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Marc Angenot: Rhetoric put to the test by the History of Ideas

Interview conducted by Marianne Doury and Théophile Robineau
Marc Angenot, Marianne Doury et Théophile Robineau
Cet article est une traduction de :
Marc Angenot : La rhétorique à l’épreuve de l’histoire des idées [fr]


In the interview he gave to Marianne Doury and Théophile Robineau, Marc Angenot discusses the place of rhetoric in his work. Recalling that ancient rhetoric was essentially based on the judicial model, he emphasizes its interest, but also its limitations, in exploring the social discourse he seeks to account for. He takes up its global perspective, mobilizing ethos, pathos and logos, the combined consideration of which is necessary for an understanding of ideas and the way in which they are carried and discussed in society. But he insists on the necessity of taking account of the fact that social discourse is embedded in a more or less long-term history, which is a prerequisite for its intelligibility. Taking social discourse as the object of research also requires us to reconsider the notion of situation as traditionally understood in rhetoric, and to redefine the way we look at the question of persuasion.

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Marc Angenot, born in Uccle, a suburb of Brussels, Belgium, wrote his thesis on the Rhetoric of Surrealism at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, which he defended in 1967. He then joined McGill University, where his career continued and where he is currently Professor Emeritus. He holds the James McGill Chair in the Study of Social Discourse. His work covers a very wide range of subjects and disciplines, but he defines himself centrally as a historian of ideas - which has led him to work on the very diverse and heterogeneous discursive materials that make up what he calls “social discourse” (Angenot 1989), from literary productions to journalistic discourse, via café conversations when they are still accessible to the historian. Rhetoric and argumentation, nonetheless, remain central to his production, as can be seen in La parole pamphlétaire (1982), Rhétorique de l’anti-socialisme (2004), Les idéologies du ressentiment (1996), Dialogues de sourds : Traité de rhétorique antilogique (2008), or Rhétorique de la confiance et de l’autorité (2013), to name but a few. His work shows how rhetorical argumentation is enriched, but also displaced and reconceptualized, when it intersects with Discourse Analysis and, above all, with the History of Ideas.


Marianne Doury is a professor at the Université Paris Cité. Trained as a linguist, she is a specialist in argumentation, which she links with Discourse Analysis and the analysis of conversational interactions. She develops an argumentative perspective based on the study of a wide range of discursive data, from the most daily to the most formal discourses.


Théophile Robineau is a doctoral student at the Université Paris Cité. He is investigating the possibility of characterizing argumentatively discourse, based on the observation of interviews with speakers opposed to Covid 19 vaccination.


1. Marianne Doury & Théophile Robineau. Marc Angenot, we’re on the threshold of an interview for an issue of the journal Argumentation et Analyse du Discours examining “Rhetoric off the beaten track”. You are “off the beaten track” almost by force since you don’t define yourself centrally as a rhetorician - although your work is widely cited by specialists in rhetoric, argumentation, and discourse analysis, and you largely return the courtesy. Which disciplinary matrix do you centrally claim to belong to?


Marc Angenot. If I had to put on myself a label, I would say historian of ideas or historian of ideologies. But I indeed crossed paths with rhetoric and argumentation very early on in my training - and not through second-rate authors. I entered the Université Libre de Bruxelles in 1958, where Chaïm Perelman was my professor. He didn’t teach rhetoric to me, but the history of philosophy, from the pre-Socratics to Kant and Hegel. My only direct interaction with him was during the oral exam that he gave me on Spinoza, amid some twelve hundred students who were smoking in the corridors or crying as they left the examination room, and I don’t think I left him with any memorable souvenirs. But he had just published, with Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, le Traité de l’argumentation (1958), and that fascinated me, especially because at the time, I felt a strong desire not to spend my life teaching literature. Just as you can love sex without being a sexologist, I loved literature, but the idea of teaching it bothered me, and I soon realized that I could get out through the back door of the essay, the polemic, the pamphlet - that was one of my first books for the publishing house Payot, La parole pamphlétaire (1982). From this perspective, the rhetoric of argumentation played a significant role. Although I didn’t cross paths with Perelman afterward, it was through him that I discovered rhetoric, and it was as a speaker for the Chaïm Perelman Study Day that I was invited to Tel Aviv University by Ruth Amossy in 1993 to talk about the ideologies of resentment. I also held the Perelman Chair in 2011-2012.


2. MD & TR. Does this mean that Perelman’s vision of argumentation and rhetoric has been decisive to your own conception of this field?


MA. The Treatise opened my eyes to the theory of rhetorical argumentation. Today, we can see its limits, but Perelman was the first and only person to ask the question: what do humans do when they produce a long speech? They either tell a story, or make an argument, or both (like Jesus Christ, whose parables are both a story and an argument). Perelman was, in the strongest sense of the word, a precursor; he was advancing in a field where there was no one - there hadn’t been anyone, anyway, for centuries. I also did something that Perelman imposed on me, which was to go back to Aristotle and the ancient theorists. Perelman was astonished – he says that somewhere – to realize when reading the Topics, that this text had not aged a bit. The Topics are about topical reasoning, i.e. the fact that humans reason in the ordinary conditions of life with patterns that are neither absurd nor really logical, such as - excuse me, I’m going to be scholastic for a second – “if a thing is good, the more of that thing is better.” Such a scheme quickly leads to the sophism “if chocolate is good, eating a kilo of it in the evening is a great idea.” This example illustrates the nature of topics, as I said: neither absolutely logical nor absurd. Aristotle and Perelman are both very sensitive to the idea that most human reasoning doesn’t obey the canons of rigorous logic but doesn’t deserve to be dismissed out of hand - because there is no alternative.

Beyond Aristotle and Perelman, it’s important to understand that, at that time (the 1960s), there was a revival of interest in rhetoric, not only in French but also for Toulmin (2008 [1958]) and other English-speaking scholars.

