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Reading :: The Philosophy of Rhetoric

Posted by: on Jul 18, 2013 | No Comments
The Philosophy of Rhetoric
By I. A. Richards

I'm sure I should have read this little classic a long time ago, but I didn't. Earlier this summer, I found it on the shelves of a used bookstore and decided to pick it up. It's only 138pp, based on six lectures, so I read it pretty quickly—I think I finished it in a day. I think.

Sorry to be so vague. The fact is, this book was based on a series of 1936 lectures, but it had such an impact on the field of rhetoric and composition that, today, its arguments seem oddly unremarkable. It's still a good read, with some great quotes, but if you've read widely in rhet-comp, the effect is similar to that of a rock aficionado listening to early Beatles. The material is good but, part of you thinks, it's so familiar as to be banal.

Let's get to the arguments anyway. Richards introduces the book by explaining:
These lectures are an attempt to revive an old subject. I need spend no time, I think, in describing the present state of Rhetoric. Today it is the dreariest and least profitable part of the waste that the unfortunate travel through in Freshman English! So low has Rhetoric sunk that we would do better just to dismiss it to Limbo than to trouble ourselves with it—unless we can find reason for believing that it can become a study that will minister successfully to important needs. (p.3)
What needs? Richards continues: "Rhetoric, I shall urge, should be a study of misunderstanding and its remedies" (p.3). And to carry on that study, he argues that "we have instead to consider much more closely how words work in discourse" (p.5). And "To account for understanding and misunderstanding, to study the efficiency of language and its conditions, we have to renounce, for a while, the view that words just have their meanings and that what a discourse does is to be explained as a composition of these meanings" (p.9), instead accounting for meanings in context (p.10). "Stability in a word's meaning is not something to be assumed, but always something to be explained," he argues (p.11).

Consequently, he says, "a revived Rhetoric ... must itself undertake its own inquiry into the modes of meaning—not only, as with the old Rhetoric, on a macroscopic scale, discussing the effects of different disposals of large parts of a discourse—but also on a microscopic scale by using theorems about the structure of the fundamental conjectural units of meaning and the conditions through which they, and their interconnections, arise" (pp.23-24).

This is the project Richards takes on. Along the way, he defines context (a cluster of events that recur together, p.34), states that the business of rhetoric is to compare meanings of words (p.37), assert the multiplicity of meanings in discourse (p.39), and lauds ambiguity as something inevitable and indispensable (p.40). He disparages the focus on usage in old rhetoric (p.51), arguing that correctness is a social marker and declaring that the new rhetoric must question the "social or snob control" of languge (p.78). He gives special attention to metaphor, which, he says, is essentially comparative and functions as a transaction between contexts (p.94). In the last lecture, he argues that "Words are not a medium in which to copy life. Their true work is to restore life itself to order" (p.134).

In all, this is a landmark treatise from someone who thought deeply about rhetoric, prescribed a new course for it, and deeply impacted it in ways that reverberate even today.