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Rhetoric’s Pragmatism

Essays in Rhetorical Hermeneutics

Steven Mailloux


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RSA Series in Transdisciplinary Rhetoric

Rhetoric’s Pragmatism

Essays in Rhetorical Hermeneutics

Steven Mailloux

“Touching on issues of transdisciplinary interest, Mailloux’s book will attract readers from varied disciplines. Not only that, readers will be forced consider and reconsider the assumptions that undergird their interests in philosophy, rhetoric, and cultural and reception studies. Eschewing defined borders and instead seeking to build academic bridges, Mailloux once again opens up space for engaging intellectual conversations.”


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For over thirty years, Steven Mailloux has championed and advanced the field of rhetorical hermeneutics, a historically and theoretically informed approach to textual interpretation. This volume collects fourteen of his most recent influential essays on the methodology, plus an interview.

Following from the proposition that rhetorical hermeneutics uses rhetoric to practice theory by doing history, this book examines a diverse range of texts from literature, history, law, religion, and cultural studies. Through four sections, Mailloux explores the theoretical writings of Heidegger, Burke, and Rorty, among others; Jesuit educational treatises; and products of popular culture such as Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and Star Trek: The Next Generation. In doing so, he shows how rhetorical perspectives and pragmatist traditions work together as two mutually supportive modes of understanding, and he demonstrates how the combination of rhetoric and interpretation works both in theory and in practice. Theoretically, rhetorical hermeneutics can be understood as a form of neopragmatism. Practically, it focuses on the production, circulation, and reception of written and performed communication.

A thought-provoking collection from a preeminent literary critic and rhetorician, Rhetoric’s Pragmatism assesses the practice and value of rhetorical hermeneutics today and the directions in which it might head. Scholars and students of rhetoric and communication studies, critical theory, literature, law, religion, and American studies will find Mailloux’s arguments enlightening and essential.

“Touching on issues of transdisciplinary interest, Mailloux’s book will attract readers from varied disciplines. Not only that, readers will be forced consider and reconsider the assumptions that undergird their interests in philosophy, rhetoric, and cultural and reception studies. Eschewing defined borders and instead seeking to build academic bridges, Mailloux once again opens up space for engaging intellectual conversations.”
“These essays elegantly argue for the urgency of studying rhetoric in the twenty-first century. . . . Rhetoric’s Pragmatism will earn the same high distinction that has marked Mailloux’s career over the last three decades and more.”
“This book participates in multiple disciplinary conversations as few books do. Steven Mailloux doesn’t even try to be transdisciplinary—after all his years of study and scholarship, it has become natural to him. Thus, while Rhetoric’s Pragmatism will especially appeal to the rhetoric community, it will also be required reading for historians, educators, theologians, scholars in American literature and culture, cultural studies scholars, and the host of scholars in the humanities who want to understand how a refined and expansive project can draw from and influence so many.”
“The essays of Mailloux’s monograph invent, collectively, a new model for managing the infinitizing complexity of rhetorical hermeneutics. They model, too, practices of reading with which to make ourselves against the shuttle of our times, on behalf of fuller relations between the partialities of past and future. The book is a gem of scholarship.”
“Steven Mailloux’s work has been at the center of conversations about the intersection of rhetoric and pragmatism, and his latest collection of essays, Rhetoric’s Pragmatism, makes the case for why we should continue to attend to this intersection.”

Steven Mailloux is President’s Professor of Rhetoric at Loyola Marymount University and the author or editor of several other books, including Disciplinary Identities: Rhetorical Paths of English, Speech, and Composition and Reception Histories: Rhetoric, Pragmatism, and American Cultural Politics.





1. From Segregated Schools to Hanging Chads

2. Euro-American Rhetorical Pragmatism

3. Humanist Controversies and Rhetorical Humanism

4. Rhetorical Pragmatism and Histories of New Media


5. Making Comparisons

6. Enactment History, Jesuit Practices, and Rhetorical Hermeneutics

7. Jesuit Comparative Theo-rhetoric


8. Hermeneutics, Deconstruction, Allegory

9. Theotropic Logology

10. Jesuit Eloquentia Perfecta and Theotropic Logology

11. Rhetorical Ways of Proceeding


12. Judging and Hoping

13. Narrative as Embodied Intensities

14. Conversation with Keith Gilyard

15. Political Theology in Douglass and Melville




What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-moral Sense”

Incredible, all of it, but especially the parts having to do with travel and communications.

—Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven: A Novel

Most of these essays were written over the last dozen years. All of them illustrate Rhetorical Hermeneutics, a critical perspective on using language and making sense in theoretical and historical contexts. This combination of rhetoric and interpretation works within two broad interdisciplinary domains: Contributing to ongoing theoretical debates, it represents a rhetoricized form of neopragmatism; in practicing historical interpretation, it exemplifies a cultural studies focused on the production, circulation, and reception of rhetorical effects. The sequence of these essays moves from emphasizing the former, Rhetorical Pragmatism, toward stressing the latter, Cultural Rhetoric Study—though it is a characteristic of Rhetorical Hermeneutics that these two components often overlap or appear at the same time. This simultaneity is captured in a slogan: Rhetorical Hermeneutics often uses rhetoric to practice theory by doing history.

The collection as a whole demonstrates how rhetorical perspectives and pragmatist traditions work together. I argue throughout that these two modes of thought are mutually supportive and productively interpenetrate. Thus the title Rhetoric’s Pragmatism can be read both as an assertion about the centrality of rhetoric’s pragmatist concern with practical effects and a claim that Pragmatism itself can be viewed as deeply rhetorical in its traditional preoccupations. Not only is rhetoric pragmatist, but Pragmatism is rhetorical. It was not simply a coincidence that the so-called “Return of Rhetoric” and the “Revival of Pragmatism” took place concurrently during the 1960s and 70s and continue to develop together in the twenty-first century.

The following essays range over several disciplinary and interdisciplinary fields, including literature, history, law, religion, philosophy, education, and cultural studies. Rhetoric, itself an interdiscipline, provides a vehicle for crossing disciplinary borders to do critical work in various intellectual spaces. Travelling through the disciplinary landscape, rhetoric brings with it certain methods and traditions that can transform the environments it visits even as it is transformed by those environments, absorbing and reflecting on their practices, theories, and histories. A form of rhetoric study, Rhetorical Hermeneutics is transdisciplinary in the particular way it moves over, across, and through disciplines. As a theory of Rhetorical Pragmatism, it tries to slide above or around particular fields to provide a framework, a meta-language, for understanding disciplines as specific institutional sets of rhetorical and interpretive practices for knowledge-production and dissemination. As a historical practice of Cultural Rhetoric Study, it travels across disciplinary boundaries and tracks the mobility of tropes, arguments, and narratives along intersecting paths of thought. In both theory and practice, rhetorical hermeneutics demonstrates how traveling rhetoric can transform the disciplinary matrices in which it moves and, simultaneously, how that mobile rhetoric is itself transformed in its movement through disciplines by way of interpretive translation and rhetorical exchange.

Though all essays here attempt to push forward the agenda of Rhetorical Hermeneutics, either emphasizing Rhetorical Pragmatism or illustrating Cultural Rhetoric Study or doing both at the same time, each originally responded to a different rhetorical opportunity, usually an invitation to enter into a conversation about a certain topic. This opportunity involved joining a collective project such as a conference panel or special journal issue. In describing the sequence of essays, I’d like to comment, not only on the way each builds on its predecessors, but also on the particular rhetorical contexts of collaboration out of which each emerged.


From Segregated Schools to Dimpled Chads (Chapter 1) uses the narrow topic of theory in legal arguments to provide another general introduction to rhetorical hermeneutics through a restatement of its theoretical claims as Rhetorical Pragmatism and an illustration of its practical, historical work as Cultural Rhetoric Study. Moving from literature to law, the essay describes how theoretical reflection pushes practical arguments forward in the context of interpreting the U.S. Constitution, focusing on famous court opinions concerned with racial equality in education and recount procedures in a presidential election. The original article developed out of an invitation to participate in an essay collection focused on the intellectual work of rhetoric and composition, a disciplinary effort attempting to argue that the field was not just interested in practical pedagogical study, as important as that is, but also in contributing to ongoing theoretical debates across the human sciences. Not a compositionist myself, I was pleased to join the effort as a fellow traveler in rhetorical studies. My participation in such projects is an example of the disciplinary politics discussed in more detail in my conversation with Keith Gilyard (Chapter 14).

Euro-American Rhetorical Pragmatism (Chapter 2) presents a bit of historical perspective on what is often characterized as an exclusively American home-grown philosophy. By emphasizing the initial contributions of the British Pragmatist F.C.S Schiller, this essay not only foregrounds the international origins of the movement but also illustrates Pragmatism’s early rhetorical formulations and its association with the humanist tradition. The essay then focuses on Rhetorical Pragmatism’s ongoing contributions to deliberative democracy through its employment of purposeful mediation as a rhetorical strategy, a strategy used in academic debates and in public spheres beyond the academy. The impetus for this essay further exemplifies the international character of Pragmatism: it was written for a special issue of Pragmatism Today, the online journal of the Central European Pragmatist Forum.

