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Undermining Others’ Certainty – But Doing It the Right Way

Scholars of the classics, linguists, and literature researchers join forces to study the rhetoric of uncertainty

Nov 26, 2010

Welche dialogischen Mittel führen in einem (Streit-)Gespräch zu der beabsichtigten Umstimmung? - Wissenschaftler untersuchen die „Rhetorik der Verunsicherung“.
What means are used in dialogues to prompt a change of viewpoint? Researchers investigate the “rhetoric of uncertainty.” Image Credit: morgueFile

It can convince, convert, bring insight. And it can mislead, frighten, and confuse. Rhetoric is the “art of speaking well,” as the Roman scholar Quintilian defined it long ago. But what does “speaking well” mean in the first place?

“Successful rhetoric is aimed at convincing another person to share your own point of view – by using ethical, logical, and emotional means of persuasion,” explains literature scholar Martin Vöhler. But how successful a person is in convincing someone else definitely depends on more than just actual arguments. Even in antiquity, philosophers such as Plato and Socrates knew that rhetorical means could not be used in isolation to excite, win over, or please audience members. “Rhetoric can also be successful if it convinces others through ugly tricks like irony and tactics,” says Vöhler, who works at the Institute of Greek and Latin Languages and Literatures and the Institute of German and Dutch Languages and Literatures at Freie Universität Berlin. How these “tricks” work and lead the audience to become uncertain – that is exactly what Vöhler aims to study within the Languages of Emotion Cluster of Excellence funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). Together with Therese Fuhrer, a professor of classical languages and literatures at the Institute of Greek and Latin Languages and Literatures at Freie Universität Berlin and linguistics professor Monika Schwarz-Friesel of the Institute of Language and Communication at Technische Universität Berlin, lecturer Vöhler is heading up the research project entitled “The Rhetoric of Mental Disturbance – Patterns of Negative Affect Strategies and Their Persuasive Function.”

“We start from the hypothesis that neither in classical training in rhetorical theory, nor in modern research on persuasion today, has the question of causing uncertainty been asked and systematically examined,” Vöhler explains. With this in mind, the researchers are asking what means are used in dialogues from Greek and Roman antiquity, but also in modern discussions and debates, to unsettle the other party and finally prompt the intended change of viewpoint. The researchers from the fields of classics, linguistics, and literary studies use their respective empirical, theoretical, and historical approaches to research in order to study the functional side of “negative rhetoric” as comprehensively as possible.

Vöhler cites Plato’s early dialogues as an example of the rhetoric of uncertainty in ancient Greece. In his dialogue entitled Meno, Plato has the character of the same name compare Socrates to a torpedo fish: Like that fish, he says, Socrates numbs everyone who approaches him by driving them into a condition called aporia, or a state of puzzlement.

The research project encompasses three sub-projects, one each in the fields of Latin language and literature, Greek language and literature, and modern linguistics. Each of them is to be explored as part of a dissertation project, each of which will study and depict essential elements of the posited “rhetoric of uncertainty.” At the same time, the aim is not only to investigate the various sources with an eye to their specific arsenals of destructive means of understanding, such as in the early dialogues of Plato, in speeches and letters written by Cicero or St. Augustine, in Christian sermons or in records of modern disputes. Rather, it is important to the researchers to ensure that the various approaches taken in linguistics, rhetoric, and literary studies complement one another. “Our intent is to hold regular meetings with the doctoral candidates to develop a new approach that combines empirical text analysis, experimentation, and theory,” Vöhler says.

Further Information

Dr. phil. Martin Vöhler
Languages of Emotion Cluster of Excellence at Freie Universität Berlin
Tel.: +49 (0)30 838 57414