I’ve had a thing about threes for a while. The curious thing about threes is that three points define a space. Two points can only define a line. Binary oppositions and binary thinking leads to an either/or sorting behavior. If you have three points, you can create a space for something more complex rather than be locked into strictly sorting.

However, sorters always come along and try to collapse that space. But there’s always a remainder, ideas that don’t fit into the either/or distinction. A great example of that is the rhetorical triangle that I tend to write about. This collapse can be sorted out a number of ways—equivalences that seem innocent enough, and yet form an insidious step backward into binary thinking. Depending on the context or speaker, the rhetorical triangle can be expressed in a number of ways.

The fundamental distinction made by Aristotle was a sorting of three appeals—ethos, pathos, and logos. These constitute the core of rhetoric. Ethos can be collapsed as a Hegelian synthesis of logos and pathos. Society is constituted by the logos of cultural norm, and the individual rests firmly rooted in pathos— in a sophistic view. Society is composed of both simultaneously.

Social constructionism tends to discard pathos, and focus on the cultural norm. Individualism tends to discard the norm, and focus on pathos. Another way of looking at it is to say that this trinity represents mind (logos), body (pathos), and soul(ethos). In a sense, there is a move by rationalists to discard emotion (body) in favor of mind. Then the equation becomes reduced to a binary—mind forges society, not emotion. This is easy to argue with. Ethos is irreducible to either mind or body. That’s why there are three points in any discussion of rhetoric. The reduction by equivalence just doesn’t work (for me at least).

In my earlier post, the rhetorical triangle I spoke of was the triangle of speaker (pathos), audience (ethos), and language(logos). One conventional way of viewing the rhetorical situation is to reduce the speaker to the level of deceiver, and the audience to the role of the deceived. These can neatly be removed from the problem, leaving a root logos of facts for “objective” consideration. If it were that simple, then there would not have been so much ink, and so much sweat and blood, spilled over matters of “truth.” It isn’t merely a matter of removing the context to get at some mythic text.

As texts represent a human relation (I agree with Sartre and the Sophists on this), they can only express a human relation to “truth,” not truth itself. The components are not collapsible to get at some precious nugget inside. Decentering any of the poles sets the discourse in motion within itself. There is a space created for that, provided you don’t surrender to the collapse of things down to some essential notion of “fact.”

The “fact” I feel is most useful to relate to my students is that “facts” are indeed mutable rather than immutable. They change all the time, and with them, our relation to them. Absolutes are the realm of philosophers and theologians.

Rhetoric is about possibilities. I teach rhetoric, not theology or philosophy. I teach analysis—taking things apart—not synthesis. It is up to students to make their own individual decisions about that. Personally, I think a deeper understanding of rhetoric helps. It isn’t about teaching “know-nothingism”— it’s about teaching that generates a space, instead of collapsing everything to a point to drive through someone’s heart.

1 thought on “co~l~lapse”

Comments are closed.