Friday, September 17, 2010

Hans Blumenberg, "An Anthropological Approach to the Contemporary Significance of Rhetoric" in After Philosophy: End or Transformation

Related antitheses in philosophical anthropology and rhetoric: man as a rich or a poor creature, rhetoric as the means of communicating truth or of coping with the lack of it.

Formulating the condition of lacking truth as a consequence of an anthropological deficiency implies expanding the domain of rhetoric to include a broad range of conventional interactive behavior.

430-431: "The epistemological situation that Plato imputed to Sophism is radicalized, anthropologically, into the situation of the "creature of deficiencies," for whom everything becomes part of the economy of his means of survival, and who consequently cannot afford rhetoric -- unless he has to afford it. A consequence of this anthropological intensification of the initial conditions is that the concept of a rhetoric that is associated with those conditions must also be formulated in a more elementary of fundamental way. Then the technique of speech appears as a special case of rule-governed modes of behavior that produce something to be understood, set up signs, bring about agreement, or provoke contradiction. Keeping silent, visibly omitting some action in the context of connected behavior, can become just as rhetorical as the reading aloud of an outcry of popular wrath, and the Platonic dialogue is no less rhetorically inclined than the Sophist's instructional discourse, which it opposed by literary means. Even when it is below the threshold of the spoken or written word, rhetoric is form as means, obedience to rules as an instrument."

Philosophical tradition: language as referential, good as what is evident to reason
Rhetorical tradition: language as pragmatic, assumption of the lack of evidentness of the good

The metaphysical tradition has divided the world into two orders -- ideas and nature. Man, awkwardly, doesn't fit on either side of the divide, and in fact seems to be governed by both. This has been solved in the tradition by subordinating one aspect to the other -- and the quashing of this tension means that metaphysics has had no real insight into man.

Rhetoric reflects a fundamental condition of man -- a lack of pregiven structures that order behavior -- action must take the place of automatic processes. What distinguishes man is not language but a deficiency of ready-made behaviors and responses; language is significant for its ability to make up for this deficiency.

433: "Action compensates for the 'indeterminateness' of the creature man, and rhetoric is the effort to produce accords that have to take the place of the 'substantial base of regulatory processes in order to make action possible. From this point of view, language is a set of instruments not for communicating information or truths, but rather, primarily, for the production of mutual understanding, agreement, or toleration, on which the actor depends."

Skepticism creates an opening for coming to terms with the anthropological deficits and determining how to manage them. Blumenberg takes Descartes' provisional ethics -- which was to guide man until the completion of science made a definitive ethics possible -- as an example of the avoidance of this opening. Descartes envisions this provisional ethics as static. Blumenberg notes that this overlooks the possibility of an indefinite delay in accomplishing the project of a complete knowledge. A static provisional ethics avoids dealing with change, fluidity, and indeterminateness in actual circumstances.

435: "The 'method's' promised final accomplishment gets in the way of man's process of self-understanding in the present and also gets in the way of rhetoric as a technique for coming to terms in the provisional state prior to all definitive truths and ethics. Rhetoric creates institutions where evident truths are lacking."

436: "This difference [between persuasion and force] is understood as one of language and education, because persuasion presupposes that one shares a horizon, allusions to prototypical material, and the orientation provided by metaphors and similes. The antithesis of truth and effect is superficial, because the rhetorical effect is not an alternative that one can choose instead of an insight that one could also have, but an alternative to a definitive evidence that one cannot have, or cannot have yet, or at any rate cannot have here and now. Besides, rhetoric is not only the technique of producing such a[n] effect, it is always also a means of keeping the effect transparent: it makes us conscious of effective means whose use does not need to be expressly prescribed, by making explicit what is already done in any case."

The language of shared horizons in the first sentence above sounds strikingly like Gadamer's vision of hermeneutics.

Even science depends on consensus, and hence in a sense rhetoric. But science, as an institution whose work can always be passed on to others, can endure the provisionality of its results indefinitely. Rhetoric assumes a constraint to act.

