In the course of providing an introduction to the rhetoric of inquiry movement, this essay has staked out a perspective of its own. The essay has moved from deconstruction to reconstruction: from an emphasis on the dyslogistic senses of "mere" rhetoric and worse to an exploration of the possibilities for a eulogistic rhetoric of invention and sound judgment in the conduct of inquiry. Recent assaults on foundationalist presuppositions, I have argued, have provided an opening for a rhetoric of inquiry, particularly as applied to the discourse of the human sciences. That rhetorical theory offers a handy set of tools by which to pick away at objectivist pretensions was illustrated by several of the case studies briefly reviewed. But the central question raised here (and elsewhere in this book) was whether rhetoric was up to the task of adjudicating between competing rationalities.
The great irony of the rhetoric of inquiry movement is that the more trenchant and far-reaching its critique of objectivism--the more is the claim of its reconstructive potential rendered suspect. Conceived of in fairly conventional terms as the extra-factual, extra-logical in discourse--the part not played by hard fact and cold reason--rhetoric's role becomes that of a Derridean supplement, a potentially important, albeit ancillary instrument for the expression of truths (or falsehoods) independently arrived at. But once conceive of reality as rhetorically constituted, and of reason as rhetorically justified, and you are left vulnerable to the charge of being unable to vouchsafe your own claims, including claims about the possibilities for a reconstructive rhetoric of inquiry.
There are no pat answers to this line of argument, and, indeed, its best refutation probably comes by pointing to acknowledged touchstones of rhetorical excellence. This is what James Boyd White does in his readings of texts ranging from the Iliad and Plato's Gorgias to Samuel Johnson's essays and the Declaration of Independence. (86) What White's readings point up again and again is the transformative potential of a dialogic rhetoric--built paradoxically on the speaker or writer's capacity to operate within the limits of his or her language and culture. Of the Gorgias he says, for example, that the text
its readers the experience of a mind dialectically reconstituting its language. The language so made is powerful, in a sense unanswerable, in large part because it does not seek to eliminate but accepts and clarifies the variabilities and complexities and inconsistencies or ordinary life and language....What the text really seeks to teach its reader is not how to speak this language but how to remake a language of his own. It does not teach a particular set of questions and dialectical responses, to be repeated on other occasions, but...how to ask questions of one's own. To do this, the reader must be a center of independent intellectual energy, a remaker of language and a composer of texts, and it is with helping him to become these things that this text is ultimately concerned. (87)
This ideal of an emancipatory, dialogic rhetoric is one worthy of a central place in the academy. But it requires of us that we conceive of rhetoric, not simply as an art of proving opposites, but also as an art of arraying and comparing ideas, this after first having attempted to give each its most forceful expression? And it invites us to further conceive of rhetoric, not simply as an art of expression or of reader-reception, but of intellectual exchange? One reason for the appeal--noted earlier--of the conversation metaphor in the human sciences is that it speaks to the tentativeness of our claims upon the world, to our dependence upon each other for validation of those claims, and to the inherent ongoingness of communal inquiry. It suggests as well that inasmuch as we are in this together, we had better attend carefully to the ways we converse.
What, then, are the optimal conditions for productive intellectual exchange? What norms of discourse ought to guide processes of scholarly reporting, discussion, and debate? What institutional arrangements are most likely to facilitate adherence to those norms? Implicit in our very nature as dialogic beings, argues Gadamer, are norms of sharing, respect, mutuality, and equality. Ideally there is a risking of self and of one's prejudices through a process of joining with the other in a "giving in" to the subject
matter. (88) Like Gadamer, Habermas deduces conversational norms from our nature as
symbol-using, symbol-sharing, interdependent beings. (89) But to Gadamer's list he adds a critical component, and he emphasizes as well the need to transform material conditions that block and distort communication. How then to facilitate understanding while at the same time bringing critical standards to bear on the exchange of ideas?
No doubt any concrete answer to that question will have to take account of all manner of circumstances and of purposes to which the conversation is put. But the general requirement of a truly reconstitutive rhetoric is that it must be radically open to all manner of changes, including changes in the meanings ascribed to its texts, the character and identities of its participants, its language and language practices, and the community and culture out of which it is constituted. Of the process of law, which White proposes as a model for the human sciences, (90) he argues that it involves both interpretation and reconstitution of the materials with which it works. It is an art of persuasion which also creates--or at least re-creates--the objects of its persuasion. Correspondingly, its language and its strategies are constantly being tested and are forever being remade. This means, he says, "that the process of law is at once creative and educative: one is perpetually learning what can and cannot be said. It also means that both the identity of the speakers and their wants are in perpetual transformation." (91)
Elsewhere I have expressed my reservations about trusting to the highly structured, impersonal, contentious discourse of the law tribunal as a model for scholarly inquiry. (92) There are surely other models of intellectual exchange that might well be preferable for certain purposes. (93) The important point for our purposes is that White is dead right in underscoring the systemic, processual character of a reconstructive rhetoric and the potential for alteration, occasioned by the process, of the system's component parts. It need not be assumed that a reconstitutive rhetoric is defeated by challenges to its epistemic grounding. The general premise of the rhetorician must be, rather, that even if reality is symbolically constructed, some constructions are surely preferable to others. Similarly, even if reason is rhetorical, some reasons are surely superior to others. Rhetorical engagement may help us to discover the better reason and also help make the better appear the better reason. That is reason enough for a rhetoric of inquiry.