Thomas Lessl: Science and Rhetoric
Interviewed by Paul Newall
Thomas Lessl is Associate Professor in the Department of Speech
Communication at the University of Georgia. His work involves the rhetoric
of science, looking in particular at the meeting of science with the public
sphere. I was fortunate enough to be able to ask him some general questions
about rhetoric as well as focusing on its role in scientific debate.
“… the scientific culture of [the nineteenth century] was committed to
evolutionism long before any scientific theory of development appeared”
PN: How would you define rhetoric and why should we study it?
TL: Most simply I would define rhetoric as the art of public communication.
Anyone who engages in public communication is practicing the art of
rhetoric. Art can also mean a body of principles pertaining to its
practices, and this is true of rhetoric as well.
Its most active practitioners are our social architects, most typically
those political actors who craft the policies, ideologies, and shared
identities that create polities. Scholars who study the rhetorical art, like
critics and theorists of other art forms, are typically interested in
instances of expression that have some particular significance. That
significance may arise from a message’s place in history, its creativity, or
simply from the fact that it represents the features of a particular milieu.
Rhetoric is a subject of importance because its study enables us to better
understand the processes of communication that underpin decision making in
free societies. Judgments on matters of public policy take their cues from
rhetoric, and so an understanding of any society’s rhetoric will tell us a
lot about its ideas, beliefs, laws, customs and assumptions – especially how
and why such social features came into being. We don’t typically think of it
this way, but every law that is on our record books began as an act of
rhetorical undertaking by some public or private citizen trying to fix a
problem. Statues and policies are the ends; rhetoric is the means. If law is
the architecture of public life, rhetoric is the art that brings it into
PN: How is rhetoric used in communication? Does its influence depend on the
subject of discussion?
TL: I’m not sure I would say that rhetoric is “used in communication”
because that phrasing would suggest that it can be separated from
communication – that there are some forms or instances of public
communication that are rhetoric and others that are not. This is what
American politicians and journalists often imply when they describe a
particular message as rhetoric. For politicians to call an opponent’s
messages “rhetoric” is to accuse him or her of some duplicity. This is an
unfortunate misunderstanding that pervades our culture. Rhetoric is not a
category or strategy of communication. It might be better to think of it as
a particular property of speech – its persuasive property. To use a simple
analogy, physicists tell us that “heat” is one property of matter – which in
quantitative terms is its degree of molecular motion. Some objects have very
little heat and others have a lot, but they all have it. Absolute zero does
not occur in nature, or in the lab. Speech is like that too. All acts of
speech have some rhetorical potential, which is the potential to bring about
change – some in small ways and others in large ways. But all speech can
affect human judgment. So wherever there is speech there will be rhetoric.
How influential rhetoric will be does depend upon how this persuasive
property plays out at any given moment of history. Lincoln’s Gettysburg
address was influential because the American experiment with democracy was
in crisis in 1863, and there was great uncertainly about what to do to fix
it. That speech proposed a compelling solution. Persuasion plays a greater
role when there is great uncertainty and great potential for change. And so
subjects that introduce high levels of doubt in volatile times are going to
be treated by messages that are “hot”, that are rhetorical in a pronounced
way. We’re less dependent on rhetoric when there is a higher degree of
certainty. People don’t talk much about what is certain. What’s the point?
We talk about issues that are in doubt.
Continue reading the interview here