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Henry Flynt, Rhetorical Appraisal of Theories

(c) 1996 Henry A. Flynt, Jr.

A theory, as a body of rhetoric, is a smear. It is an ideological panorama. It puts genuine facts together with diverse characterizations and with propaganda devices--concocting a doctrine or ideology which may be not only partisan, but highly prejudicial.[1]

The presence of genuine facts in a theory does not substantiate it. Indeed, a theory indoctrinates; and facts do not reside on the level at which indoctrination is accomplished. A theory is a total sensibility, a (fragment of a) world-vision. One who is not cognizant of that has drowned in the delusion.


assertoric interaction

The problem may be to judge a selected thesis in the midst of a discursive discourse--a thesis which has gained the status of a battle-cry. If one wants to judge the sentence's validity, or even its meaningfulness, the exercise cannot be confined to rhetoric. A rhetorical critique of the thesis passes over to logico-linguistic scrutiny.

The thesis must be buttressed by location in a theory. Grammatically, the cogency of the theory depends on connections between components of sentences and other more compound patterns. The discourse has serial entailments--and the scrutiny quickly finds them to be logical, epistemological, ontological. Appraisal of the theory--or even more to the point, perusal of the theory--cannot be limited to rhetoric as such.

A discursive text can therefore be liable to the objection that it is internally insincere--or otherwise not cogent. This is far from trivial. First, there are authors who write discursively, to persuade, while disregarding (or even ridiculing) cogency. Secondly, theses get made into battle-cries whose contexts are assumed without substantiation.

Speaking of battle cries, what if a single sentence woven into a long discourse were claimed to be the only meaningful sentence in the universe? Then the issue would be whether the isolated thesis had an autonomous discrete meaning--or an autonomous non-linguistic denotation. To try to explore this issue on purely rhetorical grounds is not possible, for reasons already stated. As a rule of thumb, an attempt to defend isolation of a thesis would be found to trip itself up.

There is a vivid warrant for these observations in academic practice. Professors who subscribe to the same ideology blithely dispute each other. They proceed as if truth is contained in propositions--treating the opponent's sentences as assertions whose negations are truths. They proceed as if propositions can be tested forensically for soundness. Indeed, professors quarrel with each other via the cliches of pedantic disputation: charging hidden assumptions, undefined terms, misconstructions, and all the rest. The spectacle of the professors of gobbledegook treating each other in this way is the most laughable afforded by the academic scene.


reckless partial extremism

The academic environment encourages professors to create new wares by means of reckless partial extremism. Academic positivists once supposed that they could eradicate "humanism" and leave everything else the same, including the society they lived in and especially their own privileged position. As academics, they spoke from an excessively insincere platform. Again, the "pose" trips itself up.


Rhetorical appraisal of discourse may well home in on these junctures.

[1]a prejudicial sensibility