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Emmanuelle Danblon: Rhetorical exercises, or the art of rediscovering “the taste for truth”

Interview conducted by Roselyne Koren
Emmanuelle Danblon et Roselyne Koren
Cet article est une traduction de :
Emmanuelle Danblon : Les exercices de rhétorique ou l’art de retrouver « le goût du vrai » [fr]

Résumé

After having theorized an anthropological approach to the persuasive function and explored the issues at stake in the rationality regimes of practical reason, Emmanuelle Danblon has devoted the last ten years to a realistic, “artisanal” approach to rhetoric practiced in the context of rhetorical exercises. The aim of these exercises is to revive a lost “taste” for truth. Rather than taking fallacious arguments as their object, and giving primacy to descriptive theoretical deciphering of "alternative" truths and statements deemed irrational, Emmanuelle Danblon proposes that participants in these exercises first undergo a collective initiation to a typology of arguments, followed by role-playing in which they try to defend positions contrary to their own, or which seem paradoxical, difficult to imagine or irrational, against other participants defending the opposite points of view. The stakes are both cognitive and ethical: understanding the Other from the inside rather than judging him or her, making progress in self-knowledge and working in a craft mode to rediscover a taste for truth.

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Texte intégral

Emmanuelle Danblon is a Full Professor at the Free University of Brussels and Head of the Research Group on Rhetoric and linguistic Argumentation (GRAL), which she founded in 2006. She is a member of the Belgian Royal Academy, Humanities Section, and of various editorial boards of scientific journals, including Argumentation and Discourse Analysis. Following the publication of her research on the anthropological dimension of the “persuasive function” and its relationship to the notion of rationality in rhetoric, E. Danblon has been developing for the past ten years an original program of practical rhetorical exercises. This program is inspired by the Sophists’ method but has been reconfigured to adapt it to the complexity and needs of the contemporary world. It challenges rhetoric in that it gives primacy to its artisanal side. This epistemic choice is closely linked to the following conviction: instead of attempting to resist the multiple causes of misunderstanding that are tearing the contemporary world apart by analyzing the argumentative strategies implemented in discourses, one of the solutions would be, on the contrary, to “exercise disagreement” (Danblon and Ferry 2017). This exercise consists in creating role-playing games in which the One undertakes to reason in the manner of the Other, and vice versa. This would enable them to rediscover a lost “taste for truth” concretely and realistically. This is why public institutions have asked E. Danblon to introduce some of their members to these exercises, to help them grapple with dilemmas concerning the truth of discourses deemed fallacious and circulating in civil society.

Roselyne Koren, Professor Emerita at Bar-Ilan University, is a linguist specializing in Discourse Analysis, Argumentation and Rhetoric, author of Rhetoric and Ethics. About Value Judgments (2019). She is co-editor with Professor Ruth Amossy of Argumentation and Discourse Analysis, issue 25 (2020), entitled “Social discourses and Rationality Regimes to which Emmanuelle Danblon contributed.

 

1. Roselyne Koren: You are the author of many publications that have become classics, such as Rhétorique et rationalité. Essai sur l’émergence de la critique et de la persuasion (2002), La fonction persuasive. Anthropologie du discours rhétorique (2005) and L’Homme rhétorique (2013). Your current work with your research group revisits and implements the rhetorical exercises of ancient Greece, and today, contrary to all expectations, enables this discipline to get off the beaten track. Can you tell us a little about these rhetorical exercises, their origins, and the reasons behind your decision to reinstate them?

 

Emmanuelle Danblon: First, I would say there is an amusing paradox in presenting a thousand-year-old tradition as research that is off the beaten track. But of course, I understand this expression. It reflects the fact that rhetorical research today is overall rather marginal compared to what is being done in argumentation theory and Discourse Analysis. If we look at this situation with a bit of perspective, we must admit that it is the result of a distrust of rhetoric that has never abated since its birth in Antiquity.

To put it simply, behind this distrust lies the researchers’ and theorists’ conception of rationality. By this I mean that we thought rationality was all contained in logos: the discourse itself and the reasoning behind it, and that public discourse had to be rid as far as possible of emotional outbursts and figures of speech that were reputed to obscure the discourse or even expose audiences to the risk of manipulation. This vision, first championed by Plato, can be described as idealistic or normative: behind this ideal of rationality there was an educational intention that was laudable.

Alongside this conception of rationality, an option that can be described as realistic is developing. This is the one I advocate, like Chaïm Perelman (1912-1984) in the mid-20th century, who argued that we should return to the model defended by Aristotle. It is this current, of which I am the heir, that is known today as the “Brussels School.”. From this perspective, we need to describe the strategies adopted by any individual who uses public speech to influence audiences, by analyzing the argumentative dimension, of course, but also the emotions (pathos) and the image he constructs of himself (ethos).

When I say “influence,” I am thinking of the original sense of “persuade.” We could also say “to have an effect” or to obtain adhesion. We can adhere to opinions, to a decision or to a model that embodies values. Of course, this matrix model needs to be constantly adapted to contemporary realities, be they political, ideological, or technological. I set up the GRAL (Research Group in Rhetoric and Linguistic Argumentation) in 2006 with a young, dynamic team, and we initially explored interdisciplinary themes ranging from the importance of narrative in persuasive discourse to conspiracy theories. Since 2013, our research has taken a new turn. It became clear to us that the rhetorical model was more of a technical discipline (an art, as the Ancients said), i.e. fundamentally a craft.

