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New rhetorics are the product of postmodern conceptions of truth, which challenge the distinction between certain and probable knowledge. The classical tradition relegated rhetorical discourse to the province of probable knowledge, because such discourse rests on beliefs, customs, and values shared by a given community under specific circumstances (doxa). With the gradual rise of scientific discourse in the western world, which reached a climax in the seventeenth century, ideals of truth and epistemic certainty came to define the worthiness of an intellectual discipline, and thus made rhetoric seem deficient.
New rhetorics have arisen in response to challenges from emerging fields and to pressures from the political and social sphere. They are profoundly interdisciplinary and live in tense relationship with the classical tradition, especially in how they define their epistemic status of rhetoric, and how they establish the disciplinary parameters of rhetorical theory. One of the major ‘new rhetorics’ of the twentieth century, that of Perelman and Olbrechts- Tyteca (1958), identifies as one of its premises the departure from a Cartesian notion of certainty as epistemic ideal, and takes on instead the goal of examining the formation of convictions as facilitated by the adherence to particular sets of values and beliefs, rather than correspondence to a universal notion of truth or validity.
This understanding of truth signals a new, postmodernist rhetoric, predicated on a relativist and contingent epistemology, which no longer privileges universal and formalized criteria for inquiry. New rhetorics are grounded in a post-Nietzschean sensibility that views certainty as an illusion made possible by cultural and social conventions. This is a sensibility that enables a view of rhetoric as a social force that can organize communities, structuring their beliefs and values in ways that allow them to pursue ethical goals and to live a common good life. By contrast, this new rhetoric deems dialectic socially subversive, inasmuch as dialectic taunts the very idea of consensus by trying to replace it with universal standards for truth that are not dependent on the values or beliefs of a particular community (Weaver 1994). Thus re-articulated, the new rhetoric is not only departing from the original core, but also re-evaluating classical terms and their meaning, rewriting the tradition in a way that allows it to legitimize its own enterprise.
Despite enthusiastic celebrations of interdisciplinarity, knowing what defines uniquely the discipline of rhetoric in modernity (and postmodernity), comprising a recognizable set of concepts and questions, as well as likely to be associated with particular figures, has been a contentious issue. New rhetorics are defined less by schools or theorists unique to the field, and more by a critical approach to the past, such as the one proposed by Blair, who argues that a theoretical vocabulary changes meaning and significance over time but believes that we can to identify coherent conceptual trajectories, focusing on the explanatory value of a pedigree concept in response to culturally situated problems. Similarly, Gross offers a conception of the new rhetorics that sees theorists from other fields as potential participants in an intellectual conversation centered on “a set of problems, initiated by an exemplar, and subsequently addressed, directly and indirectly, by various thinkers” (2005, 42).
This opening of new rhetorics to other disciplines, and the simultaneous loosening of ties to a particular tradition, has led to a proliferation of novel research endeavours, among them, some well established already, such as feminist rhetoric and composition studies, or more recent ones, such as environmental rhetoric and rhetoric of science. The proponents of these agendas depart in significant ways from a traditional understanding of rhetoric: they focus on writing and not oratory (composition), insist on bringing to the fore the discourse of previously marginal or delegitimized rhetors, and disavow any distinction that would relegate certain discursive genres outside the purview of persuasion.
At the same time, this scholarship draws not only on Aristotle or the Sophists, but also – if not even more so – on theories from fields like philosophy, sociology, psychology, or anthropology.
- Blair, C. (1992). Contested histories of rhetoric: The politics of preservation, progress, and change. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 78, 403–428.
- Gross, A. G. (2005). The rhetorical tradition. In R. Graff, A. Walzer, & J. Atwill (eds.), The viability of the rhetorical tradition. Albany, NY: SU NY Press, pp. 31–45.
- Perelman, C. & Olbrechts-Tyteca, L. (1958). Traitu de l’argumentation: La nouvelle rhutorique [Treatise on argumentation: the new rhetoric]. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
- Weaver, R. M. (1994). The cultural role of rhetoric. In T. Enos & S. C. Brown (eds.), Professing the new rhetorics: A sourcebook. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, pp. 75–89.