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The Ethics of Rhetoric by Richard Weaver (Chapter 2)

ethicsofrhetoricIn the second chapter of The Ethics of Rhetoric, Richard Weaver uses the “Scopes Monkey Trial” (although he refers to it as The Scopes Evolution Trial), to demonstrate the uses of rhetorical and dialectical argument.

Weaver offers some amplification of what characterizes a dialectic argument.

Dialectic is that stage which defines the subject satisfactorily with regard to the logos, or the set of propositions making up some coherent universe of discourse; and we can say therefore that a dialectical position is established when its relation to an opposite has been made clear and it is thus rationally rather than empirically sustained. Emphasis WWTFT

A dialectical argument is concerned with logic, and a rhetorical argument is concerned with belief and action. They are both “stages of argumentation.” A dialectical argument secures a position that is one of theory or potential, an intellectual belief in something. However, it does not generally move one to act upon this belief. That is the job of rhetoric. A rhetorical argument grounded on a dialectical base, provides the impetus to go from belief to action.

The following verses (not cited by Weaver) came to this reviewer’s mind as he read this explanation of how rhetoric, based on logic motivates the shift from theory to action. Logic or intellectual understanding alone is insufficient.

But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way , and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was James 1:22-24

Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Matthew 7:21

For readers needing a refresher on the Scopes trial, Weaver offers a succinct explanation.

The background of the trial can be narrated briefly. On March 21, 1925, the state of Tennessee passed a law forbidding the teaching of the theory of evolution in publicly supported schools.

The same year the law was passed, a young biology instructor by the name of John T. Scopes made an agreement with some local citizens to teach the theory, so as to provoke an indictment and test the law’s validity.

Scopes was indicted and the trial was kicked off with Clarence Darrow taking the defense and William Jennings Bryant taking the state’s position.

Weaver shows how ironic it was that the defense was forced into a rhetorical argument.

The defense, pleading for “science” took the rhetorical mode of argument, whereas the prosecution clung to a dialectical argument. This was not what one might have expected given their relative viewpoints.

Weaver prefaces his excerpted summary of the trial transcript with an explanation of something he claims should be obvious.

It is only the first step beyond philosophic naiveté to realize that there are different orders of knowledge, or that not all knowledge is of the same kind of thing.

(Apparently this reader hasn’t progressed much beyond that “first step beyond philosophic naiveté!”) He goes on to explain this in terms of Mortimer Adler’s definition.

First there is the order of facts about existing physical entities. These constitute the simple data of science. Next come statements which are statements about these facts; these are the propositions or theories of science. Next there come statements about these statements: “The propositions which these last statements express form a partial universe of discourse which is the body of philosophical opinion.”

So what does this mean? Well, suppose we were to take the measurements of some particular creature. Those measurements are facts about a physical entity – knowledge of the first order. Now suppose we make a theory based on these measurements that places this creature into a particular class or grouping of like creatures. This would be knowledge of the second order. Finally, if we were to make a statement on the value or implication of this theory, we would be making a logical/dialectical judgment on the science. This would be knowledge of the third or philosophical order.

Weaver holds that the law was just such an argument — a statement about statement. It was neither a collection of scientific facts nor a statement about those facts. The law was a statement on the scientists’ statement purporting to be based on those facts. In other words, the law was written on a philosophical basis that was outside the realm of science. The legislature had decided that teaching evolution was harmful. However, the prosecution was able avoid a discussion of whether or not the legislature was correct and focus on the dialectical argument of whether the law had been broken. The defense, on the other had couldn’t very well argue that a law hadn’t been broken, they had to argue that the law was wrong – a value judgment very much of the third order of knowledge above. In order to do that, they had to try and prove something outside the scope of the trial, that teaching the theory of evolution was efficacious. To do that, they needed expert testimony – and who should provide that expert testimony – why scientists of course!

The crux of this, Weaver explains, is that in denying that something outside of science can be used to analyze science, we let science be it’s own arbiter.

Throughout the trial, the defense tended to take the view that science could carry the day just by being scientific. But in doing this, one assumes that there are no points outside the empirical realm from which one can form judgments about science. Science, by this conception, must contain not only its facts, but also the means of its own evaluation, so that the statements about the statements of science are science too. Emphasis WWTFT

The trial excerpts show the arguments employed by the opposing counsels. It is exactly as Weaver says. The prosecution argued the state’s case that the law had been broken, argued that no “expert” testimony was required, because evolution itself was not on trial, but merely the question of whether a law duly passed by the state legislature had been broken. This is a binary or dialectic argument. Such is the nature of most legal arguments. The defense, on the other hand, did not want to boil the case down to facts – was a law broken? – but wanted to decide whether it was a good law. This was an argument outside of the facts of the case. They argued to bring in scientists to judge scientific theory.

This is ironic, because their arguments about whether evolution was good or bad demanded a higher level of reasoning and an adjudication of relative value, rather than an empirical, scientific, or logical/dialectical argument. They could not argue that the law had not been broken, so they argued about the consequences of rejecting evolution. By Weaver’s and Adler’s definition this is third type of knowledge. There are facts, there are theories that string together those facts, which make up the theory of evolution, and then there are prognostications about what the consequences of not believing in that theory might be.

… Here the defense looks at the policy of teaching evolution and points to beneficial results. The argument then becomes: these important benefits imply an important beneficial cause. This is why we can say that the pleaders for science were forced into the non-scientific role of the rhetorician.

Weaver concludes, by pointing out that the state may have won the case, but they ended up making the legislature look silly, and conversely

“… only led to more misunderstanding of the province of science in human affairs. The law of the state of Tennessee won a victory which was regarded as pyrrhic because it was generally felt to have made the law and lawmakers look foolish. This was also a great disservice to the common weal. Both of these results could have been prevented if it had been understood that science is one thing and law another.  


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