CCR 631: Contemporary Rhetorics

Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent

Book cover of Modern Dogma--Three people sitting around a table, one talking and the other two listening.We took a practice exam two weeks ago, which resulted in the silence here as I revisited notes on ancient rhetorical texts and attempted to parse out an argument about rhetorical invention, art, and natural ability. Although it was painful, the practice exam was really good in the sense that it forced me to try to think of what kind of argument I could make out of the texts on the list and what that process might be like (hint: that process involves a lot of handwritten, scribbled notes and mind mapping) and—more importantly—how that process can be improved for the real exams. Before all that happened, though, I followed up my Burke kick with Wayne Booth, which I forgot to blog. I’ve never read anything by Booth before, and I’m not sure if it’s the nature of the text—a series of lectures—or if it’s just how he writes, but Modern Dogma is a really enjoyable read.

We must now learn to live in a world in which we begin with assent and in which the first question will therefore be, ‘Why not?’ (92)

It’s first important to note that Booth’s arguments stem from the turmoil of the 1960s: a time of civil unrest, protest, and (ir)rational argument. He characterizes this age as one of doubt, skepticism, and unreason, arguing that reason and logic are no longer the paths to truth; instead, feeling and impulse are (ix). Within this context, argument becomes “mere rhetoric” or propaganda, and rhetoric itself is merely the “art of winning” (xi). Booth observes these political struggles and how members on both sides failed to successfully communicate with the other, namely based on the assumptions that they were making.

Modern Dogma is a reaction to this notion of rhetoric, and Booth seeks to articulate a new definition of rhetoric: “the art of discovering warrantable beliefs and improving those beliefs in shared discourse” (xiii). As such, rhetoric is concerned with truth because to improve truths means to acknowledge that some beliefs are more true than others. His goal, then, is to examine the rhetoric that led to this point—an “art of probing what men believe they ought to believe, rather than proving what is true according to abstract methods” (xiii). Part of this is an analysis of good and bad reasons, good and bad rhetoric. Booth writes that until this point, “good rhetoric” indicates whatever wins assent and produces persuasion. What he would like to revive, however, is the idea of good rhetoric as an “art of discovering good reasons, finding what really warrants assent because any reasonable person ought to be persuaded by what has been said” (xiv).

Booth begins Chapter 1, “Motivism and the Loss of Good Reasons,” by claiming that we face a rhetorical crisis: “nobody listens to anybody any more” (7). With the saturation of polarized debates, we have lost faith in the possibility of there being a rational path through any kind of value judgment. Although admittedly lofty, Booth aims to 1) suggest a philosophy of how men discover new levels of truth through discourse, and 2) redefine rhetoric as the “whole art of discovering and sharing warrantable assertion (11). Both of these aims deal with disrupting the truth-value dichotomy that so much dogmatic thinking stems from and that comprise modernism; that is, the unquestioned belief that fact and knowledge stand in opposition to values and belief. Booth spends the rest of this chapter sketching out these dogmas—fundamental beliefs that aren’t questioned and that prevent effective discourse and assent from happening. At one end of the spectrum is scientism (which dogmatically values reason, knowledge and science) and on the other irrationalism (which regards value, faith, feeling, and wisdom). There are five dogmas of modernism that constrain rhetoric:

There are dogmas about (a) the methods or means for producing change; (b) the nature of the thing changed—the mind or soul or self or person or organism (though I have talked only of “changing minds,” I intend the word mind in the broadest possible sense); (c) the scene of change—the world in which that thing changed, the “mind,” finds itself; (d) the principles or basic assumptions about truth and its testing—the ground and nature of change; and (e) the purpose of change. (22)

Like Burke’s pentad, these dogma acknowledge the fact that any effort to persuade depends on all of the elements within the communication process.

This chapter focuses on motivism, the belief that “our minds are really determined, in all of our values, either by nonrational conditioning in the past, or by present motives or drives, many of them lying so deep that we can never find them out” (24). As a dogma, motivism either ignores or reduces conscious thought, deliberation, and open talk about values (29). People who uphold motivism make sense of discrepancies not by looking at arguments (which are just rationalizations) but by analyzing the underlying emotions and irrational motives (35), boiling the argument down to its irrational origin. In the context of protests, Booth argues that motivism occurs when students’ upbringing and class origins are analyzed in order to dismiss them (36). Booth’s solution to motivism is not to try to prove that men change their minds based on logical proof; rather, it is to look for “a way of discovering how motives become reasons and a way of showing how what we call ideas sometimes can and should affect our choices and sometimes can only fail to do so” (39). Booth ends with a challenge—rather than beginning from doubt, assume that we believe in the argument and reasons given.

