the rhetoric of inquiry in the long eighteenth

Because I understand everything 20 years too late, I’ve really been enjoying a volume called The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences (ed. Nelson, Megill, McCloskey) (Wisconsin, 1987) for its essays on the “rhetoric of inquiry,” because it offers a really impressive example of the kind of interdisciplinary scholarship we are always being urged to practice. 

The consistency of this volume’s essays, the high calibre of the contributors (Richard Rorty, Renato Rosaldo, James Boyd White, Jean Bethke Elshtain, etc.), and the remarkable degree of focus achieved by its varied group of contributors make this an outstanding collection.  What lends the volume its coherence is its convincing depiction of the university as a place where persuasion is always happening, all the time, in every research discipline, no matter what method or methods it supposedly relies upon.  So despite the protestations of the social sciences and their rhetorical reliance on method, the diverse scholarly practices and inquiries of the university can be seen as a whole, if and when we see their common reliance on social, disciplinary, and institutional mechanisms of persuasion.

Of course, the bright future promised by this kind of volume–think about what could happen, what vistas would open up, the kinds of community and conferences we could create, etc. etc., if we just followed this research agenda–has not quite worked out.  This is the only benefit of reading something important 20 years too late, the latecomer’s modest advantage of being able to gauge the accuracy of an author’s predictions, or, really, to assess the acuity of an author’s historical self-awareness.  I have some thoughts about why the future didn’t work out the way the contributors hoped or expected, but I’ll address that in another post.

For the practicing 18th century scholar, I’d say that there are two major take-aways from this volume: the first is the historical, transdisciplinary, transdiscursive importance of the seventeenth century denigration of rhetoric, which helped to produce an alliance of scientific and philosophic method that continues unabated to this day, for all the embarassments that both the hard and soft sciences have experienced since the turn of the twentieth century.  As the editors note, this discursive alliance remains with us still as part of the modernity that we all “suffer,” and whose “dichotomies of subject and object” “gave fresh force to opposing truth and rationality on the one side to conversation and rhetoric on the other” (6).  (This convergence of modernizing and anti-rhetorical thought is also evident in the Sprat volume we discussed over the summer, and Habermas himself may not be free of such modernizing suspicions of rhetoric.) 

When I look at writing in our period, I see a three-way tension between the epistemological impulses of 17th and 18th century systems of knowledge-production, the still-powerful Ciceronian or Humanist elements of elite discourse, and the more diffuse energies of populism and the out-of-doors “public.”  The push-pull of these mutually antagonistic elements creates a lot of the generic and discursive instabilities and contingent opportunisms found throughout the Long Eighteenth.  Witness, for example Wollstonecraft’s distrust of the feminizing ornaments of Burke’s rhetoric in her Vindication, and her own embrace of a rationalist yet recognizably Protestant, dissenting discourse of conviction and demonstration in her political writings.

The large-scale historical and discursive stakes of the Enlightenment rejection of rhetoric is something that Bender and Wellbery’s essay on “Rhetoricality” treats very well, but it is also a major turning-point in every history of rhetoric I’ve encountered.  And yet how much do we discuss this turn against rhetoric in our undergraduate or graduate courses?  For all that, I think this topic of the decline of rhetoric deserves at least as much multidisciplinary emphasis as all the other “rise” narratives we routinely discuss in our respective fields, including the rise of the public sphere, –of the novel, –of the middle class, and so on.

The second takeaway from this volume would be the difficulty of conducting genuinely interdisciplinary research without an underlying assumption about the rhetorical or conversational nature of scholarship.  This is something that understandably came up during our NEASECS panel, but I’ve also been thinking about it in the context of my work on SACS accreditation and QEPs for my university and college.  What I have discovered is that while some disciplines encourage such scholarly conversations, and others do not, we all nonetheless receive considerable intitutional pressures to claim interdisciplinarity for our scholarship and research, even while many of the local and quotidian incentives go in the other, more safely specialized, direction. 

This set of tensions institutionalized within the modern university, which I regard as one of the historical legacies of the Enlightenment rejection of rhetoric, is also responsible for many of the ambiguities surrounding the “rhetoric of inquiry” since 1987, which resulted in the establishment of Rhetoric as a specialized field of inquiry adjacent to (and often competing with) literary studies, and the continued rejection of rhetoric by the other human sciences.



UPDATE: Since this book existed pre-internet, I had to hunt for links, but I did find two link for those not inclined to walk over to a real library.  Here’s a heated debate (via JSTOR, registration req.) between Peter Munz and one of the volume’s editors, in the Journal of the History of Ideas (1990).  And, as usual, Bruce Robbins has a nice take on these issues in his own piece on Interdisciplinarity from the same year.


3 responses to “the rhetoric of inquiry in the long eighteenth

  1. This reminds me of a pilot project (that went, I’m pretty sure, nowhere) at my undergrad institution: some faculty wanted to create an Honors Program where the central seminar would be an interdisciplinary inquiry into a topic (e.g., environment in the contemporary world). The idea being that students from different majors/backgrounds could come together to tackle an issue using these different approaches. It’s a fantastic idea and would be a great centerpiece to an undergraduate research program (thinking here of not only your work at UH, but also initiatives burbling up here in Oregon) because of its emphasis on communication/sharing/scholarly community.

  2. David Mazella

    Hi, John, good to hear from you. Interdisciplinarity looks very different, I think, from a student or a librarian’s perspective than from a faculty one, but the incentives/disincentives are structured differently, too. Not acknowledging these, I think, leads to the phenomenon you describe, where one keeps discovering ambitious projects announced and abandoned every few years in the university.

    I, too, like the idea of it, and would like to incorporate it more straightforwardly into curriculum etc., but I think the only way is to acknowledge the roadblocks, and gather suggestions for ways around them.



  3. Pingback: The bureaucratic and rhetorical universities, via James Boyd White « The Long Eighteenth