Cover image for Kant and the Promise of Rhetoric By Scott R. Stroud

Kant and the Promise of Rhetoric

Scott R. Stroud


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ISBN: 978-0-271-06419-2

$37.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06420-8

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288 pages
6" × 9"

Kant and the Promise of Rhetoric

Scott R. Stroud

“A much-needed and important contribution to the field of Kantian studies. It expands the field of ‘impure ethics’ in new directions and will trigger renewed interest in this neglected dimension of ‘moral anthropology.’”


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Immanuel Kant is rarely connected to rhetoric by those who study philosophy or the rhetorical tradition. If anything, Kant is said to see rhetoric as mere manipulation and as not worthy of attention. In Kant and the Promise of Rhetoric, Scott Stroud presents a first-of-its-kind reappraisal of Kant and the role he gives rhetorical practices in his philosophy. By examining the range of terms that Kant employs to discuss various forms of communication, Stroud argues that the general thesis that Kant disparaged rhetoric is untenable. Instead, he offers a more nuanced view of Kant on rhetoric and its relation to moral cultivation.

For Kant, certain rhetorical practices in education, religious settings, and public argument become vital tools to move humans toward moral improvement without infringing on their individual autonomy. Through the use of rhetorical means such as examples, religious narratives, symbols, group prayer, and fallibilistic public argument, individuals can persuade other agents to move toward more cultivated states of inner and outer autonomy. For the Kant recovered in this book, rhetoric becomes another part of human activity that can be animated by the value of humanity, and it can serve as a powerful tool to convince agents to embark on the arduous task of moral self-cultivation.

“A much-needed and important contribution to the field of Kantian studies. It expands the field of ‘impure ethics’ in new directions and will trigger renewed interest in this neglected dimension of ‘moral anthropology.’”
“It is a rare and significant accomplishment to discuss Kants philosophy in a way that gives voice to the inherent energy and abiding relevance of his thinking, and Strouds book realizes this goal in an exemplary way. Indeed, his reconstruction of Kantian rhetoric offers an image of communication that we would do well to promote in todays world—a form of communication that stresses the necessity of respect for others without rejecting the possibility and meaning of critical discourse and rational debate.”
“For those engaged in the old debate between so-called philosophy and so-called rhetoric, this text is invaluable for de-villaining a long-time straw man, but anyone interested in the issues of universalism and pragmatism will find a useful model in Stroud’s work.”
“Stroud’s work occupies a unique place; no student of rhetoric has delved so deeply into Kant’s corpus or advanced so sympathetic an interpretation of ‘Kantian rhetoric.’”
“Scott Stroud’s Kant and the Promise of Rhetoric is a new classic in the history of rhetoric. . . . [W]e need authors like Stroud at the core of the field, questioning the norms of criticism and practice, carefully arguing from historical texts, and challenging us to a higher moral project of criticism and practice.”
“A thoughtful and important contribution. This scholarly work is worth purchasing, reading, citing, and using in the classroom.”
“Kant’s work has rarely been an object of analysis or concern for rhetorical scholars or for the field of communication studies. We have, perhaps unfortunately, assumed that the story of Kant’s dismissal of rhetoric was accurate. This book certainly demolishes that naïve interpretation of Kant.”
“Stroud’s study is an extremely valuable approach to a far-reaching topic.”
“Scott Stroud brings unparalleled knowledge of communication theory to the study of Kant's moral philosophy. His book thus makes a unique contribution to recent work on Kant's conception of morality in real life, enriching our understanding of the moral education of children and the moral support that adults can give one another.”
“Against the long-standing interpretation of Kant as dismissive of rhetoric, Scott Stroud offers a close reading of Kantian texts on aesthetics, religion, and education. He discloses a thinker deeply concerned with the value and use of communicative action capable of engaging moral differences. In this extension of his earlier Deweyan reflections on the nature of rhetorical experience, Stroud engages Kant’s educative discourse of aesthetics, religion, and morality with an intriguing and important rhetorical sensitivity. Kant and the Promise of Rhetoric thus offers us a Kant relevant to formulating a notion of communication that embraces certain types of rhetoric and is important for the formation of an ideal human community.”
“Scott Stroud’s groundbreaking study accomplishes a dual feat: it makes Kant genuinely useful to the rhetorical arts, where he has long been regarded as an outcast, and it demonstrates the much-neglected relevance of rhetoric to Kant’s philosophical project. This book is essential reading not only for Kant scholars, but for all who seek to use words not merely to persuade but to educate.”
“Kant's dismissal of rhetoric and the resulting dismissal of Kant by scholars of rhetoric is a legacy that has influenced American scholars for decades. Finally, Scott Stroud breaks the deadlock with an imaginative and well-argued engagement with Kant that deploys a nuanced understanding of rhetoric—and of Kant. Regardless of whether readers agree with Stroud, he provides a reading of Kant and rhetoric that any scholar deeply interested in the relationship of rhetoric and philosophy must engage.”
“Ever since he called rhetoric an art for ‘deceiving by beautiful show,’ Kant has been one of rhetoricians’ favorite punching bags, second only to Plato. Scott Stroud’s ambitious book calls off the fight. Representing less a counterpunch than an embrace, Kant and the Promise of Rhetoric shows how Kant and rhetoricians are actually fighting for the same cause—namely, for the creation of an ethical, cosmopolitan democratic community that seeks to enlighten rather than degrade, unify rather than divide, and reason rather than react. Perfectionist in tendency, this book represents a challenge to all utilitarian conceptions of rhetoric that treat an audience as a mere means to an end, establishing in their place a Kantian moral standard that treats the other as the self. Here, finally, is a Kant who speaks our language.”
“An important, ground-breaking study on Kant’s apparently confusing take on rhetoric.”