It may seem surprising to value the epistemology of a craft rather than a science in the world of research. In the turn of thought from which rhetoric is heir, the craft model is beginning to be devalued in favor of that of theoretical knowledge, guaranteed by science and philosophy. Knowledge is valued over know-how. This is where the notion of exercise is crucial: exercises aim to develop know-how, practice, rather than bookish knowledge. Know-how is a technique that develops skills rather than theoretical knowledge. This vision thus presupposes that rationality is not entirely contained in theoretical knowledge, but that citizenship skills must also be developed through know-how, a set of tools that can be mastered. This mastery can then lead to dispositions, or what the Ancients called virtues. In this case: the ability to listen, empathy, a sense of nuance and critical thinking.

 

2. RK. Could you define the specificity of the application of this regime of practical and realistic rationality to the field of rhetorical exercises?

 

ED. Let’s specify once again that, in an idealist vision such as Plato’s, craft (technè) is the poor cousin of science, because it leads not to truth but to verisimilitude. This conception of verisimilitude can be understood as truth on the cheap. But in the epistemology of craftsmanship, we assume that this verisimilitude is a projection of what happens “most often,” with the humility to renounce certainty. Assuming this limit is a realistic option: it admits that we are fallible, not because we are irrational, but because the world is open and complex. This reality is very clear in the art of medicine. It should be just as familiar to us in rhetoric. We can never be sure to achieve our goal: for the doctor, healing; for the orator, persuasion.

We can therefore propose both a broadening and a softening of the notion of rationality. Indeed, the notion needs to be broadened and made more flexible to accommodate resources specific to humanity, such as emotional intelligence, the capacity for intuition, moral courage, lucidity, adaptability and so on. Many of the characteristics of these resources can be found in the ancient notion of phronesis, that practical wisdom which contains both intellectual and moral qualities. Chaïm Perelman’s notion of the “reasonable” is based on phronesis. An important part of his argument underlines the idea that logico-argumentative rationality alone is too poor to cope with the complexity of human affairs. This is the criticism he levelled directly at the Cartesian tradition (Perelman 1983: 1-5).

In this way, we have rediscovered a partly buried “treasure.”, or at least one that is largely unknown to the research community, in the set of rhetorical exercises invented and developed by the Sophists (Kennedy 2003, Patillon 2008, Webb 2009).

 

3. RK. How, then, do these exercises revisit, modify and complicate the status of the notions of persuasion and manipulation in the field of argumentation?

 

ED. Rather than protecting citizens against the risks of manipulation, we need to equip them with the widest possible range of tools to defend their points of view: that’s what rhetorical exercises are all about.

In short, where democracy is at risk, rhetoric must not be curbed; it must be unleashed to its full potential and taught to as many people as possible. Indeed, we often see manipulation as the result of intentional deception achieved through strategies of truth obfuscation. By no means do I deny that there are many manipulative strategies. But to focus on anything that might mask, veil, or obscure the truth is too reductive a view. More precisely, the idealist conception of rationality, necessarily reductive, most often confuses it with the criterion of (logical) validity. Fallacy analysis training makes such a methodological choice. Errors in reasoning are thought to be the source of a flaw in rationality.

The realist conception seeks, on the contrary, to broaden the criteria of rationality by encompassing what Perelman (1979) has called the “reasonable.” To put it simply, some perfectly valid and logically well-constructed reasoning can lead to ethical, political, or legal aberrations. Perelman had in mind legal situations in which the formal application of positive law leads to decisions that shock “the conscience of humanity.” Think, for example, of the Nazi crimes which were not punishable by any law, but which, for the conscience of the time, could not go unpunished. However the criteria of reasonableness are sometimes difficult to define because they can depend on context and situation. Our Cartesian education doesn’t like this idea. It deems these practices relativistic in the fullest sense of the term. Yet it is in this space that rhetorical practice can help citizens to take hold of their own space of freedom and responsibility.

  • 1 See Danblon 2017: 43-44 on Perelman’s vague notions and the notion of obscurity.

To put it another way: being able to embody a debate in a concrete situation does not mean relativizing it or abandoning any ideal of rationality. The discussion around “vague notions” and the rhetorical technique of dissociation can shed light, for example, on this tension between the rational and the reasonable. Perelman, following in the footsteps of his teacher Eugène Dupréel, has developed a theory of vague notions1. He sees this vagueness not as an error to be corrected, a condition requiring clarification, but as a situation that testifies to the nature of natural language. Our notions, especially abstract ones, are always vague. No stable definition can capture the essence of “things.” The work of argumentation then consists of explicitly dissociating notions. To argue, to criticize, is to propose openly to keep one aspect of the notion and to disqualify another. If we follow this logic, we understand that the vagueness, but also the obscurity of notions is an invitation to interpret them according to the real, concrete contexts with which speakers are confronted. Obscurity is not a source of manipulation. It requires interpretation, like any enigma that offers itself to our sagacity.

  • 2 See Chiron and Sans 2020. “The progymnasmata (preparatory exercises in rhetoric) are a set of eleme (...)

