Why We Just Can't Seem to Teach Logos

Computer drawing of a sculpture of Aristotle


Chris Ortiz y Prentice

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When it comes to argumentation, what's the hardest subject to teach: pathos, ethos, or logos? Based on my experiences teaching RHE306 and RHE309K and from asking my colleagues this question over the past two years, I believe the answer is indisputably LOGOS.

What's so hard about teaching logos? I think the big reason is that, when you're talking about persuasion and then you introduce the word “logos,” students' brains immediately recall the word “logic.” Instructors hesitate to allow this understanding. Many, including myself, dispute it outright.

When and where I went to college, logic was a vestigial subject, at least so far as the humanities were concerned. You could take “Symbolic Logic” from the Philosophy Department (cross-listed as a mathematics course), and a number of courses in logic were offered by the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

It didn't use to be this way: in the past, Aristotelian logic was viewed as an elementary education for the liberal arts. But with the ascendancy of Analytic Philosophy in the early parts of the twentieth century – largely as a result of the work of Gottlob Frege on predicate logic – logic's disciplinary ties with rhetoric were severed. In English-speaking universities today, logic is more likely taught as a highly-specific and technical field more closely aligned with mathematics than with Rhetoric or English. Search the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for “logic” to see the proof of this historical change.

If students think logic when I say “logos,” this is a big problem because, first off, I know that I don't really know anything about logic, properly speaking; and second off, what the students call logic isn’t really logic, either. In any event, I’ve never had a student with any training in logic. My sense is that students use the term to mean something like “indisputable reasoning.” 

But herein lies the final confusion that, I would wager, makes teaching logos so hard for us rhetoric instructors, and not just for me. The rise of Analytic Philosophy was accompanied, in the elite philosophy departments where these sorts of things go down, by the downfall of positivism. Wittgenstein was refuting his own Tractatus Logico-Philosophicuswidely considered the state-of-the-art in predicate logic – as early as the mid-1930s. Around the same time, Alfred North Whitehead, co-author with Bertrand Russell of the Principia Mathematica (1910-13), had not only given up logic altogether but, like Wittgenstein, had undergone a conversion and would next appear on the philosophical stage as a profound anti-positivist in Process and Reality (1929).

So much for logic. It really exists. Computer programmers use it. And that’s all I can tell you. But what about logos?

While philosophers of the Anglophone academy were relegating logic to mathematics departments, Continental philosophers were spending the half-century explicitly critiquing the whole notion of reasoning. As those of us educated under the post-structuralist hegemony know so well, “logos” becomes a primary site for deconstruction. If I can’t understand “logos” as a persuasive technique it’s no doubt because the whole thrust of my education has been underwritten by its deconstruction.

At this point, the conversation veers into the philosophical quagmire of relativism. Without muddying the waters, I suggest that logos is hard to teach simply because we do not know what it is. As a term, it is hopelessly overdetermined. As a technique, it is – perhaps regrettably -- foreign to our education. And then we’re trying to teach it to nineteen-year-olds, who have all too much faith in sense-making as it is.

That's my diagnosis: as for curative measures, I'm afraid I'm at a loss. As close as I can come to this daunting subject is "affordance," for which the times and its technologies have better prepared me and my students.


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