Another thing that happened to me very early on in my career was that I met Swiss colleagues who were doing “natural logic”, in the sense of the ethno-logic that people use in everyday life. These were all the people who worked in Neuchâtel around Grize (1990, 1996). So, I tinkered, I took Perelman with Toulmin, Grize and his “natural rhetoric”, Aristotle and the ancient theorists of rhetoric, I put everything together, I stirred, and it produced results.

Having said that, it was an imposed DIY project, not the result of reflection; I didn’t have much choice. You had to take your goods from everywhere and try to glue together people who weren’t talking to each other.


3. MD & TR. The term “rhetoric” refers to a variety of approaches; what do you mean by it? Is the conceptual toolkit developed by rhetoric suitable for understanding social discourse, which is your project, or does it need to be revised or expanded to take account of it?


MA. I intended to apply the rhetorical approach to what I would later call social discourse, in order to build a theory of what used to be referred to as the literature of ideas. This project explains why it was the rhetoric of argumentation that interested me most, rather than the rhetoric of figures and tropes - although, of course, the distinction between the two is not as clear-cut as all that, since there are figures that can be considered argumentative. At the time of the structuralists, there were reprints of the treatises on tropes by César Chesneau, also known as Monsieur Dumarsais or Du Marsais, and Pierre Fontanier. These old treatises from the classical age were often much more interesting and cleverer than what my contemporaries were publishing; but Dumarsais was interested in metaphors and metonymies, not in arguments, sophisms, and reasoning. The ancients, on the other hand, mentioned both strategies as possible means of persuasive speech, but without showing very clearly how they fit together.

Then, to implement my project of reconstructing different states or evolutions of social discourse on specific issues, I had to integrate a certain number of concepts from other universes of thought into the rhetorical toolkit. I borrowed from Gramsci the notion of hegemony (2021 [1948-1951]), which has its origins in certain hypotheses of Marx and Engels. For Gramsci, it is a way of moving away from mechanistic interpretations of situations of power and influence, and of taking account of the fact that, beyond economic determinants, relations of domination are played out in the capacity of a social formation to impose ways of seeing and ways of saying, pre-constructs, presuppositions, micro-narratives - in short, mental and discursive tools that I am trying to capture. This notion of hegemony is closely related to that of ideology, which I take to be Althusser’s definition of as “a system (possessing its own logic and rigor) of representations (images, myths, ideas or concepts as the case may be) endowed with an existence and a historical role within a given society” (Althusser, Théorie d’ensemble, quoted in Angenot 1979: 100). These additions to the basic rhetorical conceptual apparatus were necessary because my project differed significantly from the rhetorical one. Whether as an assistance to production or from an analytical perspective, rhetoric essentially focuses on particular discourses, singular utterances, and invites us to examine their local coordinates: who is speaking to whom, in what circumstances, so that the discourse is adapted to the audience, the place and the time. To deal with social discourse from a historical perspective, I must ask myself the same questions, but on a broader scale. It does not allow me to “add up” the situational parameters attached to singular situations of communication in order to reach the more general configurations I am trying to describe: it requires me to call on other concepts - such as those of hegemony or ideology. Once again, from the perspective I was trying to explore, I was in a field where there weren’t many people and where I could do what I wanted. I didn’t deserve any credit, I was having fun, but I was completely alone.


4. MD & TR. One would tend to think that for the history of ideas, because of the word “ideas”, logos is more central than ethos or pathos. In what way are the oratorical components of rhetoric relevant to the history of ideas? What room is there for the individual dimension of influence and emotions?


MA. First of all, while ethos, pathos and logos are clearly separated in the presentation of Aristotelian rhetoric, they are supposed to function simultaneously in persuasive discourse, which mobilizes them in unison. Ethos, which is how the speaker presents himself to his audience, and pathos, which refers to the emotional elements in the discourse, are all inseparable from arguments in the purely technical sense. Aristotle’s merit lies in having seen that pathos without logos is hysteria; logos without pathos is cold logic and hardly persuasive, and so all these elements must work together. The history of ideas is concerned not with abstract ideas, but with ideas spread by media, journalism, etc., ideas that are impregnated with pathos, where pathos and logos are inseparable. For example, in the text I have devoted to revenants, vampires, and the buried alive (Angenot in press), it becomes clear that the history of the distinction between the real and the fictitious cannot be elaborated independently of the history of fears and anxieties. The history of fear, of fears, is essential to understanding the past and the present.

Now, the weight of each of the three proofs varies according to the context in which persuasive speech is exercised. If we consider the public speaker, who monologues in front of an audience that cheers or throws tomatoes but does not argue with him, the rhetorical part of the performance is of considerable importance: he must rely on his personality and the emotional construction of his speech to capture his audience’s attention and win them over to his cause. There is something potentially demagogic and violent about this kind of rhetorical performance because it involves a speaker who could be Adolf Hitler fidgeting and gesticulating in front of a cheering audience. This is very different from dialectics, in which two or three people discuss with the same affectio veritas, the same desire to arrive at the truth. At the start of the discussion, they don’t have a very clear opinion, and they’ll engage in friendly exchanges, saying “yes but,” “no but.” “maybe this,” “maybe that,” until they reach an agreement; that is dialectics. Dialectics presupposes goodwill and dialogue and makes more room for logos.

Finally, let us not forget that rhetoric was born out of the practice of the prétoire, out of courtroom observation, in Sicily. The lawyer’s oratory technique has been highly formalized for centuries and relies on legal procedures that cannot be used under normal living conditions. The legal situation itself, if you think about it, is extremely bizarre. If we simplify it as much as possible, it presupposes a prosecutor who makes an indictment, a lawyer who argues against the indictment, and curiously enough, in our society, a third party, paid for by the government, called the judge, who in the end decides. And that’s a completely abnormal situation: if I have an argument with my wife, there’s no one there to decide whether she or I is right. There’s no sort of demiurge descending on a cloud to say “You’re right and you’re wrong.” So, the big problem with rhetoric is that it is based on a situation in which there’s an arbitrator, a judge and that we sometimes resort to it by projecting onto normal life situations a very rare circumstance, which is the legal situation. The data examined by the history of ideas only very exceptionally obey the arbitration mechanism of the legal situation. We often hear that in a democracy, when elections are held, the people decide. But first, there is no such thing as “the people”: they are a legal fiction; and secondly, they do not decide, insofar as they do not provide arguments. They can decide to give a majority to Mr. Macron or Mr. Mélenchon or Ms. Le Pen, but they don’t decide as one might hand down a judgement: “whereby the French people, after careful consideration, have decided that the Rassemblement National will form the next government”, nobody says that.