Behind this option, which may seem surprising, lies a psychological reality that we feel strongly about: the more you are trained in rhetoric, the more confidence you develop as a citizen. Conversely, the more we distrust it, the more passive and anxious we become about the risk of manipulation. Thus, the fear of being deceived or manipulated often leads us to develop a defensive and protective attitude in the face of diversity of opinion. Rhetoric exercises, on the other hand, expose us to exploring other people’s opinions and strategies. In this sense, they make us more active than passive in the face of disagreement: they toughen us up. What is more, the model of rhetorical exercises inherited from the Sophists (the progymnasmata)2 constitutes a set of tools that are learned progressively, over an incompressible period, and in which the collective dimension is central.

 

4. RK. Could you briefly describe this set of tools? Where does it stand in relation to current research methods in language studies?

 

ED. These so-called “preparatory” exercises (in Greek, progymnasmata) are taught progressively, from the simplest to the most complex. First, for example, we learn to tell a short story: a fable, a tale. In this exercise, we immediately understand that a point of view must be portrayed; that the point of view is necessarily embodied by a witness; that the question of the witness’s reliability therefore arises. And, ultimately, this reliability is directly linked to the question of verisimilitude.

Of course, we also had to adapt ancient subjects to contemporary realities. For example, the subjects of the debates were adapted to the reality and the ages of those for whom the exercises were intended. For example, when we worked with 12-year-olds, we took their school rules and imagined dilemma situations they might experience themselves (fire alarm, threat of intrusion into the school). For subjects of praise or blame, we had to capture their imagination, referring to the fiction they know or people they follow on social networks. These adaptations required us to reflect on the permanence or relativity of major ethical, political, or psychological commonplaces from one society to another. This is particularly true of what seems plausible or implausible to us. A character who embodies courage today does not necessarily have the same character traits as in antiquity. But in all cases, the challenge is to stimulate the imagination by seeking out situations that seem implausible. And this effort of imagination will be rewarded by a renewed, more nuanced, less essentializing view – in a word, a less dogmatic one.

Let’s get it even more concrete: members of my team gave a training course to a public of policemen who are sometimes suspected of harboring certain discriminatory prejudices. A tailor-made exercise enabled participants to use their imagination to explore behaviors of empathy and solidarity that they do not spontaneously adopt in their routine work. The obvious pleasure they took in grasping the technical tools required by the exercise led them to broaden their horizons, not through an abstract moral lesson or the mechanical application of categorical imperatives, but through the playful exploration of situations embodied by their own imagination and ultimately carried by their voices in a full speech. They will thus have embodied the ideal model of a policeman and will have taken pleasure and pride in the exercise.

 

5. RK. What is special about the collective dimension of these exercises? What different and particularly enriching powers do they hold in your eyes?

 

ED. In the training courses we give, people are placed in groups and always start with a phase of collective research into possible arguments and strategies for a specific instruction. In this way, we have developed “tailor-made” scripts to meet specific demands, for example on conspiracy theories, artificial intelligence and robotics, or medical decision-making in times of crisis. This is how I work with the researchers on my team. The collective dimension, the importance of cooperation, as in any craftsman’s workshop, is central.

This way of proceeding, I believe, enables us to see research as a collective project that avoids many of the pitfalls of current research in our disciplines, particularly the obsession with originality, the risk of inflation in the creation of new concepts, but also the fear of imposture. Indeed, the world of research is often confronted with the delicate question of paternity (maternity?) of ideas. We fear sharing them, we fear imposture, and we fear constantly repeating what others have said before us. The practice of collective and interactive research into arguments and the development of new exercises teaches us both a certain humility (many things have already been said and thought) and creativity (a new idea can germinate from the implementation of a collective project).

Of course, we all have our own project, our own research topic, but we also feel entitled to draw on the vast matrix of tools that the discipline places at our disposal. From this point of view, we are going back to the culture of craftsmanship in which rhetoric was born, and whose methodology is essentially collective. The work of Richard Sennett (2012) is very inspiring in this respect. Read, for example, his essay Together. The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation.

 

6. RK. What, then, is the difference between this approach, which grants verbal interactions such a fundamental cognitive function, and informal logic, which is essentially devoted to analyzing the transformation of a valid argument into a fallacious one?

 

ED. As already mentioned, there are important differences between rhetorical exercises and more conventional critical thinking training. The latter teaches participants a set of cognitive biases or, in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, a set of fallacies, i.e. lists of arguments or cognitive behaviors that are deemed to deceive us or lead us into errors of reasoning. Again, I’m not denying the existence of misleading arguments or forms of thinking. But the downside of this mostly defensive approach is that it can lead to a systematic fear of being wrong or being misled. This can lead to a chronic distrust of our intuitions, and emotionally charged situations in general. Our method, which seeks to explore the means of persuasion by finding arguments rather than “deconstructing” them in others, enables us to focus on the technical quality of arguments rather than on their supposed absolute validity. The realist method of rhetorical exercises does not postulate that rhetorical strategies are good or bad in themselves. They may or may not be effective. And as such, they can be used in the service of the best or the worst political intentions. I insist once again. The realist point of view is uncomfortable for our minds in need of guidance. But it is the price we must pay to guarantee the functioning of any democracy.

