Rhetoric vs Philosophy

Rhetoric vs Philosophy

There is an important though commonly overlooked distinction in intellectual circles between rhetoric and philosophy, specifically philosophical debate. The difference is roughly this: In philosophical debate, we wish to construct the best possible arguments to arrive at truth. Rhetoric on the other hand is the art of persuasion, constructing arguments with the highest possible chance of convincing the other.

This enterprise, though intellectually loaded, is one that should, in my opinion, be avoided in most area's of philosophy, perhaps with the exception of ethics. The reason I hold this belief is this: If we focus on convincing others with our theories, then we run the risk of disregarding theories that do not sound convincing, while they may be true. Besides which is the fact that the masses are not proper judges of philosophical statements and theories.

Let us take a scientific theory as an example. Various Quantum physical theories are, at least to the masses, unintuitive, strange and unbelievable. However, scientific theories are not judged by their persuasiveness, rather they are judged by their predictive capabilities among other things.

What then is the proper judge for philosophical theories? Ironically enough, this too is a philosophically loaded question. As I mentioned earlier, theories may be adjusted to be more palatable in order to gain acceptance amongst the populace. Take ethical theories as an example. A theory which strikes a balance between safety and freedom in its moral restrictions may grow to be very popular, while not cohering with normative facts (assuming for the moments that such facts exist). Simultaneously, an ethical (or rather metaethical) theory that states that we are invariably wrong about moral judgements, such as Mackie's error theory, sounds unintuitive and possibly ridiculous. Yet, if no convincing account can be given about our epistemic access to normative facts, then error theory, seems the obviously rational solution.

Rationality is of course often held as a judge for the worth of a given philosophical theory. But what of a theory which places ethics squarely outside the rational sphere? A theory which counts “good” as that which is beautiful, pleasurable or otherwise non-rational, does not score many points on our rationality test, yet it may be true.

Truth may then be our unit of measure, but the subject of truth is also a contentious one. Is truth based in coherence, correspondence, or is it a human construct altogether? If it is based in coherence with reality, then to what extent should we criticize our unfiltered access to reality? In even more abstract terms, we may ask if two contradictory statements can both be true.

I hope that I have illustrated my point by now. Philosophy has no accepted criterion to judge itself, and perhaps it can never get one. Nevertheless, theories are criticized and discarded due to various inconsistencies or due to a lack of predictive capability. What we should avoid however in philosophy is a “democratic criterion for truth”, where a theory would count as true, or even plausible, if it is believed to be so by enough people, as this is the enterprise of rhetoric, not philosophy.