The Epistemology of Rhetoric: Plato, Doxa and Post-Truth

  • Date:
  • Location: Humanistiska teatern, Engelska parken, Thunbergsvägen 3C, Uppsala
  • Doctoral student: Bengtson, Erik
  • About the dissertation
  • Organiser: Avdelningen för retorik
  • Contact person: Bengtson, Erik
  • Disputation

This thesis aims to develop an epistemology of rhetoric in light of the apparent contemporary post-truth condition of society. Epistemology is hereby understood as concerned with principles for knowledge production within the academic discipline of rhetoric, as well as with an understanding of knowledge production in the public realm.

The first part of the thesis investigates the opposition between opinion (doxa) and true knowledge (epistēmē), which has been said to be at the very heart of the birth of rhetoric itself. I show through readings of Plato's GorgiasPhaedrusTheaetetusMeno and Republic that the contemporary rendering of this birth is, however, haunted by simplification and misrepresentation. Nevertheless, locating and scrutinising these cracks provides avenues toward a contemporary epistemology of rhetoric, and thus to an alternative to the traditional way of re-assessing rhetoric in the wake of Aristotle.

Part 2 investigates fives routes for a contemporary re-invention of doxa. Barthes represents the structuralist and poststructuralist route, Hariman rhetorical ontology, Amossy the pragmatic study of doxa, and Rosengren rhetorical-philosophical anthropology. These engagements draw inspiration from the general direction of Rosengren’s work, while striving for the analytical sharpness of Barthes and Amossy, as well as highlighting the importance of understanding of the function of metadiscourse. 

In part 3, I present ways to reconsider rhetorical theory and how rhetoricians tend to understand argumentation. Seven principles for rhetorical theory are presented, sketching an understanding of the human position that includes embodiment, takes all forms of symbolic influence into account, and considers the sociality and historicity of being, as well as the capacity for human agency. The thesis concludes by presenting a model for rhetorical argumentation which portrays rhetoric as a process of sedimentation and erosion, constituted from an acknowledgement of the reasonableness of everyday wisdom, the establishment of new myths, and the denaturalisation of prevalent beliefs, desires and identities. In its final section, I return to the ethical challenge at the heart of the post-truth narrative, arguing for the potential inherent in the heroic figure of a champion of autonomy.