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date: 20 September 2017

Rhetorical Judgment

Summary and Keywords

Rhetorical judgment is a syncretic term that marries the classical concepts of prudence and rhetoric, and suggests their mutual interdependence. The traditions of rhetoric and prudence have had uneven histories, their legitimacy and utility ebbing and flowing within the dominant strains of Western culture. There are four key moments in histories to help find their points of contact, their disjunctions, and their fickle alliance. The key points of tension in their collaboration occur, first, within the Aristotelian corpus itself, next between Greek and Roman conceptions of social reason, then between the ancient and early modern conceptions of prudence, and finally in the fitful return of interest in both of these classical approaches to social reason in late modernity. Their alliance is actuated most potently when the inherently social dynamism of rhetoric transforms prudence from a virtue into a practice. The capacity for prudence to trade in the contingent circumstance then becomes a powerful political resource. Rhetorical judgment is now realizing this potential as critical theory engages it to redefine the terrain of the political, and to reimagine the contours of a seemingly antiquated body of traditions. The dimensions of power, contingency, and expedience that have always had a place within rhetorical and prudential practices are now finding radical new forms of expression and pointing toward new conceptions of democratic practice.

Keywords: prudence, rhetoric, judgment, practical reason, power, hegemony, articulation, Aristotle, rhetoric, deliberation, argument, analogy, logic, reason, eloquence, oratory, public speaking, law, politics, public discourse, political discourse, rationalism, ethics, enlightenment, civic discourse, debate, domination, public sphere, pragmatism, hermeneutics, critical theory

Two Schemas of Practical Judgment

Rhetorical judgment is a syncretic term that marries two disciplinary concepts that sit within the sphere of practical reason—rhetoric and prudence—concepts that have lived sometimes in separate homes, sometimes in adjoining suites, sometimes together in the same bed, and sometimes even exchanging positions.1 Now it seems clear their fates have always been intertwined and their effects reciprocating. If we trace this dance through history we can understand better their unstable but productive relationship.

“The object of rhetoric is judgment,” says Aristotle in his lectures on rhetoric (Rhetoric, 168–169; 1377b). Judgment (κρίσεώς‎) is the action that results from a kind of transferred conviction, πίστεις‎, the trust that the rhetorician produces in an audience to make decisions on particular matters that come before the community. Rhetoric is the art (τέχνη‎) that governs this exchange. So judgment results from a collaboration, a social engagement. Prudence, in this scheme of things, doesn’t enter the picture, and it is important to ask why.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle devises a more complex schema for practical reason that separates act and capacity, with different forms of intelligence governing each, and that reserves judgment for only one of these. Prudence is an excellence (ἀρετή‎) that conforms action to right opinion on contingent matters (Ethics, 358–359; VI, v, 6). Judgment (κρίσεώς‎) is also the result of deliberation (βούλευσις‎), and “it is concerned with the same objects as prudence,” but it is a quality of the person, a “man of understanding” (ὁ εὐσύνετος‎) (VI, x). Thus capacity and action are distinct: “Understanding [σύνεσις‎] makes judgments” while “prudence [φρόνησις‎] issues commands” (VI, xi). The reason for this discrimination seems to be that Aristotle wants to protect judgment as an understanding that operates “above the fray” as it were, whereas prudence is needed in the arena of action (τὰ πρακτὰ‎) to do the messy work of making quick and expedient choices (VI, ix, 6).

Although it trades in imperfection, prudence is no apostate from virtue. Aristotle established its mediating role precisely to save that connection. Prudence is guided by the capacity to think rightly (kατά τον ὀρθὸν λόγον‎). It is backed up, so to speak, by understanding. There is no such attachment to cleverness (δεινότης‎), which can operate perfectly well in an amoral context (VI, xii, 9–10). This is a crucial distinction for Aristotle, who was trying to extract the practical life from the disrepute Plato had given it, even though he understood the danger of exposing right choice to expediency.

This difference between the two schemas of judgment in the Rhetoric and the Ethics does not permit a simple terminological adjustment that would provide theoretical continuity. One can find the link back to the Rhetoric, but in a strange place, in what amounts to an analog. It is where Aristotle notes the division of labor separating the legislators who write the laws from the humbler judges enforcing the laws in the courts:

First of all, therefore, it is proper that laws, properly enacted, should themselves define the issue of all cases as far as possible, and leave as little as possible to the discretion of the judges; in the first place, because it is easier to find one or a few men of good sense, capable of framing laws and pronouncing judgements, than a large number; secondly, legislation is the result of long consideration, whereas judgements are delivered on the spur of the moment, so that it is difficult for the judges properly to decide questions of justice or expediency. But what is most important of all is that the judgement of the legislator does not apply to a particular case, but is universal and applies to the future, whereas the member of the public assembly and the dicast have to decide present and definite issues, and in their case, love, hate, or personal interest is often involved.

(Rhetoric, 5–7; 1354b, I, I 7)

There is here a genuine analogy: The relation of act to quality in the person is analogous to the relation of legislator to judge in the law. The leisured judgment of the “man of understanding” corresponds to the legislator, and the necessary prudence of expedient application corresponds to the judge in the law-court. In both cases, even if the connection between the good and the expedient is tenuous, it is designed to survive the passage. Just as prudence does not degrade into mere cleverness in the Ethics, decision does not succumb to sophistry in the Rhetoric. But the fact that this is merely an analogy will have profound implications.

In the Ethics, having established the distinction between understanding and prudence, Aristotle is intent on preserving the connection between the two, and he does this by discovering a circular relationship between the kind of person who learns to make good deliberative decisions and the practice of so doing. Experience in deliberation cultivates seasoned judgment, which in turn leads to more judicious decisions. This insight into the circularity of reason is prodigious, because it offers a way to bridge the potential and the actual through this intermediate “place” of character. What Aristotle proposes is that the person of understanding is somehow able to think the ultimate goods (ἒσχατα‎) and the impure practical compromises (ἕκαστα‎) together. As a result of wide experience, the phronimos has “an eye for things” (Ethics, 363; VI xi, 7).

