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Fr. 570

October 6, 2014

What remains unclear on both these views is the precise level and directionality of influence and the extent to which one language might hold primacy over the other. For, if philosophers have previously done away with philosophical rhetoric and only been brought to recognize its importance in certain spheres, this is out of concern for discursive hygiene and the subsequent recognition of limiting cases to the latter. Moreover, given the philosopher’s primary commitment to discursive hygiene, as signalled by Leiter’s earlier remarks on the priority of the private question of right and wrong over the public of policy impact, there would seem to be an prima facie case for the primacy of the language of discursive hygiene over that of rhetoric. Rhetoric would then be, on this view, an accessory to the former and, hence, subordinate to its ends.

Yet Leiter’s analysis of Singer’s case shows the extent to which rhetoric can take the fore even in the arguments of otherwise rigorous philosophers speaking ostensibly from discursive hygiene. Indeed, philosophers are themselves people and, thus, subject to, within limits, to the same constraints as those individuals who are largely unswayed by the language of discursive hygiene. If both groups exhibit some of the same tendencies and practices, it is less clear how we are to go about setting out sharp distinctions needed to ground the primacy of the language of discursive hygiene over that of rhetoric. If anything, the two seem more interconnected, perhaps even more muddled than Leiter is willing to allow. In the end, we may be faced with one polycentric language in lieu of two well-defined languages.

Examination of the concrete forms taken on by philosophical rhetoric in 2.) may shed further light on this phenomenon. In addition to Singer’s emotional appeal, as cited by Leiter, we may add such tactics as thought experiments, theatre, new media and “vulgarisation” of technical conclusions. Of these, thought experiments illustrate perhaps best the extent to which the language of rhetoric can cut both ways and belie the ostensible primacy of the language of discursive hygiene over that of rhetoric itself.

Thought experiments, or at least certain among them, have come to be known by another name: “intuition pumps”. Although originally coined by Daniel Dennett to show how the description of Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment highlighted certain aspects of the situation at the expense of others to obscure important implications or logical entailments, the term has lost something of its negative semantic charge and captures an essential aspect of thought experiments, namely, their capacity to portray vividly in the imagination otherwise abstract lines of thought and so make their force felt even to those untrained in the language of logic (or discursive hygiene). In this way, the cognitive contents of philosophy can become accessible to a broader public through more concrete, if highly imaginative, scenarios. Thought experiments like the Chinese Room, Swamp Man and Mary’s Room are suggestive of the way in which philosophy can make itself (somewhat) more public by appealing to rhetorical tools tethered to discursive hygiene.

In examining the ebb and flow of academic discourse, we might, however, find ourselves confronted with the creeping suspicion that these arguments owe their power not to the underlying discursive hygiene but instead to their evocative scenarios structured in such a way as to stimulate the imagination’s pleasure centers and elicit approbation from listeners. If, as has been suggested elsewhere, it is not merely the best argument that wins out but that most capable of generating enthusiasm and garnering assent through groupthink to the detriment of genuine debate, then it is difficult not to see discursive hygiene’s primacy and guiding influence as illusory and the mere inversion of good rhetoric.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the fact remains that good rhetoric can carry the day. Indeed, this point seems to stand independent of Leiter’s narrower claims concerning discursive hygiene while complementing his views on emotivism. The question is then one of identifying means of reaching the public through rhetoric other than through thought experiments, which, admittedly, remain somewhat limited in mass appeal. We had earlier evoked theatre, new media and “vulgarisation” of technical conclusions in this line of thought, and it is striking to consider, in this light, Leiter’s ambivalent, if not scathing, remarks on the need felt by English academics to measure their influence in terms of public reach, i.e. television appearances. For this seems at least one manner in which new media could facilitate the sort of reach that philosophical rhetoric promises.

What else might Leiter foresee as instances of philosophical rhetoric capable of reaching an emotivist audience? It is interesting to consider recent efforts made by humorists and academics to distill the essentials of a specific line of research into information capable of being assimilated by an intrigued audience in the form of sketches and humorous interviews at certain American research institutions. TED talks and short dissertation presentation might likewise be considered means of “watering down” ideas. Although the above tactics diverge from strictly philosophical rhetoric, it is easy enough to see the potential application of such practices, particularly in the field of moral and political philosophy where questions at times carry more hefty import in daily life.

New media could likewise contribute to this effort by furnishing “bite-size” reflections and exercises for the public. In French media, Roger Pol-Droit is well-noted for popularising daily experiments of this kind. Such tactics also find echoes in certain Romantic practices, notably that of the fragment, as practiced by Novalis and Schlegel, where a short piece could give rise to a complete thought in much the same way as an oak grows from a seed to a sapling to its adult form. This sowing of seeds amongst the reading populace was practiced by the likes of Percy Shelley as well, who was known to have distributed prompts for thought throughout the English countryside via balloons and luck.

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