Ruminations on Desire and Knowledge

Aristotle wrote at the beginning of his Metaphysics (the first line, actually), that all human beings, by nature, desire to know.

The word desire is significant. I think–at least I want to say–that to have a desire is somehow related to having an emotion, a belief that stems from something that philosopher Robert Solomon once wrote, that a large part of having an emotion includes a desire to act, to engage in the world in some way (True to our Feelings 238). Daniel Gross and Brian Jackson have made a comparable argument (The Secret History of Emotion: From Aristotle’s Rhetoric to Modern Brain Science 2, 44, 80-1; “Neuroscience and the New Urgency of Emotional Appeals” 491).

All human beings, by nature, desire to know. Here, we have a universal statement, a statement that will become useful as soon as we existentially instantiate. Whatever that means. What I think it means has to do with Kenneth Burke’s definition of form: “Form . . . is an arousing and fulfillment of desires” (Counter-Statement 124). Elsewhere, he also says that it is the creating and fulfilling of expectations and appetites.

This statement is where rhetoric gets its power. When we human beings have desires, we will work to fulfill those desires. For example, the hungrier I am, the more I will work to fulfill my appetite.

If all human beings, to some degree, already have a desire to know, then that desire can be used against (or for or with) them. This is why it’s so appealing to us to be in on a secret. We like to know things, especially things that were heretofore hidden (or seemingly hidden).

Suddenly, I’m wondering if this has something to do with the supply/demand thing in economics. If supply is low, demand is high because people sometimes want things that they don’t think they can have, things that are (or seem) unavailable. Whereas, on the other hand, we human beings sometimes take for granted the things that we have or that are easily attainable.

A Brief Discussion of Genre and Burkean Form

[I’ve been looking through some boxes of papers and found this one. It was written a year and a month ago. My definition of rhetoric has changed slightly since then, but it’s still an interesting piece. Not only that, but it also contains in it several things that I’m still thinking about and trying to piece together. I have made some very minor changes.]

I have several points I’d like to make, and I wonder if I need to have a single controlling idea other than the fact that all of what I want to say is somehow related to Amy Devitt’s book Writing Genres.

First of all, I don’t understand how literary genres and rhetorical genres can be separated. I see literary genres as types or kinds or subsets of rhetorical genres. Rhetorical genres include literary genres, but rhetorical genres also include other genres that are not literary. I see things this way because I define rhetoric as influence via symbol-using. Rhetorical genres are genres that try, in some way, to influence and identify with an audience. Not only do I see literary genres as subsets of rhetorical genres, but I also think we start to run into trouble when we separate literary genres from rhetorical genres. We run into trouble because literature really does influence people, whether people like it or not and whether people notice it or not.

But what about that second question, “Is there something about the nature of literary genres that aims for universality or transcendence, and is that something not (and never going to be) a part of ‘rhetorical genres’?”? (Wow. Two question marks at the end of that sentence.) That’s a good question. That question assumes that there may be something within literary genres that is outside of the realm of rhetorical genres. Unless, of course, there is something within the realm of rhetorical genres that also aims at universality or transcendence. Interestingly enough, this is a difficult question that I have recently been wondering about, so I appreciate the opportunity to try to put my thinking in to language. I think there is something in rhetorical genres that aims at universality or transcendence. Rhetoric recognizes that human beings are different, but we still attempt to transcend those differences and cooperate with one another. Saying yes is cooperation. And rhetoric tries to get people to say yes with each other, even though we come from different backgrounds, hold different ideologies, and see different sides of a thing.

But is that kind of transcendence different than literature’s aims for transcendence and universality? I don’t think it is. I don’t think it is because, first of all, literature is still within the realm of symbol-using. But second, and more importantly, literature enables human beings to have shared experiences with one another. And it is these shared experiences that allow us to transcend our differences. As embodied spirits, we can’t get outside of our bodies (even if you don’t agree with the first part of that sentence, you’ll still agree with the latter). But we can have experiences that allow us to share common ground with other human beings.

Anyway, that’s where I am right now in my thinking about that subject. If I may, I’d like to change the subject just a bit. I’d like to talk more about Devitt’s book. As I was reading, I became interested in the relationship between genres and Kenneth Burke’s definition of form. Devitt claims that genres cannot merely be defined by formal features, and I tend to agree with her. Although I find it somewhat amusing that, while Devitt claims that genres cannot merely be defined by formal features, she actually does define them by formal features—the act of describing and defining anything must be done by saying what it is. And as soon as you say what something is, you assert that it has some kind of formal feature. As genre is described, it becomes based on formal principles—those that have just been named. But those last three sentences were kind of an aside. What I want to do is compare Burkean form with Devitt’s discussion of genres.

Alright, I’ll be honest—I find it somewhat unfortunate that Devitt only cites one of Burke’s books, The Philosophy of Literary Form. I think she does because that’s the book that sounds like it would talk the most about genres. But what Devitt doesn’t seem to notice is that Burke once said that his entire theory was summed up in his early book, Counter-Statement. This is the book where Burke defines form very differently and very generously. He says that form is “an arousing and fulfilling of an audience’s expectations” (Counter-Statement 217). “A work has form,” he writes, “in so far as one part of it leads a reader to anticipate another part, to be gratified by the sequence” (124). Burke’s definition of form sounds somewhat similar to Devitt’s inclusion of expectations in her theory of genre.

