Toward a rhetoric of interpretation

Date of Completion

January 1995


Philosophy|Speech Communication|Language, General




The earliest manifestation of rhetorical theory initiated a debate between rhetoric and philosophy over the issue of truth. The Sophists argued that the truth is established by a rhetor who wins a debate through persuasion while Plato argued that the truth is a dialogic disclosure between two rhetors who have reached a shared understanding of a topic under consideration. In Plato's dialogues Socrates is portrayed as a figure who insists that rhetoric must be philosophical in its orientation and that a rhetor must participate in the ongoing and open-ended search for truth. I employ an interdisciplinary method that combines rhetoric and philosophy in order to retrieve the 'forgotten' connection between rhetoric and theories of truth. My dissertation presents a new model for rhetorical theory based upon hermeneutic disclosive theory of truth which places truth in a central role in human communication, understanding, and discourse. By examining the philosophical and intellectual sources of contemporary and current rhetorical theories I show how each rhetorical theory contains and repeats the continuing dialogue concerning the relationship between rhetoric and truth.^ Chapter One will reread the roots of Expressionist composition theory by a retrieval of the rhetoric of Plato and Emerson. Modern rhetorical theorists use a Platonist interpretation of their rhetoric which transforms the ideas of "expressionist" rhetoric by erroneously asserting an individual, stable, subjective and hypostatic idea of truth. My dissertation rereads Plato and Emerson from a hermeneutic point of view in order to refute the notion that either of these thinkers argue for a "private" or merely individual notion of truth. For Plato and Emerson, truth is both social and dialogic. In Chapters Two and Three I examine the way two contemporary theories of rhetoric use a coherence theory of truth. Chapter Two examines the main sources of Social Constructionist rhetoric. While Chapter Three examines the main sources of Symbolic Representationalist rhetoric. Each of these two rhetorics attempt to 'dispose' of the issue of truth; but they do not succeed. Rather, the issue of truth reappears for the Social Constructionist theory as the coherence of social practices and for the Symbolic Representationalists as the coherence between mental representations (symbols) and 'reality.' I critique each of these rhetorics from the point of view of the disclosive theory of truth.^ Chapter Four, the conclusion of my dissertation, argues for a nonrepresentational conception of rhetoric. I define rhetoric as the process of making truth known and argue for a nonrepresentational strategy for disclosing truth: dialogic activity. Dialogue is a processual event; it is the continual discursive revealing and concealing of truth. Discourse is, on the one hand, an uncovering of truth and yet, on the other hand, it is also a covering-over of the truth. As an experience language continually draws human beings toward it, but paradoxically, as we draw towards it it withdraws from us. As self-interpretative beings we project ourselves rhetorically as the withdrawing arrival of truth in dialogic activity. ^