The Rhetoric of Truth

I’ve shared a new video on YouTube discussing the rhetorical nature of truth.

Before the Classical Hellenes, Mesopotamians recognised the power of rhetoric as the art of using language to convince or persuade.
The term itself derives from the Greek ῥητορικός, rhētorikós.

As with any human construct such as language, truth and rhetoric are confined by limitations of the system and its logical structure.

In “Gorgias”, one of his Socratic Dialogues, Plato defines rhetoric as the persuasion of ignorant masses within the courts and assemblies.

Rhetoric, in Plato’s opinion, is merely a form of flattery and functions similarly to cookery, which masks the undesirability of unhealthy food by making it taste good.

Rhetoric typically provides heuristics for understanding, discovering, and developing arguments for particular situations, such as Aristotle’s three persuasive audience appeals: logos, pathos, and ethos.

But it’s more insidious than all of this. The notion of truth—or whatever we believe to be true—is nothing more than rhetoric.

If one is aptly convinced that something is true, it is. The physical world—the world of objects—contains facts—attributes of these objects, but these facts are tautological descriptors: a red car, une voiture rouge, ou quelque chose. In the conceptual domain of abstractions such as truth, justice, gods, and love, all bets are off.

As Geuss aptly suggests, most of society and civilisation don’t care about philosophical thought at this level. This is privileged activity. It’s not about level of intellect, per se; rather, it’s the privilege of free time to devote to abstract thinking.

Most people are more concerned with getting to the next day to earn a paycheque, and they accept sloganeering for any deeper meaning.

Humans are said to be rational beings. In fact, this predicates entire disciplines such as economics…

…and jurisprudence. Legal systems are founded on the concept that humans are at least rational enough to make fundamental decisions about right and wrong—and this, of course, presumes that the notions of right and wrong in and of themselves are meaningful.

For the sake of argument, let’s presume that humans are at least rational enough for our purposes, and whilst right and wrong may not be objectively validated, that within the context of a society—presuming that not to be mired in its own identity problem—, it can be defined in the manner of a social compact envisaged by the likes of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, et alii. As the saying goes, ‘if it’s good enough for the government… well.

Language is a human construct, yet it’s an apparition. Like a physical object, it appears solid, but there’s more space than not. What’s there is exiguous. Echoing Heisenberg’s observations at the atomic level, one cannot be fully certain of a particular meaning. This is what Derrida (via Barthes) meant by ‘the death of the author’, though there is nothing to guarantee that the author could fully articulate the meaning or intent even if they were present to defend it.

About the same time, Saussure was finding promise in the structure of language, Russell was creating a new language of logic to obviate its deficiencies. Structuralists and logical positivists were a natural extension of the scientism of the 20th Century, the prevailing wave since the Enlightenment, but as with the demise of gods, religious belief, and other things metaphysical, this faith in structure was also specious.

Historically speaking, there is progress (another illusion), and there are paradigm shifts. When a paradigm shifts, an old truth is replaced by a new one. This is typically credited to a progression of knowledge, but it’s actually just that, on balance, people have accepted a new frame, chalking it up to scientific method rather than some rhetorical sleight of hand.

Even so, scientific discovery is different to archetypal notions such as truth or justice. At least we can empirically test and verify a scientific notion, even if what we are observing is later revised because of some previously unknown factor or removed constraint. For example, until Einstein’s day, Newton would not have known that his theory of gravity would break down as it approached the speed of light. But truth is just an opinion—even if widely held. Enter the ‘appeal to tradition’ flavour of logical fallacy—I’ll not dwell on the fact that systems of government are based on this quaint notion of precedents. #JustSaying

“Truth is simply a culmination of the rhetorical power to persuade the ignorant masses.”


I’ve arrived at my philosophical position as an autodidact. I am not a conventional scholar, and my exposure to philosophy derives from books, videos, and online sources including Wikipedia, blogs, Reddit, and the such.

I consider myself to be a non-cognitivist in the realm of Ayers’ Emotivism, and I fully realise that society as we know it relies on some notion of ascertainable truth. Of course, Nietzsche was vilified for observing that ‘God is dead’ and unceremoniously subjected to the ad hominem attacks afforded to the likes of Marx.

I’ve got a certain amount of respect for Existentialists (and Absurdists), but I find the teleological component a bit at odds with the central tenet. To that extent, I am more of a Nihilist.

I am more comfortable with what’s been called ‘Post-Modernism’, despite admiring the effort of some Structuralists and Logical Positivists. Where this love affair ends is where the permeation of science fetishists begin. Scientific Method and Logic are the gods of the New Age.

As a post-Enlightenment child, I’ve been steeped in all of its unfound glory, and it’s harder still for me to escape the pull of my Western indoctrination. So, to argue, one is forced to comply with the rules of logic within the limitations of human language—even the limitations of Russell’s language of Logic. And like arguing with a proponent of religion who points out that you can’t disprove his Ethereal Unicorn, one is forced into positions of arguing against Quixotic figments introduced as metaphysical elements.

7 thoughts on “The Rhetoric of Truth

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