Monday, February 15, 2010

The Warm Welcome Heats Up

My distinguished colleague at Both Wearing Black Masks asked me to blog in response to the following question:
shouldn't a sophist defer to a physician on matters of health, and to an economist when it comes to economic matters, and to a guru when it comes to guruing, etc.? And if so, then when would a person ever "use" (or "seek out") a sophist?

With apologies, I still find Socrates' argument persuasive in the Gorgias, even if "Gorgias" in that dialog is Plato's invention.
As I already posted my planned, daily Olympics post, I will oblige him here:

To answer your question, I need to make an important distinction between rhetorica docens and rhetorica utens or between a rhetorician and a rhetor: namely, the difference between the study of rhetoric and the practice of rhetoric. I am someone who professionally studies the art and practice of rhetoric: most of my work falls under rhetorica docens. As a student of rhetoric, I see it operating in many places. As a scholar, teacher, a parent and a citizen, however, I frequently engage in rhetorica utens: I make choices and arguments.

So, in answer to your question, it is not that whether the physician or the rhetor should defer to one another, but that the physician is not not a rhetor (or is always already practicing rhetoric). That is, when Santos and I talk about rhetors and sophists (as practioners) we are not talking about a discrete activity that sometimes we are doing and sometime we are not. So we have rhetoric as a practice and rhetoric as a study of the practice. And with this distinction in mind (rather than Plato's Socrates'), I see the doctor as a rhetor him or herself.

Or in yet other words, this is the trick of Socrates' question: he treats rhetoric as he treats medicine: as two separate fields or disciplines that are somehow in competition. If that is indeed the case then, yes, I would want to the doctor to take precedent. But rhetoric can be treated like psychology or biology in this instance. Psychologists study psychology and biologists study biology, but everyone enacts psychology and biology in their daily lives. In other words, as always, Socrates' question to Gorgias is a loaded one - the distinction he makes having already answered the question ahead of time.

I trust doctors for medical opinions, scientists for scientific opinions, historians for historical opinions, but I would also argue that all of these professions make choices and those choices are value laden, and it is with/through rhetoric that such decisions are implicitly and explicitly made.

And I and my ilk should be used to investigate how such decisions are made.


  1. I think I'm with you--and if I understand you right, my follow-up will make sense to you:

    Doesn't a good Physician investigate how he makes his value decisions? Doesn't a good Linguist consider with great care how he makes his own choices? In other words, don't all experts master both their discipline and the rhetoric of their discipline?

    I know that in American Literature, it feels to me like half (maybe more) of what we do is rhetoric.

    So I have nothing against rhetoric (at least as I understand it) -- but I do balk at the idea of rhetoric "in general." And I mean, I can even get into a conversation about the rhetoric of rhetoric. That could be interesting. But my impression is that studying rhetoric without simultaneously gaining expertise in a discipline is like, uhm... doing fashion design for a theoretical 5th dimension?

    Er... no. But, something like that.

    Maybe we can proceed by doing a little mini dialogue:

    Casey: "Can you give me an example where a rhetor has contributed significantly to 'understanding' (broadly construed) even as the experts in that field are blind to such understanding?"

  2. Nathaniel: "Before I answer this question - and I do have an answer - I want to address how you are using "rhetor" here. I see it broadly enough to count an expert as a practitioner. While I may be splitting hairs here, you write, 'experts master both their discipline and the rhetoric of their discipline.' What I want to suggest here is that disciplinarity is shot through with rhetoric. That is, rhetoric isn't after the fact of their mastery of their discipline, but that their mastery of said discipline is already predicated upon prior rhetorical acts. Moving on but adding to.

    "Now, here is what I think rhetoricians have to offer: The current shift in medical training back towards 'bedside manne'" and an emphasis on 'caring' in addition to 'curing. There has been a lot of work in this area in technical and professional communication which is part of rhetorical theory. That is, physicians have had it revealed to them how their approach to medicine has impacted patients and how other frames (or stresses or values) can impact patients otherwise. Western medicine has long privileged curing patients, which is great, but many diseases are incurable, and those patients are often not treated as well. For instance, AIDS patients. In stressing 'Cure' over 'Care' the science of medicine proceeded one way rather than another. The rhetoric, the choice of value, came first. Denying this value (that is, treating medicine as value free) has done damage both to patients and doctors (doctors with good bedside manner are far less likely to get sued for malpractice - there's material motivation). This is how medicine is rhetorically and what rhetorical studies can provide.

  3. This discussion reminds me of Ramus and his assault on Quintilian for mixing ethics with rhetoric (Quintilian's definition of the vir bonus ==the idea that one must be a good man in order to be a good rhetor) since for Ramus they are by DEFINITION not the same. It is the Ramistic co-mingled with Plato's "metaphysics of presence" that is at the root of many of our binary oppositions and resistance to interdisciplinarity (but for sure some of this is traceable to the financial and logistical realities of the academy where productivity is measured and rewarded in the coin of disciplines. I might add by the way as one also recognizes a certain degree of prejudice toward the word "rhetoric" to begin with if the conversation would even come up if we replaced the word "rhetor" with philosopher.

  4. Tom's analysis sounds fruitful.

    Let me only add: I actually agree that disciplinarity is "shot through with rhetoric." I agree wholeheartedly. So it's within that framework--sharing your assumptions there--that I wonder about the archetypal rhetor-without-a-discipline.

    In the case of the doctors (an interesting case, certainly!), you say:

    "physicians have had it revealed to them how their approach to medicine has impacted patients and how other frames (or stresses or values) can impact patients otherwise."

    And I only ask, zeroing in on your passive tense: really? By professional rhetors? Or is it the case that patients and other hospital administrators have simply passed along the word to physicians, who then reassessed their own approach to bedside manner?

    I have no qualms with "rhetoric" or with people who practice it in association with a discipline. But I'm still a little unclear as to what people with Ph.D.s in Rhetoric do.

    (Mind you, if they are largely responsible for awakening the physicians to that bedside-blindspot, I'll be conceding the whole argument!--and very interested to learn more about what people with Ph.D.s in Rhetoric could do to help me with my discipline... tho' I probably won't stop trying to understand what makes them experts, or what, precisely, they are experts in.)

    Good talk, though.

  5. There is research, particularly in professional and technical communication, that deals explicitly with the communicative behaviors of health professionals. I would be more than happy to name names. This is often the case with tech comm people trained in rhetoric and working in industry.