Dissoi logoi

When I first read this selection, I understood it to be advocating for Protagoras’ way of thinking: “Of all things the measure is man.” The writer seemed to be saying that whatever the situation, good/bad (seemly/shameful, just/unjust, true/false) can only be determined by an individual’s self-interest. An event could be seen as good from one person’s perspective yet bad from another’s.  What we had learned about the Sophists from Dr. Edlund during the course introduction—that the Sophists did not believe that absolute truth could be known and that they had gained an anthropological perspective on the world from their travels—seemed to support this reading.

However, during my second reading I focused more on the second part of each section, where the writer demonstrates that it’s ridiculous and untenable to say that these binaries are actually the same thing, like saying black is white (50, column 2 bottom). The writer argues for both cultural relativism (the first approach) and for some sort of abstract moral qualities (the second approach). These are the two approaches that give this work the title (in English) Opposing Arguments (not, as I initially thought, the opposition between good/bad, etc.) Very sophistic indeed.

So, for me what I got out of Dissoi Logoi (besides an introduction to the Sophists) was the value of having students look at issues from multiple perspectives. As Dr. Edlund pointed out last week, these were practice arguments. In classical education students were given lots of practice arguing both sides of an issue, a practice that I think has much value and one that I plan to utilize more this quarter as I teach my 104 course. From how many different angles can my students look at an issue? How thoroughly do they understand the opposing viewpoint? I think this kind of practice can greatly improve their critical thinking and writing.

Beyond the binaries

It’s probably just a case of too much Berlin (IS there such a thing?), but I’ve become a bit burned out on “binary opposition.” And then I read Kameen’s “Rewording the Rhetoric of Composition.” There they were—more binaries. Kameen lists numerous pairs which, as he says, are “usually conceived as polar opposites rather than dialectical contraries” (4):

  • thought/feeling
  • form/content
  • process/product
  • expression/communication
  • self/audience

I think one strength of Kameen’s argument lies in his attempt to restore “a dialectical relationship among the binary concepts” (4) through the inventive power of language. Kameen invokes Coleridge’s concept of imagination to illustrate “a refreshing and rigorous alternative” (8) to these binaries.

Kameen calls on “a companionable set of dual concepts” (22) from dialectical epistemology: primary and secondary (Freud); complex thinking and conceptual thinking (Vygotsky); and logical and paleological (Arieti). What is most interesting to me is Arieti’s idea of a “tertiary process” that mediates between the two binaries. Arieti explains that “the tertiary process…blends the two worlds of mind and matter, and in many cases, the rational with the irrational. Instead of rejecting the primitive…the creative mind integrates it with normal logical processes in what seems a ‘magic’ synthesis from which the new, the unexpected, the desirable emerge” (22-3). This tertiary process makes synthesis between the two ways of knowing possible, and this, Kameen claims, is most akin to Coleridge’s “imagination.”

Reality is much more nuanced and complex than a choice between two competing binaries. Kameen’s approach was a refreshing respite from the either/or view of most theorists.

The representative anecdote and heuristics

Ross Winterowd’s “Dramatism in Themes and Poems” provided an “aha” moment for me about why dramatism is so named—it’s about actors (agents), scenes, acts, purposes, agency: basically, all the elements of great drama (and any story) apply to rhetoric as well. It is this perspective of rhetoric as drama that provides what I think is a promising approach to infusing composition with life.

Winterowd points out that Burke’s technical definition of drama is “representative anecdote,” which can be defined in two ways, either “appropriate examples/support” or “conceptual pivot” (enthymeme, thesis, topic sentence, theme). And it is following from this point, Winterowd asserts, that Burke started a “revolution” (582), although be it one that has gone largely unnoticed (584).  Aristotle, of course, elevated the enthymeme as the “most effective among various forms of persuasion” (584), and it has reigned as the quintessence of logic throughout Western history. Burke, on the other hand, took the other course, developing the dramatistic conception of synecdoche (representative anecdote) as conceptual pivot (583).

This development—argument through synecdoche—is not an either/or proposition: “Burke is telling us that we progress not only via enthymemes (logical proposition), but also, importantly, via synecdoches (representative anecdotes)….Humans live not by enthymemes (theses, topic sentences) alone” (582, emphasis mine). Aristotle is not negated, merely supplemented.

Aristotle did address both the deductive argument (based on the enthymeme) and the inductive argument (based on the example), Winterowd reminds us, but Burke’s conception of argument by example differs significantly from Aristotle’s. An example in Aristotle’s paradigm is one of two samples that are classified under a particular genus. For Burke, dramatism as representative anecdote involves synecdoches, i.e., reasoning from part to whole, which Aristotle specifically rejected (587).

Both Aristotelian and Burkean arguments point to an overarching idea or point—the deductive to the enthymeme and the representative anecdote to “the terminological structure that is evolved in conformity with it.” Thankfully Winterowd provides his reader with a translation: this can also be called the “paradigm” or “prototype” (587). Winterowd provides research that demonstrates that readers seek enthymematic generalities (Kintsch and van Dijk, 584), which would seem to disadvantage Burke’s dramatism, but as Winterowd quips, “The great disadvantage of the representative anecdote is that it does not lead readily to the closure of an enthymeme. Its great advantage is that is does not force such closure” (588).

Winterowd suggests four implications for this understanding of appositional style, a term borrowed from hemispheric specialization research by Joseph Bogen (586). I’ll briefly discuss two. He suggests that high school and college writing teachers should respect the appositional styles of the students who prefer this means of expression, which, while a laudatory pedagogical goal, as Ron pointed out, may be more practical in the humanities than in technical disciplines. His second implication, though, I felt was of use to students in many disciplines—Winterowd says that the representative anecdote “is marvelously heuristic,” a way to “build an understanding of the world.” Whether the final product is presented in an enthematic or dramatistic manner, using the representative anecdote could provide students with an effective means of generating content, and one that uses a way of thinking that some students may find more natural.