In Chapter 2, “Bertrand Russell’s Rhetoric and the Dogmas of Doubt,” Booth discusses how Russell, “the greatest philosopher of modern times” (43) embodied the split between what we know (fact) and what we value—at once a man of fact, reason, and action/passion (45). Russell, then, was representative of the modernist split between scientism and irrationalism because he embodied both, which is interesting because they’re situated as two irreconcilable extremes within modernism.

Similar to his argument at the beginning of chapter one (that we have been taught wrong about argument), Booth begins Chapter 3, “The Dogmas Questioned,” by arguing that the texts of freshman composition are setting up students to believe that the goal of argument is “to emulate the purity and objectivity and rigor of science, in order to protect oneself from the errors that passion and desire and metaphor and authority and all those logical fallacies lead us into” (88). This, of course, reifies the divide between fact (hard knowing) and value (soft faith). Here again Booth calls for “ a kind of social test for truth”: “It is reasonable to grant (one ought to grant) some degree of credence to whatever qualified men and women agree on, unless one has specific and stronger reasons to disbelieve” (101), which is to say that we should place belief as our default when entering an argument, not doubt. Obviously belief should not be one-to-one replacement for doubt, and he argues that we should still weigh evidence carefully, but there is more possibility for assent when we enter an argument believing rather than doubting. Ultimately, this is a call for finding “grounds for confidence in a multiplicity of ways of knowing” (99).

This chapter gets a little harder as Booth takes a philosophical turn, inquiring into what we know about ourselves and our world. In response, he argues that humans are users of language who understand each other through the semiotic and symbolic exchange of ideas and emotions (113-14). This is important because he argues that the self is “essentially rhetorical, symbol exchanging, a social product in process of changing through interaction, sharing values with other selves” (126), which supports his idea that we are capable of coming to understanding through discursive acts.

In the final chapter, “Some Warrants of Assent with Notes on the Topics of Protest,” Booth re-situates his argument that the self is rhetorical (and thus rhetoric is part of who we are):

If language is not a means of communication but the source of our being, and if the purpose of rhetoric is not to persuade but to meet other minds in the best possible symbolic exchange—that is, to maintain or improve the “source” itself—then a very great deal that is conventionally said about improving communication begins to look highly questionable. (142)

And while this is something he illustrates in the other lectures/chapters, he applies this particular argument back to protests. He notes that ethos—the ethical proof, the character of integrity of the speaker—plays a strong role in the rhetoric of protest, although objective notions of argument tend to discredit such testimony (154). Booth questions why we aren’t taught (and why we don’t teach) how to recognize a good person or good reasons. Within the realm of symbolic exchange, though, every desire and feeling (every irrationalist quality) can be a good reason possessed by a good man (164)—even those things that we are taught to deny:

It is true that “gut reactions” can be very bad reasons for action. But so can logical proofs. The real art lies always in the proper weighing—and what is proper is a matter finally of shared norms, discovered and applied in the experience of individuals whose very individuality is forged from other selves. (164)

There are a lot of interesting things happening in this passage—not only the validation of feelings and the questioning of the unwavering good of logic but also Booth’s attention to the importance of art, which he argues is of “fundamental importance in making and changing our minds (or souls or selves or identities)” (168). This ties back nicely to his proposed definition of rhetoric as an art of discovering beliefs.

Concluding Thoughts.

As takeaways, Booth makes some very clear claims about making our discourse more inclusive and finding community. He writes, “What we say matters, and it matters how we say it,” opening space beyond simply logical prose (to include personal and ethical appeal, art, ritual) in order to engage in discourse (203). And, circling back to Booth’s assertion that we live in an age of skepticism and doubt, he writes, “we have found a community that everyman can assent to: as old as Adam and as new as the morning’s newscast, it is the community of those who want to discover good reasons together” (203). Importantly, this is not a comfortable nor stable community and is one that must constantly be negotiated and contextualized (as meaning as made and people come to agreement).



Booth, Wayne C. Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent. Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame P, 1974. Print.

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