Grounding Empiricism with a Rhetorical Epistemology (Part 2)

Once we allow for the reality of material phenomena—phenomena independent of human minds and discourses—the next two questions are, first, to what extent can they be known, and second, what do we classify under the heading ‘independent phenomena’—material facts alone or also moral concepts?

To what extent can mind-independent phenomena be known? Another point postulated by Cherwitz and Hikins is extremely valuable for authorizing the possibility of experiencing and thus knowing material reality. “The world,” they write, “is comprised of many particulars . . . Each particular exhibits various characters, which themselves emerge wholly as a function of the relations in which the particular stands to other members of its context” (pp. 178). In other words, the latent potential of phenomena to be understood resides in the relations of the particular elements of the phenomena. This relational postulate does not assume that meaning relies on human discourse; rather, meaning relies on the relations of things and their interactions within a context, and human minds have evolved to comprehend these material interactions as such.

To put it in simpler terms: I can comprehend gravity not because I can talk about gravity with someone else but because I can experience a red apple, a tree, the ground, and the movement of the apple, when it falls, in relation to the other two things. Now, the fact of gravity is naturally removed from any attempt to systematize it with human symbols, but humans can at least comprehend the mind- and discourse-independent phenomena of gravity in some limited way without necessarily discoursing about it.

“The objects of reality,” argue Cherwitz and Hikins, “are both understood and comprehended qua relationships” (pp. 178), which means that context still exists at the vital center of a rhetorically grounded empirical epistemology, contrary to the positivist’s tendency to place things in isolation. Because of the relational interaction of particulars, humans can comprehend phenomena that occur independently of their thought and discourse. This idea stands in contrast to epistemologies that would place a decontextualized human rationality at the center of comprehension, but it also stands in contrast to epistemologies that would place discursive interaction at the center of comprehension.

To reiterate: the first tenet of a rhetorically grounded empirical epistemology is that phenomena exist independently of human minds, discourses, beliefs, and attitudes. The second tenet is that humans can comprehend those phenomena—those facts of existence—because they always occur in relation to one another, and human minds are equipped to comprehend relational interaction. Naturally, human minds are also equipped to discourse about the relations they comprehend, and here is where our rhetorical epistemology moves away from objectivism and back toward subjectivism and social constructivism.

Once humans are discoursing in human language and with human symbols, they are squarely in the realm of rhetoric and social construction. They are in the realm of purposeful human action, of talking about phenomena, not of phenomena themselves or even of phenomenal comprehension. They are in the realm of representations, values, attitudes, and beliefs. In slightly more Burkean terms, we might track the progression as follows:


And because Discourse is always Action, we can say that Action arises ultimately from Motion, or that Motion, once comprehended by humans, gives rise to Action. Rhetorical conflict arises precisely at this intersection of Action and Motion, where various discourses about Motion and its comprehension realize that they are not necessarily commensurable.

Both an empiricist’s epistemology and a social constructivist’s epistemology recognize that the wrangle of human discourse is always rhetorical. However, the empiricist postulates that beneath the wrangle lies a collection of relational phenomena that do exist independently of the wrangle. He also postulates that certain discourses within the wrangle will more accurately reflect factual reality than others, while recognizing, nevertheless, that securing points of contact between phenomena and discourse about phenomena is exceedingly difficult. This epistemology would frame science not as a collection of facts about reality but as a centuries’ long struggle to discourse about reality, in an accurate way, with human symbols—which are all we have to discourse with, to the chagrin of Locke and everyone else who has dreamt of a non-symbolic language connecting point-for-point with material reality.

What about non-material, moral concepts that exist in the discursive realm—concepts like justice, goodness, morality, equality, et cetera? Do they also exist as mind- and discourse-independent phenomena? Cherwitz and Hikins grant such concepts an equal “ontological status” with material phenomena and mathematical abstractions (pp. 183); however, on this point, I part company with Cherwitz and Hikins’ perspectivism and take a classically sophistic stance. It is my view that most non-material concepts can be reduced to material phenomena, so that discussions about, e.g.,  justice are discussions about access to resources, microeconomic effects, or kinship interactions. I see no reason to grant ontological status to titular terms that stand in as shorthand for complex material relations. In fact, these moral and philosophical terms are perhaps the epitome of rhetoricity. According to Chaim Perelman, their entire purpose is to remain vague and evocative, to serve as the motivating ground for certain types of discourse and action. I would be willing to grant these rhetorical concepts ontological status in the context of academic philosophy, where the concepts are given well-defined parameters, but outside that context, they are almost always deployed subjectively—the same thing is just and unjust, moral or immoral, depending on who is doing the defining, and from what position.

Scientists—social and physical—often forget that their discourses about and representations of natural or social phenomena are not the same as the natural or social phenomena themselves. One danger of importing empiricism into rhetoric and writing studies is that we, too, might forget that our empirical discourses are removed from the empirical phenomena we attempt to frame and discuss. The epistemology I have been describing foregrounds this divide between reality and discourse about reality, so that empirically-minded researchers can be on guard against this tendency to confuse representations with the phenomena they represent. This confusion breeds hubris; guarding against it breeds clear thinking, caution, self-reflection, and constant refinement of ideas. However, another value of this epistemology is that it does not foreclose on the alterity of mind- and discourse-independent phenomena, as do epistemologies claiming that material phenomena have an unimportant ontological status in comparison with the primacy of symbols and representations.