Humanist Controversies (Chapter 3) turns from rhetorical pragmatism in contemporary politics to rhetorical hermeneutics within the tradition of rhetorical humanism. More specifically, it looks at rhetorical and interpretive moves within twentieth-century debates over humanism and compares proposals of rhetorical humanist alternatives to postmodern antihumanism. This essay was written for a special issue of Philosophy and Rhetoric devoted to the work of Michael Leff, who proposed a “hermeneutical rhetoric” in Communication Studies to supplement my rhetorical hermeneutics, which originally emerged within literary studies and critical theory. Our common commitment to a form of humanist rhetoric gets presented here as a post-Heideggerian humanism when supported by Ernesto Grassi’s revisionary reading of Italian Renaissance humanism, a defense against his teacher Martin Heidegger’s antihumanist critique.

If the previous essay distances my rhetorical hermeneutics from later Heidegger’s antihumanism, the very next essay, Rhetorical Pragmatism and Histories of New Media (Chapter 4), foregrounds the importance of early Heidegger for that same approach. It does this in a rather roundabout way by responding to a series of receptions: the pragmatist Richard Rorty reading the Heideggerian Hubert Dreyfus reading the proto-existentialist Søren Kierkegaard as applied to the Internet. (Dreyfus’s interpretation of Being and Time strongly affected the pragmatist theorizing of both Rorty and Stanley Fish, two thinkers whose work in turn influenced my own rhetorical hermeneutics.) This essay was another contribution to the international reception of Pragmatism, a special issue of Amerikastudien on “Pragmatism’s Promise,” and it further illustrates the transdisciplinary character of rhetorical hermeneutics in the way it tracks the translation of an argument about media across academic and popular fields through reception study.

The next three essays continue to explain and explore the rhetorical pragmatist dimension of rhetorical hermeneutics by focusing on the problem of comparison across time and space.

Making Comparisons: First Contact, Ethnocentricism and Cross-Cultural Communication (Chapter 5) takes as its starting point the theoretical assumptions of the comparativist turn in what was once called the New American Studies: How does interpretation take place across radically different communities and how are successful rhetorical exchanges achieved between those communities, especially in terms of expanding cultural identifications? The central example of this piece is an episode of Star-Trek: The Next Generation that tells the tale of first contact between alien species. This essay was originally my contribution to a collective research project on “Post-National American Studies” at the University of California Humanities Research Institute.

The argument of the previous essay that received the most attention concerned my rhetorical pragmatist claim about the inevitability of hermeneutic and political ethnocentrism. The next essay, Enactment History, Jesuit Practices, and Rhetorical Hermeneutics (Chapter 6), takes up the interpretive part of this argument—we always make inside sense of the outside—and extends it from geography to history, from crossing spatial boundaries to overcoming temporal distance. The example of doing history focuses on the origins of a certain Roman Catholic order founded in the sixteenth century, the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits. This example becomes the basis for making some concluding historiographical points from a rhetorical-hermeneutic perspective, especially the argument that there are strong similarities between addressing otherness in the past (while doing history) and addressing others in the present (through cross-cultural communication). This essay was originally my contribution to a collection on rhetorical historiography: How can histories of rhetoric be written in the twenty-first century?

If Jesuits can serve as objects of present historical interpretation, they can also appear as subjects doing their own rhetorical-hermeneutic work in the past, as shown in the next essay, Jesuit Comparative Theo-Rhetoric (Chapter 7). To explain my view of comparative rhetoric, I present Jesuit “rhetorical accommodationism” as an example of how a theo-rhetoric (speaking to, for, and about the divine) can function as an effective way of interpreting and communicating across cultures. Building on concepts from Bruno Latour, I argue that Jesuit rhetors acted as “angelic instruments” in their missionary activities, conveying information and transforming their hearers as well as themselves in the process. Such activities illustrate again the unavoidable political and hermeneutic ethnocentrism in attempts to work across cultural borders. This rhetorical pragmatist view offers both support and a challenge to contemporary theories of comparative rhetoric, including some presented at the Rhetoric Society of America conference session and in the special Rhetoric Review forum, where versions of this essay were first presented.