 

7. RK. In your work on exercises, you frequently evoke the links that exist between the notions of truth and verisimilitude, without giving primacy to that of truth, and, often, you evoke above all the search for a “lost” taste for truth. Could you comment on this extract from paragraph 32 of your article in AAD25 on alternative rationality regimes: “putting verisimilitude at the service of truth”? What is the status of verisimilitude in rhetorical exercises? How does it differ from the way it is invoked in classical rhetoric?

 

ED. This is an essential point that has only emerged relatively recently within our team. The realist model I defend recognizes that truth can only be accepted insofar as it doesn’t shock our worldview too much. This is the notion of reasonableness. It is this tension between factual truth and our idea of it that defines the contours of verisimilitude. it is hard to accept, but many debates fail, not because of an intellectual deficiency in access to the truth, but because of a psychological difficulty in admitting to a reality that hurts us.

In other words, our need for verisimilitude takes precedence over our ability to access the truth. Here again, we need to accept a serious change of perspective. We need to put verisimilitude at the service of truth, to prevent it from taking over our representations in a savage fashion. In concrete terms, this means getting to grips with the mechanisms by which we construct our collective imagination, which testifies to our need for verisimilitude, understanding the emotions and values embodied in the narratives we construct, and then observing how reality offends these narratives.

Here, we can understand the great functions of the epideictic genre, which have not been properly understood by Modernity. These discourses take charge of our collective need to make sense of events that leave us bereft, fearful, or inconsolable. This meaning is not the truth, nor does it claim to be. We “invent” a tale of consolation in facing bereavement, a guarantee of victory in the face of an ordeal that impresses us, a restored trust after a serious conflict. And these discourses, if not true, project a horizon towards which we can strive. The apocalyptic atmosphere in which we live today needs these epideictic functions more than ever. In this sense, the many resources of the epideictic offer a multitude of possibilities in the face of uncertainty and chaos.

But this dialogue with AAD 25 allows me to go one step further. If we accept that the resources of verisimilitude and fiction in general can be put at the service of truth, we can also see in them an opportunity to reconnect with an essentially human need to order the world, to give it meaning, to interpret events as responding to a project beyond ourselves.

The disciplines that have been built on the canons of modern science have all sought to rid themselves of the potentially dangerous temptation to inject meaning where none exists. The best example is Darwinism, which presents us with a highly unintuitive theory of evolution. According to the evolutionary paradigm, the evolution of species is partly the result of a series of coincidences. Scientific though it is, it has also contributed to what we now call the disenchantment of the world. In this respect, 19th-century science contributed to this disenchantment. It was the price we had to pay to establish the scientific method. Creationist theories, while not scientific, flatter our need for meaning. Yet the scientific method, indispensable though it is, has left us orphaned from our need for meaning. This is how we came to work with biology teachers. The aim was to explore creationist arguments by placing them opposite the theory of evolution, not to put them in competition but to highlight what can be seductive about creationism, including its ethos and pathos. Of course, these are never miracle solutions. But our experience is that participants acquire a more reflexive view of the reasons for their adherence to a particular worldview.

 

  • 3 See, among others, on the cognitive function of poetry, the status of fiction, poetic narrative, an (...)

8. RK. Is it, moreover, because it plays a significant role in “our need for meaning” that you associate the notions of verisimilitude and poetry3 in the analyses where you justify the practice of rhetorical exercises?

 

ED. Poetry can be seen as having several language functions that “play” at re-establishing a fictional link between language and the world. All these functions have been relegated to the realm of pure aesthetics. But what epideictic rhetoric teaches us is that they contribute to a re-enchantment of the world that is more mature, more aware of the role of fiction, more trained not to confuse our common narratives and language games with truth. This is an essential function of rationality, which we have largely lost. Just for fun, let us quote Victor Hugo’s lovely poetic formula: “Nothing resembles chance more than what we call a cloud. Well, clouds are exact.” The poetic formula surprises us because it plays with our conception of chance. If it makes no sense scientifically, it has the great merit of reconciling us with our irrepressible tendency to see shapes in clouds, what we call pareidolia. Many social scientists will teach us to be wary of this tendency, which, if taken literally, is nothing but superstition. But Hugo isn’t trying to deceive us. He’s trying to reconcile us with this habit that comes to us from childhood, and which contributes, in its own way, to re-enchanting the world.

From the outset of their Treatise on Argumentation, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca distance themselves from Cartesian thought, which they deem ill-suited to take up the challenge faced by all advanced democracies to regulate public speech and language-games with truth. We have already spoken of the need to broaden our conception of rationality. Rhetoric can help. Cartesian subject is a thinking subject. It is neither speaking nor dialogical. This is a well-established fact. A certain structuralism has similarly tried to rid our descriptions of human phenomena of any presence of the subject, in the hope of objectifying them and thus rationalizing them. Here again, I subscribe to the idea that the subject must be at the center of our theories, but whereas Descartes sought to isolate it abstractly from any context, the rhetorical subject is an embodied subject, staged in concrete situations that bring out affects, personal and collective issues and imaginary worlds.

We’ve reached the height of a paradox: a certain humanism has led us to try to rid our theories of their truly human dimension, in the hope of rationalizing them. Instead, we need to embody our disagreements, conflicts, and reconciliations in discourses and rhetorical exercises that not only show us what we hope for and what we fear but also enable us to contribute to the re-enchantment of the world mentioned above.

