THE PROBLEM WITH RHETORIC

The problem with any argument, whether it be by politician, philosopher, priest, or poet, is this: any argument will always be prejudiced by its conclusion.

A good argument, we think, leads to its conclusion without any pre-knowledge of its conclusion; otherwise we find ourselves rejecting the argument as being made in bad faith: a mere adornment of a foregone conclusion.

Socrates is often faulted for winning his arguments too easily against fictionalized opponents— the inevitability of the conclusion results not in Socrates’ favor, but as an indictment of Plato ‘stacking the deck.’ So runs the case against Socrates, in many critics’ minds.

The seducer has one goal: carnal conquest; the unwilling victim must be persuaded by an argument guided by a conclusion which already exists. A politician’s speech, an essay, or a piece of fiction may all fall into this same unpleasant category: the conclusion comes first; the argument, no matter how elaborate, no matter how convincing, no matter how seemingly inevitable, was fashioned second, to fit the end—arrived at, for some hidden, sordid gain, in the beginning.

The bad faith argument only seems to be: ‘if these things are true, must not this be true?’ The bad faith argument is really: ‘I desire this, and to get it, I have laid out a masterpiece of an argument before you.’

Here is the great rhetorical dilemma: what sort of argument is it, if it is not prejudiced by its conclusion? It is no argument at all. An argument without a conclusion is not an argument. Yet an argument enslaved by a foregone conclusion is not an argument, either.

How does one rationally argue towards a conclusion which is unknown?

If conclusions are wants, goals, and desires, and all good arguments depend on every goal being unknown, then what in the world are good arguments for, and how can we even say what a good argument is? What sort of argument is it, which is separated from all that human beings want?

We are always reading books and recommending books to others. Do we really believe that in the great rhetorical climate of social and political communication in which all of us swim, there exists only the purest thoughts and actions, absent of all desire and ambition?

Of course we don’t believe this. Truly, conclusions exist. Desires exist. Arguments—ideal arguments, good arguments—do not exist. They can’t.

When someone says they don’t buy your argument, they are lying. Your conclusion, your desire, happens to clash with theirs.

When there is one desire, “good” arguments abound.

Where there are two conflicting desires, wonders! no “good” argument will ever be found.

If good arguments do not exist, and desire makes everything occur, then reason does not exist, or, if reason exists, it truly exists as feeling.

Reason, we think, takes time to unfold; this is what we call a ‘reasonable argument;’ but this is what we have just proved does not exist.

Last weekend my kids and I had to decide what we wanted to do for the day, and there were limits: distance to travel, cost of the event, interest in the event by the various parties, etc.  The conclusion (what we ended up doing) was already contained in the restrictions.

Today I noticed blossoms beginning to fall off the dogwood.

What is the conclusion of the dogwood?

The blossoms?

Or their death?

Reason, perhaps, if it is the same thing as emotion, manifests itself instantaneously, as feelings do.  There is debate on which is faster, light or gravity?  Perhaps the same argument could be made for swiftness of reason versus the swiftness of emotion?

I know what I want immediately.

My argument?

That is hardly relevant at all.

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