Hermeneutics, Deconstruction, Allegory (Chapter 8) develops a comparison between two influential twentieth-century theorists of allegory, Hans-George Gadamer and Paul de Man. The emphasis here is on their overlapping and contrasting critical theories understood in terms of what Gadamer himself calls the “rhetorical-hermeneutical concept of allegory.” For Gadamer’s hermeneutics and de Man’s deconstruction, allegory functions as a figure for rhetoric itself. Both theorists agree that the historical fate of allegory has mirrored that of rhetoric, a decline in the nineteenth-century that gets reversed in the twentieth. But for Gadamer rhetoric and hermeneutics are inseparable and complementary, while for de Man their relationship is disruptive and ultimately contradictory. This essay originally appeared in a book attempting to give a collective history of allegory.

The next two essays use Kenneth Burke to develop a theotropic logology, words about words about God. An earlier version of the first essay was presented at a conference on “The Political Archive of Paul de Man: Property, Sovereignty, and the Theotropic,” for which participants were asked to comment on the manuscript pages not included in the published Allegories of Reading and currently held in the Critical Theory Archive at the University of California, Irvine. Theotropic is de Man’s word for “figuratively god-centered.” Theotropic Logology (Chapter 9) borrows this term to characterize the published and unpublished exchanges between Burke and two rhetorical deconstructors, de Man and J. Hillis Miller, and then draws some conclusions about their contrasting ways of rhetorically reading. The following essay builds on the first to provide a framework for a rhetorical pragmatist take on the goals of contemporary higher education. Jesuit Eloquentia Perfecta and Theotropic Logology (Chapter 10) contributed to a collective assessment of rhetorical approaches to current educational policies and pedagogical practices for a European journal, Studies in the Philosophy of Education. The essay suggests how Burke’s dramatism and logology might contribute to such an assessment and then uses a Burkean theotropic logology to redescribe another, much older rhetoric-centered approach to education, that of the Jesuits and their Christian humanist brand of teaching “perfect eloquence” as a combination of rhetorical arts, ethical reflection, and a commitment to social justice. Over the course of these last three essays and the next, the transdisciplinary plays out as a demonstration of how various rhetorics contribute to and alter disciplinary discussions (in literary criticism, philosophy, theology, and education) and suggests how those same discussions can in turn affect the rhetorics making the contributions.

Rhetorical Ways of Proceeding (Chapter 11) uses cultural rhetoric study to give historical specificity to my claims about Jesuit eloquentia perfecta by tracking some rhetorical paths of thought through the work of two late-nineteenth-century Jesuit writers, one a popular novelist of school-boy fiction and the other an author of widely-adopted college textbooks. In weaving together the stories of these two rhetors, I describe an influential tradition of Jesuit education that emphasizes connections among eloquence, learning, and virtue. This rhetoric-centered tradition is being revived today in several Jesuit colleges and universities, and an earlier much shorter version of this essay was a contribution to a special issue of the journal Conversations attempting to push this revival forward.

The final four essays present additional examples of cultural rhetoric studies and comment on the past and future of rhetorical hermeneutics. Judging and Hoping (Chapter 12) does a rhetorical reception study of Azar Nafisi’s novel Reading Lolita in Tehran, which is itself the story of cross-cultural reception. American reviewers variously judged the hope represented by this novel about students reading American novels of “Western secular values” within a political-theological context of a nation opposed to those values. I argue that the rhetorical effects of reading about reading in a globalized culture remain radically local and that attempts to depoliticize reading—to oppose an “ideological stance” to a “non-ideological stance”—turn out to be highly problematic. My rhetorical-hermeneutic reception study originally appeared in a book collection promoting reception studies more generally, an attempt that has achieved some success with the founding of the Reception Study Society and its journal, Reception: Texts, Readers, Audiences, History.

A different kind of reception study appears in Narrative as Embodied Intensities (Chapter 13), which explores the relation between rhetoric and narrative. Here the rhetorical hermeneutics uses some emploted rhetoric to practice a kind of narrative theory (via Paul Ricoeur and, again, Kenneth Burke) by doing a brief history of embodied experiences of American travelers walking around nineteenth-century Rome. The essay concludes with a return to Jesuit rhetoric and the narrative imagination of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, which, as Michel Foucault noted in his last lectures, function as technologies of the self, in this case shaping subjects as believing actors, with the body becoming (in Burke’s words), “a generator of belief.” Originally presented at the International Society for the Study of Narrative, this essay attempts to demonstrate rhetorically the critical value of considering embodied experience as narrative and narrative as embodied experience.