Scott R. Stroud is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He is also the author of John Dewey and the Artful Life: Pragmatism, Aesthetics, and Morality (Penn State, 2011).



Introduction: Kant and Rhetoric?

1. Tracing the Sources of Kant’s Apparent Animosity to Rhetoric

2. Kant on Beauty, Art, and Rhetoric

3. Freedom, Coercion, and the Search for the Ideal Community

4. Pedagogical Educative Rhetoric: Education, Rhetoric, and the Use of Example

5. Religious Educative Rhetoric: Religion and Ritual as Rhetorical Means of Moral Cultivation

6. Critical Educative Rhetoric: Kant and the Demands of Critical Communication

Conclusion: Rhetorical Experience and the Promise of Rhetorical Practice





Kant and Rhetoric?

Death often brings on its wings chances to reflect on the meaning of life. Indeed, the death of a close friend or relative not only spurs private reflection but also demands rhetorical activity—speech to comfort the living, to praise the dead, and to send the departed away from this life in the right ritual circumstances. Like any rhetorical situation calling for artful speech, the actions employed and effects created depend on the situation and the characteristics of the specific rhetor. It is such a combination that we see when the philosopher Immanuel Kant felt called on to act as more than a thinker when his friend and student, Johann Friedrich von Funk, died on May 4, 1760. Funk had studied with Kant for only a year in Königsberg, but he had impressed the developing philosopher. His death so enlivened Kant that on June 6, 1760—just more than a month after Funk’s passing—Kant penned a letter of condolence to the deceased’s mother. In this document Kant meets the demands of the situation and praises Funk’s character: he extols the “life and character of the blessedly deceased” (2:43) and uses this opportunity to rhetorically “express the respect that I have entertained for my former pupil” (2:41). Funk is said to have “shown much diligence in study,” to have “lived withdrawn and quietly,” and to have prepared for “an uplifting end with the fortitude and ardent devotion of a Christian” (2:43). Kant also assuaged the grieving mother with the thought that her son was buried at the Königsberg cathedral.

So far, Kant had met the demands of a rhetor eulogizing the deceased—he comforted the survivors and honored the dead. These moves are very much in line with what authorities on epideictic, or ceremonial, speaking, such as Aristotle or Cicero would advise in such situations. Yet Kant was a philosopher, and he was fixating on ends beyond the situation at hand. In addressing the immediate needs of the grieving mother, Kant also wanted to make a deeply philosophical point—one that concerned how we value life and the myriad activities and pursuits it entails. Life was not about mere worldly success or happiness. This was a message that Kant conveyed in many other texts in many other ways. Here, Kant adapted to the situation in making this point, since simply lecturing on the meaning of life and human virtue would not only fail to satisfy the saddened mother; it might anger her. Kant’s message demanded adaptation, so he ensconces his reflections on life and its values in the context created by Funk’s untimely demise. Indeed, Kant begins his letter to Funk’s mother by appealing to the opportunity opened up to him (and perhaps to her) by Funk’s death:

If people living amidst the turmoil of their practical affairs and diversions were occasionally to mix in serious moments of instructive contemplation, to which they are called by the daily display of the vanity of our intentions regarding the fate of their fellow citizens: thereby their pleasures would perhaps be less intoxicating, but their position would take up a calm serenity of the soul, by which accidents are no longer unexpected, and even the gentle melancholy, this tender feeling with which a noble heart swells up if it considers in solitary stillness the contemptibleness of that which, with us, commonly ranks as great and important, would contain more true happiness than the violent merriment of the flippant and the loud laughing of fools. (2:39)

Kant is eloquently claiming that we ought to wish for those moments that compel us to consider who we are, what we value, and how we ought to orient ourselves to the changing winds of fate and fortune. Funk’s death, Kant submits, is just that sort of occasion. The deaths brought on by wars often fail to touch those living in “the quiet stillness of civic life” (2:40), but the deaths of those close to us in this life can rattle our everyday slumbers. As Kant puts it to Funk’s mother, seeing the death of one shows us the potential end of our own life—we think, “I am a human being, and what befalls humans beings can also happen to me. . . . I find myself in the turmoil of business and in the throng of life’s duties, and my friend just recently also found himself in the same, I enjoy my life quietly and without worry, but who knows for how long?” (2:40). Funk’s death should remind all those close to him—including Kant and Funk’s mother—that the values and ease of everyday life are not as concrete as they may seem.