5. MD & TR. The notion of persuasion has been central to rhetoric since Aristotle. Do you think that the history of ideas can account for what makes a discourse, in a given state of society, more or less persuasive, more or less likely to be accepted by a section of contemporaries?


To a certain extent, the question of persuasion was easier to grasp within the original framework of rhetoric, which was concerned with how a given speaker could persuade in a given situation before a given audience and on a specific type of case. From my perspective, which is that of a historian of ideas, it is much less clear-cut, and its place in the system needs to be revisited. I can describe what a militant of Jules Guesde’s time was like in 1905, and note that he was persuaded by the three or four so-called Marxist axioms that Guesde had cobbled together; he was convinced of the imminence of the collapse of the capitalist mode of production under its contradictions, which would shortly lead to a proletarian revolution that would create a society where everyone would be happy, and where both justice and abundance would reign. For these militants, this is not an opinion, but a certainty, which I can only observe. I don’t share this certainty, nor can I arrogantly distance myself from those for whom it is the truth. Most researchers don’t really know where to put themselves; I know that I don’t really know where to put myself, which is already an advantage. It’s very complicated to know how to position oneself in relation to all those people who, in large numbers, share ideas that we tend to consider strange. For example, how do you explain the fact that a Moscow intellectual today unreservedly approves of Putin? This intellectual exists, and if I’m to believe the Moscow press, he abounds; how does he come to be convinced by Putin? It’s a huge problem; I can describe the reasoning, but I can’t get to the point where I can explain the mechanisms of persuasion. That’s much too complicated.


6. MD & TR. We have agreed about how rhetoric has informed your thinking. You also use the word “discourse” a lot: you present yourself as an “analyst of social discourse.” In what sense are you a discourse analyst?


MA. I began posing as a social discourse analyst around 1960, at a time when nobody understood what the phrase “Discourse Analysis” meant. The very meaning of the word “discourse” has changed: if I speak today of the discourse of Emmanuel Macron, I am not talking about a speech he gave in Ariège, but about a finite set of commonplaces, topoï, reasonings and arguments that identify him on the level of “discourse.” Aiming to leave literary studies behind, I began to take an interest in what we understand today by “discourse,” which at the time only a few atypical Marxists like Joseph Gabel (1962) examined from an ideological angle. I wrote a book, Les champions des femmes (1977), which examines a discourse essentially produced by gallant essayists (such as Poullain de la Barre) who, for several centuries, tried to demonstrate the superiority of women over men through a series of topical arguments taken from the Bible and the Ancients. This is the very example of a para-doxal discourse, which underwent a major inflection when, with Olympe de Gouges in France or Mary Wollstonecraft in England, we moved from abstract considerations on the essence of women to concrete considerations on women’s rights. The discourse on the superiority of women over men (or vice versa) becomes a discourse on the equality of the sexes. While my work on pamphlet focused on a relatively limited period, this book on women’s champions showed me how interesting it can be to work on very long-term phenomena - I carried out this study over four centuries, and it enabled me to realize that there were arguments that ran through several generations.


7. MD & TR. We understand that when you first said that you are interested in social discourse and that you take discourses in the modern sense of the term as objects of study, you did not fit into what is now called “Discourse Analysis.” But today, I’m wondering to what extent this Discourse Analysis (let’s say, French style) and the language categories on which it is based are useful for your approach to these social discourses. To what extent does the rhetorical approach you use to shed light on social discourse, which draws on concepts such as hegemony and ideology, also incorporate elements of Discourse Analysis? You read them, you quote them; how do these readings contribute to nourishing your perspective, which is transhistorical and more “macro”?


MA. Your question shows that your perspective is very much French. In Belgium, literary studies were largely philological and linguistic, which was not the case in France. I did at least as much linguistics as literary studies.

What I tried to do very early on was to articulate, or even merge, Discourse Analysis and historiography. In this sense, my meeting with Régine Robin, who had just published Histoire et linguistique (1973), was very important. Régine Robin was a historian who had taken up studies in linguistics, at a time when historians, and French historians in particular, were remarkably resistant to the idea of observing what is said - with the exception of the Israeli Zeev Sternhell (2013 [1983]), who showed that by studying the ideologies of General Boulanger’s time, we could demonstrate the emergence of what he called “pre-fascism” in France, which largely configured the fascism of the 1920s. As for me, I was a linguist by training, and I was interested in historiographical phenomena because Discourse Analysis without historiography is purely superficial work. My meeting with Régine Robin was therefore a very pleasant one, which developed into a long-lasting scientific collaboration and friendship, as Régine Robin went on to pursue her career in Montreal.

Among the people at the crossroads of Discourse Analysis and historiography, I cannot fail to mention Pierre-André Taguieff (2005, 2008; Taguieff, ed. 2013), with whom I became an early friend. I met him at a time when I was working on the history of anti-Semitism in France, and we agreed very quickly; Taguieff is someone who, in his own way, which is not precisely mine, is a historian of ideas.

I can also mention in this spirit Jacques Guilhaumou, whose work on the French Revolution and on Marat (1989, 2006) I greatly appreciated - I pay tribute to him in L’Histoire des idées (2014). He was one of those who, in Discourse Analysis, did something original from the point of view of historiography.

These are just some of the encounters that have enabled me to enter a dialogue on issues that are more or less central to my concerns. But we should emphasize the fact that the Humanities are very different from the other sciences, where you work as part of a team in a laboratory. What characterizes people like me, for better or worse, is that they are alone. They’re alone all their lives, despite deep, lasting friendships like the one with Régine Robin. This is unavoidable since if you ask yourself the right questions because these questions are not familiar or commonplace in the field, you will have to sort things out on your own and criticize yourself. In a physics laboratory, you develop theories while arguing within the research team in real-time; I argue with Aristotle, but not in real-time. It’s all about doing a job that, although promising, isolates you.


