Danielle Allen’s “Rhetoric, a Good Thing”

In this chapter from Talking to Strangers, Dr. Allen points out that:

In political controversies, there will always be logical arguments for a counterposition, on the basis of exactly the same facts. In this circumstance, no amount of logical argument will determine which speaker to trust. Audiences will turn to assessments of character, and so our capacity to convey our habitual mindsets turns out to be directed not merely at concerns about interpersonal relations, but also at the distrust arising from factual uncertainty. […] People trust those who have the ability to make astute, pragmatically successful decisions in contexts of uncertainty and who can convey that practical levelheadedness through speech. (page 145)

The task Allen has set for us in this chapter is to practice new modes of our habitual citizenship. Although I’ve not assigned it, chapter nine of this book discusses political friendship, fraternity, and love and you may find it useful for your thinking.

Notice that the crucial dilemma in the above quote I’ve shared with you is that the people listening are presented with counterarguments from the same pool of facts. Said another way, in the above situation, Allen assumes that people are having a difficulty assessing the truth of what is said and want to know the truth only in so far as they want to make a decision based on evidence.

But is this really a widespread concern?

Recall our discussion of Arendt’s “Auschwitz on Trial” from earlier. Each of those men had their reasons or senses of justification for acting as they did. But, crucially, what Arendt points out is that ultimately these men are not only guilty of their crimes, but also of failing to live up to a standard of reasoning. “[W]hat is left of the humanity of a man who has completely yielded up to [their moods]?” she asks on page 253.

Let’s look at a contemporary model for this question, embodied by John Turano, the man embraced by the Alt-Right and whom they call “Based Spartan.”

In our next section of our class we’ll be looking to Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant to learn about how we’ve come to think we know what we think we know.