 

9. RK. In your recent YouTube interview4, you talk about your decision to carry out “archaeological” research into lost dimensions of truth-making. In it, you emphasize - a thousand miles away from the conception of truth specific to Cartesian rationalism - that in the field of rhetoric and, consequently, rhetorical exercises, defining the human relationship to truth involves problematizing and implementing the functions of poetry mentioned above, of authenticity, sincerity, courage, and dialogue. Can you elaborate on this position, which runs counter to conventional wisdom on the methods that guarantee human thought access to truth? How do these functions help to revitalize the “taste for truth”?

 

ED. The idea is quite simple. If we have lost our taste for truth, it is not because we can’t access it, but because its very value has been disqualified. This devaluation began at the heart of Modernity with a positivist vision of truth. It was limited to the logical value of the binary opposition to falsehood. This conception was then criticized by postmodern currents, which advocated a relativization of the notion of truth, to the point of diluting it completely. This has recently led to the phenomenon of post-truth. In this new form of devaluation of truth, the very idea that truth could have any value is publicly denied.

In this somewhat provocative interview, I propose that, to restore a taste for truth, we should return to the very ancient functions of truth, which include, for example, poetry. Here we find the importance of verisimilitude. Poetry is a powerful tool for constructing verisimilitude. It produces important psychological effects, such as consolation, confidence in oneself, in others, and, ultimately, in the construction of a shared world. As for courage, authenticity, and dialogue, these are all resources that enable us to embody our idea of truth in discursive productions, such as rhetorical exercises, that make us more actors in the crises that surround us rather than helpless and powerless.

Let’s focus on authenticity, for example. This quality may refer first and foremost to the ancient parrhesia revived by Michel Foucault. What he called “the courage of truth.”. Personally, I see in authenticity a more intimate form of courage, which consists of expressing a position or point of view, assuming its personal, individual, and possibly subjective character, in relation to stereotyped positions.

The study of stereotypes goes back to the ancient notion of the commonplace. As these studies have clearly shown, there is no question of disqualifying common discourse, the doxa, as such. We cannot live without the commonplace. But certain rhetorical exercises, such as the paradoxical eulogy, do help to develop a personal position based on a reflexive look at what is rarely questioned in the commonplace.

One of the exercises that illustrates paradoxical praise is to take up an extremely banal subject. This is known as adoxal praise. For example, rain, flies, etc. The challenge is to turn this banal subject into a subject of praise. More difficult: turning into its opposite a subject that deserves blame, for example, fat or sugar, which everyone condemns today.

This apprenticeship enables us to develop an awareness of the particular form of truth that is authenticity. Of course, there is no magic formula for acquiring these tools. They require patience and perseverance, and in no way guarantee automatic access to truth. But the experience of using these tools can lead to greater lucidity through a better understanding of the mechanisms by which persuasion is constructed.

 

  • 5 See also Danblon 2017: 25, 41 and 2023: 226-227, 235. Rather than taking fallacies as their object, (...)
  • 6 For more on this notion, see Ferry & Sans in the same issue: “Introduction: educating the rhetorica (...)

10. RK. Above, you included the notion of dialogue in the list of components of the exercises’ relationship to the quest for truth; you attribute heuristic virtues to it. You and your team members are trying to reconnect with a lost function of debate: the intermediate cognitive stage of trying to understand the Other’s point of view5. Do you believe that dialogue between the deaf is not an insurmountable impasse? Is this what Victor Ferry (2015) calls “exercising empathy”6? Are the exercises a method of de-dichotomizing controversies between discourses for and against? Are they a technique for disfiguring aporias, helping to diminish their negative power, and attempting to “restore communication” (Ferry § 2), seen as one of the conditions of possibility for a rediscovery of a taste for truth?

 

ED. I’m a resisting optimist. I think we simply have no choice. The interest in developing the exploration of different points of view allows us to discover an unexpected pleasure: that of changing our minds in the face of an argument that we value.

This conception of dialogue can be contrasted with Plato’s famous dialogues, which feature Socrates on a mission to bring out the truth of a point of view by getting his interlocutor to admit that he is wrong or makes errors in his reasoning. In this conception of dialogue, even if it appears respectful, there is the idea that one point of view (Socrates’) will inevitably prevail over that of the interlocutor.

In the conception of dialogue that we advocate, the activity of listening comes first. Learning, through rhetorical exercises, to grasp the other’s point of view, enables us to explore its qualities, contours, and limits, by illuminating and nuancing our own point of view, which in no way means relativizing or watering it down. We believe that this quality, acquired through the exercises, helps prevent one of the greatest dangers to democracy: polarization, radicalization, and enclosure in a cognitive bubble that becomes impervious to the opinions of others and borders on the cognitive dogmatism that is unfortunately in the majority on social networks.

Here again, the pleasure of listening is linked to the culture of craftsmanship, whose model is above all one of cooperation and not of struggle. I’m not saying that anyone trained in rhetoric will give up being right - quite the contrary. But we can hope that the pleasure of cooperation will nevertheless emerge in some people and become stabilized in a better disposition to citizenship.

 

11. RK. Is your conception of dialogue a cognitive variant of the self-surpassing of the subject of ethics and the learning of what you call in a previous interview (Mots 2017) “la hauteur de vue” (an overhanging position), the aptitude for self-criticism, or again in Danblon & Ferry (2017): “self-control in disagreement”?