Rhetoric can substitute a verbal action for a physical one. Cassirer's anthropology sees substitutions of the verbal for the physical as something of a free act of man's symbolic nature, but Blumenberg notes that this creates a discontinuity between what man needs for existence and what his "nature" is. The capacity for symbolic action must be seen in light of its ability to secure man's existence.

On social contract theory as a prototype of an approach that converts what are assumed to be creative expressions of human nature to functional requirements of human existence, 438-439: "What is philosophical about this theory is not primarily that it explains the appearance of an institution like the state (still less that it explains the appearance of the absolutist state), but rather that it converts the supposed definition of man's nature as that of a zoon politikon ['political animal' -- Aristotle] into a functional description. I see no other scientific course for an anthropology except, in an analogous manner, to destroy what is considered 'natural' and convict it of its 'artificiality' in the functional system of elementary human accomplishment called 'life.'"

439: "Man's deficiency in specific dispositions for reactive behavior vis-a-vis reality-- that is, his poverty of instincts -- is the starting point for the central anthropological question as to how this creature is able to exist in spite of his lack of fixed biological dispositions. The answer can be reduced to a formula: by not dealing with this reality directly. The human relation to reality is indirect, circumstantial, delayed, selective, and above all 'metaphorical.'"

Metaphor is not a just a rhetorical ornament, it is the paradigmatic structure of man's rhetorical relationship to reality.

Blumenberg sees this rhetorical relationship extending not just to substituting representations for things, but to substituting actions -- particularly verbal actions -- for other actions which might be more direct and therefore risky. He notes the importance of this for social contexts, and particularly international politics.

Roles are another kind of rhetorical-metaphorical means of managing not just interaction, but identity and self-understanding. (References made to Simmel and Goffman) It works by establishing a framework which retains a sense of consistency and continuity, which is preserved by avoiding contradiction.

442: "The 'agreement' that has to be the goal of all 'persuasion' (even of self-persuasion) is the congruence -- which is endangered in all situations and always has to be secured afresh -- between one's role consciousness and the role expectations that others have of one. Perhaps 'agreement' is too strong a term, because approval would always already go beyond what is called for. Fundamentally, what is important is not to encounter contradiction, both in the internal sense, as a problem relating to consistency, and in the external sense, as a problem relating to acceptance."

Substitution and roles are creations, but unlike artistic production they are not necessarily designed to gain attention. Such creations need to be explicitly recognized in order to affect action, however, and this means that at some point they must have been advocated, campaigned for. I think there is a gesture here toward saying that it is turtles -- which is to say rhetorical conventions -- if not all the way down, then at least as far as is immediately visible. For these rhetorical creations are not just conventions that can be assumed and used, their conventional place is itself the product of a consensus which was arrived at rhetorically.

Blumenberg now introduces an antithesis between rationality -- particularly technical rationality -- and rhetoric: rationality accelerates and "saves" time while rhetoric slows time and delays action. (444-445) The essay turns here to considering rhetoric as a tool for one who does not want to act (or more to the point, react), at least not right away or in the most obvious way. There is an obvious tension with the previous account of rhetoric as the resource of those who are constrained to act -- to the point where a pure delaying tactic like a filibuster is portrayed as belonging to the category of force rather than persuasion (see 437). Certainly Blumenberg is incorporating into his conception of rhetoric here conventions and behaviors which would not be included in it.

These different functions and means of rhetoric, however, simply reflect the different means needed in order to achieve deliberation in different contexts. Rhetoric as a delaying operation serves a characteristically modern need. We are increasingly surrounded with automated processes and rapid access to information. These create momentum for rapid decisions -- or rapid acquiescence to pre-programmed decisions. The rhetorical building of consensus as a ground for action is lost; and different kinds of procedural delays and reviews provide an opportunity to make what is done more a matter of conscious, deliberative action again. There's even a defense here of liberal education for providing a pattern of thinking which isn't just functional and aimed at efficiency.

447: "If classical rhetoric essentially aims at a mandate for action, modern rhetoric seeks to promote the delaying of action, or at least the understanding of such delay -- and it does this especially when it wants to demonstrate its capacity to act, once again by displaying symbolic substitutions."

