Volume 22, Number 2, Summer 2005
How Did Rhetoric Get Into Science? And What Is It Doing In There, Anyway?
Rebecca Carruthers Den Hoed
University of Calgary
These two fundamental questions are asked and answered by Heather Graves in her recent book, Rhetoric in(to) Science: Style as Invention in Inquiry. While these two questions have been asked and answered for many years—since the inception of rhetoric of science studies in the 1980s, if not earlier—Graves is unwilling to stand back and let other rhetoricians haggle over the answers without her; and she dons her academic armor and pushes her way into the fray, determined to defend her view of the epistemic and ontological function of rhetoric (in general) and rhetoric in science (in particular).
The approach she takes to these questions is refreshing: rather than analyze scientific documents to glean from them rhetoric’s role in the construction of scientific knowledge, she studies the linguistic practices of three physicists as they “perform their experimental work” (2) in a solid-state physics lab. By doing this, she hopes to catch the physicists eyeball-deep in the process of scientific interpretation—a “dynamic process that other rhetoricians of science have not [yet] documented or analyzed” (2)—so that she can identify the role rhetoric plays in shaping and directing that process.
In particular, she wants to understand the role that style plays in shaping and directing scientific inquiry. She takes up the old adage that style is opposed to and less than substance (alas, an adage still alive and well in the sciences, especially the natural sciences), and tests it against the discursive practices of contemporary scientists. When she does this, the adage (thankfully) falls apart, and her findings confirm and elaborate a range of theories that posit epistemic and ontological functions of analogy, metaphor, and metonymy in inquiry.
Style is substance, Graves (ultimately) argues. And while style might not constitute science, making all science rhetorical (a claim Graves distances herself from), style is more than mere ornament, and scientists use it to do more than dress up their ideas for public display and fancy parties. In fact, Graves argues, certain stylistic devices—namely metaphor and metonymy—are “cognitive and conceptual processes” (23) that structure scientists’ reasoning and perception. These devices don’t just make the things they describe more appealing; they can create new knowledge about and confer existence on these things.
Overall, Graves’ argument unfolds as follows:
While this breakdown of Graves’ text is brief, I’ve kept it that way so I can emphasize some key areas in Graves’ argument, areas of interest to scholars of rhetoric and composition, in particular. From my perspective—as a rhetorician, rhetorician of science, and teacher of technical communication—there are four areas in Graves’ text worthy of special attention:
The first area is one I’ve already mentioned briefly: Graves’ focus on the scientific interpretive process rather than on the documents that result from this process. This focus not only fills a need in the rhetoric of science (insofar as most existing studies neglect the interpretive process because it’s difficult to access scientists as they perform their work), but also reminds us that studying scientific texts alone is not enough to draw conclusions about the function of rhetoric in science as a whole. Graves’ work shows us that studying rhetoric in contemporary scientific practice (as they work out their ideas in the lab) can challenge existing theory in unexpected, if subtle, ways. For instance, Graves’ study of metaphor in solid-state physics challenges some feminist critiques of physics as “masculine gendered” (181) and saturated with sexist language; while Graves’ findings do not topple these critiques entirely (her findings, in fact, confirm some critiques of the masculinist impulse in science toward domination and mastery), her findings are enough to suggest future avenues of research.
The second area in Graves’ text worthy of attention is her concerted effort to import theories of cognitive linguistics and psychology into the debate about the epistemic status of rhetoric, and to confirm and illustrate these (foreign yet fruitful) theories with careful linguistic and rhetorical analysis. This enables Graves to systemically confirm and illustrate a claim that many rhetoricians either take for granted or stubbornly dispute, because we have so much rhetorical theory attesting to it but so few systematic models and so little verifiable evidence supporting it: namely, the claim that some elements of rhetoric, like analogy and metaphor, are epistemic. As Graves points out, the debate over this claim in rhetorical circles has stalled somewhat in recent years and is currently benefiting from developments from within cognitive psychology and linguistics. Graves helps her rhetorician-readers stay abreast of these developments in cognitive science, and she adds to a growing body of scholarship that studies figurative language from a promising cognitive-rhetorical framework (see, for instance, Baake’s Metaphor and Knowledge and Brown’s Making Truth).
The third area of Graves’ text I’d like to highlight – in fact celebrate – is her discussion of metonymy in scientific inquiry. Quite frankly, analogy and metaphor have had their day in the sun; they have been discussed backwards and forwards, left and right, to the point where rhetoricians of science and philosophers of science are dizzy with the thought of them. From Black’s Models and Metaphors, to Ricoeur’s The Rule of Metaphor, to Lakoff and Johnson’s popular Metaphors We Live By, to the dozens of book-length studies on metaphor and analogy I dare not list here, metaphors, analogies, and models have been discussed near to death. While I’m the first to admit they have been discussed so much, in large part, because they are fruitful topics of investigation, I also feel compelled to point out that if we are to develop a comprehensive and modern theory of style any time soon, then we had best follow Graves’ lead and extend our research beyond the purview of metaphor.
