Forrest Cameranesi Geek of all Trades

On Rhetoric and the Arts

The structure of philosophy, centered on rhetoric

Thus far in these essays, I have argued from my metaphilosophy to my general philosophy of commensurablism, which is any philosophy that is neither dogmatic nor cynical, and neither transcendent nor relativist.

Then I explored the implications of commensurablism on the philosophy of language, giving an account of both descriptive and prescriptive language that is consistent with its principles.

In this essay I will now explore the implications of that philosophy of language on rhetoric and the arts.


Rhetoric is traditionally defined as the art of persuasion, and with that characterization I don't have much disagreement. But to me it is the "art" part that is more defining than the "persuasion" part, and what chiefly differentiates it from the other of philosophy's main tools, logic. Both logic and rhetoric can be used in persuasive arguments, but whereas logic is more mathematical, concerning itself with the form and structure of the argument and appealing more impersonally to dispassionate thought, rhetoric as I would characterize it is more artistic, concerning itself with the style and presentation of the argument and appealing more personally to passions and feelings.

Strictly speaking this breaks with traditional characterizations of rhetoric from antiquity, which include "logos" (appeals to logic) as a "mode of argument" under the umbrella of rhetoric, and "invention" (the structuring of an argument) as a "canon" of rhetoric. But I lack any other term for the remaining parts of rhetoric besides what is already covered by logic, those parts that appeal to emotion and character (the "pathos" and "ethos" modes of argument) via the arrangement, style, and delivery of the argument (three other of the five traditional "canons" of rhetoric, the fifth being "memory", which I consider merely a tool aiding delivery). And this use of the term is in keeping with contemporary colloquial use as well. So in these essays when I speak of rhetoric, I am speaking of the packaging and delivery of speech-acts, as differentiated from the contents and structure thereof, which I will cover more in my later essay on logic and mathematics.

Being thus divorced from its contents, rhetoric characterized as above is not to be judged strictly on those contents, on whether the things being said are right or wrong (whatever manner thereof may apply, depending on the kind of things being said). Rather, "good rhetoric" is successful rhetoric, rhetoric that does what it was meant to do, that successfully packages its contents, whatever they may be, in such a way as to ensure their delivery into the minds of the audience. (This is analogous to how logical validity does not depend on or guarantee the truth of a logical argument's conclusion, only the relationship between the truth or falsity of that conclusion and the truth or falsity of the premises).

What it is meant to do, of course, can vary relative to who is judging it: the speaker may mean to do one thing by their rhetoric, the audience may mean for something else to be done to them by it, society at large may mean for rhetoric to be used for yet another purpose, and there may further be some universal standard by which to judge what any speaker should be using rhetoric to do. But whatever standard one is judging rhetoric by, the rhetoric is "good" inasmuch as it successfully does whatever it's supposed to do by that standard, which may or may not be to communicate truths.

For this reason, some philosophers such as Plato were vehemently opposed to rhetoric, seeing it as manipulative sophistry without regard for truth, in contrast with the logical, rational dialectic that he and his teacher Socrates advocated. His student Aristotle, on the other hand, had a less negative opinion of rhetoric, viewing it as neither inherently good nor bad but as useful toward either end, and holding that because many people sadly do not think in perfectly rational ways, rhetorical appeals to emotion and character and such are often necessary to get such people to accept truths that they might otherwise irrationally reject.

I side much more with Aristotle's view on this matter, viewing logic and rhetoric as complimentary to each other, not in competition. I like to use an analogy of prescribing someone medicine: the actual medicinal content is most important of course, but you stand a much better chance of getting someone to actually swallow that content if it's not packaged in a big, jagged, bitter pill, but rather a small, smooth, sweet-tasting pill. In this analogy, the medicinal content of the pill is the logical, rational content of a speech-act, while the size, texture, and flavor of the pill is the rhetorical packaging and delivery of the speech-act. It is of course important that the "medicine" (logic) be right, but it's just as important that the "pill" (rhetoric) be such that people will actually swallow it.

On the Types of Rhetoric

Aristotle divided rhetoric into three types:

  • Forensic rhetoric, concerned with arguing whether or not wrongdoing has occurred, in the past.
  • Deliberative rhetoric, concerned with arguing whether or not some course of action would bring about good ends, in the future.
  • And epideictic rhetoric, concerned with ceremonial commendation or declamation, praise or blame, in the present.