8. MD & TR. A related question, on possible links with discourse analysis as a disciplinary field within the language sciences: is the notion of discursive genre of interest to you in your approach to social discourse?


My work on the pamphlet, La Parole pamphlétaire (1982), the subtitle of which is Typologie des discours modernes (Typology of Modern Discourses), is very much linked to this question of discursive genres. My purpose was to propose a theory of combat literature, focusing on the pamphlet as a particular historical form within agonistic discourse, which I sought to distinguish from contiguous forms such as polemic and satire.

That said, most of my work has instead sought to explore extremely heterogeneous corpora, enabling me to access configurations of social discourse corresponding to particular states of society. For example, around 1980 - I’d been a professor at Mc Gill for more than ten years - I obtained grants for a project whose scope I hadn’t at first appreciated: the idea was to see the totality of what a society printed in one year, in order to develop a theory of the social discourse of that period. I looked at the year 1889, the heyday of periodical printing, and made a reasonable sampling of the totality of what had been produced in French that year (1989). I rejected the idea that there would be literature on the one hand, scientific texts on the other, and the newspaper on the third, each of these fields calling for a separate study, but instead considered that it was appropriate to give an account of what runs through them. As I mentioned, I didn’t realize at the outset the enormity of the undertaking; it’s worth remembering that in 1889, for press data alone, there were 125 dailies in Paris, 900 dailies in the whole of France, not to mention a few poly-weeklies, all archived at the Bibliothèque nationale Richelieu, at the Arsenal, in the archives of the Préfecture de police... Now it’s easier since Gallica has started converting all 19th-century French printed matter into PDFs, I can get hold of all the newspapers from my office. Neither the British Library, nor the Library of Congress in Washington DC, nor any of the major libraries in the English-speaking world have made the extraordinary effort of Gallica.

To come back to your question about discourse genres, I could also mention Le cru et le faisandé: Sexe, discours social et littérature à la Belle Epoque (1986), a work in which I reported on the way sex was thematized by the great naturalist literature, the low pornographic literature, the newspaper facts, the psychiatrists stemming from Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and so on. Here too, it was a trans-generic approach, based on the idea that all these people had something to say about sex, and that my task was to see what they had in common and how they diverged from one another, what was incompatible. So, for me, the history of ideas is essentially played out outside considerations of discursive gender - even if this notion can occasionally make sense.


9. MD & TR. Just one last point of terminology: could you clarify for us non-specialists the difference between the history of ideas and the history of mentalities?


French historians had a remarkable tendency to study mentalities. No one, apart from them, has ever been able to say what mentalities might be, and English historians have been having the greatest difficulty translating the word for half a century, which is always a bad sign.

The word “mentality” is an invention of historians, and they invented it to have something to say about a priori unintelligible phenomena. “Mentality” is a category that historians have used for two generations in France to account for extremely intriguing legal decisions, without explaining them in any way. As you know, serious jurists in France and elsewhere have condemned pigs to death for eating a baby. We find this completely unintelligible. Rather than attribute absolute stupidity and total irrationality to these wise and reasonable jurists, some historians have preferred to say “it was their mentality;” as when, in Le Légataire universel, Géronte, who is told that he has just made a will of which he has no memory (and for good reason, since it was Crispin who, posing as him to the notary, actually drew it up), is offered as an explanatory principle for his forgetfulness the diagnosis: “It’s your lethargy.” But to say “it was their mentality” solves the problem for five minutes - after which the perplexity returns; the only solution is to make a tremendous effort to explain how people whom I judge to be like you and me reasoned to come to the decision to kill the pigs. A parallel can be drawn with Lévy-Bruhl’s idea of primitive thought (2010 [1922]). There you’ll find a primitive, and according to Lévy-Bruhl, he’ll tell you things that, to him as an anthropologist in the 1920s, seem absolutely absurd. The tribal chief is dead, there in the tent, but he’s also risen from the dead in the form of the panther you hear in the forest. The problem isn’t the panther, it’s the fact that there can be two manifestations of the same individual at the same time, one in the form of a corpse, the other in a resurrected form. To account for this, Lévy-Bruhl diagnoses: “That’s their mentality... it is primitive thought; it is a logic that is not our logic.” Lévi-Strauss tried to show that primitives didn’t reason any differently from us; the primitive Lévy-Bruhl is talking about is someone who, when he goes into the forest with a bow and arrow, has obviously made sure very rationally that his bow works, that his arrows are in the right place, and so on. He hasn’t reasoned: “The forest gods will take care of me, so I don’t care.” In Albert Camus’s The Plague, there’s a rather exalted priest who says that it’s better to inoculate yourself with the plague because that’s how you’ll get to heaven. I have to say that most people in Oran, even those who are very Catholic, don’t think that catching the plague since it’s a way to salvation, is a good solution. In short, the big problem with rhetoric is knowing how to deal with people who not only don’t have the same reasoning but even give the impression that they don’t belong to the same mental or intellectual world as I do. It tends to categorize such reasoning as totally alien to us, as a kind of incongruity that stems from an almost ontological and “a-historical” difference between those who use it and us. But modes of reasoning don’t come from nothing, and it’s the identification of what they result from and what they evolve towards that makes them fully intelligible. The real historical, ethnographic, anthropological, and logical problem is to know how I live on a planet with people who not only seem different from me, but who seem to me to be truly unintelligible: only a true history of ideas can enable us to make progress towards understanding.


10. MD & TR. Earlier you spoke of the isolation into which your work can plunge you - despite the many encounters and friendships you have made - to the point of comparing your research activity to “the loneliness of the long-distance runner” for lack of researchers with whom you can argue. And yet, reading you, one gets the impression that you engage in a multiple dialogue, both with the different sources you explore and from which you interrogate the social discourse of an era, but also with your readers, whom you address directly. Your writing is not closed in on itself but often gives the impression that you are addressing someone. Can you tell us who you are addressing, and who this imaginary interlocutor is? Is writing the only form of communication for you that isn’t too frustrating?


