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Rhetoric, Science, and the Rhetoric of Science:
An Exercise in Interdisciplinarity

Margaret Hamilton
University of Minnesota

Arguing that "language is a central concern of the twentieth century" (p. 215), Charles Taylor (1985) suggests that the century’s emphasis on language reflects a search for meaning, as well as an awareness that language itself is "puzzling, even enigmatic" (p. 216). Taylor believes that language involves both the concept of activity and the production of understanding, that it simultaneously constitutes public space and facilitates discrimination among foundational human concerns. Furthermore, he submits that the incursion of language-based fields (e.g., linguistics) into other disciplines supports his contention that scholars have increasingly focused on language.

The growing employment of the vocabulary and tools of another language-based field, rhetoric, further upholds Taylor’s observation. Throughout much of the twentieth century, the bulk of rhetorical criticism remained confined to the study of public address in Speech Communication departments, but, with the century’s progress, rhetoric expanded beyond those bounds. Today, as Julie Klein (1996) observes, a "rhetorical turn" in scholarship has established rhetoric’s presence in fields ranging from anthropology to sociology to literacy studies to composition (pp. 66-67). In short, rhetorical terms and concepts are loosely employed by scholars throughout the academy, even though these scholars may have no formal training in, or affiliation with, Speech Communication or Rhetoric departments.

The disciplinary and interdisciplinary issues surrounding rhetoric become salient with the recognition that, as Michel de Certeau (1984) notes, knowledge is always located—either in a negotiated, contested space or a routine, practiced one (p. 139). Disciplines attempt to serve as such routine, practiced spaces. Klein (1996) describes disciplines as knowledge units, which function as boundaries, simultaneously constraining members’ activities and determining what they may or may not do, appropriately. She considers that disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity are "productive tensions in a dynamic of supplement, complement, and critique" (p. 4). Rhetoric is, on this account, located within the practiced place, the discipline, of Speech Communication and Rhetoric departments, even as its interdisciplinary characteristics and its appropriation by other disciplines mean that its terms and employment must consistently be contested. In such an atmosphere of interdisciplinary conflict and tension, however, success must be based on excellence of application and on successful integration of knowledge, rather than on standard disciplinary assumptions or norms (Klein, 1996, pp. 210-211). As Klein observes, "advancing interdisciplinary claims depends on sustained dialogue on the kinds of interdisciplinarity that are practiced, core boundary concepts, critical mass and integrative process, and the double movement of general connection and disciplinary specificity" (p. 132). The productive tensions between disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity necessary to advance knowledge claims become particularly salient in understanding and assessing fields in which the boundaries are still being negotiated, in which consensus has yet to be obtained. Rhetoric of science (i.e., the application of rhetorical terms and tools to the study of science) represents such a field. As a result, examining it from the standpoint of interdisciplinarity can serve as a lens with which to illuminate not only its particular concerns, but those facing other scholars. Rhetoric of science is, after all, inherently interdisciplinary. It has, in Aristotelian terms, two parts using as it does the techne, or art, of rhetoric to comment on the episteme of science. However, its instantiation is much more complex than this simple distillation reveals. After all, rhetoric, as demonstrated above, is not only a discipline, but inherently interdisciplinary. And science cannot be viewed as a single discipline, but as many, ranging from the quantitative to the qualitative, from the physical to the social. If scholars working in the physical sciences have attained a high level of agreement on basic assumptions and definitions, typically centered around quantitative analysis, the human sciences, in particular, have remained resistant to such all-encompassing quantification. Understanding in the human sciences, as Charles Taylor (1995) (following Gadamer) notes, is based on an understanding of ourselves—a self-understanding—even as understanding in the natural sciences, which seek to "identify and then neutralize" such idiosyncratic perspectives, is based on quantification and apparent objectivity (p. 146).

Such an idiosyncratic, hermeneutic approach lies at the heart of rhetoric of science and has made it difficult to achieve consensus. In fact, scholars in the field have spent the past few years debating its status, methodology, and future. This process of self-scrutiny began with Dilip Gaonkar’s essay (1997), which characterized the project as stalled. Gaonkar noted the problems posed by globalization, the thinness of classical rhetorical theory, the difficulties of applying agent- and production-centered theories in contemporary criticism, etc., and saw little future or potential for rhetoric of science. Interested scholars responded to such a wholesale critique in many ways—some defended extant practices, while others accepted Gaonkar’s claims. Yet the field remains without consensus. Instead, discussion and discord continue, as evidenced by the recent essay by William Keith, Steve Fuller, Alan Gross, and Michael Leff (1999) in QJS. Although the attempts at self-examination that have engrossed the project have threatened to mire it in dissension, they can also be seen as a movement forward. They are a step toward establishing the self-understanding Taylor describes as key to the human sciences and an instantiation of the tensions Klein sees as characteristic of the integrative process.