RAD research—Replicable, Aggregable, Data Supported—must operate on the assumption that accurate comprehension of material phenomena is possible. Its epistemological commitments must make room for this assumption. However, this commitment does not mean denying the wrangle of human discourse, in which signifiers slip, ill-defined terms become hegemonic constructs, and persuasion circulates in unpredictable ways. The epistemology I have been describing continues to recognize the rhetorical nature of discourse, while simultaneously postulating that human discourse can, with great difficulty, accurately represent the things that exist in their own right outside of discourse.

Grounding Empiricism with a Rhetorical Epistemology (part 1)

I’ve mentioned this passage before: Haas (1995) speculates on how writers develop “memories” of their texts as they compose on word processors:

Clearly, writers interact constantly, closely, and in complex ways with their own texts. Through these interactions, they develop some understanding—some representation—of the text they have created or are creating . . . As the text gets longer and more ideas are introduced and developed, it becomes more difficult to hold an adequate representation in memory of that text, which is out of sight.

How do writers develop, during composition, a representation of their texts in their short and long term memories? An interesting area of research. However, Haas speculated on this idea nearly twenty years ago, and the field is no closer to understanding how the material, cognitive process described by Haas works. It was only last year that a proponent of Replicable, Aggregable, Data Supported (RAD) research, Chris Anson (2012), reported on an empirical and replicable method—the use of eye-tracking devices—that could allow researchers to begin exploring the operation of writers’ vision, and how it influences the creation of textual memory during the composing process. That this research is only now going forward suggests that the field needs persuading when it comes to RAD research and quantitative methods.

One thing RAD researchers need to accomplish toward that persuasive goal is to theorize an “empiricism” that is acceptable to a field whose epistemological commitments are largely informed by non-empirical (or outright anti-empirical) discourses about social construction and intersubjectivity. The lack of RAD research in rhetoric and composition is, I believe, an issue of epistemology rather than method. If we want a substantial space for RAD methods, we first need to build a persuasive case for the epistemology on which those methods operate. One excellent example of this work is Johanna Drucker’s (2011) reframing of “data” as “capta,” or data that has been purposefully selected and captured, and thus remains observer-dependent. Cherwitz and Hikins’ (1999) “Rhetorical Perspectivism” also provides valuable ideas and frameworks for grounding quantitative, empirical work in a thoroughly rhetorical epistemology.

Cherwitz and Hikins describe two opposing epistemologies found in rhetorical theory—objectivist and subjectivist. These terms refer to what you’d expect, and clearly, they exist on a continuum; they are nearly binaries. To rehabilitate empirical research in rhetoric and composition, we needn’t abandon subjectivism for objectivism. We need only abandon epistemological commitments that exist at either extreme endpoint. Is that a tall order to fill? I tend to believe that few scholars are committed to either extreme, and that navigation between the two will be relatively straightforward. After all, the scientific method—ostensibly the objectivist method par excellence—exists precisely because scientists long ago realized that the “facts of reality” (objectivity) can only ever be apprehended through our peculiarly human lenses (subjectivity). Arriving at the most accurate description of those facts depends, not on a mere collection of facts that speak for themselves—facts never do—but on a collaborative, distributed process of checking, re-checking, replicating, falsifying, and coming to consensus about those facts, so that any partial view of them is never taken as the final word.

It will be easy enough, therefore, to demonstrate that objectivist methodologies have already conceded certain subjectivist points. Likewise, I’ve come to appreciate that even the most extreme social constructionist statements are often made with ethical rather than epistemological commitments in mind. For example, the “gender is a social construct” meme is not really deployed as a statement of scientific fact. It is merely a shorthand way of arguing that the ways people talk about gender are too simple and binary, and fail to acknowledge that reality is sometimes more complex than boxes for Male/Female would indicate (e.g., the case of hermaphroditism). So, insofar as “X is a social construct” means “the way humans talk about X is too simple,” then the subjectivist, social constructionist position does not foreclose on a more empirical or objectivist epistemology. On the contrary, it encourages researchers to constantly collect more details and refine their theories about how things operate.

Cherwitz and Hikins’ “perspectivist” epistemology presents a possible third way between the subjectivist and objectivist positions. The first postulate of perspectivism is “The Independence of Reality” (pp. 177), and clearly an empirical way-of-knowing must grant material reality its radical alterity—in other words, reality must exist independently of humankind’s discourse about it. As Cherwitz and Hikins put it, “in existence, there is presented to us, directly, a world of phenomena largely independent of our attitudes, beliefs, and values.” I might quibble with the insertion of the adverb “directly” in their description—X-rays, for instance, are not experienced directly, and we can only verify their existence with technologies that allow us to experience them at a remove from how human bodies actually experience them. Nevertheless, their point, broadly construed, is essential to an empirical epistemology.

But I wonder how smoothly it can be inserted into the field’s epistemological discourse? If contemporary rhetoricians cannot concede that the world is composed of material phenomena that exist regardless of our attitudes toward them, our valuations of them, or our discourses about them, then the subjectivist, social constructivist worldview is more extreme and pervasive than I thought. If a scholar says “gender is a social construct” and means quite literally that “biological sex is an invalid framework for understanding human bodies and actions,” then it will remain forever impossible to persuade her of the value of an empirical epistemology. However, I believe that most contemporary rhetoricians are not denying the entire field of biology when they take subjectivist stances on gender, or race, or sexuality. In order to secure a foothold for an empirical epistemology in rhetoric, we need only admit that certain elements of reality exist regardless of how we think or talk about them, which, I hope, is an easy concession to make. Philip K. Dick famously defined reality as “that which continues to exist once I stop believing in it.” This definition of reality—largely shed of Lockean, Empirical with a capital E baggage—is enough for the purpose of theorizing a rhetorically acceptable empirical epistemology.