Perelman, _The Realm of Rhetoric_

Perelman, Chaim. The Realm of Rhetoric. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990. (138 pages)

In the Realm of Rhetoric, Perelman clarifies and outlines principles of argumentation, updated for the 20th century.

Logic, Dialectic, Philosophy, and Rhetoric

Perelman begins by clarifying Aristotle’s concept of the probable: “what is generally acceptable is probably,” however, probability in this case should not be confounded with calculable probability, but rather the probable has a qualitative aspect which may be closer to “generally acceptable” or “reasonable” (2). In this way, taking a cue from Aristotle, Perelman notes the addressivity of persuasive argumentation, but distinguishes between analytical reasoning and dialectical reasoning: “the former dealing with truth and the latter with justifiable opinion” (3). Justifiability of an opinion often involves the rhetor’s ability to tap into self-evident propositions of the audience; in this way, “argument is not capable of procuring self-evidence and there is no way or arguing against what is self-evident” (6); rather, a rhetor employs self-evidence as a way to move beyond those principles, restructuring reality.

Argumentation, Speaker, and Audience

“The aim of argumentation is not to deduce consequences from given premises; it is rather to elicit or increase the adherence of the members of an audience to theses that are presented for their consent. Such adherence never comes out of thin air; it presupposes a meeting of minds between speaker and audience” (9-10). In other words, a rhetor must adhere to the accepted premises, propositions of the audience: restructuring previous assumptions in order to move beyond them. However, in this adherence to audience, Perelman notes that “certain questions do not merit discussion and others cannot be discussed, for even to consider them would be blasphemous or scandalous” (11). Constraint is a key concept for Perelman’s argumentation, particularly the constraints of audience: drawing upon Bitzer, Perelman continues with the goal of argumentation: “Argumentation is intended to act upon an audience, to modify an audience’s convictions or dispositions through constraint or conditioning” (11).

However, Perelman expands to note that argumentation’s goal is not simply to create adherence with an audience; rather, adherence is a means to incite action, “or at least at creating a disposition to act” (12). In this way, Perelman both notes the disciplinary constraints of certain audiences, but also allows for the expansion beyond the central beliefs of a discipline or specialized audience. In fact, he notes that the epideictic genre is key to his theory of argumentation because “its role is to intensify adherence to values, adherence without which discourses that aim to provoking action cannot find the lever to move or to inspire their listeners” (19).

The Premises of Argumentation

In line with his previous propositions, Perelman writes succinctly, “the speaker can choose as his points of departure only the theses accepted by those he addresses…The transfer of adherence is accomplished only through the establishment of a bond between the premises and the theses whose acceptance the speaker wants to achieve” (21). Such an understanding of argumentation allows Perelman to raise certain questions of discourse while also making observations. For example, he questions how to disqualify a fact or a truth (for a particular audience): “the most effective way is to show its incompatibility with other facts and truths which are more certainly established” (24).

Perelman begins, then, to define certain organizing principles that describe audience’s self-evident premises. He alludes to the idea of a presumption: “based on the idea that that which happens in normal” (25). The most immediate effect of a presumption is that it “imposes the burden of proof upon the person who wants to oppose its application” (25).

Value is applied “wherever we deal with ‘a break with indifference or with the equality of things, wherever one thing must be put before or above another, whenever a thing is judged superior and its merit is to be preferred” (26); in Perelmans conception, value is a structure of hierarchy of either specific beings, objects, groups or institutions (concrete values) or abstract concepts.

Choice, Presence, and Presentation

Here, Perelman notes the ways in which arguments are constructed: namely, through a selection of facts, values, and elements: “choosing to single out certain things for presentation in a speech draws the attention of the audience to them and thereby gives them a presence that prevents them from being neglected” (35). Perelman continues, “Presence acts directly upon our sensibility. The presentation of an object…can effectively move the audience or the jury” (35). That which is present and on the forefront of our consciousness is at the forefront of our minds, elevated in importance; “what loses importance becomes abstract, almost nonexistent” (36). Rhetoric becomes an “the art of creating this presence, thanks to the techniques of presentation” (37).

Significance and Interpretation of Data

Perelman, embracing the ambiguity of language and meaning, notes that words alone “cannot guarantee infallible comprehension of a message; we must look outside the word: in the phrase, in the verbal and nonverbal context, in what we know of the speaker and his audience. All these factors constitute supplementary information which would permit us to lessen misunderstandings and to comprehend the message according to the intention of the person who gave it” (44). I was particularly drawn to Perelman’s reference to Heraclitus’s ‘celebrated fragment,’ “’we do and do not step twice into the same river,’ forces us—if we do not want to charge its author with manifest incoherence—to give two different meanings to the expression ‘the same river,’ taking this ‘sameness’ to relate to in one sense to the banks of the river and in the other to the drops of water which make it up” (44). Perelman goes further by noting that the presence of an idea—regardless of how it is framed—is nonetheless ambiguously interpreted: its presence is what constitutes an argument. For example, “Richard Nixon, by repeating again and again in his campaign for the governorship of California that the incumbent, Governor Edmund Brown, was not a communist, spread the allegation he claimed to reject” (46).

Techniques of Argumentation

Perelman notes that while argumentation is concerned with adherence to the premises of an audience, “most argumentation often draws upon a very ill defined corpus of premises, and the theses upon which it is based can be partially understood or implicit” (49). In this way, arguments can be given the form of liaison (conclusions are garnered through the adherence of principles) or dissociation (untethering elements typically or traditionally tied together).

