Dialectical rapprochement in the new rhetoric.

Author:Frank, David A.

Commenting on the Oslo Accords, the 1993 agreement between Palestinians and Israelis, an editorialist for the Boston Globe observed: "Arafat will be known as rais, an Arabic title that allows Palestinians to think of him as president of their coalescing national entity yet permits Israelis to define him as the head of a transitional administration" ("Down"). The selection of a word that allows Israelis and Palestinians to achieve objectives that appear to be in contradiction illustrates the power of language to reflect multiple realities. Although a Zionist, Chaim Perelman would have celebrated this use of symbols, for he recognized the need for ambiguity in natural language, saw great danger in policies based on an univocal language and an apodictic logic, and advocated "dialectical pluralism" as an alternative to dogmatism (Humanities 80).

At the heart of the New Rhetoric project(1) is an abiding faith in reason, liberated from the confines of formal logic, that Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca(2) believed could secure the possibility of community and justice in the absence of absolutes (514). If reason is the heart of the project, then as Mieczyslaw Maneli noted, "dialectics is the foundation and the nervous system of the New Rhetoric. The New Rhetoric is the long sought fulcrum which can add new vitality to traditional dialectics and push it to new phases of creativity and development" (216). The thesis of this essay is that the New Rhetoric, a response to 20th century totalitarianism, is a post-Holocaust dialectic of rapprochement, deserving development by scholars of rhetoric and argument.

The New Rhetoric's dialectic is a rapprochement of Western and Jewish thought, rhetoric and dialectic, unsituated and situated reasoning, intended for a post-Enlightenment world of multiple identities, irreducible pluralism, and Others. In development of this thesis, I seek to restore the New Rhetoric's dialectic of rapprochement as a program of reconciliation that features argument as the process of making judgments. In this essay, I revisit the New Rhetoric's dialectic and then identify the situated logic that emanated from this dialectic. The dialectic and situated logic developed in the New Rhetoric offer powerful, although undeveloped, aspirational and practical implications for the study of rhetoric and argumentation.


Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca observed that dialectic had, from the time of Aristotle through the Enlightenment, become conflated with formal logic and demonstration, and that rhetoric, argumentation and probable opinions held by audiences had been denied a relationship with reason or logic (5).

Accordingly, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca saw their work as a "rapprochement" of a theory of argumentation with dialectic" (5). In affecting this rapprochement, the authors sought to expand the reach of dialectic beyond formal logic's laws of identity, non-contradiction and the excluded middle to include the realm of probable opinions and common sense. A rapprochement brings about a realignment of forces that may be at odds. The New Rhetoric's dialectic achieves a rapprochement between rhetoric and dialectic by exploiting Aristotle's notion of reasoning from common opinions (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 5), countering totalitarian appropriations of the term, and reconciling Hegelian dialectics with "freedom and creation" (Humanities 78).

"Dialectical argumentation," Perelman wrote, "manifesting itself in dialogue and discourse, is rooted in opinion and common sense, which are always historically conditioned" (Humanities 79). Here, Perelman was careful to juxtapose, not efface, the dialectic of formal logic and the role played by demonstration in mathematics and geometry with the dialectic of argumentation (Humanities 117-118, 120). The dialectic of the New Rhetoric was designed for feeling and thinking humans who use a situated logic to achieve reasoned choice through argument (Humanities 79).

Scholars, however, have identified problems with the New Rhetoric's treatment of dialectic and logic. Goodnight notes:

As van Eemeren and Grootendorst point out, the "new rhetoric" of Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca is not sufficiently informed by a systematic dialectical basis (1992, p. 5). ... In the absence of the universal audience - which never really assembles as far as anyone knows - there is no principled dialectic to regulate or test systematically the claims of rhetoric. Absent an informing dialectical basis, there is no place for development of a theoretically informed rhetorical practice. So the techniques, schemes, and concerns of rhetoric overlap and develop somewhat idiosyncratically. (330)

According to Goodnight's interpretation, the New Rhetoric lacks an "informing dialectical basis" for it fails to elaborate a clear structure or a precise processual method of testing arguments.(3) Bernard Jacob, in an otherwise appreciative analysis, suggests that the New Rhetoric "fuses traditional rhetoric and dialectic, denying the distinction between the two that is carefully maintained in the Aristotelian tradition"(1642). As a result of such criticism, the dialectic in the New Rhetoric is not well received in some contemporary studies of rhetoric and argumentation.