MA. The word “fantasy” is right, there must be some kind of fantastical compensation for the researcher’s real solitude. This address to a fantasized recipient can be linked to Perelman’s notion of the universal audience. I have given a lot of thought to what Perelman meant by “universal audience.” And there’s something obvious and right about this notion as I finally understand it. Let’s take the example of the domestic quarrel; if I argue with my wife and put forward arguments, it’s not in the probably vain hope that she’ll say “OK, you’re right, you’ve convinced me,” but it’s in the idea that my argument is aimed at a fictitious, imaginary addressee, which can only be the universal audience, which as such is likely to accept my reasons. So, I would say that all the discourse produced within debates, beyond the apparent addressee, who we know in many cases has closed ears, aims at the idea that there is a rationality that is capable of saying, from the top of a distant Empyrean: you are the one who is right. This question of the universal audience, which would judge from the point of view of an absolute standard of rationality, in turn raises the question of relativism. The researcher can't adopt a position that would be totally normative, from the perspective of a universal logic likely to arbitrate the debates; the researcher is obliged to zig-zag, to constantly navigate between the particular logics of the actors and the claims to universality. Unlike the social actors caught up in the debates, the researcher cannot take a position.


11. MD & TR. Considering your professional and geographical trajectory, one wonders to what extent the fact that you work in North America, in an English-speaking university (even if the department to which you belonged was French-speaking), while writing in French on subjects that are most often rooted in mainland France, was a factor that reinforced the isolation you referred to earlier, or whether, on the contrary, you see this geographical decentring as an opportunity to open up to other dialogues and influences, in particular Anglophone approaches to rhetoric, some of which are quite distinct from European approaches.


MA. I quickly came to see my appointment to an English-speaking university as an opportunity. I had no predisposition to be interested in Anglophony, but I had to take English seriously and read all the English and American humanities scholars (some of them quite remarkable) that France didn’t seem to know about at the time. This enabled me to see what Anglo-Saxon researchers were drawing from both the rhetoric of argumentation and the analysis of historically relevant discourse - in other words, the analysis of ideological discourse. I discovered different ways of conceiving disciplines and research paradigms. For example, the English-speaking world does not call “intellectual history” the history of intellectual circles (Marxists, Catholics, etc.), which is what the French do - and they do it well - but the history of ideas properly speaking. It’s a way of working on collective ideas that is not widely translated and is very different from our own, but with some great minds. I should also point out that many of the English-speaking colleagues I worked with at McGill were Swedish or Dutch, so my work at McGill opened up horizons far beyond North America. I’ve also built up many links with Latin America; I’ve spent a lot of time there as a visiting professor, particularly in Argentina and Brazil, where there are real chairs in Discourse Analysis (whereas there isn’t even one chair in France). I am a member of several journals in Spanish and Portuguese that publish research in which Discourse Analysis is combined with rhetoric. My books are also widely translated, which makes them accessible to a wide readership; this is particularly true of El discurso social.

This decentring has also made it easier for me to keep a proper distance from my objects of study. Today, the social discourses I work on are both far away from me in time and geographically; and even when I tackle contemporary French debates, it is from a point six or seven thousand kilometers away that I consider them.


12. MD & TR. This distance to the object, the geographical dimension of which you mention here, also has a fundamental historical dimension. Could you explain why you believe that the approach to social discourse must necessarily be historical, and what consequences this has for the way you use the rhetorical framework?


MA. As I see it, when it comes to social discourse, pure and simple synchronicity, with no before and after, can only produce artifacts that are both impoverished and misleading. Beyond historians proper, any researcher working in the human sciences must be aware of the historical nature of what he is talking about, and he must be able to explain what is obvious, which is that the sociological facts of 1950 are not those of the year 2000 or 2025. In my youth, if I had recorded what my Stalinist and Trotskyist friends were saying, they would seem extremely bizarre to you today. Even if sociologists try to work in real-time, all the phenomena of the human sciences are historical phenomena and only make sense in relation to their place in history. Aristotelian rhetoric, like later Perelmanian rhetoric, avoids the aberrations to which radically immanentist approaches to discourse lead because they insist on the importance of taking the audience into account, and even, for Aristotle, of genres of discourse, understood as ways of speaking attached to speech situations. But this is not enough to show how discourses make sense in relation to states of society characterized by structured and possibly competing ways of thinking and saying the world. That’s what the history of ideas can do.

This being said, the history of ideas has to strike a balance between dealing with discourses rooted in states of society that are sufficiently remote for the historian to be able to exercise his expertise with a comfortable critical distance, at the risk of his observations losing relevance in terms of what they tell us about the modern world, and seeking to account for more contemporary social discourses - or in any case, those that still have echoes very much alive in our society, at the risk of compromising his critical distance.

I could feel perfectly at ease studying the debates of the time of Napoleon III, since in any case they are outdated, they no longer interest anyone, and their obsolescence means that I could say very critical things about them without anyone finding fault. The Dreyfus affair, on the other hand, is still not obsolete; I was invited in 1994 by the city of Jerusalem for the centenary of the arrest of Dreyfus, and if the city of Jerusalem organized a major international symposium on the Dreyfus affair, it was because there were people in the world who thought it was still very topical. The real question, and I’m not going to answer, is: why is it still relevant?

The problem with the history of ideas is that either I’m dealing with obsolete ideas, like the Christian heresies of the third century, in which case I can have my little opinion, but nobody is interested anymore, or I’m dealing with something that is not totally cold, that is still lukewarm - I can still agree or disagree with Robespierre and the Jacobins; I can still agree with the Dreyfusards and show that the anti-Dreyfusards were devoid of intelligence or moral sense. And so, the history of ideas is constantly wandering between the question of its relevance and the question of the difficulties of dealing with something in which I have a bias.