As should be clear from the definition of those categories, Aristotle thought of rhetoric as being entirely about political, moral, or otherwise normative argument: arguing that something is, was, or will be, in some way good or bad. The Sophists, on the other hand, who were the target of Plato's condemnation of rhetoric, held that rhetoric could be used to persuade anyone on any topic, not merely normative persuasion in a political context; notably, they held that it could be used to convince people that something was or was not true.

Today, neo-Aristotelians continue to consider rhetoric to be something within the domain of politics, while neo-Sophists continue to consider it to be something that can be applied to any topic of discourse. Though of course I disagree with the Sophists that rhetorical persuasion is all there is to truth, I agree in this matter that rhetoric is something that can be applied, for better or worse, to any topic of discourse.

But I still think that something much like Aristotle's tripartite division can be retained, reframed in a way accounting for that broader applicability of rhetoric, in terms of the directions of fit discussed in my previous essay on language:

  • Descriptive rhetoric is concerned with conveying descriptive truth or reality, which is to say, opinions with an idea-to-world direction of fit. This concords roughly with Aristotle's forensic rhetoric concerning the past, because most of our concern about reality is usually with the past up to the present, the truth or reality of the future being highly uncertain. But we can and do nevertheless discuss predictions of the future, and this modified category of rhetoric I propose would concern the conveyance of them as well, merely in the capacity of describing the future, not prescribing it as Aristotle's deliberative rhetoric would do.
  • Prescriptive rhetoric is concerned with conveying prescriptive good or morality, which is to say, opinions with a world-to-idea direction of fit. This concords roughly with Aristotle's deliberative rhetoric concerning the future, because most of our concern about morality is usually with the present on into the future, the goodness or morality of the unchangeable past being of less concern. But we can and do nevertheless pass moral judgements on things that have already happened, and this modified category of rhetoric I propose would concern the conveyance of them as well.
  • Ceremonial rhetoric is concerned with the performance of ceremonial acts, like those described near the beginning of the predecing essay on language, which have a dual direction of fit, the performance of the ceremonial speech-act changing social facts about the world by the very performance of the act itself. This concords roughly with Aristotle's epideictic rhetoric, inasmuch as both of them are concerned with ceremonial performances. But unlike that, this form of rhetoric concerns ceremonies with more than just commending and declaiming functions.

On the Modes of Rhetoric

But there is a different sense in which all types of rhetoric must concern a certain kind of fit between the world and an idea, in that all rhetoric is meant to convey some ideas about the world from the speaker to the audience. That may be the world as it is, for descriptive opinions, or the world as it ought to be, for prescriptive opinions; and that may be either the audience's capacity to believe, to apprehend truth, or the audience's capacity to intend, to apprehend goodness, as I distinguish in my later essays on the mind and on the will. But in any case, toward any such end, the speaker must convey to the audience:

  • The speaker's "fit to the world": their expertise on the subject matter. Emphasizing this is the essence of the "ethos" mode of persuasion. As a "speaker-to-world" fit, so to speak, this may superficially seem like it is entirely about descriptive truth, with an idea-to-world direction of fit, but the subject matter about which the speaker conveys their expertise may just as well be a prescriptive one, with a world-to-idea direction of fit.
  • The speaker's "fit to the (audience's) mind": their sympathy with the perspective of the audience, being on their side, trying to help them, rather than being against them, attacking them. Emphasizing this is the essence of the "pathos" mode of persuasion. As a "speaker-to-mind" fit, so to speak, this may superficially seem like it is entirely about prescriptive good, with a world-to-idea direction of fit, showing the audience that the speaker is normatively acceptable, but it can be just as important to convey a factual understandability (with an idea-to-world fit), that the speaker understands the perspective from which the audience sees the world, and can translate a view of the the subject matter in question to that audience's perspective.
  • The speaker's ability to feed their expertise on the world sympathetically into the audience's mind at an appropriate pace for the audience to digest it. This has much in common with the showmanship that is most important in the ceremonial or epideictic type of rhetoric, because it requires the speaker to convey the subject in an entertaining manner, as in, one that keep's the audience's attention, leaving them neither bored nor overwhelmed.

Contrary to the Sophists, and concurring with Plato and his portrayal of Socrates, I think it is very important that the speaker actually be all of these things they are conveying to their audience. They really should actually know the topic they are talking about. They really should care to actually help their audience by conveying it to them. And they really should have the patience to pace it out in the way that most effectively bridges that gap between the two. But unlike Plato and his portrayal of Socrates, and concurring with Aristotle, I think it is also important that the speaker demonstrate such expertise, sympathy, and patience to their audience.

