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Patrick S. O'Donnell


I should also have noted that Nussbaum herself does deal with the question of (the logos, pathos, and ethos of) rhetoric. She mentions the necessity of using techniques "more complicated and direct, more psychologically engaging, than those of conventional deductive or dialectical argument. [Therapeutic philosophy] must find ways to delve into the pupil's inner world, using gripping examples, techniques of narrative, appeals to memory and imagination--all in the service of bringing the pupil's whole life into the investigative process." In fact she cites as one of the distinctive "methodological achievements of therapeutic arguments" the "careful attention to the techniques of philosophical speech and writing. [....] Literary and rhetorical strategies enter into the methods at a very deep level, not just decorating the arguments, but shaping the whole sense of what a therapeutic argument is, and expressing, in their stylistic concreteness, respect for the pupil's need."

Patrick S. O'Donnell


Thanks so much for your insightful, indeed, profound observations. This reminds me of what I learned about "agonistic" philosophy when reading about the contrasting model and rhetorical style of philosophical conversations in French salons in which women moderated the conversation and seemed to do a fairly decent job of keeping men from engaging in that confrontational style of philosophy you refer to. I think you're absolutely right about rhetorical choices and sensitivity, one reason we see, until very recently, a variety of styles of philosophical literature in the history of philosophy: with good reason Plato chose the "dialogue" form, others, "letters," the existentialists: plays and novels, and so forth and so on. There are deliberate rhetorical choices in the manner in which the Daodejing was composed, many of these efforts appear to represent attempts at one and the same time to reach the limits of writing, much like poetry, and remind us of what is lost when abandoning an intimate, conversational approach to philosophy as the main means of pedagogic instruction (as in the change from the spoken to the written word, but not only with that).

There's so much here ripe for further exploration. One last thought however: I suspect in some ways Socrates' rhetorical choices were in fact well suited to the Athenian context, given the nature of its democracy and politics, but that requires some filling out to explain precisely why, and that will have to be posponed until another day.

Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts. I might be accused of sour grapes, given that I'm not a professional philosopher, but at least that charge cannot be raised against you!

Manyul Im

Hi Patrick. Great post! I'm pasting here my comment from FB, with a couple things added.

I think the therapeutic conception feels very strong in the teaching context, particularly at non-research institutions (though not exclusively). I've discovered that Jesuit universities are especially interested vis-a-vis their philosophy departments in the transformative effects of philosophy for furthering deeper reflection in students about who and what they are and what their places and responsibilities in the world are. This starts at the "top" in terms of repeated directives, based on institutional mission, to increase the strength of the liberal arts core curriculum. There's also lots of marketing directive going on here of course -- how to make Jesuit institutions competitive -- but at least it's a "values-based" branding push. I'm pretty sure that the Jesuits promote intellectual virtues more, in general, than their other Catholic counterparts (Descartes certainly benefited from them).

Getting to your point about professional philosophy -- apart from its pedagogy. Sometimes real intellectual virtues in philosophy can come off as arrogance. Here I'm not talking about petty class-mongering or academic publication rat-race. Think about Socrates -- or any number of philosophers who questioned authorities. To those people that they pressed with their criticism, and to those who more or less trusted in the authority, what is based on intellectual reflection and conviction, and some dogged pursuit of truth, can seem like arrogance. What those virtues require, if they are to be more effective in the therapeutic task, is more concern for "presentation." Simply put, the Socratic method is more likely to put off than to persuade -- I think Plato is wildly optimistic to think that out of some kind of confrontational dialectic, either party emerges with a better sense of the truth. Tales of the historical Buddha are better at showing the value of meeting a person on his or her plane and imparting a "customized" dialogue that promotes the kind of therapeutic effect that philosophy can have.

I say this as someone who was trained in philosophical confrontation, in an analytic style of philosophy. That training is accompanied by a self-image of being beyond "tricks" of rhetoric, that true philosophy aims to go affectlessly through purgation of ideas through tough criticism. What I discovered however was that confrontation is itself a rhetorical choice, one suited for hyper-masculine, competitive contexts and that it was not at all affectless. Even the calmest interchanges in which I "won" an argument were accompanied by smug self-satisfaction, and those in which I "lost" by frustration and sometimes anger.

So, I think an important part of the therapeutic model of philosophy has to be understanding that the therapeutic effect, whether on oneself or on another, requires reflection on rhetorical method and the details of the social interaction in which the philosophical interaction is intertwined.

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