13. MD & TR. One of the consequences of these different shifts in focus is that your work sometimes deviates very sharply from the ‘local doxa’ (geographical or dictated by the moment), to the point where it is sometimes somewhat provocative. There are many examples of this, including “Les monstres en soutane” (2008) (which explores the militant genre of the cumulative account of the crimes of the clergy in the context of the Republic’s fight against its enemy, clericalism), and “Malaise dans l’esprit de moquerie et de satire : la passion de censure et ses progrès” (2021) in which you expose what you see as the return of a spirit of censorship that has been attacking the old demand for unqualified freedom of expression since 1995, and with greater vigor in recent years.


MA. It must have something to do with my temperament because I think of myself as gentle, rational, sober, and reasonable, but perhaps that’s not quite the perception that emerges from my writing. In any case, if I had to say something noble, I’d tell you that it’s my idea of intellectual work. There’s a kind of distance you have to create in the course of your academic life, a distance you have to create with regard to prevailing ideas, and received ideas, so it’s obvious that at times it can tickle. The analysis of social discourse can only be of interest if it preserves a form of distance from its subject, and that seems to me to be an absolute rule for the history of ideas. This distance can be perceived as sarcastic, sterile, out of place and irritating, particularly for people who have a party, and particularly when the ideas in question are not very far removed in time: you’re going to meet people you’re hurting. Because where ideological militants are situated in a kind of topography with good people, bad people, a right and a left, the researcher has an absolute methodological obligation not to take sides. Take my book on The Ideologies of Resentment (1996): resentment can be found on the right or the left. It can be the anti-Semitism of Edouard Drumont, it can be part of socialism and part of feminism. And obviously, when you say, “part of,” you annoy people, because there are always those who feel targeted. August Bebel, in the nineteenth century, called anti-Semitism “the socialism of fools;” he simply meant that the basic German anti-Semite was someone who called himself a socialist because he said “you Jews succeed in this disgusting society, to which you are particularly well adapted, and where we, who are the majority, fail. So (there’s a reasoning, that’s rhetoric), you’re wrong. You’re wrong, and the more you succeed, and the more we fail, the more you’ll be wrong.” This kind of reasoning can be found among people who consider themselves to be on the left, and not everyone is happy with this idea. The researcher in the history of ideas, by definition of his function, is obliged to distance himself from the ordinary classifications, from the doxa that says “This is right-wing, this is left-wing, this is extreme, this is not;” and if I have written this book on the ideology of resentment, it is because the reasoning of resentment can, in the course of history, be that of Doriot just as it can be that of Georges Marchais or the Communists and Trotskyists of yesteryear.

Part of my books is about the history of ideologies, and the rule is that if you describe ideological clashes, you don’t do it to take sides with one of the two camps - even if sometimes you can’t totally hide which way you’re leaning. I’ve published books on the history of the far right, on the history of anti-Semitism, and there’s no doubt that in a way there’s an explicit parti-pris in such books. But any historian of ideas who would take a position on the social discourses he examines would be pointless.

I’ve just written a big book on the image of Robespierre (2020). Absolute monarchists, prey to a form of apocalyptic indignation, consider Robespierre and all the Jacobins to be emanations from hell and monsters, but their disagreement is very different from that of the Girondins, of Louis-Sébastien Mercier who was Olympe de Gouges’ lover, who have a different conception of the Revolution. It’s interesting to understand why they hated Robespierre and all the members of the Committee of Public Safety, and to understand this in the context of 1793-94 and the years that followed. It’s interesting because it is a single moment in history and, at this very moment, I see people who don’t reason in the same way; they may have blinkers on, but they don’t have the same blinkers as Billaud-Varenne. Is it possible to understand people like those in the Convention in 1793, and the different groupings that took place there? Yes, we can understand them, we can describe them and find that everyone had good reasons. As these good reasons contradicted each other, at the end of the day it’s not a question of making a decision by saying “Maximilien, you were wrong” or “Billaud-Varenne, you were right.” There’s no point, and besides, it would be laughable.


14. MD & TR. I understand what you have just said as expressing a concern not to reduce the analyst’s position to that of the actors. This concern relates to a broader question, which is the distinction between normative and descriptive approaches to argumentation. Making evaluative judgments about a position can be done based on support for, or rejection of, the position being defended; you say that this is something the historian of ideas should definitely not do. There can be a slightly different perspective, which is the one developed by informal logic or the pragma-dialectical school, for example, which defend the idea that adopting a normative perspective on a debate is not a matter of saying “on the substance, I agree with so-and-so,” but of evaluating the processes used by the arguers. How do you see yourself in relation to this approach, which consists in assessing the processes and not the position defended?


M.A. I think it’s very interesting to evaluate the ways in which a particular group or ideological community at a given moment begins to decipher the world and give itself reasons to live and reasons to act. I believe that informal logic has contributed a great deal and has developed many research tools, as has Dutch pragma-dialectics, from which I have drawn a great deal. In a way, the problem with rhetoric - and this has been its problem since Aristotle - is that it is an activity that hesitates between its normative and its descriptive character. In the Topics, Aristotle identifies reasoning that can be used in such and such a circumstance; and according to tradition, these are followed by the Sophistic Refutations, in which he says, “Yes, but there are also patterns of reasoning that are completely wrong and should not be used.” Aristotelians, like many others, myself included, spend their time hesitating between saying “This is an acceptable argumentative move” or “This is perfectly distressing.” But the notion of “acceptable,” which is difficult to do without, like all normative notions, including that of common sense, is dangerous to use.


15. MD & TR. In the research you have carried out, you have sought to grasp and reconstruct the ‘logics’ that govern the various positions that can be identified in social discourse, which presupposes something like a comprehensive approach to debates. Does such an approach imply the exercise of a form of empathy? In other words, does the effort required to understand how the participants in the debate think also presuppose something along the lines of ‘affective agreement’?