 

ED. Yes, that’s what it is all about. In line with Perelman’s insistence on the status of disagreement in democracy, we insist that disagreement is neither a misfortune nor an error, but a given of democracy, just as diversity is in the logic of the living, and disagreement is precisely evidence of a healthy democracy. But we must admit it, put up with it, and seize it to try and make decisions that will be accepted by the majority.

Indeed, the practice of disagreement enables us to gain a higher perspective, once again by making our point of view more nuanced rather than by relativizing our point of view. I think this distinction is important. As in Plato’s dialogues, we too often see attachment to a single point of view as a guarantee of courage and firmness. But a point of view that has been honed by exploring other points of view is neither hesitant nor fragile. On the contrary, it has the maturity that comes from honest exploration of what might be reasonable from a point of view that is opposed to one’s own. Finally, behind this practice of disagreement, there is also the heritage of Perelman’s theorization of the dissociation of notions. A point of view is never good or useful in itself. It must always be revisited in the light of the new and often unprecedented circumstances with which every society is sooner or later confronted.

  • 7 For another medical topic, liver transplantation, see a case study devised by a number of GRAL memb (...)

We were able to put this to the test when it came to the urgent political and health decisions7 to be taken at the time of the 2020 health crisis. The largely unprecedented nature of the decisions that had to be taken in a hurry confronted the political world with a lack of models to refer to when making decisions. Getting citizens used to exploring their disagreements could help them to better control the debate in times of crisis, without the multitude of potential decisions leading to panic.

 

12. RK. So, what happens to the actors’ affects and beliefs? Can rhetorical exercises help to control them?

 

ED. Of course, the rhetorical model, and a fortiori the technical exercises, enable us to get used to dealing with the wide range of human emotions (pathos) and the multitude of functions and identities (ethos) of those involved in public debate. Rather than “dominate,” I would say “master” or “tame.” it is more a question of getting to know better how these two “proofs” of rhetoric can be embodied, by putting them on stage through appropriate exercises. What worries us is what we don’t know. If we seek to eliminate these aspects of our humanity, they take hold of us, leaving us helpless. This is obviously the case with everything related to the epideictic genre, which touches on the most emotional aspect of public discourse. Everyone knows the feeling of having “yielded” to a powerful persuasive emotion, without having understood any of its mechanisms. Learning to explore this range of emotions enables us to better understand what happens to us when the emotional wave of persuasion takes hold of us.

So, typically, after an attack or natural disaster, we see gatherings of a very broad political spectrum, representatives of parties or currents that are often polemical. These moments of concord enable us to go back to values that we want to feel as non-negotiable, and indisputable. But once this moment of concord has passed, we often have the impression of having been betrayed, deceived, and of having lived through a moment of collective emotion with unacceptable individuals. The practice of epideictic functions accustoms us to admit our need for concord, even if disagreements may remain very deep. There is no contradiction here.

 

  • 8 Emmanuelle Danblon is currently working on a new and different meaning of the notion of rhetorical (...)

13. RK. Your colleagues and you insist on the fundamental importance of the link between notions of rhetoric and the human gaze8 on extralinguistic or linguistic referential realities. This leads you, among others, in “Can moral luck be taught? A rhetorical tool and its political function” (2018) to the creation of an exercise designed to increase the rhetorical flexibility of points of view in the case of the biblical story of David and Bat-Sheva. You state that what makes this case extremely complex, and edifying, is the fact that the rhetorical exercise to which this story gives rise can, in your eyes, lead those who would like to practice it to engage in the exploration of three radically different points of view. At the end of our interview, could you take up the analysis of this exercise as a final illustration?

 

ED. I chose to illustrate the challenge of rhetorical exercises by taking up the biblical story of King David and Bat-Sheva. Firstly, because it is a story that can embody many conflictual and emotional situations, but also because it presents a challenge for rhetorical exercises. This challenge can be compared to the paradoxical praise of Helen that the Sophist Gorgias seized upon. In both cases, the rhetorical art is put to work in a situation that is a priori impossible to assume: either to praise Helen of Troy, who in the eyes of the ancient world deserves only blame or, in the case in point, to give a satisfactory explanation for the crimes committed by King David, reputed to be a model of wisdom and virtue.

Here’s the story: King David falls in love with Bat-Sheva, the wife of a general in his army. Not content with impregnating her, he tries to conceal his crime by sending the husband to the front to have him killed, so that he can then marry Bat-Sheva. He is thus guilty of adultery, murder, treason, and lying. It should also be noted that the question of Bat-Sheva’s consent is not even mentioned!

Rather than get bogged down in endless arguments to show why David isn’t as guilty as he seems (which is what secular tradition has tried to do), I propose to take up this story insofar as it is implausible, insofar as it offends our view of the world, and particularly our idea of King David’s personality. It therefore presents a major challenge to one of our greatest psychological demands: to make the story plausible so that the world seems right. This means deploying the full range of exercises to capture the point of view of each protagonist, exploring their emotions, doubts, hopes, and regrets. This doesn’t solve the theological aporia, but along the way, we will have given this theoretical challenge unprecedented humanity by projecting our own emotions and identities onto the characters involved.