Devitt says that genre is “visible in classification and form, relationships and patterns that develop when language users identify different tasks as being similar” (Writing Genres 31). From the second sentence of her book, Devitt asserts that we use genres “to meet expectations” (1), and this word, expectations, and its variations (expect and expectation) repeatedly appear in Devitt’s book. In other words, she sees some kind of relationship between genres and expectations of readers and audiences.

I see several connections between the way Burke defines form and the way Devitt discusses genres. One connection that I see is in Devitt’s discussion that genres at once both empower and enslave authors. Interestingly enough, Burkean form does the same thing. Authors can apply Burkean form by creating and then satisfying expectations and desires in readers. But an author can’t just say whatever he or she wants to say. Authors create and then fulfill desires and expectations by first getting to know an audience and coming to understand that audience’s ideologies. An author then uses what he or she knows about audience ideologies to create and fulfill desires and expectations in a target audience. This is how Burkean form both constrains and liberates an author, similar to Devitt’s discussion about how genres both empower and enslave authors. Greig Henderson has written the following about Burkean form, but I think it also applies to the way Devitt describes genres: “the rhetoric of form not only has a suasive impact upon the audience; it also has a suasive impact, conscious or unconscious, upon the author. While we are using the formal, rhetorical, and ideological resources of language and literature, they are using us” (Unending Conversations 140).

On Plato and Being Removed from the Truth

What is truth?

As soon as I typed that question, my thoughts went directly to the scene in the New Testament when Pontius Pilate asks Jesus that very question (the reference is John 18:38, in case you were wondering). But I’m not going to discuss Christianity in this post, at least not directly, and not necessarily intentionally. Instead of discussing truth from a Christian perspective, I’m going to discuss it from a–shall we say Pagan?–Pagan perspective. If, of course, we consider Plato to be a Pagan.

Yep, there he is. Plato.

Plato seems to believe that truth is what is–it is things as they really are. A useful definition, but he also seems to believe that we can’t know things as they really are unless we practice philosophy. For him, we’ll remember, philosophy is the love of wisdom and the love of truth (Republic 476e2-3). And truth is not and cannot be discovered via empirical means. At least, that’s what Plato seems to believe.

But I’m not going to take the time right now to discuss how Plato thinks we discover truth. I’m only going to point out a few interesting passages.

In Book VII of his Republic, Plato has Socrates say that “calculation and arithmetic . . . lead us towards truth” (525a6-b1). He believes this because numbers are abstract and universal. Numbers are everywhere, and the principles of mathematics are universal and can be applied in a variety of circumstances.

Perhaps I’ll write more about that subject later.

Moving on, this may sound weird, but I think to some degree reading Plato has helped me to be a better teacher, at least to the degree that he believes this:

[T]he power to learn is present in everyone’s soul and . . . the instrument with which each learns is like an eye that cannot be turned around from darkness to light without turning the whole body. This instrument cannot be turned around from that which is coming into being without turning the whole soul until it is able to study that which is and the brightest thing that is, namely, the one we call the good . . . Then education is the craft concerned with doing this very thing, this turning around, and with how the soul can most easily and effectively be made to do it. It isn’t the craft of putting sight into the soul. Education takes for granted that sight is there but that it isn’t turned the right way or looking where it ought to look, and it tries to redirect it appropriately. (Republic Book VII 518c2-d7)

In other words, Plato always has Socrates ask his students questions, and the point of the dialog form that Plato constantly writes in (except for, perhaps, the Apology) is to show that the most important truths are only discovered, and the best teachers help students to discover for themselves. On that note, David A. Bednar once said, “The best lessons are caught, not taught.”

I wonder, since Aristotle was Plato’s student, how much of the above-quoted passage influenced Aristotle’s thinking. (There’s a whole bunch of stuff throughout Plato that alludes to what will later be known as Aristotle’s golden mean from his Nicomachean Ethics. There’s some other stuff, too, but too much for a parenthetical aside.) At any rate, in the first sentence of Book I of his Metaphysics, Aristotle says that “All human beings by nature desire to know.”

Now, we could talk about how sometimes the questions Plato has Socrates ask are a bit strange. We could also talk about how it gets a bit funny to see Plato constantly making people agree with Socrates (I believe Wayne Booth someplace calls this person that’s always agreeing the “Yes-man”), but Plato is smarter than I think sometimes he is made out to be. Notice that most of his dialogues are at least three times removed from the truth, the actual event. Take Plato’s Symposium, for example. Plato is telling us through the eyes of Apollodorus, who heard the story/dialogue from Aristodemus, who was with Socrates at Agathon’s house on the evening the story takes place. We’re several times removed from the truth here because Plato is trying to teach us that things as they really are are not always directly and consistently available to us as mortals.

I suppose I should now come full circle and quote from the New Testament, this time on purpose. Very well. Here’s the Apostle Paul on a similar idea:

But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God . . . But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:9-11, 14)