MA. I had found in Bourdieu and Chamboredon the idea that a bad temper towards the spirit of the times is a fundamental rule of research. Researchers must try to follow the precept that Julien Benda set out before the war: you must work as if the society you are describing were not your own. It’s a rather risky fiction, but it’s clear that it has a methodological advantage. Now, can we show empathy? The answer to this question depends on how we define empathy. Methodologically, I need to be able to understand the reasons that Edouard Drumont was able to put forward in La Libre parole and La France juive; I need to be able to understand them, i.e. to situate them in time, space, circumstances, etc. But there is a way of understanding that does not imply any emotional alignment; the word “empathy” is a little risky.


16. MD & TR. You insist on the necessity of accounting for the significance of social discourses in relation to the state of society in which they circulate, and in the perspective of the evolutions of which they are the fruit. But do you think that beyond the historical variations that you describe, there are invariants? Could you elaborate on these historical invariants and, conversely, on innovation in social debates? Does this depend on the subject? Are there certain topics of debate that lend themselves more naturally to a renewal of the argumentative arsenal?


MA. Why is it that we still understand – or think we do, there may be an element of illusion - Plato and Aristotle, people from twenty-five centuries ago, who lived and thought in societies incommensurable with our own? That’s a real question, which makes us want to think that there is some invariance in ideas and reasoning. It is also undeniable that in the history of ideas, there are phenomena of varying lengths of time. If we are interested, as I am, in trans-historical questions such as “What is fame?” there is no doubt that Voltaire’s fame and Johnny Halliday’s fame must be distinguished in terms of their time, their era, their milieu, etc. But in another way, it is perhaps not a bad idea, from time to time, to try and look at the long term. It took me a very long time to start working on the long term, and I’ve just finished a book called Histoire de l’oubli [history of oblivion]. Such a question only makes sense in the long term, and the history of oblivion that I’ve written covers the period from Antiquity to the present day.


17. MD & TR. Turning back to the question of variation and invariance, we can ask the same question about feminist discourse, for example. In France at the moment, a feminist argument, traditionally a left-wing argument, is being taken up by a section of the right and even the far right, who are using it to attack Islam. Is this a renewal of the feminist argumentative arsenal, a re-elaboration of existing elements, or simply the application of an existing feminist argumentative arsenal to a new specific target?


MA. This is typically an area that has undergone major changes. I mentioned earlier my book Les champions des femmes (1977), which highlighted some of these developments between 1400 and 1800. In the same way, it could be demonstrated that the argumentation of many contemporary feminists shows a cognitive and epistemological break with the feminist argumentation in The Second Sex or among English feminists. That would make a first topic for a thesis. A second thesis topic around the question you raise: don’t left-wing and right-wing arguments exchange presuppositions? In my opinion, yes, there has always been a circulation of right-wing and left-wing types of reasoning and arguments, even when they’re not covered up. If you take my book on Marxism in the Grand Narratives (2006), or the one on the history of fascism (2015), you will see that fascist arguments in the precise sense of the 1920s and 1930s are largely drawn from a confluence of right-wing authoritarian reasoning and reasoning specific to the Second International. Of course, we don’t want to see these rather unfortunate phenomena, but they are obvious. Another example is the history of anti-clericalism. The anti-clerical arguments of the Belle Époque are considered to be left-wing; if they apply to Islamists, they may no longer be left-wing arguments if I consider that Islamism should be defended in the name of the left. And it would be the merit of research into the rhetoric of political arguments to show that there is a coming and going of the right, the left, the center, the conservatives, the ultra-conservatives, the ultra-right, etc., and to analyze in concrete terms how right-wing or left-wing arguments circulate, shift, and become adulterated. These are discourses that are extremely changeable and highly variable. Variations in social discourse on other subjects are more akin to plate tectonics: things move, but slowly, and there are rarely any spectacular changes. Perhaps there are invariants, but no a priori answer is possible. You have to go and look, observe, and describe. Nothing is self-evident.


18. MD & TR. Do you think that the fact that the Internet offers new arenas for debate has any effect on the issue of renewing or maintaining the terms of a debate, if only in terms of widening access to public discourse?


MA. You get the feeling that social networks like X or Facebook are in many cases the scene of a resurgence of absurdity, malice, and sophistry, and are contributing to a remarkable increase in human stupidity. In the old days, if someone had imbecilic ideas, they would just talk rubbish in the pub; but today the same individual can address the whole universe on X. There really is a history to be written here of what seems interesting or not, acceptable, or not. Social networks have probably not improved human rationality.


19. MD & TR. Authors such as Christopher Tindale and Michael Gilbert have suggested that, when approaching argumentation, it is necessary to pay attention to how points of agreement are negotiated between the discussants – and even to encourage their emergence, rather than focusing on dissensus. You, particularly in Dialogues de Sourds (Dialogues of the Deaf), focus primarily on this question of dissensus and cognitive breakdown.


MA. The central question in Dialogues de Sourds is that, even without going as far as Lévy-Bruhl’s primitives that we were talking about earlier, in the same society we sometimes get the impression that people who evolve in the same public sphere don’t reason in the same way, if at all. The thesis that I defend in this book is that there are fundamentally incompatible ways of reasoning - some utopian, for example, others based on resentment – which are sui generis ways of thinking, which have, I’m not saying a transcendent merit, but their internal coherence, in which lots of people are likely to get stuck.