The Triple Constraint of Audiences

Conversely, part and parcel of demonstrating such expertise, sympathy, and patience to one's audience is not counting on one's audience to do likewise. A speaker must be very clear, to get through to those parts of the audience who lack the expertise to understand dense or technical language. A speaker must be unambiguous, so that those parts of the audience who are not sympathetic to the speaker have no room to misinterpret what they say. And a speaker must be as concise as reasonably possible, to avoid boring away an impatient audience who won't listen to a lengthy explanation no matter how clear and unambiguous it is.

Jim Pryor memorably phrased this advice, in the context of philosophy writing specifically, as a suggestion to assume one's audience to be "stupid, lazy, and mean": "stupid" in that they won't just understand what you're trying to say, "lazy" in that they don't really care what you're trying to say and so won't put any effort into trying to understand, and "mean" in that they don't like what you're trying to say so when they inevitably misunderstand you it will be in the worst possible way.

But in my experience, it is only possible to reach at best two of those three segments. Like the famous project management triangle (or "triple constraint") concisely summed up as "good, fast, cheap: pick any two", it seems impossible to reach an audience that is simultaneously ignorant, apathetic, and hostile.

  • It may be possible to reach an ignorant and apathetic audience if they are sufficiently charitable in their interpretation, so long as you are clear and concise.
  • It may be possible to reach an apathetic and hostile audience if they are sufficiently knowledgable to permit your use of concise unambiguous jargon.
  • And it may be possible to reach an ignorant and hostile audience if they are sufficiently patient to read through your lengthy clarifications and disambiguations.

But if your audience doesn't get it, doesn't like it, and doesn't even care about it, then it may be impossible to reach them even in principle.

On the Arts

I hold rhetoric, thus characterized, to be a sort of foundational branch of the arts more generally, much as logic is a foundational branch of mathematics.

By "the arts" I mean a very broad field, including musical arts (broadly characterized as art in time), visual arts (broadly characterized as art in space), and performance arts (broadly characterized as art in time and space, including all of dance, theater, film, video, animation, and so on). I also include within that term all the linguistic arts, parallel to each of those non-linguistic arts, such as poetry (characterized as being about things like rhyme and meter, figuratively "music in words"), prose (characterized as being about vivid descriptions, figuratively "pictures in words"), and storytelling (figuratively "movies in words").

I include even things as abstract as the design of the interfaces people use and spaces people occupy. I hold such design to be the non-linguistic parallel of rhetoric itself, being all about using style and presentation to draw people's attention in the direction the designer wants it drawn, to make some things seem obvious and intuitive while hiding other things away where they won't be noticed, and so guide people's behavior, just as rhetoric emphasizes some aspects of some parts of some ideas while deemphasizing others, and so guides people's feelings about those ideas.

Thus I hold the characterization of rhetoric as being about style, packaging, and presentation – meant to make an audience feel things in a way not strictly dependent of its contents – to also be the defining characterization of all the arts, broadly construed. A painting, song, or film doesn't have to be anything like beautiful just in order for it to be art in the first place: it just has to be presented to an audience as a work of art.

Figuratively speaking, putting a frame around something is what makes it art. The art of photography, for example, is largely (though of course not entirely) about putting not-quite-figurative frames around images that often (thought not always) were not so much created as found and selected as worthy of presentation to an audience.

A photograph of a stunning vista from a nature trail depicts something that the photographer had no hand in creating: it is only the framing of the vista within the lens, the depth of focus being a third dimension of that frame (how far out from the viewer is framed), and the film speed and exposure time being a fourth dimension (how much time is framed), that turns the found view into a work of art. Placing a literal picture frame on a stand around that same vista, and directing people up the nature trail to it, would also qualify as an art installation.

Further still in the extremes, works such as Marcel Duchamp's Fountain (an ordinary urinal, signed with a fictitious name and placed in an art gallery) and John Cage's 4'33" (a piece of music consisting of three movements of no notes at all) are still, on my account, technically works of art, because they are presented to an audience with the aim to provoke some kind of a reaction in them.

However, just being a work of art is not all it takes to be good art. Something can be art, but still be bad art. I will further explore the topic of artistic value in my later essay on axiology.

On Creativity

The last topic I want to address in this essay is creativity. Creativity seems to be popularly held to be some kind of non-deterministic, random process of some kind of magical, metaphysically free will – a topic I will address at length in a later essay on the will – but I hold that that is not the case at all. I hold that there really isn't a clear distinction between invention and discovery of ideas, but rather neither invention nor discovery in the senses we use those terms to discuss concrete objects can apply to abstract ideas.

