Rhetorical materialism: the cognitive division of labor and the social dimensions of argument.

Author:Greene, Ronald Walter
Position:FORUM
 
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Mercier and Sperber assign the human intent to persuade to the argumentative function of reasoning ("Why" 57). However, when pressed by reviewers to consider the "rhetorical" character of argument, Mercier and Sperber respond by emphasizing the "rhetorical and epistemic goals" of argument ("Authors' Response" 95). In doing so, they specifically assign the intent to persuade (rhetorical) to the speaker (argument production) and the goal of being informed (epistemic) to the audience (argument evaluation). Mercier and Sperber defend this "division of cognitive labor" ("Why" 65, 73) between argument production (a rhetorical goal) and argument evaluation (an epistemic goal) for its efficiency. We wish to isolate and evaluate this "division of cognitive labor" to offer a more socially dynamic approach to argumentation.

First, rhetorical production is inclusive of all the social elements of argumentation. For Mercier and Sperber, the rhetorical consists of the production of arguments by a communicator to convince an audience, anticipate audience objections, and justify decisions. Mercier and Sperber render the production process of argument as a mental/verbal act of the speaker. The production of arguments is socially circumscribed by a "dialogic context," but the speaker produces arguments when s/he starts "from the conclusion and tries to find premises that will convince one's interlocutor" ("Why" 73). Yet, their assignment of the rhetorical to the speaker's side of the cognitive division of labor attenuates the social dimensions of rhetorical production. A more rhetorically materialist perspective should render all the molecular elements (speaker, speech, audience, occasion, change) of a rhetorical context (McGee 36) socially relevant. Moreover, argument participates in a material constitutive process of world making by assembling these molecular elements as an argumentative context.

Mercier and Sperber seem to presuppose the social context that is produced and reproduced by the rhetorical dimension of argument. Yet, as a material-constitutive process, rhetoric inhabits every element of the social context (speaker, speech, audience, occasion, change) transforming it into a field of argumentation (Greene, "Aesthetic Turn"). Thus the intentions associated with argument (persuasive or otherwise) are socially produced by a rhetorical context (Burke). One consequence of our rhetorically materialist perspective is to approach argument less as a...

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