Now, the situation envisaged by rhetoric, as mentioned earlier, is the legal situation. We are in the same courtroom, the lawyer initially has the same training as the prosecutor and they exchange legal arguments as jurists before a judge who understands them: there is a lot of common ground, a lot of points of agreement from the outset. More generally, the treatises on classical rhetoric usually assumed that we were dealing with people who were, as Perelman puts it, “enlightened by the lights of reason.” But there are plenty of people in society who give me the impression that they are not enlightened by the light of reason, or at least not by the same kind of light as I am. The moment we start talking about “dialogues of the deaf”, we reach the limit of what rhetoric can deal with. For there to be dialogue, I have to be able to understand the arguments of others; even the arguments of Putin’s supporters I may find detestable, but I can understand them, understand them in their detestability. But there are arguments in society that seem to me to go beyond what I can grasp, and beyond what rhetoric can illuminate. The American linguist Deborah Tannen (1992) noted that in most marital disputes between men and women in the United States, the women attack the men by accusing them of not understanding what they meant (“you just don’t understand”), while the men accuse them of having misinterpreted what they said (“That’s not what I meant”). It’s pretty depressing, but Tannen has seen very well that in society, “you just don’t understand” and “that’s not what I meant” are the most frequent exchanges; people don’t understand each other. The focus on agreement is only possible outside these cases of radical epistemological and cognitive breaks. In such cases, the rhetorical approach is still relevant, insofar as it makes it possible to identify the places in discourse where oppositions and even breaks between the logics in presence are played out; but it must accept to break all links with the question of persuasion, which loses its illuminating power in such cases.

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Angenot, Marc. 1977. Les champions des femmes. Examen du discours sur la supériorité des femmes 1400-1800 (Montréal : Les Presses de l’Univ. du Québec)

Angenot, Marc. 1979. Glossaire pratique de la critique contemporaine (Québec : Hurtubise HMH)

Angenot, Marc. 1982. La Parole pamphlétaire. Contribution à la typologie des discours modernes (Paris : Payot)

Angenot, Marc. 1986. Le cru et le faisandé. Sexe, discours social et littérature à la Belle Epoque (Bruxelles : Editions Labor)

Angenot, Marc. 1989. 1889, Un état du discours social (Montréal / Longueuil : Le Préambule)

Angenot, Marc. 1996. Les idéologies du ressentiment. Essai (Montréal : XYZ Éditeur)

Angenot, Marc. 2004. Rhétorique de l’anti-socialisme (Québec : Presses de l’Univ. Laval)

Angenot, Marc. 2006. Le marxisme dans les grands récits. Essai d’analyse du discours (Paris : L’Harmattan)

Angenot, Marc. 2008. « “Monstres en soutane” et autres figures du monstre moral en France avant 1914 », Larochelle, M.-H. (éd.) Monstres et monstrueux littéraires (Québec: Presses de l’Université Laval), 141-154

Angenot, Marc. 2008. Dialogues de sourds. Traité de rhétorique antilogique (Paris : Mille et une nuits)

Angenot, Marc. 2013. Rhétorique de la confiance et de l’autorité (Montréal : Discours social)

Angenot, Marc. 2014. L’histoire des idées. Problématiques, objets, concepts, méthodes, enjeux, débats (Liège : P. U. de Liège)

Angenot, Marc. 2015. Fascisme, totalitarisme, religion séculière : trois concepts pour le 20e siècle (Montréal : Discours social 3 : Totalitarisme, édition numérique)

Angenot, Marc. 2020. Robespierre et l’art du portrait (Montréal : Discours social, édition numérique)

Angenot, Marc. 2021. « Malaise dans l’esprit de moquerie et de satire : la passion de censure et ses progrès », Passard, C. & D. Ramond, De quoi se moque-t-on ? Satire et liberté d’expression (Paris : CNRS éditions)

Angenot, Marc. [In press] Zombis de cinéma. Appendice à Infortunes anthumes et infortunes posthumes, suivi de Revenants, vampires et enterrés vivants

Aristote. 2009. Topiques. 1: Livres I - IV (Texte établi et traduit par Jacques Brunschwig) (Paris : Les Belles Lettres)

Bourdieu, Pierre, Jean-Claude Chamboredon, Jean-Claude Passeron. 2021. Le métier de sociologue (Paris : EHESS)

Gabel, Joseph. 1962. La fausse conscience. Essai sur la réification (Paris : Minuit)

Gramsci, Antonio. 2021 [1948-1951]. Cahiers de prison, une anthologie (Texte établi par Jean-Yves Frétigné) (Paris : Gallimard)

Grize, Jean-Blaise. 1990. Logique et langage (Paris : Ophrys)

Grize, Jean-Blaise. 1996. Logique naturelle et communication (Paris : PUF)

Guilhaumou, Jacques. 1989. La Langue politique et la Révolution française (Paris : Méridiens/ Klincksieck)

Guilhaumou, Jacques. 2006. Discours et événement. L’histoire langagière des concepts (Besançon : P. U. de Franche-Comté)

Lévy-Bruhl, Lucien. 2010 [1922]. La mentalité primitive (Paris : Flammarion)

Perelman, Chaïm & Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca. 1969. The New Rhetoric. A Treatise on Argumentation (translated by John Wilkinson & Purcell Weaver) (Notre Dame/London: University of Notre Dame Press)

Robin, Régine. 1973. Histoire et linguistique (Paris : Colin)

Sternhell, Zeev. 2013 [1983]. Ni droite ni gauche. L’idéologie fasciste en France (Paris : Gallimard)

Taguieff, Pierre-André. 2005. La Foire aux illuminés : Esotérisme, théorie du complot, extrémisme (Paris : Mille et une nuits)

Taguieff, Pierre-André. 2008. La judéophobie des Modernes : Des Lumières au jihad mondial (Paris : Odile Jacob)

Taguieff, Pierre-André. (dir.). 2013. Dictionnaire historique et critique du racisme (Paris : PUF)

Tannen, Deborah. 1987. That’s not what I meant! How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships (New York: Ballantine)

Tannen, Deborah. 1990. You just don’t understand! Women and Men in Conversation (New York: Ballantine)

Toulmin, Stephen Edelston. 2008 [1958]. The Uses of Argument (Cambridge: Cambridge U. P.)

A complete list of Marc Angenot’s books and articles can be found at

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Marc Angenot, Marianne Doury et Théophile Robineau, « Marc Angenot: Rhetoric put to the test by the History of Ideas »Argumentation et Analyse du Discours [En ligne], 32 | 2024, mis en ligne le 15 avril 2024, consulté le 25 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Marc Angenot

McGill University (Canada)

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Marianne Doury

Paris Cité University (France)

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Théophile Robineau

Paris Cité University (France)

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