On the one hand, if we supposed that ideas were simply invented in the way that concrete objects are, that would imply that each idea did not exist at one point in the past, and then came into existence when instantiated. So, for example, the idea that 2+2=4 would not have existed, and so could not have been true, until someone thought of it, and then only after someone did think of it, would it have existed, and been true.

On the other hand, if we supposed that ideas were simply discovered in the way that concrete objects are, that would imply that ideas already existed in some accessible way completely unrelated to the possibility of them being instantiated. So, for example, for it to be discovered that 2+2=4, there must have already existed the ideas of "two", "four", "addition", and "equality", and the relationships between them, somewhere "out there" in some kind of strange realm of abstract objects. (I will discuss the problems with this in my later essay on ontology).

It seems that we are prone to call it "invention" when it is the first known instance of someone having an idea, or if it’s a relatively non-obvious idea; and we are prone to call it "discovery" when it is a later known instance of someone having an idea, or if it’s a relatively obvious idea. But I think there really is no difference between them when it comes to abstract ideas; the distinction between creation and discovery applies only to concrete objects.

When it comes to abstract ideas, I find it most useful to think in terms of a figurative space of all possible ideas, what in mathematics is called a configuration space or phase space, where any idea that anyone might "invent", any act of abstract "creation" (prior to the act of realizing the idea in some concrete medium), is really just the identification of some idea in that space of possibilities. It would be possible in principle to set out on a deterministic process of mechanically identifying every possible idea, though as that space of possibilities is likely infinite this process would likely never finish identifying all of them.

Watching the output of such a process would not feel like watching a creative genius, though, even though the process would be continually spitting out new, previously unidentified ideas. But neither would watching the output of a process that generates (or picks from out of the possibility space) new ideas completely at random, however. That, I hold, is because it is not the determinism or randomness of the process of invention or discovery that makes it "creative" in a way that would be called such by audiences watching its output. Rather, it is a specific feature of the process, which requires that the process be at least partly deterministic, that grants the appearance of creativity.

That feature is that the invented or discovered idea must be recognizably similar to previously known ideas, and yet also noticeably different from them. That alone is only the bare minimum of creativity, however: something that is just like something else with a slight twist will be rightly called only a variation on a previous theme and not especially creative. However, something that is completely unlike any prior work will seem so random, out of context, and therefore unapproachable, that audiences will be unable to appreciate it. The kind of new ideas that seem really creative are the ones that make apparent the structure of the space of possibilities, connecting and re-contextualizing previously known ideas.

If two genres of some medium are well-known, for example, with many variations on the same theme, and then a new work of art is made in that medium that blends elements of both genres in a way that shows them both to be the ends of a longer spectrum of genres, then that will be seen as very creative. It will also open up the potential of still further creativity later, as other works located along that same line in the space of possibilities can then have the context of that spectrum to anchor them, to give them purpose in filling in the unexplored regions in the middle of that spectrum and beyond its known ends.

If one such spectrum of possibilities is already known, and a new work can bridge between it and ideas that lie off of it in such a way as to expand the spectrum into a new dimension, suddenly even more structure in the space of possibilities is made apparent, and even more opportunity for further creativity is opened up. In relating already known ideas to each other across a space of previously unexplored ideas, new works can give further context and significance to existing ones and draw context and significance from them, and it is that process of connection and contextualization, not mere nondeterministic randomness, that constitutes creativity.

This begins to segue now more into the realm of logic and mathematics than rhetoric and the arts, as we are now talking about the structure and content of ideas rather than their style and delivery. But mathematics and the arts, though very distinct in the way elaborated upon at the start of this essay, also dovetail into each other in many other ways. For every branch of the arts, there is some branch of mathematics that is applicable to its realization.

Geometry and other spatial branches of mathematics have obvious applicability to the visual arts. The mathematics of cyclical functions, patterns that repeat over time, underlies harmonics, which has obvious applicability to the musical arts. In medieval education curricula, that study of mathematical harmonics was even taught under the label of simply "music", one of the four subjects of the quadrivium, alongside arithmetic, the aforementioned geometry, and what they called "astronomy", which was really the study of the mathematics of dynamics, which does have its applications in literal astronomy of course, but also has obvious applications in performance arts like animation where it is necessary to realistically depict motion in space over time.

The distinction between these mathematical subjects and their corresponding artistic subjects is just the distinction in focus on either the style of the delivery of the work, which is artistic in nature, or on the structure of the contents of the work, which is mathematical in nature.


Continue to the next essay, On Logic and Mathematics.