In the only interview gathered in this collection (Chapter 14), Keith Gilyard uses the example of violence to the racialized body to challenge my rhetorical pragmatist definition of identity as “interpreted being.” I include the conversation with Gilyard not only because of this challenge but also because of the way he forces me to defend my chosen terminology within disciplinary politics. Our conversation ranges backward into my earlier work in rhetorical hermeneutics and forward into some possibilities for the future. One of those possibilities is partly actualized in the final essay. Political Theology in Douglass and Melville (Chapter 15) attempts a reception study of St. Paul as a rhetorical figure in the nineteenth-century and then redescribes that reception in terms of the positive and negative forms of political theology developed in the late twentieth-century. This concluding essay again illustrates cultural rhetoric study, in this case tracking the political effectivity of tropes, arguments, and narratives in enactments of Pauline Christianity.


As essays in Rhetoric’s Pragmatism demonstrate, Rhetorical Hermeneutics often takes the form of a reception study that focuses on acts of reading as combinations of interpretation and rhetoric, the historically-specific establishment of textual meaning and the communally-situated use of language to argue for that meaning. Rhetorical Hermeneutics targets the critical, historical, and theoretical intersections of language use and interpretive practice by doing rhetorical readings of reading performances (via Cultural Rhetoric Study) and addressing the theoretical issues those acts produce (through Rhetorical Pragmatism). Rhetorical Pragmatism, as the theoretical side of Rhetorical Hermeneutics, takes thinking, at the least, as a combination of interpretation and rhetoric, the practical use of language in establishing meaning and the theoretical making sense of language use. Cultural Rhetoric Study, as the practical side of Rhetorical Hermeneutics, tracks rhetorical paths of thought through time and space, through singular and repeated reading acts, performed by individuals and institutions, across fragmented and unified communities, over continuous and contradictory traditions. The essays in Rhetoric’s Pragmatism give concrete examples of Rhetorical Hermeneutics as a theoretical practice combining Rhetorical Pragmatism and Cultural Rhetoric Study in various proportions.

In its performance, Rhetorical Hermeneutics is both a theoretical and practical approach to transdisciplinarity; that is, it is a way of understanding transdisciplinarity and a way of doing it. It proposes a theoretical explanation of how disciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, and cross-disciplinarity operate in terms of their implied and explicit hermeneutics and rhetoricality, including how disciplines transform each other in their interactions as interpretive strategies and terminological networks that modify and adapt to each other. In its practice, Rhetorical Hermeneutics employs a method of tracking rhetorical paths of thought across the distinctive hermeneutic ecologies of different disciplines. This tracking involves describing a string of interconnected acts of figuration, persuasion, and narration, of troping, arguing, and storytelling, which in turn entails analyzing the ebb and flow of figurative, suasive, and narrative forces inside and across the boundaries of specific texts and contexts.

Transdisciplinary work highlights the importance of disciplinary identities in the resistance to and enablement of such work. These identities can function to enforce academic siloes in university settings, getting in the way of cross-disciplinary conversations and interdisciplinary collaborations. But disciplinary identities can also enable those same transdisciplinary activities, by motivating attempts to promote and update one’s home discipline and by providing the rhetorical-hermeneutic tools for adapting and using resources from other disciplines to do so. As some have argued about interdisciplinarity, without specific disciplinary identities, there would be no general transdisciplinary work to be done in the first place.

But, of course, the issue of identity goes far beyond academic disciplinary contexts. In a vast array of different cultural spheres, questions about who we are, questions about our interpreted being, involve questions about how we interpret ourselves, how others interpret us, and how we interpret ourselves through how others interpret us. I address these issues from a rhetorical perspective throughout the following essays. For example, in Chapter 5 I use rhetorical hermeneutics to analyze the complexity of communal identifications and disidentifications in cross-cultural communication, while in Chapter 14 I discuss the challenges to a rhetorical hermeneutic concept of identity posed by racial violence. In each case I foreground the way interpretation and rhetoric act together to affect identity formation in specific practical contexts. In this way and others, I hope the collection as a whole demonstrates my claim that rhetoric is as thoroughly pragmatist as Pragmatism is deeply rhetorical.

Except for slightly expanding the final chapter, I have left the essays in Rhetoric’s Pragmatism pretty much in their original published forms. I have tried to remove unnecessary repetitions, partly by making cross-references among the essays in the volume, and in a few cases I have inserted additional notes to update bibliographical sources cited.