Booth – Modern Dogma and Rhetoric of Assent

Booth, Wayne C. Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent. 5 Vol. Notre Dame Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1974. Print. Ward-Phillips Lectures in English Language and Literature.

In Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent,  Wayne Booth worked to deconstruct and show the incompatibility of motivism and the dogma of doubt with rhetoric and the finding of a common truth. At the core of the text is the centuries old tension between philosophy and rhetoric.  Booth analyzed a series of Bertrand Russell’s essays that illustrate the dogma of doubt to demonstrate its inability to bring people together because no reason can ever be “good” enough. Booth argued that based on motivism, where there are no experts because everyone has underlying motives that discredit them, and the requirement that Bertrand gives that the experts must agree on something for the opposite of it to be uncertain – there can never be sufficient grounds for a positive opinion.

“Russell had no place whatever for what traditional philosophers called dialectic, or sometimes rhetoric: the careful weighing of more-or-less good reasons to arrive at more-or-less probable or plausible conclusions — none too secure but better than would be arrived at by chance or unthinking impulse.” (59)

Despite Bertrand’s at times more rhetorical view on certainty, Booth asserted that Bertrand’s and other’s dogma of doubt and modernism has led to what Booth called a “befouled rhetorical climate” (99).

“…all three Russells in their different ways had told me that if they found it seeming right to do so, if their consciences told them that other men were flatly wrong and they themselves flatly right, if their visions of truth and justice were in conflict with those of other men, arbitrary decision about right and wrong could “rightly” be imposed upon others. This worldview of modernism has given support to self-righteous authoritarians of the right and to their spiritual brothers who use violence to attack the “rational establishment” from the left. A thoroughly articulated, seemingly impregnable system of dogmas has sliced the world into two unequal parts, the tiny domain of the provable, about which nobody cares very much, and the great domain of “all the rest,” in which anyone can believe or do what he pleases.” (85). (emphasis mine)

SN: A contemporary example of this climate can be seen in our current political discourse, for example, as  discussed by Karolyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson in their keynote at the 2012 Rhetoric Society of America Conference where Campbell stated Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s assertions about his opponent, President Obama, depend on public assumptions of the POTUS. These arguments, she said, don’t rely on traditional forms of argument or rebuttal because they are not evidence-based, but based on “belief”. Note these are not beliefs that are gained through mutual inquiry from both sides, but by the pushing of preconcieved notions.

Booth offered an alternative:

“My goal is (once again) not to establish a philosophy… What we must find, I think, are grounds for confidence in a multiplicity of ways of knowing. Such grounds need not be what was sought by philosophers who based themselves in science: a theory providing fixed and proved principles from which all genuine reasoning could proceed. It need only be a revitalization of what we naturally assume as we go about our intellectual and practical business in the world: namely, that there are many logics, and that each of the domains of the mind (or person) has its own kind of knowing.” (99)

Booth used Aristotle’s three proofs of logos, ethos, and pathos to elucidate how his rhetoric of assent might change the way we view rhetoric and argumentation. Booth suggested that this shift would not lead to a clear distinction between the three types of proof but a hazier one where “emotional and ethical proof will often turn out to be ‘substantive,’ and logical proof useless and misleading” (145).

Booth asked readers to “entertain” the possibility of a “social test for truth” whereby “‘it is reasonable to grant (one ought to grant) some degree of credence to whatever qualified men and women agree on, unless one has specific and stronger reasons to disbelieve'” (101).

How does this play out, however, in an example like the 2008 Presidential campaign where it was asserted and believed by many that the then presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama was a Muslim and somehow anti-American. Even “qualified” elected officials have also intimated that they believed variations of this. Is there there a greater reason to disbelieve them because of their prejudices and motives to have “their” candidate win?

Booth would argue against his rhetoric of assent being used for deception and manipulation as he asserted the goal is not to talk someone into a preconceived view, but to engage in mutual inquiry or exploration (137). For him, it is the joint inquiry that is most important and productive:

“The process of inquiry through discourse thus becomes more important than any possible conclusions, and whatever stultifies such fulfillment becomes demonstrably wrong” (137). Even if a committed doubter did not accept the “valued fact” of all individuals rhetorical nature, Booth contended,  the doubter could not avoid illustrating it as she/ he argued against it – “we discuss our doubt together, therefore we are” (138).

This all sounds great in a “good” world as Booth claimed that “rhetoric is a supremely self-justifying activity for man when those engaged in it fully respect the rules and the steps of inquiry” (138). But, as Booth well knew, we are not inthat “good” world; therefore, perhaps more than anything else, a rhetoric of assent presses us to change the constraints that hinder its fulfillment:

“A rhetoric of assent does lead, generally but firmly, to important political conclusions. Some of them will seem conservative, at least in our society, though in most societies in the world’s history they would be revolutionary enough: traditions of free discourse, of respect for persons, of civil rights, of democratic process become defensible in this view not simply as traditions but as the very conditions for fulfilling man’s life as we have defined it. But some of them are radical enough: for example, “capitalist” forms of production and distribution, as now defined, must be discarded, insofar as they depend on systematic deception.” (footnote 201) (emphasis mine)