Worth a re-post . . . (26 Dec 16)

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Just searching for items to include in my forthcoming book on “Rhetorical Intelligence” and found this off in a dusty corner of my hard drive.  For my friends @Ethos Debate:
  On the Art of Argumentation              © 2010-17 Dr. Jim Tallmon

Suppose a person will say, “I know how to apply drugs which will have either a heating or cooling effect, and I can give a vomit and also a purge, and all that sort of thing; and knowing all this, as I do, I claim to be a physician . . .” what do you suppose people would say of him?             from Plato’s Phaedrus  


What passes for debate “theory,” is not theory at all, but stratagems.  There is a sort of wisdom there, to be sure, and it is useful and interesting, but it imparts no art.  It equips one to engage in the form of debate, but supplies little of the substance of debate.  That is why, when one focuses, in the round, solely on debate “theory” so called, focusing doggedly on the flow, very little in the way of substantive argumentation takes place.  It resembles more fast paced posturing, evasion, thrusts and parries and ripostes; the “style” of argument without the substance.  This activity interests only the insider; it imparts a wisdom that profits but little, satisfies even less.  It is soulless.
How has it come to this?  In a word: Relativism.  If truth is subjective, then it is pointless to model debate after the search for truth (which is the presumptive ideal of the game, no?) because the pursuit of truth is reduced to vanity.  So, what is left?  Mastering the stratagems of debate.  But, as Plato has Socrates observe, this is no more an art of argumentation than knowing how to “induce a vomit,” or conduct a purge, makes one a physician (the imagery is apropos).  Knowing, even mastering, techniques related to an art does not constitute an art, but only the “preliminaries to the art.”  The practitioner must possess knowledge adequate to inform his judgment regarding upon whom, and under what circumstances, and how much of a given remedy is appropriate. Anything less is quackery! And please note, the remedies themselves provide the substance of healing arts.  Truth is the remedy, and if one has not the time to ponder truth claims in a round of debate, because covering the flow dominates, leaving no time to check fallacies, or develop substantive arguments regarding specious presuppositions, or because one suspects the judge may consider the pursuit of truth irrelevant in the round, debate is reduced to form without substance.  Debate has the potential to form great habits of mind, and cultivate understanding.  At its worst, it perverts these. Let’s not play the game that way at Ethos Debate!

Ethos Debate is a place where debate is practiced the way it ought to be and where students schooled in “Upside Down Debate” excel in an art of argumentation.  How ought debate to be practiced?  Ideally, it should emphasize substantive argumentation over strategy and debate rules; quick wit informed by truth that matters, over “strategery.”  Notice I said “emphasize.”  It is not an either/or.  A combination of the two is important, but I fear the proper ratios are, in much of American debate, largely reversed.  That is, at least, my perception, based on my biases, developed as they were, long before debate devolved into what it is today.  The seeds of modern debate were there back in the dark ages, to be sure, but today the bean stalk has grown to new “heights” and, up there beyond the clouds, I fear you will encounter nasty giants.  I love you in Christ and pray for your victory.  But, more importantly, I pray that your soul is improved and enlarged by participating in this sport, not warped in the process.

December 26th 2016 |

Comment (1)

  • Dr. Tallmon says...

    Speaking of the “Rhetorical Intelligence” project . . . that should be forthcoming in 2020. So, here is what will become the introduction to my book (proposed title, New Methodica,) which takes the form of a testimony. Much of what you will read in that book you can already read on the pages of this Rhetoric Ring (and those pages are linked within what follows). I hope you find here not only ideas that have merit, but also, a methodology that shapes the practice of shared moral inquiry. I believe humanity can benefit from such a methodology of rhetorical reasoning (hence the forthcoming book). Let me know what you think.
    1984. Momentous. That is the year I began teaching. Ten years after graduating high school. Having completed my two year “ministerial certificate” studies at a charismatic Bible school in Hamilton, MT, I followed some lovely people to Spearfish, SD. They were starting a “new testament church” and I wanted to help plant their church, then move on to plant other churches. It was my calling. The “prophets” who regaled us with a continuous stream of personal prophecies and “words of wisdom” at my bible school all said the same thing of me. Non-stop for two years! One can imagine how, with such “puffing up,” it only took about one year for me to become really disillusioned there in South Dakota! So I went to college, to use my GI Bill education benefits. I was one frustrated bundle of confusion, having grown up a “party boy” in the 60’s and 70’s then earnestly rebounding by running headlong into the “Jesus Movement” with its perfectionism, moralism, and legalism.

    When I started my bachelor’s studies at Black Hills State College, I got right on the debate team and got married at the end of my freshman year! (I was 24 at the time. Late bloomer.) Anyway . . . My debate coach was a true mentor to me. When you debate in South Dakota, you spend hours on the road each weekend. We would talk about politics (Reagan Revolution) and religion (I had QUESTIONS). He taught me law and gospel; Christian Liberty; grace in Christ. He also taught me how to apply Aristotelian thought to think quickly on my feet. Finally, he was doing his doctoral dissertation on Richard M. Weaver, so we talked Weaverian thought quite a little, as well. All those influences have stuck with me, guided me, and shaped me, for 35 years; in my spiritual life and in my intellectual and professional life (Thank You, Dr. Charles Follette). While earning my bachelor’s degree I had the liberty of not having to take PE courses (for ½ or 1 credit at a time) and utilized that time, instead, to explore a variety of career paths. I gravitated toward all the professors who liked to read great books with their students, and discuss them. I loved great ideas and I eventually became a teacher, not necessarily to indulge my love of learning, but to invest myself in students, and help them become articulate about the ideas that captivate them. To be “at home in the realm of ideas” as my mentor put it.