Graves’ survey of cognitive theories of metonymy also serves as a jumping-off point for a fascinating discussion of rhetoric and ontology. By exploring the cognitive processes underpinning metonymy (which she collapses with synecdoche for simplicity), Graves illustrates how metonymy “blurs the line between the real world and the world of concepts” (210) by reducing theoretical concepts to concrete, material things and conferring on those theoretical concepts the perception of existence (if not actual existence) (222). In this sense, she demonstrates that metonymy has an ontological function in scientific inquiry: while it doesn’t change the “brute facts of nature” (McGuire & Melia qtd. in Graves 231) or anything quite so radical, it does shape scientists’ mental models of reality and perceptions of what exists; and insofar as “the mental model of reality we create through our use of language is valid and real to us …metonymy … has psychological validity’” (Radden & Kövecses qtd. in Graves 205). Given the tendency among rhetoricians to veer away from claims such as this—that language can confer existence (or the perception of existence) on the very things it describes—I found Graves’ claim invigorating and carefully reasoned, to boot.
The fourth and final area of Graves’ text that warrants special attention is her closing chapter, which discusses the implications of her findings on teaching writing, especially technical writing. Most noteworthy is the evidence she collects in support of the claim that learning to write like a scientist means learning to think like a scientist. Her findings confirm what genre studies (and much of the history of rhetoric) has been arguing for years, that the discourse conventions of a community embody its ways of acting in and thinking about the world, so that learning a community’s discourse conventions means learning how to be (in thought and action) a member of that community. This means learning to write like a scientist is an integral part of learning to be a scientist. So the question then becomes “how do we teach students to write like scientists so they can be better scientists?” In answer to this question, Graves recommends several strategies, including the following:
Drawing from my own experience as a teacher of technical communication, I found these recommendations appealing: they confirm several contemporary theories about how to teach technical writing, and they encourage technical writing instructors to immerse their students in the authentic discourse conventions of their discipline. However, I couldn’t help but wonder how applicable these recommendations would be outside the context of a physics lab populated by a handful of professors and graduate students. Would these recommendations work for large classes? For unruly undergraduates unwilling to take responsibility for their own learning? For subjects other than physics? While I’m playing devil’s advocate, here, these recommendations need to be considered carefully before they are mapped into teaching contexts unlike the one Graves observed.
From the point of view of a rhetorician (and rhetorician of science), I did come across some troublesome areas worth mentioning. One such area was terminology: I noticed a fair degree of slippage in some of Graves’ key terms , including the terms rhetoric, style, and science. For instance, the term rhetoric was variously defined as (or conflated with): “style” (17); “language” (17); “style and arrangement” (17); “techniques of persuasion” (30); techniques that “mov[e] the listener to act on [a] belief” (35); techniques people use when they feel “passionate about [a] discussion” (36); and techniques use to “teach, move, or delight” (47). While these definitions might seem—to some readers—as similar enough to pass for a coherent definition of rhetoric, for a rhetorician they are different enough to be troublesome and sometimes contradictory. Similar slippage in the terms style (which is used to refer to analogy, even though analogy is a topic of invention, not an element of style), and science (which is used to refer to a range of activities spanning 2500 years as if they were the same activity) might again seem negligible to some, but these slips cause considerable confusion in some passages of the text (especially the introductory and concluding chapters). In particular, the terminological miscue in the book’s title – which proclaims it is about style even though analogy, one of the three “stylistic elements” discussed in the book, is not an element of style – takes its toll on the coherence of Graves’ argument.
The second chapter of the book is also somewhat troublesome: ostensibly an historical survey of theories of invention intended to show readers how rhetorical theories of invention were appropriated by science, this chapter diverges from the book’s central argument, which is fundamentally about rhetorical style and scientific inquiry, rather than rhetorical invention and scientific inquiry. Furthermore, when style is mentioned in the chapter, it is often assumed to be part of rhetorical invention, when this is not the case and when this is an assertion that requires careful proof. The chapter’s discussion of several figures in the history of rhetoric is also uneven, devoting a few sentences to some scholars and several pages to others without explanation or justification, and relying more on dated secondary sources than on contemporary interpretations of historically situated rhetorical theories. In its current form, this second chapter doesn’t offer rhetoricians much they don’t already know—or that don’t already teach in undergraduate courses in the history of rhetoric—and it might mislead philosophers of science (who have less background in the relationship between rhetoric and science) with an uneven and sometime dated depiction of rhetorical invention in history.
Overall, though, these two troublesome areas in the text are far outweighed by the questions raised by Graves, and are likely only noticeable to rhetoricians already familiar with the nuances of and ever-changing relationships between rhetoric, style, and science. Graves’ study serves as a jumping-off point for discussions about the ontological status of rhetoric (now that rhetoricians are spilling out of the realm of epistemology and into the realm of ontology); the development of a comprehensive and truly modern theory of style (one that is rooted in—or at least friendly with—contemporary theories of cognitive psychology and linguistics); and the strengths and weaknesses of studying unnatural, conscious articulation of reasoning to track the relationship between cognition and language (a topic that will likely be complicated by emerging theories of the unconscious and tacit knowledge).
Baake, K. Metaphor and Knowledge: The Challenge of Writing Science. New York: State U of New York P, 2003.
Black, M. Models and Metaphors: Studies in Language and Philosophy. New York: Cornell UP, 1962.
Brown, T. Making Truth: Metaphor in Science. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 2003.
Graves, H. Rhetoric in(to) Science: Style as Invention in Inquiry. New Jersey: Hampton P, 2005.
Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.
Ricoeur, Paul. The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language. Trans. Robert Czerny. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1975/2000.
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