Kant wants to use the occasion of Funk’s death not only to speak about the deceased but also to say something of educative value for those listening. As of June 6, 1760, this audience was Kant and the mother receiving the letter. Later that year, however, Kant had his letter published by J. F. Driest to distribute it among his friends. In one sense, Kant was using this death for a purposeful end. Yet by linking his thoughts on the meaning of life and the wise disposition one ought to take in response to this specific event, Kant opened up rhetorical room for such a merger; in a real sense, Kant’s ruminations were a response to this unfortunate situation and provide the context in which Funk’s way of living can be honored. Beyond this, his rhetorical maneuvering in the face of this tragedy illustrated the value Kant always placed on what can be called “educative” endeavors—activities meant to make the most out of human capacities. When we choose to focus on the wrong things, we suffer and corrupt ourselves. When we attend to the right things and act in the right ways, we become what we should be. Thus, it is not a stretch to claim that Kant is educating the mother—or all who read this letter in its later public iteration—as to the worth of reflecting on what life’s value is. Such a reading, informed by Kant’s activity here as a rhetorical response to this death, is buttressed by Kant’s own thoughts. While consoling Funk’s mother, he also makes a point to all that have been in similar situations: “The man of skill, of merit, of wealth is not always the one to whom providence has set the farthest end to his life in order to fully enjoy the fruits of all of these” (2:41). Our lives are too often cut short for reasons we cannot seem to fathom.

Kant’s activity in this letter, contrary to the dry and metaphysically focused caricatures we typically receive of his demeanor, is eloquent, rhetorically sensitive, and focused on persuading his readers toward a specific end. Yet the end to which he directs his friends, Funk’s mother, and anyone else listening to these words is uniquely Kantian in that it forcefully advocates the centerpiece to his later ethics—that human life ought to be guided and measured by virtue and not by external concerns such as happiness, wealth, worldly prestige, and so on. In this letter from 1760, Kant gives Funk’s mother (and us) a clear reading of what kind of disposition or orientation toward life we ought to don:

The wise (although how seldom one such is found!) directs attention primarily to his great destiny beyond the grave. He does not lose sight of obligation, which is imposed by his position which Providence has designed for him. Rational in his plans, but without obstinacy; confident of the fulfillment of his hope, but without impatience; modest in wishes, without dictating; trusting, without insisting; he is eager in the performance of his duties but ready in the midst of all these endeavors to follow the order of the Most High with a Christian resignation if it is pleasing to Him to call him away from the stage where he has been placed, in the middle of all these endeavors. (2:42)

Kant does not explicitly claim that Funk was such a wise person. But by weaving in this philosophical reflection on the meaning of life as brought on by Funk’s passing, Kant is rhetorically connecting this educative counsel with the task of honoring Funk in speech.

These themes of a rationally guided life, the correct valuation of our projects in comparison to moral duty, and the connection between religion and life are themes that continued to affect Kant’s philosophical work. As is evidenced by his letter to Funk’s mother, Kant clearly had some sort of rhetorical sensibility. One could see his letter as an attempt to reorient those saddened by Funk’s passage (and prescient enough to attend to Kant’s message). Thus, it is not unreasonable to expect some connection between moral cultivation—optimizing how we value ourselves, others, and our various ends—and rhetoric in Kant’s thought. Judging from the received accounts of Kant, however, rhetoric, or the art of persuasion through communicative means, was connected to his system only in a negative capacity. Kant turned down the post of professor of poetry at the University of Königsberg in 1764, even though he was eager for academic advancement and funds. Bravely enough, he even wrote back to the university that he would decline this post in the hopes that a professorship in logic and metaphysics would be open soon. It seems Kant would rather not be fully employed in university life if his only choice was that of teaching anything to do with the artful use of language. This reading of Kant’s general attitude toward rhetoric, poetry, and the other arts of communication has never left him. Scholars have, by and large, not taken up the challenging of examining and reassessing Kant’s apparent antipathy to rhetoric. Most fail to see any sympathetic connection between the study of communication and persuasion (“rhetoric,” in short) and Immanuel Kant. Perhaps this is because Kant seemed notoriously hostile to rhetoric—in his Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790), he refers to “rhetoric” as the art of “deceiving by means of beautiful illusion (as an ars oratoria).” He also criticizes rhetoric as moving “people, like machines, to a judgment in important matters” (5:327–28). This perceived antipathy toward rhetoric has not encouraged much sympathetic reflection on Kant’s relation to the rhetorical tradition. Only a handful of articles deal with Kant and rhetoric, and there are no book-length treatments of this subject. Philosophers writing on Kant’s aesthetics follow this lead and do not include any extended, nonpejorative notion of rhetoric in their explanations of Kant.