From Ethics to Rhetoric

But there is an important difference between the schema of the Nicomachean Ethics and the Rhetoric precisely regarding the locus of judgment: In the Ethics, the individual uses understanding and prudence either as judge or actor. In the Rhetoric, the judge is an audience who has to be persuaded by the citizen, so judgment develops across a social practice that develops norms of effectiveness. Deliberation occurs in the mind of the individual in the Ethics, but in the exchange of public arguments in the Rhetoric. Prudence does not stand out in the Rhetoric because Aristotle has found another way to keep expedience just—what is being called here rhetorical judgment. This difference resonates through the Roman appropriation of practical reason, the civic humanism of the Renaissance, and the recuperation of rhetoric in late modernity.

Cicero’s main concern about rhetoric in De Oratore‎ is whether eloquence is the result of training or natural talent, and the dialogue concludes that it is both. The combination is actually rarer than the skill of the military leader or “the wisdom of a prudent senator” (II 8), because the level of difficulty of achievement (“the incredible magnitude and difficulty of the art,” IV 10) is unparalleled. The developed capacity for public speech was for Cicero that to which “all reasoning and all teaching really belong,” and in its achievement it combined skill in practical affairs and reflective wisdom together (Cicero, 1942, p. 225, II, ix, 37). The danger of skill falling away from virtue was not the crisis for this outlook as it was for the Greeks, because the good of the flourishing state, which is crowned by eloquence, is a presumption of Cicero’s entire project. On the danger of sophistry or expediency, Cicero’s simple solution to Aristotle’s complex problem relied on the ready association of civic education and the good.

Cicero’s unification of ethics and rhetoric at first seems simply to import the Aristotelian privilege of the prudent individual into the rhetorical canons. His constant theme in De Oratore is how a deeply cultivated education permits the practical capacity to navigate between the situated instance and the general principle at stake, both in terms of the orator’s insight into the relation between particular and general, and his skill in bringing an audience to see this relationship. Leff argued that Cicero’s rhetoric demonstrates “a kind of judgment specifically connected with prudence” in which “rhetorical skills are seen not just as instruments of persuasion but as equipment for living” (Leff, 1998, p. 82, 84).

But this conclusion may be oversimplified. Where the circular relation between character and judgment is central in Aristotle’s ethics, Cicero focuses on the circular relationship between insight (ingenium) and skill (peritis). What that focus does is to turn the capacity of the orator toward the audience, and this orientation allows for the possibility that virtue is constituted in the rhetorical interaction. This takes us back to the shift in the social paradigm of judgment that Aristotle developed in the Rhetoric. That is an indication of the complexity of the classical heritage of prudential ethics and rhetorical judgment.

From Antiquity to the Early Modern

If a disciplinary gap opens up in Aristotle’s treatments of ethical prudence and rhetorical judgment, it is closed perhaps too easily in the Roman civic imagination. Prudentia was instinct with Roman public character, and Cicero gave it a doctrinal status as one of the four cardinal virtues of the orator-leader: “Prudentia became in Cicero’s works an observable—and replicable—virtue, closely tied to wide learning, practical training, and active participation in civic life” (Cape, 2003, p. 61). In this Roman tradition, prudence and rhetoric were simply the recto and verso of the same subject, the social reason of public life. Cicero’s writings on sapientia and prudentia in De Inventione and De Re Publica served as primary texts for prudential practice until the 12th century, and then De Oratore, rediscovered in the Quattrocento, became the key prudential text of Renaissance humanism.

In the high medieval period, although showing the strains of a long marriage, prudence found itself still within the gravitational pull of rhetoric. The early casuistic tradition, often identified with its own worst moments of Jesuitical excess, elaborated a situated practice of practical judgment that flourished first under the consolidation of ecclesiastical authority between about 1000 and 1200 AD, and then again during the 16th and 17th centuries in what Jonsen and Toulmin called “High Casuistry” (1988, pp. 260–265). A taxonomic (rather than axiomatic) approach to jurisprudence, it worked through cases, or exempla, that were gathered in “Collections” that served as repositories of precedent for legal consultation (p. 114). Ecclesiastical judges appropriated the Aristotelian principle of epieikeia (interpretive charity) to authorize degrees of freedom in the interpretation of unforeseeable instances of sin, and by this method Church law modified itself as the body of precedent grew. This flexible application and adaptation took broad root “in the everyday hermeneutical activities of lawyers and judges” alongside the dominant theoretical posture of positive law (Mootz, 2015, p. 4).

Initially, contemporary students of casuistry did not recognize its grounding in classical rhetoric, an oversight that exemplifies the capacity of rhetoric to hide in plain sight. In its own self-understanding as an education in civic pragmatism, rhetoric oriented itself to the audience and the occasion, and the rich theoretical and practical resources it developed to do this fed the casuistic tradition. Case argument “was a staple of the forensic schools of antiquity” (Jasinski, 2001, p. 84). In an important 1991 essay, one of the most famous proponents of the recuperation of casuistry, Albert Jonsen, did finally recognize the ways in which “the form of reasoning constitutive of classical casuistry is rhetorical reasoning” (Jonsen, 1991, p. 297).

The orientation of practical reason in the medieval period to Aristotelian or Ciceronian influences depended in good part on shifting access to extant Greek and Latin authors. The dominance of Cicero’s influence through so much of Western history was partly due to the broad dissemination of his texts in the wake of Roman Empire. Yet for Aquinas, for whom prudence was an important category, the “teaching of Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics … formed the basic ideas and structure of [his] thinking” (Westberg, 1994, p. 26). Aquinas’s legal theory was heavily influenced by the doctrine of prudence: “Not only is there no system of rules, Thomas did not even describe the process of derivation or show how this is to be done” (Westberg, 1994, pp. 32–33). The influence of Aristotle is also seen in Aquinas’s return to a focus on practical means rather than ends, since ends were dictated by faith. Practical judgment (iudicium practicum) is the result of deliberation (consilium) over the best means to arrive at the just end. The moral virtues, “prudence, which prepares the way for them, by disposing the means” (Summa Theologica, 2, 2, q. 47, Art. 6).

The Moral and the Expedient

But there is also in Aquinas the preparation for the transformation of prudence that Machiavelli would enact, and this transformation is another of the major dividing lines in the tradition of practical reason. Habermas has argued that the combined Aristotelian-Ciceronian tradition saw politics as “the doctrine of the good and just life,” and “was always directed toward the formation and cultivation of character,” whereas “Machiavelli and Thomas More had drastically transformed the concept when they substituted for phronesis a practical reason based instead on techne” (Habermas, 1973, p. 42; Randall, 2011, p. 208, 205). It would be more accurate to say that, where Greek and Roman theory saw prudence as right judgment where there is no indubitable measure, the Christian context turned the imperfection of the prudential situation toward moral compromise. So, for instance, Aquinas counseled practical flexibility along the continuum between virtue and vice: “A man is said to be solicitous through being shrewd [solers] and alert [citus], in so far as a man through a certain shrewdness of mind is on the alert to do whatever has to be done” (Summa Theologica, 2, 2, q. 47, Art. 9).

