Dialectic and Rhetoric: A Note On the Possibilities of Communication

08 Jan

The flow of discourse fashions its own expression.

When we humans discuss this or that component, aspect, or even expression of life, in short when we communicate, we must use signs and symbols understood by all humans involved in the conversation. Even facial expressions and non-verbal gestures understood by all languages require an underlying fabric of mutual understanding. Waving goodbye in America is, for example, the same gesture used to call or beckon someone in Italy.

Having a verbal language in common, we are reminded daily, is no guarantee of mutual understanding. Different interpretations and problems with comprehending things like meaning and intent, arguably, are perhaps all that drive discourse forward. On a small scale, that is, when we humans communicate with humans like us, by which I mean in this case those who speak our language, and whom we speak with daily, the words almost become secondary to the meaning, and the intent of the expression is usually known with or without the words. So, when your friend Billy comes over and says “what’s up Maestro?”, you know he means you and that there is no need to define “up”.

On a larger scale, as for example when we humans write for a predominantly unknown audience, the possibility of our words being misunderstood and our meanings convoluted increase in proportion to the extent of our readership. We cannot here rely on gestures and facial expressions to clarify our meanings and intentions, and even native speakers of the same language sometimes forget that being retarded can extend to bread dough as well as individuals. Metaphors, colloquialisms, cadence and lack of stresses or accents in sentences can make even the simplest statement subject to gross misunderstanding

When a true “conversation” takes place, one concerning issues deeper than “that was a good game yesterday”, or “I hear it will rain tonight,” a subtle thread of communication must be established. This thread is made via a linkage, like a wireless “peer-to-peer” connection, and is composed of a mutual understanding, whereby the communicants have established common ground. In illustration, I use the comma in different places purposefully in the preceding sentence because apparently experts in English across the globe cannot agree on what is correct…common sense says a self-contained element should be offset by the quotation marks and then the entire followed by a comma. However, linguistic convention in America (read: EDITORS) want, in most instances, the comma inside. On the small scale, when we have our friendly tea or beer chats, and get going real good, at some point the humans involved in the conversation no longer think about what they say before they say it. The words begin to flow, and a genuine human repartee we know can often lead to things no one would ever have guessed would come up. What started as “How are things with the wife?” somehow can, in a matter of minutes, become “The trade deficit is the problem”.

When, however, the flow of discourse is meant to be maintained through, say, a written work like this one, there are no luxuries such as knowing each other intimately, or being able to use restatements and explanations to clarify objections. The words must stand as written. For a successful written endeavor to occur, the thread established on a smaller scale must somehow also be established on this larger scale. The reader, again a native speaker of the same language, must rely on, indeed expect, the author’s ability to anticipate objections and clarify sticky points, as the text goes on. It would be no different, say, with a radio broadcast, and either the listeners will establish that thread of communication, and so “follow” the speaker, or never establish it, and really never hear what is said.

Once this linkage between interlocutor and listener is established, true discourse has commenced. At this moment there are no questions regarding mutual existence, no real differences in language, and in fact often all parties involved understand implicitly even those interlocutions for which the words cannot be found. The thread establishes a common ground, a firmament, for real communication to occur. When this happens, minds become intimately bound to each other, in a sense in each other, and what often magically happens is ideas and thoughts come into the conversation from who knows where. This mostly only happens when the conversation has become intense or deep enough that all the humans involved have basically forgotten their own identities, have left their personal selves OUT of the conversation. Then it is no longer about me and you, it is about the topic, Here the conversation takes on a life of its own, and many times we humans thus speak over our own heads, courtesy of the spirit of dialectic. When the mind no longer censors or screens the words being said, the person is speaking from the heart, and often from depths he himself had no idea existed.

