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.

One thought on “Grounding Empiricism with a Rhetorical Epistemology (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: How learning the oldest debate in social science got me through the first year. | A shallow thinker

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