Friday, July 10, 2009

The Enthymemic Nature of Discourse

There are many current events in the Church and State that merit our consideration and discussion: the Pope's meeting with the President, Caritas in Veritate, and the Palin resignation come immediately to mind. It seems to me that as important as considering and discussing these events are, some treatment of how we consider and discuss them is of fundamental importance. I think that a helpful way to consider our interpretation of and discussion about current events is found in the Aristotelian concept of the enthymeme and Richard Weaver's application of it to discourse.

Many readers of this blog may have run across Aristotle's enthymeme in courses on logic or rhetoric; the enthymeme is usually described as a syllogism that lacks a middle term; compare:


All men are mortal;
Socrates is a man;
Therefore Socrates is mortal.


All men are mortal;
Therefore Socrates is mortal.
(The middle term is left unstated; presumably understood by the audience.)

This description does not do great justice to the enthymeme, though Aristotle himself is not terribly helpful ("kalo d' enthymema men rhetorikon sylloyismon"--"Accordingly I call an enthymeme a rhetorical syllogism"; Rhetoric, 1.2.8; 1356 b). What is important to note about the enthymeme in discourse is that it relies on the audience to make the connection between statements; the audience cooperates in the creation of meaning. As such, in the hands of a skillful rhetor, the enthymeme can be more persuasive than the syllogism, insofar as the minds of the audience are engaged in a cooperative process of reasoning.

How does the enthymeme apply to discourse? Though he doesn't use the term, Richard Weaver recognizes it as the underlying mode of discourse within a given culture, explained through the problems of academic speech:

"In the speech of a culture maintained by a traditional society, there will occur many elisions and ellipses of meaning. It is not necessary to state them, because anyone can supply the omissions; it is rather the awkwardness of pedantry to put them into words. But the man who is outside the tradition, or who is self-consciously halfway between the tradition and something else, goes about it in a different way: its beliefs, values, and institutions are 'objects' to him, and he refers to them with something of the objective completeness of the technical description. This is why professors 'sound so funny' when they talk of something that is an everyday subject to the ordinary man. This ordinary man wonders why the professor, instead of using lumbering phrases to designate the obvious, cannot assume more. It may also explain why professors as a class are suspected of dissidence. Their speech does not sound like the speech of a person who is perfectly solid with his tradition, which is oftentimes the case." (Richard Weaver. Visions of Order. Wilmington, DE: ISI Press, 1995 [1962]. Page 8, footnote 2)

In other words, the average person's language is enthymemic; the interlocutor's agreement regarding key omissions is taken for granted. Most significantly, we tend to assume and demand this kind of enthymemic agreement when making statements.

Recognizing this fact, we see why political and religions discussions in our culture (particularly in the online culture, as I've come to discover) are often doomed to discord: we do not, as 21st-century Americans, have a robust set of traditional cultural assumptions, and thus our enthymemes often assume agreement on premises that does not exist. Consider the following two (actual) examples:

Person on observing the American flag at half-staff earlier this year: "I guess it's mourning the death of American democracy."

Person commenting on the 2004 election in 2004: "This is the end of democracy in America."

If one were to fill in the elisions of these two statements, one would get something like this:

"President Obama won the election; liberal policies are not democratic; these policies are contrary to real democracy; American democracy is dead."

"President Bush won the election; conservative policies are not democratic; Bush will continue conservative policies; America is no longer a democracy."

Notice how in each case, the person speaking to me expected assent, expected that I shared their assumptions that need not be stated. The flaw in both statements, of course, is that policies that one dislikes are, de facto, policies contrary to democracy. In fact, in the previous two examples, both candidates won solid victories in democratically conducted electoral processes, making their victories examples of democracy in action.

An oddly heartening aspect of this example, however, is that the unstated premise common to both is that democracy is an unquestionably good thing, and that its end is somehow tragic. The two contradictory edifices of assumptions share the common foundation of faith in democracy. Thus we get something like a common cultural assumption shared by both people.

Thus there are two points I wish to make here, displayed in this example:

1. Recognizing that it is natural for us to talk this way, and that without a unified cultural tradition enthymemic discourse may be problematic, let's consider our audience in discussions of current events, and how they might fill in our elisions. Such a consideration may save much wasted time and energy, and get to more productive dialogue.

2. Even in a culture as fragmented as our own, there may be shared assumptions that can provide a foundation on which to build; getting down to these common foundational principles of our worldview may be the best way to begin learning from one another (and learn much about ourselves).
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