The rhetorical pedagogies of Renaissance humanism before Machiavelli were heavily imbued with prudential theory and practice, synthesizing Ciceronian and Aristotelian traditions. Giovanni Pontano, for instance, fused the prudence of the Nicomachean Ethics with Cicero’s rhetorical decorum, although it should be emphasized that he gave exemplary expression to the Ciceronian belief in the inseparability of thought and language: “Speech is the interpreter of the mind and, as it were, the instrument of reason, inasmuch as consultation, counsel, and ratiocination consist in discussion, discussion in words so speech itself provides reason with an instrument and as it were the material with which it is engaged.”2 As Kahn has shown, prudential culture underlay the development of a critical apparatus in reading cultures just as much as an acumen in political and legal praxis (Kahn, 1985, pp. 36–46). The seeds of common law practice in the Renaissance developed out of an antipathy to abstract systems: “General rules cannot possibly comprehend all particular cases. Often, specific cases cannot be decided on the basis of law, but must rather be dealt with the opinions of men, which are not always in harmony” (Guiciardini, 1965, p. 69). Practicing lawyers in France, England, and Italy appealed to local cultural conventions as a basis for law: “Since customs were formed gradually in each province according to the diversity of our characters, it seems appropriate in case of obscurity or doubt to have recourse to people close to us, who by their proximity would seem to conform to our manners and character and so to our customs.”3

The one thing that cuts across the prudential and rhetorical traditions from beginning to end is this flexible accommodation to the weight of the particular, whether it be the specific situation or the cultural milieu, in which the desire for universality must live and conform and find expression. The circular relation between the one and the many takes a number of forms, but this is the common nucleus, a nucleus which is not disturbed by the various divisions within the traditions of practical reason, neither the frictions between ethics and rhetoric in the classical world, nor their two principal historical variants. The Aristotelian-Ciceronian line that sought the means and method for this judgment in personal or communal experience, and the Thomistic-Machiavellian line that established permission to bend moral boundaries of means in service of a just end, are both united in the effort to mediate the general and the particular.

Judgment in Modernity

With the ascendance of Enlightenment science, the spirit of rationalism, and the concomitant diminishing influence of humanism and rhetorical education in the universities, prudence as the reigning paradigm of reason went out of fashion or was suppressed. In philosophy, the reasonable was replaced by the rational as the standard of correct judgment. Kant dismissed prudence and the preceptive tradition in his search for binding laws that govern moral behavior, and so what he calls practical judgment is a faculty that legislates correct actions under transcendental laws. Each particular choice requires “a principle that it cannot borrow from experience, because its function is to establish the unity of all empirical principles under higher ones, and hence to establish the possibility of their systematic subordination” (Kant, 1914).

Of course a simple narrative of decline and disappearance is too facile. As Randall has shown in some detail, “there was in fact an ongoing debate between scientific reason and prudence” that cut a broad swath through the center of the Enlightenment (Randall, 2011, p. 206). This more complex view is often lost in current discussions of the history of practical reason. Surveying the course of the Western intellectual tradition, the eminent French scholar Pierre Aubenque pronounced “today the world has rediscovered what the Greeks suspected more than two thousand years ago … that the temptation of the absolute is the perennial origin of human evil … that the world is contingent and the future uncertain.”4 The premodern/modern bifurcation of practical reason is analogous to designating the cultural space between New York and Los Angeles as fly-over country. During its times of relative decline, prudential thought simply ran along less visible tributaries, developed in discourses that didn’t label themselves as prudential, or reinvented itself outside of the theoretical gaze in the practical realm. To cite an example, the Earl of Shaftesbury, along with Adam Smith and others in the tradition of Scottish moral philosophy, taught that moral judgment was cultivated in the educated classes “in their common capacity as civil persons” (Cooper, 2000, p. 43). This school of thought taught not only that there is a kind of measured judgment that arises out of sociability, but that the multiple interacting levels of judgment cannot be fitted to rules:

There are more wheels and counterpoises in this engine than are easily imagined. It is of too complex a kind to fall under one simple view or be explained thus briefly in a word or two. The studiers of this mechanism must have a very partial eye to overlook all other motions besides those of the lowest and narrowest compass. It is hard that, in the plan or description of this clockwork, no wheel or balance should be allowed on the side of the better and more enlarged affections, that nothing should be understood to be done in kindness or generosity, nothing in pure good nature or friendship or through any social or natural affection of any kind, when, perhaps, the mainsprings of this machine will be found to be either these very natural affections themselves or a compound kind derived from them and retaining more than one half of their nature.

(Cooper, 2000, pp. 53–54)

This prudential strain of moral philosophy paralleled and intermixed with 18th century French aesthetics of taste and elements of German Classicism and Romanticism. The German tradition of Bildung in the 18th century nourished by thinkers like Herder and Schleiermacher understood that judgment is carried along by cultural practice and precept and is sewn into historical memory through language and custom. In these traditions, a complex philosophical mediation of the particular and the universal continued work itself out, and it is possible to trace the influence of the prudential tradition straight through German idealism to 20th century hermeneutics. So these ideas were always bubbling up at the same time that they were being suppressed or ignored in the dominant modes.

To cite one example of this subterranean tradition from the 19th century, John Henry Newman’s beautiful description of practical wisdom can hardly be surpassed. Thought “is too keen and manifold, its sources are too remote and hidden, its path too personal, delicate and circuitous, its subject-matter too various and intricate to” conform to predetermined procedures or methods (Newman, 1985, p. 155). This agile attunement to the complexity of human understanding in shifting circumstances would mount a quiet protest against the models of reason that had become the dominant inheritance of the Enlightenment West.