We will have explored many points of view and gained a bit of height in the process. The idea of exploring different points of view is at the root of the rhetorical exercises, as we have seen. But we now know from neurology that there are (at least) three fundamental points of view in the individual. The first is the egocentric point of view: I see things from my own point of view. Very young children have no other. Then comes the heterocentric point of view: I’m able to imagine someone else’s point of view, without confusing myself with the other person. This point of view is necessary to build empathy and the whole range of emotions and ethical attitudes that go with it, starting with tolerance. Finally, there is an allocentric point of view: this is a more collective, overhanging point of view, one that judges based on the values of a given society or community. If this point of view is never questioned, it can lead to dogmatism and radicalism: only tradition is right, and any other point of view must be seen as threatening.

  • 9 On these three angles of attack, see Danblon 2017: 57, 59.

In the story of David and Bat-Sheva, we can easily play with these three points of view. David’s is egocentric, Bat-Sheva’s is heterocentric, and the prophet Nathan’s, who comes to blame David, is allocentric9. In the story, he is obviously the spokesman for the divine gaze, which is the prototype of the omniscient gaze familiar to narrators. My idea was to devise a series of rhetorical exercises to serve this story, playing with the three points of view embodied by the different characters in the story.

 

14. RK. Does GRAL’s approach to the exercises have any limits? Is it possible for any speaker whatsoever to be able to simulate, for example, the ideological argumentation of those who are intolerant or even ready to kill for their ideas, or who incite racist or religious hatred and lethal violence? Wouldn’t this be contributing to their legitimization, to the naturalization of their discourse? Is the rhetorician’s “lucidity” (2017: 111) still possible?

 

ED. That’s a serious and beautiful question. Of course, the point of view defended by GRAL has its limits, and its limits are those shared by all crafts. They offer a set of tools that you have to learn to choose and master according to the context. The limit lies in the fact that these are not “ready-made” recipes. it is a bit like comparing high fashion and ready-to-wear. If you go the made-to-measure route, you can be sure that the garment will fit you perfectly, that it will be tailored to your exact measurements. If we “settle” for ready-to-wear, we also accept that the standard fit will have small or even major flaws once worn.

But beyond this dressmaking metaphor, two other limitations expressed by critics need to be taken seriously. The first concerns the essentially qualitative nature of the exercises. It is therefore difficult to set up quantitative protocols that would enable us to objectify the effects produced by the exercises. This is a fascinating epistemological question, which requires the discipline to dialogue with psychology and neurology to build a reliable method for establishing evaluation criteria without rhetoric losing its soul and becoming diluted in an epistemology that is not its own.

The second criticism is more moral: how do we know that technology isn’t simply harmful? Aren’t we giving the individuals we are training the tools they need to manipulate even more and endanger democracy in the process? Clearly, this is a gamble. Training in rhetoric doesn’t necessarily make people better, just more aware of what they’re doing when they use persuasive techniques. This question touches on the field of technology in general. No technology is by itself a guarantee of virtue. In this sense, it is “neutral”: it is amoral. It is the individuals who implement it who will make more or less moral or immoral use of it.

This neutrality of technology, however difficult it may seem to admit, goes hand in hand with the realism that was very much present in Aristotle’s thinking, and which, in this respect, set him apart from his master Plato. But exploring the limits of the exercises is a subject of research. For example, in a paradoxical eulogy (eulogizing a particularly unpleasant personality), we may find it difficult to carry out the exercise, either because our sensibility doesn’t allow for it, or because the search for arguments proves to be particularly tedious. In this case, it is the clearest understanding of the reason for these limitations that can bring something concrete to the table. I believe that the courageous and lucid exploration of these limits can teach the world of education a great deal.

What is still the common world today? This raises fascinating questions about the evolution of mentalities, about the more or less stable nature of what Perelman called the universal audience. For him, humanism is a stable horizon. For us, whether we like it or not, it no longer is. Embodying these theoretical questions in viewpoints staged by concrete stories tells us a great deal about the state of our civilizations.

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Bibliographie

Chiron, Pierre & Benoit Sans (éds). 2020. Les Progymnasmata en pratique, de l’Antiquité à nos jours (Paris : Rue d’Ulm)

Danblon, Emmanuelle. 2002. Rhétorique et rationalité Essai sur l’émergence de la critique et de la persuasion (Bruxelles : Éditions de l’Université de Bruxelles)

Danblon, Emmanuelle. 2005. La fonction persuasive. Anthropologie du discours rhétorique : origines et actualité (Paris : Colin)

Danblon, Emmanuelle. 2013. L’Homme rhétorique Culture, raison, action (Paris : Cerf)

Danblon, Emmanuelle & Ingrid Mayeur. 2015. « La Déclaration préliminaire des Droits de l’Homme numérique : un exercice pratique de l’utopie rhétorique ? », Exercices de rhétorique 5 [En ligne] https://doi.org/10.4000/rhetorique.408

Danblon, Emmanuelle. 2017. Mandorla de Paul Celan. Ou l’épreuve de la prophétie (Lormont : Le bord de l’eau)

Danblon, Emmanuelle & Victor Ferry. 2017. « Avant que le peuple ne se déchire : l’exercice rhétorique du désaccord », Goin, Émilie & François Provenzano (éds). Usages du peuple, Savoirs, discours, politiques (Liège : PULg)

Danblon, Emmanuelle. 2018. « Can moral luck be taught? A rhetorical tool and its political function », Paradigmi 3, 519-530 [En ligne] DOI : 10.30460/91905

