Revolution Lullabye

November 27, 2006

Crosswhite: Chapters 5 & 6

Filed under: Uncategorized — by revolutionlullabye @ 10:59 pm

Crosswhite, James. The Rhetoric of Reason: Writing and the Attractions of Argument. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.

Crosswhite is undermining philosophy and putting rhetoric – that ever-evolving, shifting, human hullabaloo – at the foundation of all human interaction and knowledge.

Chapter 5: “Audiences and Arguments”

Crosswhite’s claim is that the audience shapes the argument in every way: it affects the actual claim the claimant makes, the types of proofs the claimant offers, what constitutes as reason or not, etc. An argument cannot exist without an audience. The audience defines the argument: “It is not as if one can construt an argument, and then present it to an audience for evaluation. It is the audience-claimant pair, in conflict, which first creates the need for and the possibility of reason and argument” (137). The claimant is the one who knows who the audience is for his piece. This implied audience is the audience that will be persuaded by the argument.

Crosswhite has two principles in his rhetorical theory of argument evaluation: “audiences are the measures of an argument” (they judge the effectiveness of the argument) and “audiences themselves must be judged” (139). Why? Because audiences always change: “The evaluation of arguments rests on the same shifting, complicated, inconsistent, everyday sense of what is good, what is worthwhile, what is desirable, that human beings have tried to systematize in theories in all the disciplines and professions and spheres of life that lay claim to a rational justification” (139).

For the rest of the chapter, Crosswhite builds on Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca’s concept of the universal audience. He sees the problem inherent in describing what constitutes a universal audience: it is either empty and vague or not really universal at all (141). He skirts around this by making the universal audience a rhetorical idea, something that changes, a feature of an audience that shifts in different circumstances.

Again with Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, Crosswhite review the way a universal audience may be constructed: 1. by taking a particular audience and subtracting the elements that make it particular 2. by adding several particular audiences together and discovering their base common elements 3. by imagining an audience over time – past, present, and future (this is considered the most authentically universal audience.) The neat thing is that each of these methods is valid and can lead to completely different universal audiences (145). Crosswhite points out that “what is taken as universal and what is taken as particular often follow lines of power that divide male from female, conquerors from conquered, rich from poor, jailers from prisoners, sane from insane, adults from children, and on and on” (146). This leads us to consider a theory of justice – we must realize that when we create universality, we empower some people and not others. The choices we make we must defend.

Universal audiences are useful because they distinguish between fact (which is universal) and values (which are particular.) There are some values that can be argued as universal, such as human rights, but Crosswhite argues that these values have really transcended into universal facts or truths. He also points out that when seen externally, “almost all facts show themselves to be values,” and therefore universal audiences are really not all that universal – they embody what is generally good than what is generally thought to be as true (151). Universal audiences also prove the relevance of an argument – in order to be convincing to a universal audience, the argument must give every side its say (148).

The universal audience that we create or imagine is not ahistorical or acultural. It’s impossible for us to divorce our own limitations of locality out of the audiences we create. However, we can remove some of that locality when we critique other writers’ arguments, because then we can take the external viewpoint and carry the argument further than the author originally could or intended to.

Since we cannot rely on our own minds and senses to create the perfect universal audience, we must defer to the undefined universal audience – the audience that appears when it critiques our vision of a universal audience: “an audience evaluates our reasoning in ways we could not have forseen – but which we nevertheless recognize as legitimate” (152). This “undefined universal audience is both unforseeable and unanticipated – something we both know and don’t know” (153).

I found this fascinating: Crosswhite is talking about the lists we see everywhere, that go along the lines of “everyone, regardless of sex, gender, ethnicity, place of origin, etc.” He points out that “the ‘etc.’ is universality’s way of asserting itself in theorizing which has for the most part denied it a place. There is no final list of identity predicates, yet the moral imperative of recognition (its universality) demands that we add the ‘etc.’, taht we not exclude any identity that might deserve ‘recognition'” (158).

Crosswhite undermines logic as the foundation of sound reasoning. Logic is either right or wrong – possible or impossible. Something cannot be true and false at the same time in logic. But does the world work in such binaries? “Pefectly logical minds are not limited by memory, attention, or time” (161). Do real people engaged in conflect have that limitless luxury? No. Crosswhite suggests that rhetoric – its ever-shifting humanness – is the foundation of sound reasoning. Rhetoric recognizes that a truth at one time may not be a truth another time – or that one truth works for one construction of an audience but not for another. Rhetoric can handle inconsistencies (humanness) in ways in which logic cannot. Rhetoric understands that the outside forces of time and distractions sometimes interfere with the clear, cold sanity of logic. Rhetoric also recognizes that language cannot be easily translated into abstract, logical symbols – that there is implicit meaning in the language that forms our arguments that is lost when it is reduced to its commonest denominator.

His summary of this logic/rhetoric point: “My point is that the universal audience of logic is one audience among others. Its judgments will sometimes conflict with the judgments of other paragon audiences. One of the purposes of a rhetoric of reason is to describe these ideal audiences and to show how they articulate certain ideasl of rationality and what it means to be human” (164).

Chapter 6: Being Unreasonable: A Rhetoric of Fallacies

Crosswhite continues his critique of logic as the foundation of sound argumentation by showing how sometimes “fallacies” may be valid ways to construct arguments. By putting rhetoric – not logic – at the foundation, students may learn that using such “fallacies” is a rhetorical choice that works in some circumstances with some audiences. Also, they can learn, if they choose to use a fallacy, why others might be able to claim that their argument is unreasonable.

On the difference between logic and argument: “Written reasoning is not typically an attempt to construct a proof” – arguments are pursued not for the sake of finding what is logically true, but for suading an audience towards what is good and necessary (166). Also, arguments are not either/or pursuits: “arguments can be better or worse, stronger or weaker, even more or less valid. It’s all a matter of degree” (169 emphasis added.) The proof of a valid argument is not its logical soundness but rather how it has affected the audience it was addressed to.

Look at this move he makes – “Whether or not one speaks logically will be decided by how effective one’s speech is with this audience. This means that the distinction between philosophy and rhetoric is itself a rhetorical one, and that philosophy is a special branch of rhetoric” (170). Rhetoric can enliven and make philosophy grounded in human reality again.

Crosswhite develops a rhetoric of fallacies with three well-known falllacies: ad baculum (use of threat influencing the outcome of an argument), equivocation (ambiguity in making one thing equal something else that is not quite it), and composition and division (the parts equal the sum or the sum equals the parts.) He shows how each of these fallacies can be used to make an essential and valid argument.

Crosswhite points out that argument “is dependent on ambiguity” – if there was no ambiguity – no contested, different values – there would be just facts, and how can you argue with universal facts? (183)

I think he ends and sums up these two chapters powerfully in his last two paragraphs of Chapter 6 on pages 186 and 187. I suggest reading and thinking about those in full. Here’s part of it – his purpose in creating this rhetoric of reason – how can a theory of argumentation influence the world? Why do we want to teach our students to argue?: “To practice argumentation is not to assume that there is in some already established sense a common human nature to which one is appealing. It is rather a practice of hope, an agreement to go on reasoning with people who are different from oneself. This is tantamount to acting on a desire to create something in common, in order to live together in a mutually beneficial way” (186).


Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: