Design and the New Rhetoric: Productive Arts in the Philosophy of Culture

Buchanan, Richard
Philosophy & Rhetoric

In a seminal article on the study of rhetoric in the Middle Ages, Richard McKeon proposed a strategy for inquiry that illuminated the development of the art in a period where traditional histories had found little of intellectual significance. 2 He argued that instead of studying rhetoric as a simple verbal discipline with a more or less constant subject matter drawn from style or the interpretation of the works of poets and orators or the law, one could study the changing conceptions of subject matter and purpose by which rhetoricians thought to distinguish and oppose their doctrines. By studying the basic philosophic differences that are implicated in changing conceptions of rhetoric, one could discover intelligible patterns in the development of the art that otherwise may appear whimsical, haphazard, arbitrary, or merely verbal. What followed was the discovery of how the doctrines and devices of rhetoric in the Middle Ages spread with little recognition to subject matters far from those ordinarily ascribed to it. McKeon summarized the patterns in three lines of intellectual development. First was the tradition of rhetoricians themselves; second was the tradition of philosophers and theologians; and third was the tradition of logicians. The article concludes with a discussion of how these lines of development were extended in the Renaissance, with implications for the changing relationship of art and science that continues to unfold in the twentieth century around the development of technology.