In the 20th century, that subterranean stream continued in the rhetorical pedagogy associated with civic education in the schools, a pedagogy that found fertile soil particularly in public universities of the Midwestern United States. Three distinctive theories of prudence developed over time within this discourse community. The first was prudence as decorum, or “republican propriety,” what Stephen Browne called a “republican judgment” that encourages proportional response “in the face of turbulence and faction” (Browne, 2002, pp. 428–429). A variant of this prudence-as-propriety was James Jasinski’s appeal to practical judgment that seeks the mean “between audacity and accommodation,” an approach that places prudence in opposition to political violence (Jasinski, 2003, p. 176). As Jasinski argued, John Brown did not exercise prudential judgment by this standard in his final insurrectionist campaigns. A second stream of prudential theory is closer to the idea of rhetorical judgment in the idea of social reasoning, distant cousin of the Sophistic tradition of dissoi logoi—a collective process of debate that escapes the subjectivist prejudice inherent in treating wisdom as a faculty of the wise leader. Michael McGee (1998) was a prominent proponent of this intersubjective reading of public prudence over against what he thought was a Gadamerian elevation of the phronimos, the experienced judge.5 Arthur Walzer (2005) likewise connected phronesis to the ancient adherence to the principle of public controversia, which he hoped would train students out of the insular rigidity of tribal allegiance. The Aristotelian scholar Eugene Garver also allied himself with the wisdom of pluralism by pointing to the practice of judicial opinions in which a “dissent can be more authoritative than a majority opinion because we value the argument, not simply the result” (Garver, 1997, p. 182). If Walzer was reluctant to assert this form of prudential practice as an explicit theory of social judgment, Thomas Farrell was not. It is “through the complementary participation of someone else, namely, the rhetorical audience” that something like “relational goods” could, in his mind, be established (Farrell, 1993). The strains that emerge in these different interpretations of prudence produce the third major theoretical expression. Notions of “postmodern prudence,” with strong ties to Machiavelli and his descendants, radicalize prepon as a cunning response to injustice. Maurice Charland’s advocacy of a Lyotardian “pagan prudence” rests squarely in the moment of resistance where the marginalized are justified in insubordination as a fitting response to their predicament (Charland, 2003, p. 269). Prepon in this context works in the register of the “anti-community,” of “outlaws” and “marginals” (Charland, 2003, pp. 273–276). Likewise, Robert Hariman’s postmodern prudence is a subversion of systematic longings, an instruction in the modesty of reason’s scope, a practical “trafficking in limits,” but also a canniness that finds its way around in the wreckage of our rationalist dreams (Hariman, 2003, p. 296).

In other fields, prudence had an improbable renaissance in the closing decades of the 20th century when it was rediscovered in the fields of law, medicine, and education. Isaiah Berlin (1959) describes the hard reality of human fallibility, contingency, and contradiction as “the crooked timber of humanity.”6 He was in a line of 20th century thinkers who called for an acknowledgment of the broader spectrum of reason that includes rhetoric and prudence, a diversity consonant with Aristotle’s assertion that “there will be a number of different kinds of wisdom … there cannot be a single such wisdom dealing with the good” (Ethics 345; VI, vii, 4). In an important 1988 book, the previously mentioned Jonsen and Toulmin noted that in “the last few years, discussing of specific circumstances and cases have at last returned to favor” (Jonsen & Toulmin, 1988, p. 13), and this disinterring of the casuistic tradition was accompanied by a renewed interest in practical reasoning among philosophers and educators like Isaiah Berlin, Richard Bernstein, and Joseph Dunne.

Judgment and Hermeneutics

Perhaps the most important modern rejuvenator of the civic humanist understanding of rhetoric and prudence was the German hermeneutic scholar Hans-Georg Gadamer, who placed phronesis at the core of his anti-methodological polemics.7 In his recent survey of this prudential reawakening, Hariman judged Gadamer’s version of prudential theory to be “the dominate model” on the contemporary scene, so it will be worthwhile to sketch out his general view (Hariman, 2003, p. 291). Gadamer made two contributions that are of lasting significance.

The Kantian principle of subsumption as the method for establishing the validity of practical judgments served as the foil for Gadamer’s promotion of a theory of practical reason. Drawing on Heidegger’s appropriation of the hermeneutic circle as a model for human understanding to describe how we are able to reflect on, without being outside of, our place in the world, Gadamer argued that the particular practical and moral choices that human beings make in the context of their lives are guided more by what situations call for than by any predetermined measure. It is actually a sense of the contingency of experience that guides judgment toward a fitting response. Gadamer did not deny the pull that a sense of direction toward shared ends has on particular decisions; only that there are not two separate domains, one of belonging (doxa) and one of distance (nous). The circularity of prudence is the capacity that develops to live and work in the vexed in-between of these two magnetic poles: “In the kind of being whose needs and goals have become complex and even contradictory, there is a need for enlightened choice, just deliberation, and right subordination under common ends” (Gadamer, 1981, p. 76). This is not the simple pragmatic matching of a particular answer to the particular need of the situation, but instead a kind of hovering, insubstantial generality, not a universal, but the intimation of something beyond the immediate. The elastic reciprocity of thinking the one and the many together is the answer to the riddle of the one and the many and, the path out of the vicious circle. In a wonderfully counter-intuitive provocation, Gadamer asserted that the universal rule, the paradigm, the ideal, “is not a guide for action but a guide for reflection” (Gadamer, 1981, p. 82).

This way of conceptualizing the relation of the general and the particular was a judicious articulation of the common thread that unites the traditions of practical reason. The space between the pure particular and the pure universal is what there is, an embodied and performative realization of understanding:

For practical reason does not consist simply in the circumstance that one reflects upon the attainability of the end that he thinks good and then does what can be done … When I will something, then a reflection intervenes by which I bring before my eyes by means of an analytical procedure what is attainable: If I will this, then I must have that; if I want to have this, then I have to have this …; until at last I come back to my own situation, where I myself can take things in hand.

(Gadamer, 1996, p. 81)8

Gadamer was insistent that practical reason does not dispense with reflection, as its reductive stereotypes suggest. It is just that the process of deliberative decision takes place on what Joseph Dunne called the “rough ground” of the reasonable, or what is in Laclau’s phrase the “mutual contamination between the universal and the particular” (Laclau, 2001, p. 11).