Danblon, Emmanuelle, Lucie Donckier de Donceel, Benoît Sans & Benjamin Sevestre-Giraud. 2021. « Enseigner la rhétorique à l’École de Bruxelles », Recherches & Travaux 99 [En ligne] https://doi.org/10.4000/recherchestravaux.4460

Danblon, Emmanuelle. 2021. Entretien réalisé par Valérie Bonnet, « L’idée d’une réactualisation de la rhétorique est directement liée au rapport qu’une société entretient avec les questions politiques et épistémologiques », Mots 125, 111-128

Danblon, Emmanuelle. 2023. « Des signes qui ne trompent pas : retour sur la fonction interprétative en rhétorique », Charpin, Dominique & Xavier Leroy (éds), Déchiffrement(s) : des hiéroglyphes à l’ADN (Paris : Collège de France), 225-241

Ferry, Victor & Benoît Sans. 2015. « Introduction : éduquer le regard rhétorique », Exercices de rhétorique 5, Dossier L’exercice rhétorique de la citoyenneté [En ligne] https://doi.org/10.4000/rhetorique.402

Ferry, Victor. 2015. « Exercer l’empathie : étude de cas et perspectives didactiques », Exercices de rhétorique 5 [En ligne] https://doi.org/10.4000/rhetorique.411

Kennedy, George. 2003. Progymnasmata. Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric. Transl. with Introd. and Notes (Atlanta : Society of Biblical Literature).

Patillon, Michel. 2008. Corpus Rhetoricum, t. 1 : Préambule à la rhétorique. Aphthonios, Progymnasmata. Pseudo-Hermogène, Progymnasmata. Texte établi et traduit par Michel Patillon (Paris : CUF)

Perelman, Chaïm & Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca. 1983 [1958]). Traité de l’argumentation La nouvelle rhétorique (Bruxelles : Editions de l’Université de Bruxelles)

Perelman, Chaïm. 1979. « The Rational and the Reasonable », The New Rhetoric and the Humanities. Essays on Rhetoric and its Applications (Dordrecht : Reidel),117-123

Sans, Benoît. 2015. « Exercer l’invention ou (ré)inventer la controverse », Exercices de rhétorique 5 [En ligne] https://doi.org/10.4000/rhetorique.404

Sennett, Richard. 2012. Together.The rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation (Yale: university Press). First translated in French [2014]. 2023. Édition au format de poche (Paris : Albin Michel)

Webb, Ruth. 2009. Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Practice (Abingdon : Routledge)

For a bibliography of Emmanuelle Danblon’s works:

https://difusion.ulb.ac.be/vufind/Search/Home?lookfor=emmanuelle+danblon&sort=pubdate+desc&submitButton=Recherche&type=general&filter[]=authorStr:%22Danblon,%20Emmanuelle%22

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Notes

1 See Danblon 2017: 43-44 on Perelman’s vague notions and the notion of obscurity.

2 See Chiron and Sans 2020. “The progymnasmata (preparatory exercises in rhetoric) are a set of elementary and complementary discursive productions: in the most widespread list (that of Aphthonios), there are twelve of them: the fable, the narrative, the chreia, the maxim, the contestation (and confirmation), the commonplace, the praise (and blame), the parallel, the ethopoeia, the description, the thesis and the proposition of law. Organized in progressive series, supplemented by accompanying exercises (reading, auditioning, paraphrasing...), their methodical learning, both oral and written, enabled teenagers to perfect their linguistic skills and develop the expressive and argumentative aptitudes necessary for their cultural, social and political lives.” (My transl.)

3 See, among others, on the cognitive function of poetry, the status of fiction, poetic narrative, and their relationship to the notion of verisimilitude, Danblon 2017: 10, 20.

4 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b3_DMSi5bqw

5 See also Danblon 2017: 25, 41 and 2023: 226-227, 235. Rather than taking fallacies as their object, rhetorical exercises allow us to try to satisfy the need to understand the obscurity of reality and to develop our “sagacity” in the field of interpretation. Practicing dialogue means “learning to remain human” and seeking to satisfy the desire to understand.

6 For more on this notion, see Ferry & Sans in the same issue: “Introduction: educating the rhetorical eye”, §18.

7 For another medical topic, liver transplantation, see a case study devised by a number of GRAL members (Danblon, Donckier de Donceel, Sans and Sevestre-Giraud 2021). This is a fictitious deliberative situation that allows us to observe the detailed implementation of a rhetorical exercise session. The “invented situation: four doctors, each defending their patient’s interests, must agree on which of the four patients will receive the only liver available for transplantation.”

8 Emmanuelle Danblon is currently working on a new and different meaning of the notion of rhetorical exercise: that of the witness’s gaze. Readers can listen to an interview on this subject, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hy5wLCzTzvo.

9 On these three angles of attack, see Danblon 2017: 57, 59.

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Référence électronique

Emmanuelle Danblon et Roselyne Koren, « Emmanuelle Danblon: Rhetorical exercises, or the art of rediscovering “the taste for truth” »Argumentation et Analyse du Discours [En ligne], 32 | 2024, mis en ligne le 15 avril 2024, consulté le 27 mai 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/aad/8230 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/aad.8230

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Emmanuelle Danblon

Free University of Brussels, GRAL (Belgium)

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Roselyne Koren

Bar-Ilan University, ADARR (Israel)

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