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.

Insufficiency Theory of Language

I’m not an ethical subjectivist. The truth* is that I am a non-cognitivist. I gravitate more toward Ayer‘s Emotivism. Stevenson‘s Expressivism and Hare‘s Prescriptivism add the element of intention. This may seem like hair-splitting, but the distinction lies in the taxonomy of meta-ethics.

Emotivism and the rest are categorised under the non-cognitivist branch whilst ethical subjectivism falls into the cognitivist bucket. Intuitively, humans appear to have an innate bias toward accepting cognitivism, much in the same way as they seem to be wired to believe in supernatural concepts and see images of Jesus in toast. Whether these are vestiges of some successful evolutionary strategy is beside the point, but the problem it creates is that, in contrast, non-cognitivism is perceived as counterintuitive.

In its essence, cognitivism can be distilled down to the belief that moral statements are truth-apt, which is to say that they can be evaluated as true or false. Because of the current created by intuitionists, I lead with my fallback position, which is one of ethical subjectivism or more likely error theory.

Heads I win; Tails you lose

Although for reasons I’ll articulate later, entering a conversation assuming truth-aptness, the conversation can at least focus on the compositionality and universality components because whether I believe that moral statements cannot be evaluated as true or false, the default cognitive position of the general population is that they can be. This is not to say that I identify as a quasi-realist, which is to believe that there is no truth-aptness but to behave (pretend) that they do.

coin-flip - Captioned
Image: Deciding the truth-aptness of a moral claim

God Is Dead

In his critique of Enlightenment beliefs, Nietzsche declared that ‘God is dead’ as he understood the implications of a society absent a justification for not only believing that morality claims are truth-apt but that they are true, divinated from some metaphysical, supernatural, and universal power. In practice, the Enlightenment replaced God with a rather animated and interactive concept of Nature, hence were born all sorts of natural rights. You may get a sense of some déjà vu, as humans, not being particularly creative, just reappropriated and rebranded the same tropes Theists use prior to that. They just performed a search-and-replace of God with Nature in a manner similar to the Christian appropriation of pagan holidays.

Image: God is dead

Non-cognitivism has generally fallen out of favour primarily because it was sort of painted into a corner by the Frege-Geach (embedding) problem, but this issue is only intractable if you accept the given frame.

I should probably just link out to a different source to explain the Frege-Geach problem because I feel it’s a red herring, which only presents a problem if you accept the frame established by the Structuralist

The problem here is that language is a complex, socially constructed communication system. Even if we accept Chomsky’s theory of the innate ability to parse language, the syntax, lexicon, and grammar are still arbitrary human constructs. I can’t likely repeat this point often enough: humans have a poor track record of creating and comprehending complex systems, examples of which are the various half-cocked socio-political, economic, jurisprudent, and philosophical systems. Hubris is evidently a successful evolutionary selection factor, as it persists everywhere and certainly in people of power.

The logical positivists ran into a similar problem when they proposed the verification principle that asserted that a statement is only truth-apt if it is either an ANALYTICAL statement or a SYNTHETIC statement, and yet this assertion with neither analytical nor synthetic, so it itself does not meet the verification principle. It’s simply a normative prescription.

Fundamentally, this quandary underscores the deficiencies of the constructed language system more than anything else, what I am developing with a working title of Insufficiency Theory. A tangent to this theory is my concept that the only moral truth (and many social truths) are simply rhetorical victories—situations where one agent employing rhetorical devices has convinced others as the truth of some condition.



A problem with writing an unstructured stream of consciousness is that you look up and realise your post is getting pretty lengthy, and there is a lot more depth than you expected. Due to this, I am going to unpack this over several posts over several days.


DISCLAIMER: I am not a professionally-trained philosopher, linguist, psychologist, or gynaecologist for that matter. I had considered studying Linguistics at uni as well as Philosophy, but I opted instead to study Economics and Finance, as these appeared to be more pragmatic. As relates to philosophy and language, I am an autodidact. This said, this particular area is new to me, so I am certain that I am missing key elements and may have large gaps in my understanding. In some cases, I’ve read more excerpts and others’ perspective on these people and their work than their actual work product. I am trying to catch up, but that leads me to a place fraught with selection and affirmation bias—though I do try to comprehend counter arguments as well. Moreover, I am painfully well aware of the Dunning-Kruger effect, and I am trying to allow for enough time to elapse to move further along this curve.

Chart: Dunning-Kruger Effect

Article head  image cropped from here:

* Truth: (n) an opinion or held belief