Downfall of Rhetoric in 20th Century

In a sequence of posts ( Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics, Subjectivity Concealed in Index NumbersThe Values of a Market SocietyCross-Country Comparisons of Wealth, and Purchasing Power Parity), I have tried to explain how the statistics we use conceal arbitrary value judgments. This is the modern form of rhetoric, which is deadly, because the values are built into numbers, hidden in the process by which the numbers are manufactured, and not open to discussion and dispute. The initial post gives a brief hint as to how this state of affairs emerged. This post elaborates some more on the history of how and why ancient forms of rhetoric were rejected in the 20th Century, and replaced by this modern form of rhetoric. This post could/should be the opening post of the sequence, since it provides necessary background information and historical context.


From Ancient Greece to the late 19th century, rhetoric played a central role in Western education in training orators, lawyers, counsellors, historians, statesmen, and poets. Aristotle named the three fundamental pillars of persuasion as logos, pathos, and ethos. The story of how the rise of the philosophy of logical positivism transformed rhetoric from a respected art to a despised form of trickery is both extremely important and largely unknown and unfamiliar. This story is too complex to be described in detail here, but we will provide a brief sketch, because it is central to our topic in this essay. Rhetoric remains just as necessary today as it was in the ancient times. However, open use of rhetoric has been prohibited by positivism, and so today concealed forms of rhetoric are in common use. One of most effective and powerful among modern forms of rhetoric is the use of statistics to conceal the ancient methods for persuasion. How this is done is the main topic of our essay, but we will start with a brief discussion the philosophy of logical positivism, and how it led to the concealment of rhetoric under the facade of numbers which appear to be objective.

A key element in rejection of rhetoric was the rise of the fact/value distinction, promoted strongly by logical positivism. Julie Reuben in “The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality” writes about this change as follows:

“In the late nineteenth century intellectuals assumed that truth had spiritual, moral, and cognitive dimensions. By 1930, however, intellectuals had abandoned this broad conception of truth. They embraced, instead, a view of knowledge that drew a sharp distinction between “facts” and “values.” They associated cognitive truth with empirically verified knowledge and maintained that by this standard, moral values could not be validated as “true.” In the nomenclature of the twentieth century, only “science” constituted true knowledge.”

Once the positivist idea that knowledge consisted purely of facts and logic became dominant, persuasion became unnecessary. Anyone who knew the facts and applied logic would automatically come to the same conclusion. Ethos refers to the credibility of the speaker, but this is unnecessary when we are dealing with objective facts, universally observable and verifiable by all. Pathos refers to emotional appeal, which is unnecessary if the speaker can establish his case using cold hard facts and logical arguments. Of the three pillars of rhetoric, Logos became the only acceptable form, which the other two fell into disrepute. “Empty” rhetoric characterizes speakers who establish credibility, and appeal to emotions of audience, to persuade them of dubious propositions not supported by facts and logic. Logical positivism asserted that human knowledge consisted only of propositions which could be established using facts and logic, universal and objective truths, equally valid for all, and devoid of subjective judgments which could vary across people.

Elimination of rhetoric from the syllabus, and resultant loss of understanding of the art of persuasion, has caused a serious deterioration in the form and quality of intellectual discourse. Every seeker of knowledge believes that he/she has arrived at the unique and indisputable truth, which should instantly convince all rational people. The need to establish credibility, to appeal to emotions, to build a case using rhetorical skills, is disdained, as the “facts speak for themselves.” Huge amounts of puzzlement and anger result when what appears to be an immediately obvious fact to the writer/speaker fails to convince the ‘stubborn and mulish’ audience.  Failure to persuade is blamed on mental defects of the audience, rather than lack of rhetorical skills on part of the speaker.

The foundations of statistics were constructed on the basis of positivist philosophy in the early twentieth century. Great emphasis was put on facts – represented by the numbers. Rhetoric (and values), represented by how the numbers are to be interpreted, was de-emphasized. This led to a tremendous rise in the importance of numbers, as the only means to get to objective truths, cleansed of subjectivity, personal biases, and values. As the popular saying goes, “you can’t argue with the numbers”.

To understand the role of rhetoric in the twentieth century, we have to learn to think at two levels. One is the grand level of the philosophers, who are engaged in a deep and difficult conversation about the nature of human knowledge. One of the central concerns in this discussion has been the question of how do we learn about aspects of the world which we cannot observe – things like atoms, electrons, gravity, angels and God? This conversation casts its shadows on the world of ordinary mortals, who are affected by these grand ideas to a far greater extent then they realize. Lord Keynes expresses this insight as: “the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” 

The high-level conversation among the philosphers is summarized very briefly by Hilary Putnam (2002). He describes the origins of the idea that there is a distinction between facts and values, and how these two terms have been understood by philosophers, over the course of centuries starting with David Hume. To understand these ideas in depth would require several years of philosophical training. Nonetheless, the disputed and controversial conclusion of convoluted and complex philosophical discussions, that facts and values are sharply separated, has come to accepted as obvious and commonsense by the general public. The phrase “Just give me the facts” expresses approval of facts, and the disdain for opinions and emotions that characterize the positivist attitudes towards knowledge. The facts and logic (logos) of rhetoric are held in high esteem, while ethos and pathos are rejected as sources of information and knowledge. In the next section, we provide a low-brow discussion of the fact/value distinction – that is, we will discuss how the grand conversation among the philosophers has shaped the minds of the general public.

5 thoughts on “Downfall of Rhetoric in 20th Century

  1. Hume said that reason was nothing but the slave of the passions and could lay claim to no higher office than to serve them. By that he meant that values, derived from our sentiments or passions, were paramount and reason was just there to serve them. So in discussing our ultimate objectives, personal or public, we are discussing values. All of the devices of persuasion are appropriate in that context. If we truly agree on the ends, then reason – facts and logic – is the best way to determine the means to achieve them. The fact-value distinction does not abolish rhetoric, therefore; it defines where it is appropriate. Indeed it gets a hallowed place in debating values, of which facts and logic are merely the servants.
    As usual, Hume was right, We must discuss values and seek to persuade each other about them. Arguing about facts that can be verified is pointless. What a master philosopher he was.

  2. Wouldn’t narrative be the more potent weapon of control today? The PTB control all the media and set the agenda. Take Assange’s problems. There was a deliberate ploy to demean him such that Trump for example went from his pre POTUS opinion, which was favourable, to now recommending 175 years jail.

  3. EDWARD K ROSS I have been struggling with a second hand computer and passwords that has hampered my attempts to reply to Asad Zaman. From my experience in the real world as a non academic in my opinion the principles of Aristotle on rhetoric are a valuable tool in coming to understand a subject or problem. Therefore i think understanding rhetoric as per ARISTOTLE should be regarded as one of the foundation tools ofr genuine education for all. What surprises me is this seems to be ignored by so many THANK YOU Asad Ted

  4. Why quicksands? This bit of Hume seems firm enough to me. I’ve read alleged refutations of the fact/value distinction but never found them convincing. They are very popular with people who wish to obfuscate an argument when the evidence goes against them.

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