That was Gadamer’s first contribution. The second was equally momentous. More than any other contemporary prudential theorist, Gadamer saw the close proximity of this ethical theory to the practical foundations of rhetorical pedagogies, so that his promotion of a return to practical reason went hand in hand with an insistence on the collaboration of the deliberative competencies taught in the ancient rhetorical traditions. In characterizing prudence in this rhetorical way, Gadamer anticipated many of the debates we are still engaged in about the relevance of the doctrine of prudence to a political theory.9 A rhetorical approach to prudence highlights the social nature of the process of judgment, and so calls the question on the location of practical wisdom. It rejects the great Western prejudice, present still in the most enlightened discussions of prudence, that situates phronesis in the character of the individual, the phronimos. This is why Gadamer was so insistent on the Platonic dialogue as the preeminent model for hermeneutic understanding—because it is a social interaction, not “the dialogue of the soul with itself.” For Gadamer, phronesis is a social virtue; not the Privatvernunft of Plato’s dialogue of the soul with itself, but rather a thoroughly public gesellschaftliche Vernunft:

What is practice? I would like to summarize: Practice is conducting oneself and acting in solidarity. Solidarity, however, is the decisive condition and basis of all social reason. There is a saying of Heraclitus, the ‘weeping’ philosopher: The logos is common to all, but people behave as if each had a private reason. Does this have to remain this way?

(Gadamer, 1976, p. 77; 1996, p. 87)

Gadamer goes some distance toward transferring the wisdom of phronesis from the faculty of the experienced person to the “the movement of social interaction toward mutual understanding.”10 This shift of phronesis from the phronimos to the demos is of enormous paradigmatic significance in the history of prudential theory.

This second contribution has not been well understood in critical circles. Suspicion of Gadamer’s promotion of the Roman ideal of the sensus communis as a seeming endorsement of traditional values masked what he was actually trying to get at: the reciprocity between the doxa (the accumulated cultural wisdom of a community) that serve as starting points for deliberation, and the places deliberation must “leap” to in its decision. Such a leap is precisely a going beyond the sensus communis. The legal precedents that courts set in judging case law are a good model of this interaction. It is through the conflict between the conventional and the new situation that the conventional is modified: “Finding the law means thinking the case together with the law so that what is actually just … gets concretized” (Gadamer, 1981, p. 82). Gadamer certainly showed an overly idealistic faith in the wisdom of culture and the civic aims of the polis, but this naiveté is not intrinsic to his theory, which is a hybrid of prudential wisdom and rhetorical practice that not only withstands the criticism but points to the continuing potential of rhetorical judgment. Genuine democratic practice requires an acknowledgment of the inescapable embeddedness in perspective.

Despite its continuing utility, Gadamer’s exegesis is still only a partial answer to splits that open up within the theory of prudence and practical reason in postmodern theory. Although providing a structural alternative to the philosophical antinomy of the categorical and the sui generis, it lacks a robust answer to the political extremes of the despotic imperative and the flatterer’s ruse that animated Machiavelli’s apostasy from the Aristotelian tradition. Although Gadamer’s was not simply a “bourgeois prudence,” its assertion of the ideal of solidarity is embarrassingly exposed to the pathologies that work ceaselessly to supplant social reason.11

The Attempt to Institutionalize Prudence

The doctrinal variance between a capacious and constrained version of the classical models, with Aristotle’s limited art of discerning means, and Cicero’s mandate for the broad authority of seasoned wisdom, anticipated another tension; the fissures that open up between rhetorical and ethical means and ends. By placing prudence under the encompassing framework of a rhetorical education, Cicero presented a smooth front that glossed over this tension. The strategic and calculative techne of rhetorical training, the unequal distribution of ingenium, allows rhetoric to drift away from the democratic principle of in utremque partem in which the airing of all sides overcomes the finitude of perspective (Cicero, De Oratore, 3.27.107 and Tusculanae Quaestiones, V, 4, 11). An ethical presumption lies at the heart of such a multiplex ratio disputandi, as though debate from plural perspectives would open minds.12 But as Machiavelli would demonstrate, representation, not transparency, is the reliable end of rhetoric’s social competence.

In the ethical treatises Aristotle had theorized the more hopeful possibility: Social wisdom acquired by dissoi logoi cultivates civic friendship, which then informs deliberation. The phronimos is someone “who can arrive kata ton logismon at the best of the goods attainable” (Nicomachean Ethics, VI, vii, 6). In the Ethics, Aristotle theorized this process primarily as an individual virtue, but even there he admits that “when the matter is important, we take others into our deliberations, distrusting our own capacity to decide” (Nicomachean Ethics, III, iii, 10). So a supportive ground develops under techne, since it would make no sense to undermine the social good. The “faculty of discerning” bleeds unavoidably into judgment dia ton logon, that is, logos as both speech and reason (Rhetoric, I, II, 4; 1356a).

This neat solution would eventually crack under the subreptions of shifting social structures and political economies, which laid bare the underlying fault in this classical model of political discourse. The rhetorical theorist who first registered the scope of the problem was Machiavelli. His prudential approach to rhetorical judgment was a response to the incommensurability of ultimate values that, as Garver argues, “emerged out of the confrontation of Christianity with the pagan revival.”13 Renaissance prudence up to that point had papered over the split between representation (in both the discursive and political sense) and the political reality that this conflictual scene had forced to the surface. Where ends are so profoundly in dispute, skillful representation is the only route to a precarious social harmony. The strain on unitary governance thus pushed prudence into an entirely new dimension of pragmatic compromise—no longer simply the wise man’s mutual adjustment of particular case and general rule, but the tempered manipulation of surface representation to win the peace. Machiavelli reconfigured prudence by disaggregating the morality of means and ends:

For a man who wants to make a profession of good in all regards must come to ruin among so many who are not good. Hence it is necessary to a prince, if he wants to maintain himself, to learn to be able not to be good, and to use this and not use it according to necessity … it is necessary for him to be so prudent as to know how to avoid the infamy of those vices that would take his state from him … for if one considers everything well, one will find something appears to be virtue, which if pursued would be one’s ruin, and something else appears to be vice, which if pursued results in one’s security and well-being.

(Machiavelli, 1998, pp. 61–62)

Contrary to common stereotypes of his position, Machiavelli’s prudence does not figure an amoral universe. By relating the consistency of the virtuous to the appearance of virtue, he implicitly acknowledges the good as the general end to be preserved at the cost of duplicitous means: that is the new prudential formula.

