Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Logic and Rhetoric

The shift of focus from propositions to statements is also a shift of focus from the logic to the rhetoric of science. Logical arguments are intended to establish truths on the basis of other truths. Rhetoric, meanwhile, is intended to make an impression on an audience, in a word, to persuade. In scholarship, it is not enough to know that a set of propositions are true, and that these truths imply other truths. You must also know what a particular group of people, your peers, think is true, and you must then engage with those beliefs in your writing.

One of the most important differences, therefore, between propositions and statements is that the former are true or false in themselves, where the latter are tenable or untenable relative to some audience. They "hold up" or not in what we call "discourse", and there is no simple relationship between their truth and their tenability in this regard. The great difficulty in writing for an academic audience, then, is not so much knowing the truth, but telling the truth. You cannot be content with being right; you must develop your rightness into a persuasive position.

The institution of academic writing, especially the journal literature, frames this difficulty in particular ways. These days, however, there is a lot of concern (which is not at all misplaced) that the social pressure to publish has changed the rhetorical situation of the academic writer. After all, it is possible to entirely detach the rhetoric from the logic of research. If writers and their readers come to see the task of "making a statement" as entirely unconstrained by the truth of propositions then scholarship will lose much of its distinctive value. It will become a species of literature, to be judged on the aesthetic pleasure of our direct experience of it. On this score, I think we can agree, it is not likely to succeed.

Scholarly writing presumes that the statements that are being made are intended to express propositions that are true. It must be meaningful to ask whether or not they are true in a sense that this question is not meaningful when reading a novel. Academic writing is not supposed to be merely plausible.

Tomorrow, I will consider perhaps the most important notion in our understanding of the rhetorical situation of academic writer, namely, the critical reader. This reader, especially as he or she appears in the mind of the writer at the time of writing, is notorious for not knowing his or her place. As a result, I'm afraid, s/he has been banished from the academy, or at least forced to the margins of discourse. In one sense, this has made it too easy to publish in the academic literature; in another, it has made scholarship well nigh impossible.

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