447 (continuing immediately in next paragraph): "The axiom of all rhetoric is the principle of insufficient reason (principium rationis insufficientis)."

prayer as a form of rhetoric -- which presumes a persuadable God -- what an insight!

Rehabilitation of opinion as opposed to the presumed superiority of knowledge or science, 448: "But the principle of insufficient reason is not to be confused with a demand that we forgo reasons, just as 'opinion' does not denote an attitude for which one has no reasons but rather one for which the reasons are diffuse and not regulated by method."

In practical affairs, where endless inquiry is not feasible, it is irrational to expect that decisions can be justified on the basis of complete knowledge. Even scientific advice as it bears on public affairs is liable to be incomplete, and so while the advice may borrow the dignity of science, it still operates on the plane of persuasion as well. (Curiously, I think in America today there is rather too acute a consciousness of the rhetorical entanglement of scientific recommendations (see the short shrift given to global warming), while the proclamations of business leaders are treated as a kind of pure knowledge.)

Public policy depends on postulates about human beings which have not been and possibly cannot be scientifically validated. In particular, much policy assumes that human beings can be shaped significantly by exogenous factors. If anything, however, scientific methodology leads toward a bias in favor of theories favoring endogenous factors -- because such factors are less diffuse and thus easier to isolate and test. (I think this insight is mostly sound, but recent rethinking about the effects of fetal environment on the inheritance of characteristics through multiple future generations shows that methodology allows for more flexibility than Blumenberg appreciated.) Blumenberg considers such postulates of practical reason (and the reference to Kant is explicit here) as part of the rhetoric of ethics -- they enable us to persuade others (and ourselves) that action to improve our lot is not futile.

Man as the "the subject of history" as a rhetorical assumption of modernity. Metaphors of transfer of power make it easier for individuals and groups to persuade themselves that they have the right and the ability to assume the role of the subject of history.

For Blumenberg, rhetoric is not a surplus creative talent that marks out man as having special dignity. It is a way of coping with not always having the fullness of reason available to us. 452: "... I would like to hold to the idea of seeing in [rhetoric] a form of rationality itself -- a rational way of coming to terms with the provisionality of reason."

Blumenberg's critique of Hobbes' assertion of the superiority of "right reason" over rhetoric (and of today's assertion of the need for "critical reason"): First, how can one determine whether right reason is being employed except through the exercise of right reason? In other words, the critique is circular. Second, rhetoric is, after all, something that men have it in their power to control -- unlike the anti-rhetorical absolute dictatorship that Hobbes prefers.

For Hobbes, reason is based on concepts while rhetoric is based on metaphors, but metaphors do not grapple with the things themselves. Blumenberg notes that Hobbes' own theory of concepts is that they are entirely artificial, and thus they have no natural affinity with the things in themselves, either. Moreover, Hobbes own deduction of the necessity of an absolute state depends on mutually incompatible organic and mechanistic metaphors.

453-454: "Now metaphor is in fact not only a surrogate for concepts that are missing but possible in principle, and should therefore be demanded; it is also a projective principle, which both expands and occupies empty space -- an imaginative procedure that provides itself with its own durability in similes."

Classical polarity: rhetoric as art; reality as nature. But reality today is not simple nature, it is nature mediated through artificial processes (and thus mediated through rhetoric, in the broad sense that Blumenberg uses the term). The admonishment to return "to the things themselves" is itself a rhetorical trope. (455: "If reality could be seen and dealt with 'realistically,' it would have been seen and dealt with that way all along.") Such programs fall short on actually providing the things themselves, and end up focusing rhetorically on the illusions which are supposed to have prevented us from getting to reality.

Man's weakness for rhetoric -- his susceptibility to being influenced -- leads to Blumenberg's final point: there is no transparent relationship to oneself, either. 456: "Man has no immediate, no purely 'internal' relation to himself. His self-understanding has the structure of 'self-externality.'" So there isn't any direct access to our true desires and character that stands cleanly apart from rhetoric; self-persuasion is an intrinsic part of our predicament.

The means that we have to understand ourselves are themselves rhetorical, and foremost among these is the contrast with what we are not -- above all, the contrast with God.

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