This new moral axis actually expresses a first correction to a flaw that had existed in the Aristotelian model all along—the idea that the phronimos, the wise judge, would mediate the social good in his own internal deliberation, character guiding application of the law. The necessity for prudent doses of deceit, violence, and manipulation was an unavoidable patch to a deliberative process distanced to one degree or another from the demos. If hierarchy expanded exponentially as a reflection of the increasing size and complexity of states, this only exacerbated the initial disproportion between elite and populace embodied in the division of labor between legislator and assemblyman. Machiavelli placed a counter-weight to manipulation in the pressure “the people” place on the process: “Therefore, one who becomes prince through the support of the people should keep them friendly to him, which should be easy for him because they ask of him only that they not be oppressed” (Machiavelli, 1998, p. 40). Honesty and deception, it turns out, is a two-way street. When the Prince by his governance “keeps the generality of people inspired, he will never find himself deceived by them” (Machiavelli, 1998, p. 41). Nevertheless, Machiavelli’s investure of prudence in the person of the Prince who wishes to keep his subjects happy is a modest expression of the democratic impulse, and no lasting solution to the abuses of monarchy.

Ironically, the early modern enemy of prudence—Enlightenment rationalism—produced a remarkable answer to this prudential conundrum in the practical realm by its adaptation of Roman innovations to schemes of limited government. Over the history of the early Roman republic, a slow and hard-won series of concessions by the elite under popular pressure (written laws, the tribunate, power-sharing with the plebs, term limits, etc.) included the expansion of deliberative participation to the soldiers and working class. Borrowing from this history, American theorists of constitutional government looked to embed moderation in institutional forms rather than counting on the dispositions of people. The balancing of federal and state authority, the division of judicial and executive roles, the sovereignty of constitutional law, the guarantees of association and redress of grievance, etc., were institutional interventions into the imperfections of representative deliberation, a more robust solution than Aristotle’s division of labor between legislators and dicasts. Because “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm,” and because it is impossible “that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good,” Madison concluded that the “parties are and must be themselves the judges” (Hamilton, Madison, & Jay, 2003, pp. 42–43). A properly ordered system of representation acts in fact like prudential experience insofar as the delegation of power, when it is diffused across a large enough sphere of representation, is able “to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body” (Hamilton et al., 2003, p. 44). Randall thus suggests that prudence can be inscribed in structures as well as experiences, confirming in a different way Harriman’s thesis14 that prudence is a kind of second-order normative constraint: “Madison understands the Constitution’s meaning to be embedded in its moment of foundation by particular people at a particular time and place, which moment he acknowledges as itself an exercise of high prudence” (Randall, 2011, p. 219).

The Conflict Between Prudence and Structure

Despite for even though it be the case that the Good is the same for the individual and for the state, nevertheless, the good of the state is manifestly a greater and more perfect good, both to attain and to preserve (Nic. Ethics, I, ii, 8), practical wisdom in the ethical program rests in the individual, whereas the Rhetoric from the outset configures judgment as a working system of interconnecting parts. In the rhetorical context, reasoning becomes organic with community: “The orator persuades by means of his hearers” (Rhetoric, 17; I, ii, 5; 1356a). The responsibility for finding the best orientation to the problem at issue is fundamentally a social process in which the audience is constitutive of the judgment from the beginning. Aristotle tried to mitigate the frailties and vulnerabilities of such democratic judgment by a division of labor between dicast and assemblyman. The law “should define the issue of all cases as far as possible, and leave as little as possible to the discretion of the judges” (5; I, i, 7; 1354b). But, in the end, the discretion of the judges is too much for the constraints of law. As Rousseau understood much later, when prudence is adopted by the state as a comportment of lawmakers, it does the opposite of what it purports to do, “manufactured by corrupted opinion makers in the service of the rich and … itself hopelessly corrupted by inequality” (Randall, 2011, p. 216).

The Enlightenment turn to institutional form to resolve the weakness of a dependence on personal wisdom eventually showed up this shortcoming. The displacement of judgment from personal experience to formal checks and balances undermines the flexibility that is so characteristic of prudence and creates a space for abuse to take hold. Feminist theorists pointed out, in the first place, that structure cannot serve merely as a prophylactic means for protecting judgment, because judgment becomes embedded in its very form—the choice that is already implicated in the modes of deliberation. As Fraser noted, traditional notions of the public sphere are “importantly constituted by, a number of significant exclusions” (Fraser, 1990, p. 59). The modern turn to institutions to protect wisdom exposed this deeper problem. Not structural division nor individual experience nor the sensus communis can compete with the underlying forces that organize and drive decision-making in complex social systems where power is distributed unequally. For Bourdieu, the evolution of economies of practice masquerade as deliberate decision—“durable relations of domination … beyond the reach of individual consciousness” (Bourdieu, 1990, p. 130).15 The character of deliberation is formed by the systemic imperatives that grant legitimacy to actors, and agency is formed in the uneven spaces between social solidarity, personal interest, ideological and tribal loyalty, and systemic imperatives. As so many critical theorists have so patiently proven, the conditions of the decision-making process are generally more important to decision than the wisdom of its representatives (whose support by the general populace is still mistakenly wedded to perceptions of their prudential competence). The drive toward self-reproduction turns prudence into an instrument of ideological conformity. Althusser, for instance, took Marx’s principle that not only the means of production but the productive force must be made to reproduce itself, and expanded this self-reproduction to the realm of discourse (Althusser, 1971, p. 132). The hyper-intensification of this institutional tendency under capitalism is for Deleuze and Guattari what we now experience as the postmodern condition: “There is no such thing as either man or nature now, only a process that produces the one within the other and couples the machines together” (Deleuze & Guattari, 2004, p. 2). The agency of self-reproduction turns prudence into sophistry:

If the world of action is nothing other than this imaginary universe of interchangeable possibles, entirely dependent on the decrees of the consciousness that creates it, and therefore entirely devoid of objectivity, if it is moving because the subject chooses to be moved, revolting because he chooses to be revolted, then emotions, passions, and also actions, are merely games of bad faith.

