Friday, November 12, 2004


Powerful arguments

What makes an argument or a certain cultural discourse "powerful"? I'm only asking because I find myself reaching for that adjective quite frequently when doing historical writing, and I'm not the only one. Historians will frequently write along these lines: "In Nth-century America, many believed in the ideology of classical republicanism. So when Group X or Thinker Y connected Cause Z to the republican ideal of virtue, they/he/she constructed a powerful case for Z."

Less hypothetically, here is a line from Chapter 1 of my dissertation. I argue that the successes of British abolitionists in the 1830s made it possible for American abolitionists to make "a powerful three-step argument: Britain was a powerful anti-slavery nation; Britain was the progenitor of the American nation; ergo, America would before long follow in its footsteps." The question is: How do I know that argument was "powerful"? Clearly, I don't simply mean to say something about it's logical validity. Not all valid arguments are powerful, because not all valid arguments are sound. And not even all sound arguments are efficacious. So how do we judge whether an historical argument was "powerful"?

A minimalist definition would be that powerful arguments are ones that persuade large numbers of people, but this is clearly unsatisfactory. When I described the argument above as "powerful," I do not mean that it convinced many Americans to be abolitionists. (But I might mean that abolitionists believed it would convince Americans to be abolitionists, which is a different point.) Cultural and intellectual historians would be in deep trouble if they had to argue that every significant argument in history succeeded in gaining some quorum of adherents. But cultural and intellectual history would also be in bad shape if we could simply say that any argument we find in the archives was "powerful" to people at the time, just because it was made. Blogging historians especially know better than to think that.

I think the kind of "power" I have in mind has more to do with "rhetoric" than it does with logic. But "rhetorical" power, needless to say, is also an elusive quarry. The word "rhetoric," though, at least gets us much closer to an answer for the problem I'm posing. Like Socrates said in Plato's Republic, referring to the pursuit of justice, "The time then has arrived, Glaucon, when, like huntsmen, we should surround the cover, and look sharp that justice does not steal away, and pass out of sight and escape us; for beyond a doubt she is somewhere in this country: watch therefore and strive to catch a sight of her, and if you see her first, let me know." An answer to the question of what makes arguments "powerful" is somewhere here in the land of rhetoric. If you see the answer first, please let me know.

Here are my own quick thoughts: To argue that an argument is rhetorically powerful, the historian can try to show several things:

1. The argument conformed to historically specific ideas about rhetoric. I'll let you open this can of worms. How do we argue for specific ideas about rhetorical power, without first making a judgment that some arguments were exemplary instances of powerful rhetoric? Perhaps in some settings we could point to some rhetorician at the time who explicitly tried to formulate a theory of argument. (Think of Kenneth Cmiel's book on democratic speech, or Garry Wills' dissection of the Gettysburg Address.) But that would only be of limited general use, for how do we know the artisan or abolitionist on the street knew about those formal theories? In some cases we do have evidence of, say, Frederick Douglass studying The Columbian Orator, or Lincoln poring over Pericles, but we seldom have such evidence for the kind of popular intellectual or cultural history I'm talking about. It is more likely than not that most historical actors have a loose sense of what constitutes rhetorical power, and perhaps would even be unable to articulate their understanding if they were asked.

2. The argument was made frequently by its proponents. This is again only a rough approximation, but it's a start. When thinkers or writers in a particular community (e.g., abolitionists) picked up the same argument or trope again and again, that's at least partial evidence that they found it compelling. This may be an unfortunate analogy, but there is a kind of natural selection at work in most discursive communities: the "strong" arguments survive, the "weak" ones fade. Again, though, that's because I'm not measuring an argument's "strength" by some objective standard of its logical soundness. For the historian, is the fact that an argument was deemed strong by its contemporaries the only relevant indicator of an argument's strength?

3. The argument was targeted frequently by its opponents. For instance, if proslavery ideologues responded often to particular arguments made by abolitionists, that could be taken as partial evidence that they found those arguments especially in need of a response. Frankly, though, this is the criterion that I'm least sure about, at least as a generalization. Opponents often pick on what they find to be the weakest point of an argument, not the strongest. Even so, one way of thinking about an argument's "power" is still to think about how its opponents responded. Whether or not thinkers attack what they see as the strongest or the weakest link in the rhetorical armature of their opponents, they are usually making some kind of determination about the power of arguments.

4. The argument combined other demonstrably powerful strands of argument. This is obviously a self-referential definition, but I think it is the one that intellectual historians most often have operating in the back of their minds. We make statements about an argument's power because we trust, for instance, that others have made the case for "republicanism" as a powerful ideology. In the line I quoted above, I'm relying on the reader to believe that there was still a persistent strand of "Anglophilia" in antebellum America. Obviously, I also then have to make a case for "Anglophilia" as a powerful strand, which I do attempt. But at some point, historians reach a point at which they depend on other historians to have demonstrated the importance of cultural or intellectual trends. Most of our arguments about what is a "powerful" argument then take the form of showing how this or that discourse tapped into those already familiar rhetorical wells.

Well, fellow huntsmen, I've surrounded the quarry, but I'm still sitting in a blind. Any comments on tracking this subject down would be most welcome.

Collective Improvisation:

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