Perelman charts out three (really, two) types of liaisons:

  1. Quasi-Logical Arguments: often compared to logical mathematical, formal thinking, quasi-logical arguments are those that rely upon adherence to nonformal theses (or non scientific, ambiguously defined theses). However, as Perelman writes, “to use this type of argument, one must necessarily reduce reality to a logical or mathematical schema on which to reason while nonetheless transposing the conclusion in concrete reality” (50). However, Perelman pokes some holes in quasi-logical arguments by also emphasizing the lived-experience that also influences audience premises. For example, he challenges the linguistic idea of arbitrary meaning: “if a word already exists, its definition can never be considered arbitrary, for the word is bound up in the language with previous classifications, with value judgments which give it, in advance, an effective, positive or negative coloration” (61). Likewise, arguments of transitivity (A=B; B=C; therefore, A=C) can often be contradicted by experiences: for example, the phrase ‘the friends of my friends are my friends’ can be challenged if it such friendship does not exist in lived experience.
  2. Arguments which establish the structure of reality: “starting from known specific case, allow the establishment of a precedent, model, or general rule, such as enable reasoning by model or example” (51). Perelman note two ways reality can be structured in argumentation: liaisons of succession (i.e. cause and effect) and liaisons of coexistence (e.g. relationships networked between persons and acts). ]

Arguments by Example, Illustration, and Model

Perelman offers a discussion of each of these three means of argument. Example refers to arguments that “presuppose the existence of certain regularities of which the examples provide a concretization” (106). It is an argument that aims to move from the specific case toward a generalization. Examples form a reality that “forms the basis of the conclusion” (107). Illustration refers to the demonstration of a rule that’s already accepted: it is a means of giving that accepted rule a presence in consciousness. Models are meant to be imitated; models have an authority that invites imitation; however, Perelman notes that a model “can inadvertently provide the model of something else” or be imitated only in the models’ weaknesses. In this light, Perelman offers the antimodel: “if the inferior imitates the superior, the latter does not at all wish to resemble the former, who is despised and cited as an example of bad taste and low life” (112).

Analogy and Metaphor

Similarly in the previous section, Perelman outlines the use of analogy and metaphor in argumentation. Analogy refers to symmetry (or similitude) between two propositions (rather than the equality, sameness of propositions). Analogy comes in two parts: the theme (the central proposition) and the phoros (that which is being compared to). The role of analogy is to clarify the theme through the phoros. For example, old age is to life (theme) as evening is to day (phoros). Perelman also notes that analogies can organize reality, especially attention: “every analogy highlights certain relationships and leaves others in the shadows…in accepting an analogy one subscribes to a certain choice of aspects which it is important o emphasize in the description of a phenomenon” (119).

Metaphor refers traditionally to giving something the name of something else to illustrate meaning through comparision; however, Perelman writes that analogy is a condensed analogy. For example, “old age is an evening” (120). In this way, the theme and the phoros become indivisible (121). In many ways, metaphors guide much of our language, and when a metaphorical expression becomes the only means of referring to aspects of reality, this is called catachresis.

The Dissociation of Ideas

Perelman discusses two kinds of reality: phenomenal reality (reality as it appears) and noumenal (reality reflecting things-in-themselves). Perelman notes that it is “essential to distinguish between appearances which correspond to reality and those which do not and are deceptive. Hence appearance will have an equivocal status: sometimes it is the expression of reality at other times only the source of error and illusion” (127). In other words, the dissociation of ideas refers to the dissociation between these two realities in order to make clear certain propositions.

Perelman discusses the relationship between Term I and Term II to discuss this concept: Term I (phenomenal reality or appearance) refers to that which seems or appears in reality. Term II (noumenal reality) is the result of dissociation of reality: it is a construction, prototype, or mental schema of objects. “Term II provides a criterion, a norm which allows us to distinguishes those aspects of Term I which are of value form those which are not” (127). For example, when you put a straw in a glass with water, it may appear that the star is bent and broken (Term I); however, we know that the star still functions because we have an understanding of how a straw functions and the ways in which water deflects light (Term II). In this way, values are given to Term II: we trust in those concepts, prototypes, more than phenomenal reality. However, “the standard it provides can only be potential, and its principle effect is to order the terms resulting from the dissociation in a hierarchy” (128).

Fullness of Argumentation and Strength of Arguments

Perelman warns that we must be cautious when offering full, rounded arguments: “to give reasons in favor of a thesis is to imply that the thesis is not self-evident and does not compel everyone” (139). “Whatever be the benefit of an accumulation of arguments, there are psychological, social, and economic limits that prvent a thoughtless amplification of the discourse” (139). In a way, this is referencing the example of Nixon’s governorship campaign previously mentioned.

The Order of Arguments in a Discourse

Order is important to the adherence of an audience: “in fact, the order of the presentation of arguments modifies the conditions of their acceptance” (146). Arguments and ideas must be organized into some kind of narrative.

The Realm of Rhetoric

Perelman’s focus on argumentation—and the features of it—is meant to show the potential of rhetoric as a knowledge-making enterprise, one typically associated with philosophy. “Where as rhetoric seeks to have certain opinions prevail over other competing opinions, philosophy…is seeking impersonal truth” (153). However, the realm of both rhetoric and argumentation (dialectic, philosophy) is values: “philosophy cannot be limited to what is perceived, for its proper task is to separate the important from the secondary, the essential from the accidental, the construct form the given, all from a perspective whose pertinence and superiority does not compel everyone” (161). In other words, argumentation—the realm of rhetoric—creates values, which necessarily involves creating hierarchies.



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