    While student teaching and applying for teaching jobs, I realized, for the first time (my mentor didn’t tell me everything I needed to know!) that high schools rarely hire “straight-up speech teachers”; that I needed to have an English and Speech combination if I planned to get into the classroom, then earn an advanced degree during the summers, as was my plan. So I took a job, working for my dad, as a counselor at a youth ranch and took lit classes at night. My teacher was so kind and encouraging. She said, “Jimmy, you should really go to graduate school!” “I would love to, but I have no money for tuition.” “Well you can be a teaching assistant to cover the cost of tuition!” Did I mention I was a late bloomer? “’Teaching Assistant?’” I asked. “Tell me about that.”

    I started my graduate studies at Colorado State University. I was a graduate teaching assistant and student coach. We were allowed precisely one course outside our department! I found a professor in English (who turned me onto Dorothy L. Sayers’ “The Lost Tools of Learning,” and suggested, for my “special topics” course, that I read Dostoevsky’s three great novels (Brothers Karamazov, The Possessed, and Crime and Punishment) all in a semester, then write about it. (You can read the paper here, if you like . . .) The signal event from my master’s studies, apart from the wonderful intellectual community we had amongst the “Grad Pack”!! was when my supervisor told me, “You have the most purely liberal arts approach to teaching I’ve ever encountered.” I was just getting started. After having spent a year lecturing at Colorado State (twice as much work for 50% more pay!!) my lovely wife said, “We’re used to being broke, let’s go on to the Ph.D. You want to be a university professor anyway. Let’s just do it!”

    So we went to Seattle. To this point, I had focused on the relation of rhetoric to logic. Aristotle, in his treatise on rhetoric, notes that rhetoric is a counterpart of both dialectic and of ethics. I decided it was time to study the ethical dimension of rhetorical theory. This interest led to my studying extensively within the department of Medical History and Ethics. The department chairman, Albert Jonsen, took me under his wing and taught me casuistry. In casuistic analysis I found a framework by which to understand what I was made to teach: The application to the resolution of contemporary policy controversies of ancient theoretical constructs. Rhetorical reasoning may be defined as the faculty of discovering, in tough cases, the crux of the matter. This is no mean instrument and, in my studies, I had never found a thinker who had fleshed out the methodology of rhetorical reasoning. The tendency, as far as I could tell, was to presume the methodology is common sense, or intuitive, that a person either gets it or doesn’t, and that it cannot be taught. So thinkers in moral or legal or practical reasoning throughout the ages left it for others to explicate the methodology of rhetorical reasoning. (I should have, myself recognized the wisdom in leaving it to others!)

    Cicero, in fact, in De oratore, takes up the very question regarding whether or not a legal pleaders can be taught to identify the crux of the matter, or whether or not the teacher just has to leave that to native ability; either they get it or they don’t, and if they don’t, they are not suited for the profession. I have dedicated my life to teaching in tandem dialectic and rhetoric; to cultivate in my students both wisdom and eloquence. My overall project, of which this collection of essays is a late attempt at influence in the field, is to “flesh out” that methodology by conceptualizing a “grammar of rhetorical reason.” Grammar has to do with breaking into constituent parts a body of knowledge to make the assimilation of that knowledge, or skill set, easier on the learner than “taking in at a glance” a complex body of knowledge. (See John Henry Cardinal Newman’s Essays in Aid of a Grammar of Assent.)

    What is difficult about this project, this life’s work? These mental habits are tacit. Working at the far reaches of cognition is difficult! The only way to accomplish it is to illustrate through concrete examples. Explicating the nuances of real-time discourse is PEDANTIC!! It is every bit as interesting to read as the Book of Deuteronomy!! (As proof of this pedantry, I offer “Towards a Rhetorical Ethics” and “Toward a Grammar of Rhetorical Reason.” “Five Facets of Phronesis” is similarly dense, but phronesis is so inherently interesting, I think the average reader will engage with that chapter despite its dependence on real-time discourse to illuminate the methodology!!) But what is a scholar to do? If you don’t illustrate, the grammar is achingly abstract. If one opts to take a practical tack, to only discuss one concrete element of this multi-faceted and nuanced process of reasoning, it is impossible to portray it in all its splendor! So, apologies for the tedium.

    I hope, in the end, these observations and ruminations, published between 1995 and 2020, justify your expenditure and/or effort. I have grouped them all together here, under the heading, New Methodica because, following Aristotle’s lead (Methodica is a lost work of Aristotle,) I believe this method of reasoning, based on various subtle mental operations, will assist practitioners in making those difficult judgments that postmodern life, life lived in the age of rapid-fire communication, information proliferation, of change without time to reflect, throws at us with such relentless rapidity. We need a “mental instrument” commensurate to those demands. This is it.

    Posted on Tuesday, December 27th 2016 at 4:56 pm

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