201-24 and Henry W. Johnstone, “Toward an Ethics of Rhetoric,” Communication 6 (1981): 305-14.

[18] Norms, p. 321.

[19] Johnstone, p. 310.

[20] See Jonsen’s “Of Balloons and Bicyles -or- The Relationship Between Ethical Theory and Practical Judgment,” The Hastings Center Report 21 (1991): 14-16, “Casuistry as Methodology in Clinical Ethics,” and “Case Analysis inClinical Ethics.”

[21] Johnstone, p. 312. Farrell notes a similar limitation of his own project. In Norms, Farrell develops a grid for marking off the relevant features of a rhetorical occasion, then concedes that, “What is missing from the framework as it stands is the sense of cultural performance that is supplied by real durational experience. This can come only from the arena of actual rhetorical practice” (287). My approach may be viewed as a study of the actual rhetorical practice of shared moral inquiry, which is, in essence, a search for relevance (i.e., the issues most relevant to resolution of the dilemma).

[22] The Vocation of a Teacher (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 105.

[23] Vocation of a Teacher, 108.

[24] Carolyn Miller takes a provocative look at the importance of communal rhetoric in “Rhetoric and Community: the Problem of the One and the Many,” Theresa Enos and Stuart C. Brown. eds. Defining the New Rhetorics vol. 7 Sage Series in Written Communication (Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1993), 79-94 .

[25] Vocation of a Teacher , 110-11.

[26] The Uses of Argument (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958), 88-9.

[27] Again, Nussbaum’s prescription for philosophical ethics resonates profoundly with all the above:“Clarity, deliberateness, and logical consistency are not enough: arguments must also be medical in the good way, rooted in the particulars and attentive to them” (Therapy of Desire, 73).

[28] “The Rational and the Reasonable,” The New Rhetoric and the Humanities (Dordrecht Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1979), 117.

[29] Rational and Reasonable, 118.

[30] Thomas H. Murray, “Medical Ethics, Moral Philosophy and Moral Tradition,” Social Science and Medicine 25 (1987): 637-44.

[31] Murray, 640.

[32] I have a difficult time deciding 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. On the other hand, “hermeneutic” would, of course, resonate more with a contemporary view, and, in every case I studied, the practitioners argue for their various interpretations of what is at issue in a given case. So then, moral inquiry can also be said to attain rigor through the combined wisdom of those involved in the discussion.

[33] Murray, 640.

[34] Carolyn Miller, “Aristotle’s ‘Special Topics’ in Rhetorical Practice and Pedagogy,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 17 (1987): 61-70.

[35] De Augmentis 6.3.

[36] Miller, 61.

[37] Miller, 61.

[38] Abuse, 304.

[39] Prospect of Rhetoric, 239-40. The Prospect of Rhetoric chronicles The Rhetoric Project of 1970 in which the most respected rhetorical minds of the day convened to develop a conception of rhetorical invention that would help restore rhetoric to its former place of centrality in theory and practice.

[40] For a variation on the theme of the loss of consensus, see Sally A. Freeman, Stephen W. Littlejohn, and W. Barnett Pearce, “Communication and Moral Conflict,”Western Journal of Communication 56 (1992): 317.