The increased interest in rhetoric, this rhetorical shift or turn, has, in fact, produced two interdisciplinary hurdles which must be negotiated, or at least thoroughly examined, by scholars attempting to use rhetoric in Taylor’s search for meaning. First, just as scholars in other disciplines loosely appropriate rhetorical terms, rhetoricians working in Speech Communication and Rhetoric departments study (and use) the texts of a variety of scholars (e.g., Toulmin, Habermas, Searle) from other disciplines who deal with rhetorical issues. One of the most cogent criticisms of this practice occurs in Dilip Gaonkar’s critique (1997). Gaonkar, examining Alan Gross’ Rhetoric of Science (1996), suggests that Gross’ most prescient criticism has little to do with classical rhetorical theory and that his use of theory is, in fact, nothing short of promiscuous, as it includes an exorbitant number of interdisciplinary theorists and theories (i.e., Habermas, speech act theory, Propp, Aristotle, other aspects of classical rhetorical theory). Such criticisms have proved difficult to gainsay.

A second problem relating to rhetoric’s inter-disciplinarity is, as Gaonkar (1997) observes, the fact that rhetoric’s globalization works against meaningful critical claims. Keith et al. (1999) articulate the difficulties posed by this issue, when they state, "If everything is rhetoric/rhetorical, then it is neither informative nor interesting [to] be told that a practice/discourse/institution is rhetorical" (p. 331). Their point becomes clear when considered in terms of rhetoric of science. If establishing rhetoric’s presence in science can be seen as transforming knowledge (i.e., by demonstrating how proof operates rhetorically even within scientific bastions), once that presence is established, reestablishing it fails to extend knowledge in any way. Scholars need, therefore, to find other innovative aspects of rhetoric to study, or they risk simply restating the obvious.

Other problems have plagued rhetoric of science. For example, scholars have frequently focused on the work of atypical scientists, either those with great fame (e.g., John Angus Campbell on Charles Darwin) or those with a writing style more accessible to humanities scholars (e.g., the Jack Selzer anthology on Stephen Jay Gould) than the standard format of the scientific article. In addition, rhetoricians have distorted science through their lack of subject knowledge. Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt (1994) draw attention to such errors in science studies and complain that these failures are, unfortunately, often met with approbation—either because of scientific ignorance on the part of the humanities scholars who read them, or, more politically, because of their general sympathy with a text’s aims or ambitions and their consequent willingness to overlook its shortcomings. Of course, such errors are potential in any critical endeavor, particularly in one that crosses disciplines or cultures; however, their existence only encourages those in science (e.g., Gross and Levitt) who bewail the intrusions of nonscientists and demand the cessations of their efforts at scientific analysis.

Despite these difficulties, numerous attempts have been made to wrestle with the variety and interdisciplinarity present under the rubric of "rhetoric of science." Greg Myers (1990) and Charles Bazerman (1988), for example, use the tools of their English backgrounds to produce close textual analyses. Carol Berkenkotter and Thomas Huckin (1995), in their work on genre theory, use ethnography, statistics, and theory drawn from a number of disciplines (e.g., sociology, anthropology, linguistics, rhetoric, philosophy, etc.). In Toward a Democratic Science (1998) Richard Harvey Brown, a social theorist, tackles two of the most pressing issues confronting the social sciences and policy makers at the end of the twentieth century: the bifurcation of amoral scientism and irrational moralism, and the related chasm between public participation and technicist language and culture. Brown suggests that viewing science as one form of narrative among many can help to integrate ethics, emotions, and belief into a rational technicist discourse from which they are only too frequently excluded. By this means, he hopes to bridge the gap between science, on the one hand, and politics, on the other. Alan Gross, writing in a Rhetoric department, is working on a study of European scientific articles which examines a large body of non-English texts, written over an extended period of time.

As I have attempted to demonstrate, rhetoric of science is inherently interdisciplinary. Scholars from a variety of backgrounds write under its banner, and rhetoricians of science incorporate texts from a number of sources. Yet this interdisciplinarity, which can be—and often has been—seen as a source of weakness, can also serve as a source of strength. The disciplinary and interdisciplinary tensions and conflicts which, of necessity, emerge as part of the integrative process between disciplines, which, in effect, mark the interactions between located units of knowledge, can illuminate even as they ensure excellence of application. In the end, as Klein notes, it is necessary to establish "a sustained dialogue on the kinds of interdisciplinarity that are practiced" (p. 132). Too often, rhetorical terms are employed without such a dialogue. They are separated from their disciplinary or interdisciplinary baggage. However, the complex interdisciplinary demands of rhetoric of science have necessitated such an ongoing conversation. The resultant tensions can be seen as evidence of the failure of the rhetoric of science project. Understanding the nature of interdisciplinarity, though, reveals that they are, instead, merely an integral part of the integrative process.


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