Carnegie Mellon University

Aristotle's Rhetoric in American Rhetorical Scholarship, 1950-1965

Author: Karen Rossi Schnakenberg
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 1996

This historical study examines the role of representations of Aristotle's Rhetoric in writing instruction and scholarship within English studies from 1950 to 1965, a period generally characterized as the beginning of the revival of interest in Classical rhetoric within English. The study investigates a specific instance of what Dominick LaCapra (1980, 246) refers to as the problem of the "dialogue between past and present," or how interpretations of earlier works influence contemporary theory, scholarship, and teaching.

The study asks how available representations of Classical, especially Aristotelian, rhetoric enabled or discouraged the revival of Classical rhetoric and whether Classical rhetoric was perceived as an appropriate foundation for writing instruction. The study analyzes representations of Aristotelian rhetoric journal articles, histories of rhetoric, and writing textbooks published in the period and scholarship in English and Speech Communication, and to their relevant disciplinary and social contexts.

The central conclusion is that while the works examined encouraged exploration of Classical rhetoric, none provided an adequate explanation of its central features or a fully-articulated theory of discourse and a method for teaching writing that might have made Classical rhetoric more influential in the period.

Available representations encouraged further work by providing a legitimating history for the scholarly study of writing, a conceptual vocabulary for discussing discourse, and a contrast to Current-Traditional rhetoric that subverted assumptions that writing instruction was an atheoretical activity. These same representations, derived primarily from Speech Communication and the work of the Chicago Neo- Aristotelians, discouraged the use of Classical rhetoric by stressing reductive conceptions that emphasized logical deduction via the syllogism and omitted precisely the situational, psychological, analytic, and productive features of Classical rhetoric with the potential to enrich writing instruction.

Given the gap between Classical rhetoric and its limited representations, the study argues that our understanding and use of prior texts is more strongly affected by the interpretive filters of the mediating texts that present and situate the prior texts (and their contexts) to us than previous scholarship, stressing external social influences and internal disciplinary concerns, has suggested.