(Bourdieu, 1990, p. 42)

The instrument of self-reproduction is, ironically, the deliberative speech situation that was intended to correct the subjectivist bias of prudence. This becomes the great challenge to any idea of rhetorical judgment. The blind spot of supposedly democratic deliberation exposed by the critical left is the failure to account for the institutional imperatives that burrow into the heart of public speech. Rancière says that the crucial decisions are made before public deliberation is allowed to take place by determining who gets to speak: “Before the gauging of interests and entitlements to this or that share, the dispute concerns the existence of parties as parties … Politics is primarily conflict over the existence of a common stage and over the existence and status of those present on it” (1999, pp. 26–27). As Fraser puts it, “deliberation can easily mask subtle forms of control” and be insulated from the habituation to consciousness of effective history (Fraser, 1990, p. 64). Such a challenge to power is effectively attenuated in the modalities of discourse themselves. Lucaites and Taylor likewise describe prudence as the “formative constraint on the very grounds by which [historically situated rhetorical exchanges] are judged” (Lucaites & Taylor, 1993, p. 306). Their analysis of the prudential debate about congressional authorization to use force in Iraq, for instance, showed how deliberation followed rather than led to the decision to go to war: “In the face of impinging realities, the Senate, in exercising prudential judgment, could not but yield to the material constraints that led the nation to war. The ideological effect of this rhetoric was to insure that the decision to wage war could not be made in any meaningful way, for it had been materially ordained” (Lucaites & Taylor, 1993, p. 307).

The colonizing tendency of power over prudence is why the focus now in radical democratic theory is on how to overcome the constitutional deficiency of deliberative processes in political contexts. The trick is to find and develop democratic practices of deliberation and decision that do “not assume that people’s preferences, interests, and identities are given exogenously in advance of public discourse and deliberation” (Fraser, 1990, p. 72). Political theory is effectively returning to the problem with prudence that Garver pointed out was buried in its origins: “Can there be a community of people who live like Socrates?” Because the answer is manifestly no, and because Machiavelli’s option—to vest prudential skill in the person of the Prince—is no longer adequate, a political process (not a form) for actuating the proper registration of the general and the particular has somehow to be discovered. Some theoretical proposals have begun to emerge. Laclau says that “the tension between the universal and the particular is constitutive of democracy,” so that the speech situation must be perpetually in formation rather than predetermined (Laclau, 2001, p. 11). Not coincidentally, Laclau came to see more and more that such political articulation of the speech situation is fundamentally rhetorical. But then how does articulation avoid the systemic imperatives of self-reproduction?

Possibilities for the Future

Jean-François Lyotard was deeply suspicious of “a universal rule of judgment between heterogeneous genres,” and thus was attracted toward the prudential orientation to the particular (Lyotard, 1988, p. xi). His sensitivity to the particular had a political motive, which was to defend those trampled by the social norms propagated under universalist doctrines. Because he was suspicious of the dominant forms of Western rationality that emerged out of, and expressed, social conformity, he was also suspicious of the mainstream appropriation of prudence regulated by the idea of a sensus communis (e.g., Shaftesbury): “The sensus communis is thus in aesthetics what the whole of practical, reasonable beings is in ethics. It is an appeal to community carried out a priori and judged without a rule of direct presentation” (Lyotard, 1988, p. 169). Lyotard’s pagan prudence legitimized the tricks and subterfuges of the marginalized to escape the domination of the status quo.16 This thought lies in the tradition of Machiavellian prudence that focuses on the moral relation of means and ends. But then Lyotard asked himself if such a marginal practice that celebrates the creative chaos of difference could have political efficacy:

How can a regulatory use of this idea of the political take place? How can it be pragmatically efficacious (to the point where, for example, it would make one decision just and another unjust)? Is a politics regulated by such an idea of multiplicity possible? Is it possible to decide in a just way in, and according to, this multiplicity? And here I must say that I don’t know.

(Lyotard, 1988, p. 94)

To set some limit to horizons, to prevent the vertigo of the radically contingent, to denounce violence forcefully, to assert justice unequivocally, these pressing needs evince Lyotard’s repeated admission of a “hesitation” between the Kantian imperative and the Sophistic ruse. And so what he ends up doing is circling around a more traditional prudence with poignant reticence, fearing the pull of its lurking rationalism, but seeing there the nucleus of “a politics of practical reason” (Lyotard, 1988, p. 84):

Jean-Loup Thébaud: The trouble is in this question: How can there be prescriptives in the pagan?

Jean Francois Lyotard: But of course there can be! There are prescriptives in the pagan! It is fundamental, even. Just as there is a politics in the Greek city, just as there are decisions to be made by Aristotle’s judge, just as the sage has to decide whether to be a father or not, to fall in love or not, and so on. There always are prescriptions; one cannot live without prescriptions. It was Ariston’s error to have claimed the opposite. I believe that one of the properties of paganism is to leave prescriptions hanging, that is, they are not derived from an ontology. This seems essential to me.

(Lyotard, 1988, p. 59)

This “leaving prescriptions hanging” suggests a constitutional need for revision, an openness to new perspectives, and ultimately the social approach to prudence that rhetoric provides. This is what is behind Lyotard’s rhetorical question: “Do we still have in opinion itself, that is, in the particular case, the faculty of judging?” (Lyotard, 1988, p. 88). Prudence must be a social virtue aware of its sensitivity to structural influences.

This double requirement is what lies behind Laclau and Mouffe’s search for deliberative forms that can organize the diversity of democratic interests. Their theory picks up on Machiavelli’s insight into the role of representation as a mediator of social judgment; the plasticity of the sign permits the social to form provisional judgments in the collective, a prudential concession that democracy makes to the impurity of representation. Laclau came more and more to think of articulation as a rhetorical phenomenon, and he began drawing on rhetoric’s pragmatic indeterminacy, asking the same fraught question as Lyotard: “What is the relationship between the ethical … and the plurality of actually existing normative orders?”17 Laclau’s prudential ties become even more obvious as he rejects what he calls the “political nihilism” of Agamben in favor of a militant ethics of commitment that embraces the heterogeneous (Laclau, p. 220). When he writes that “the contamination between the evental and the situational is the very fabric of social life,” he is using the postmodern language of the event in a way that is utterly dependent on the prudential reciprocity of the part and the whole (Laclau, 2014, p. 201).