Other scholars see problems in Perelman's treatment of formal logic and argumentation. In his review of The Realm of Rhetoric, Hanna notes that the "one major theoretical flaw" in the book "seems to lie in Perelman's treatment of the relation of formal logic and argumentation. These are constantly contrasted, but never unified" (414). Hanna concludes that "if argumentation excludes formal logic, and if philosophy's proper subject is the theory of argumentation, then it follows that there can be no philosophy of logic" (414). Echoing Hanna's criticism, Soeteman professes an obvious disagreement with Perelman who, he claims "constantly places nonformal logic opposite formal logic. [Perelman] ties formal logic to deductive argument as if they were siamese twins, and then he ties nonformal logic, just as tightly, to arguments which are not compelling but, at best, convincing" (19). In summary, scholars have detected flaws in the New Rhetoric's dialectic and depiction of logic.

In responding to these criticisms, I acknowledge that Perelman's dialectic was not intended to be a "systematic" program tied to the laws of identity and contradiction, nor does his dialectic offer clear definitions and a precisely demarcated method. In addition, the notion of the universal audience, which Perelman believed had "created the most misunderstandings among my rhetorician readers" has served to confuse our understanding of his dialectic and logic, an issue I address below ("Remembrances" 190). However, I do believe the field has insufficiently appreciated Perelman's dialectic of rapprochement. Indeed, Perelman's dialectic may better fit the problems of postEnlightenment culture than Neo-Enlightenment projects that enforce the laws of identity and contradiction.

I believe a contextual interpretation of the dialectical logic in the New Rhetoric will help to illuminate its inner coherence. One way to view this coherence is to see the New Rhetoric's dialectic as a system that places concepts, to use J.M. Balkin's striking phrase, in "nested opposition." Balkin defines a nested opposition as "an opposition in which two sides 'contain' each other - that is, they possess a ground of commonality as well as of difference." The similarities and differences "rely on context, but because context cannot be fully determined in advance, the scope of their similarity and difference is indefinite" (1152). When the intent and the multiple sources that influence the New Rhetoric are taken into account, the binary divisions critics believe are faults in the project are revealed as concepts in nested opposition (e.g. formal and nonformal logic, relativism and critical idealism, the universal and particular audiences). In particular, scholars have not acknowledged how Perelman "exploits" Aristotle's dialectic with Talmudic thought, thereby achieving a rapprochement between Judaic and Hellenic traditions.

To accomplish the goals of this essay, I place Perelman and the development of his dialectic in context. Once this background is established, the dialectical basis and logic at the center of the New Rhetoric can be revealed.


The New Rhetoric and its dialectic of rapprochement orginate from Perelman's experience with totalitarianism and his study of Western philosophy. Perelman experienced firsthand how the Nazis had used dialectics and logic to justify genocide. As a leader of the Belgian underground, he was arrested by the Gestapo in 1942. According to Perelman himself, his collaboration with Olbrechts-Tyteca and their search for a logic of value judgments were responses to "the years of Nazi rule inspired by the 'Myth of the 20th Century' and the cult of violence" (Law 149; see also Crosswhite, "Being Reasonable"). The philosophical monism characteristic of Nazi totalitarianism prompted Perelman to devise a dialectic based on a metaphysics of pluralism, freedom, and justice. When read in context, the New Rhetoric is intended as a vision of cultural reconciliation (rapprochement) between and among groups (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 510).

Perelman traced the birth of Western metaphysics and monism to the poem of Parmenides. The metaphysics of Parmenides, Perelman noted "takes the form of an ontological monism disqualifying all phenomena whose existence is commonly accepted by treating them as appearances" (Humanities 62). Perelman and other thinkers detected the influence of Parmenidian-like metaphysics in twentieth century totalitarian movements. Hannah Arendt in her Origins of Totalitarianism identified the dialectical and logical form of movements led by Hitler and Stalin. The Nazi and...

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