This spirit of dialectic is an expression of the logos, whereby separate minds might operate as one. Under this idea, language is not the source, but rather a product of our communicative needs. We humans can and do communicate even without the words incidental to our time and culture. Too often we use words for their own sake, then call ourselves wise when we find semantic problems or literary errors. Words are a tool meant to deepen and crystallize thoughts and ideas. Through the repartee of dialectic the flow of discourse changes based on the level of common understanding. One could say that each real conversation, about any subject, holds the potential of tapping into all those thoughts on that subject ever uttered.

Why some conversations are substantial and others fluff is due to whether or not egos are surpassed and the thread is established. In example, two native speakers, who sit very near each other at work, might never establish that thread, even though they speak daily. Their conversations, as is unfortunately the case in even more intimate relationships, their communications, consist of clichés and personal anecdote, simple greetings and “casual” chats. Two humans who had never before met, however, who, let us say, found themselves near each other on a train, could conceivably reach the level of true discourse in a matter of seconds.

Rhetoric, in comparison to dialectic, is communication meant to convince. While it ought be stated that all dialogue aims at coming to the truth, and so even dialecticians want to, or want to be persuaded, the difference is that dialogue proceeds for its own sake.

Plato and Aristotle both considered dialectic and rhetoric to be arts. Here, from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a good summary of some of the differences and similarities between dialectic and rhetoric:

“Dialectic can be applied to every object whatsoever, rhetoric is useful especially in practical and public matters.

“Dialectic proceeds by questioning and answering, while rhetoric for the most part proceeds in continuous form.”

“Dialectic is concerned with general questions, while rhetoric is concerned for the most part with particular topics (i.e., things about which we cannot gain real knowledge).”

“Rhetoric must take into account that its target group has only restricted intellectual resources, whereas such concerns are totally absent from dialectic.”

“While dialectic tries to test the consistency of a set of sentences, rhetoric tries to achieve the persuasion of a given audience.”

“Non-argumentative methods are absent from dialectic, while rhetoric uses non-argumentative means of persuasion.”

This means, really, that rhetoric can pull out all the stops, can violate rules of logic, rely on emotional appeals, and so on, to prove its case or make its point. It need abide by no rules whatsoever, and so we have politicians offering free chicken dinners, in lieu of good arguments, and attorneys serving up drama best able to sway the common jury. There are, here, PERSONAL motives at work, motives entirely absent when true discourse, or dialectic, takes place.

We humans are often confused as to when we have “real conversations” and when we are merely being communicative for its own sake. Time itself is no indicator, as you could talk for hours about nothing more than the best shade of mascara. Even mascara could, though, become a subject of true discourse, were we to discuss its value, or its health effects, or its actual aesthetic appeal, and reasons for such, and so use it for a launching pad for higher flights. Closeness, or intimacy, seems to be no sure indicator either, and even one too many marriages have endured a lifetime of surface communication, the thoughts deeper left unexpressed. It seems the answer is that what is needed is “like minds.” These minds need not be especially fond of, or indeed, even know one another. What is known is that their association and communication operate on the same level, with more or less the same basic understanding, and that this commonality allows them to discourse impersonally. They make beautiful music together, you could say.

Words are merely that, words. They are clothing for, and thus allow the expression of, thoughts and ideas. The best the words can do is establish common ground for real conversation. Too often we waste time arguing about what the words mean, when it is the idea expressed by them that should be the main concern. The work so far on this blog has been concerned, tongue-in-cheek, with finding the Origin of Man, and we have found out full well that such a search is a futile enterprise, lest we take a leap of religious or scientific faith. We can only know history from historians. We can know history from artifacts and architecture and such also, but the interpretation of these antiquities will always rely on – usually – the rhetoric of historians.

What seems obvious is that the thoughts always somehow precede the thinkers, as if they are there waiting to be discovered. We “reach” in a way, to grab for them, as they float by in our minds. When people of like mind have true discourse, an intercourse of a type indeed, the mingling of parts occurs in the mind, for a purpose also seeking a mutual satisfaction. The difference is that the human self is no longer involved, and the satisfaction decidedly impersonal.

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Posted by on January 8, 2015 in Uncategorized


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