This Laclauian version of rhetorical judgment is certainly an elaborate appropriation of a tradition that has passed through many filters—Hegel, Marx, Gramsci, Saussure, Derrida—but it still rests on the classical teaching. The development of the sophistic concept of the dissoi logoi in the forum, policy debates in utremque partem, the multiplex ratio disputandi of legal dispute, all gestured toward an essentially democratic idea: In a world of finite perspectives, the closest approximation to the whole must hear from the parts. In the Roman system this was already more than an epistemic insight, since it was tied to the motives and interests of the landed patricians. It is not just the diversity of opinions that have to be brought to bear on the matter under consideration (rēs), but the diversity of bodies that give those doxa weight. This latest appropriation of a complex heritage may have some legs, but it remains to be seen how the balance that prudence asks for can be won and held in a politics committed to ongoing hegemonic disarticulation and reconfiguration. Laclau and Mouffe were attempting to transfer judgment from the preserve of statesmanship to what is essentially a prudential rhetoric of political alliance. Would this smooth out the necessary perturbations of radical democracy that try to muffle the passions of dissensus that tear alliances apart in place of the tendency for consensus to serve as the smooth mask of domination? An alliance that depends on the temporary substitution of the part for the whole is a form of strategic negotiation that understands the practical compromises of the particular situation as an implicit commitment to inclusion, since groups don’t agree to imperfect alliances without a consciousness of their common ends. If this is true, then alliance as a form of prudence would serve as a kind of character formation (solidarity in difference) at the level of the social, rather than pure strategic calculation.

Even if no such preeminence comes to a politics of rhetorical judgment, and even if prudence must hide in the shadows once more, practical reason will percolate along in the corners and byways of practical deliberation. At one level or another, people are always having to work things out, as Aristotle said, “where there are no rules or systems to guide us.” This is plainly evident in areas of social life in which practical reason is being rediscovered with energy and excitement: in fields of health and medicine, in dispute resolution, in business management, in any area where technical rationality has tried to take over and shown its impotence. Prudential theory has become a topic in bioethics, for instance, where scholars have christened “a new casuistry” to address the hard cases that technological progress has brought to medicine (Arras, 1991, p. 30). Kopfensteiner speaks of “a postempiricist and historical view of science” that draws roots from a casuistic and hermeneutic perspective (Kopfensteiner, 1995, p. 209). Social reason returns to pick up the pieces whenever we give ourselves over to the dream of perfection.

To appreciate the sinuous process of coming to terms with the complex indeterminate, one has also to be sensitive to its frailties, its ripeness for abuse, and its propensities to excess. The fact that neither rhetoric nor prudence owns a reliable standard of measure is their utility but also their Achilles’ heel, and the pathologies of calculative instrumentalism, sophistry, and vicious relativism match the excesses of the utopian impulse of technical-rational dream (Garver in Hariman, 2003, p. 72).

Practical reason will look different in the future, because what history remembers, it complicates. Historical consciousness never just repeats its heritage, and both rhetoric and prudence will evolve along with the transformations of technical culture into something new and strange. It seems likely that its sphere of competence will become progressively narrower as techne takes over more of the real estate of decision, yet there can be no vanishing point, because it always comes roaring back when decisions have to be made about life or death or ultimate value. Even after the robots take over, “thought is too keen and manifold, its sources are too remote and hidden, its path too personal, delicate and circuitous, its subject-matter too various sand intricate to” be mastered by any algorithm or regulation (Newman, 1985, p. 4).

Further Reading

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Dunne, J. (1993). Back to the rough ground. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.Find this resource:

Garver, E. (1987). Machiavelli and the history of prudence. Madison: University of Wisconsin.Find this resource:

Gross, A. G., & Keith, W. M. (1997). Rhetorical hermeneutics: Invention and interpretation in the age of science. Albany: SUNY Press.Find this resource:

Farrell, T. B. (1976). Knowledge, consensus, and rhetorical theory. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 62(1), 1–14.Find this resource:

Farrell, T. B. (1998). Sizing things up: Colloquial reflection as practical wisdom. Argumentation, 12(1), 1–14.Find this resource:

Jasinski, J. (2001). Phronesis/prudence. Sourcebook on rhetoric: Key concepts in contemporary rhetorical studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.Find this resource:

Leff, M. (1998). Cicero’s Pro Murena and the strong case for rhetoric. Rhetoric and Public Affairs, 1(1), 61–88.Find this resource:

Lyotard, J.-F. (1988). The differend: Phrases in dispute (G. Van den Abbeele, trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Find this resource:

Schwarze, S. (1999). Performing phronesis: The case of Isocrates’ Helen. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 32(1), 78–95.Find this resource:

Self, L. (1979). Rhetoric and phronesis: The Aristotelian ideal. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 12(3), 130–145.Find this resource:

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(1.) The term “rhetorical judgment” was introduced by John Lucaites in a graduate seminar entitled “Rhetoric and Sociopolitical Judgment” at Indiana University in 2002.

(2.) This is Victoria Kahn’s translation of De sermone 3–4 (Kahn, 1983, p. 18).

(3.) Etienne Pasquier quoted in Kelley (1970, p. 289).

(4.) This was in 1963. Pierre Aubenque quoted in Granjon (1999, p. 140), my translation.

(5.) This interpretation of Gadamer is debated in Arthos (2000).

(6.) Prominent among these are Stephen Toulmin, Richard Bernstein, and Joseph Dunne.

(7.) Gadamer was clear that he was not against method per se, but rather in its global application to human problems that required as much art as science.

(8.) I have reversed the order of these two sentences: first what “practical reflection” is not, and then what it is.

(9.) Hariman’s 2003 anthology of writings, Prudence: Classical Virtue/Postmodern Practice, addresses the relevance of prudential theory to the current moment.

(10.) It is difficult to translate what Gadamer (1976, p. 85) describes as the “Fähigkeit zum verständnisvollen Umgang mit Menschen.”

(11.) The phrase is Hariman’s (Hariman, 2003, p. 291). As I have tried to show, Gadamer’s theory transcends his political naiveté and cultural conservatism.

(12.) “The orator should be able to prove opposites … not that we should do both … but that the real state of the case not escape us” (Aristotle, Rhetoric, 11–13; 1355b).

(13.) Garver, 1996, p. 71.

(14.) “The use of prudence as a norm becomes a means for maintaining the community’s traditional alignment of its social practices” (Hariman, 1991, p. 29).

(15.) A milder form of this determinism is read into the study of phronesis by Aune (2008).

(16.) For a gloss on pagan prudence, see Charland, 2003, pp. 259–286.

(17.) This developing realization became explicit with the title of his last published book, The Rhetorical Foundations of Society (2014).