book review

Rhetoric and Argumentation Textbooks
Reviewed by: T.J. Nelson

Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student,
4th ed.
by Edward P.J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors
Oxford University Press, 1999, 562 pages


R hetoric is the art of constructing arguments that persuade people to act or convince them of some truth. Classical rhetoric is a combination of logic, writing style, and argument that incorporates political and legal discourse, oration, analysis, and even bits of philosophy. Like Latin, logic, and classical literature, rhetoric in former times was taught to all students, the idea being that it was good for you: it was thought to strengthen the mind, much as fish liver oil and brussels sprouts strengthen the brain. The great writers of classical, medieval, and early modern literature all studied rhetoric, and their writing benefited hugely from it. Nowadays, it has been mostly subsumed under English composition, and logic and discourse analysis have drifted off, like lost sheep, toward mathematics and social studies.

The benefits to the modern reader of studying rhetoric are obvious. Rhetoric can teach you how to think clearly and logically. Rhetoric can also teach you when to use emotional appeals, how to use balance to strengthen your arguments, and when to criticize your opponent's ideas. More importantly, it can show you how to recognize when your opponents, whether they are professors, salesmen, TV characters, or even writers of book reviews (godlike beings that they are), are trying to manipulate or deceive you.

Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student is a well-written book that captures some of the appeal of the Greek and Roman rhetoricians, including Aristotle and Quintilian. Originally written in the 1960s (what is "the frug", anyway?), it contains examples from recent literature as well as brief examples of the rhetorical flourishes of earlier times, some of which may be familiar, and some of which sound as baroque and turgid to today's technological ear as our talk of two-gigabyte SDRAMs and warp plasma manifolds would have sounded to theirs.

Logical Self-Defense
by Ralph H. Johnson and J. Anthony Blair
International Debate Education Association, 2006, 312 pages, reprint of 1977 edition


T he goal of this book is to teach students to identify bad arguments and logical fallacies in newspapers and TV advertisements. The example arguments are more interesting than those in Fundamentals of Critical Argumentation (see review at right). For example, Johnson and Blair's "Bat and pigeon droppings contain parasites that can be fatal to humans, so you should wear reliable respirators when you renovate buildings that might contain such droppings" is much more likely to keep a student awake than Walton's "All residents of Tutela Heights reside in Brant County. Therefore, Ned is a resident of .... zzzzzz ..."

Logical Self-Defense is generally intelligently and insightfully written. The authors take a tone of moderation, describing how flawed arguments can sometimes be saved. The authors say it's just as bad to deliberately misinterpret someone else's argument as it is to create a bad argument of one's own. But parts of the text suffer from an abominable PC writing style. If the authors could have fixed this, their book might have become a classic.

Writing Arguments:
A Rhetoric with Readings, 7th ed.
by John D. Ramage, John C. Bean, and June Johnson
Pearson Longman, 2007, 758 pages


O n the surface, this book resembles a text for high school students, with colored headings and cartoons throughout. It tries to focus on what the authors see as big political issues on today's college campuses: gay marriage, environmentalism, evil corporations, and feminism. While that may help engage the interest of some students, it also gives this textbook an automatic sell-by date. Ten years from now, gays may all have become Shriners and the War on Wal-Mart replaced by the War on Walruses. If all students remember is exciting political discussions about the hot questions of yesterday, the course will have done little more than prepare them for a life of reminiscing about the good old days. So the real measure of this book is how well it teaches the basics: logic, style, and argument. The answer seems to be: a little, but not as well as its competition.

In its attempt to be relevant, this book jettisons much of 2500 years of theoretical insight about effective writing. Logic and syllogisms get a meager eight pages tucked away in the middle of the book. Even basic stylistic figures of speech, like parallelism and synecdoche, are omitted in what seems like a quest for conformity with postmodernist doctrine. Instead of concepts, Writing Arguments presents long reading assignments for the students to learn by example. Compare that approach with Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, which uses Boolean diagrams and effective exercises to drill basic logic into their thick little skulls.

The idea in Writing Arguments seems to be that students will remember longer if they discover the principles for themselves, and that adding heated controversy will inspire creativity. But that may be like asking physics students to discover the law of gravity by letting them play with apples. The goal of learning rhetoric is not just to be creative or explore issues. By learning how to organize an argument, students are really learning how to organize their thoughts. The question is, if they don't know the difference between anaphora and metonymy, how will they know what their thoughts are organized into?

Fundamentals of Critical Argumentation
by Douglas Walton
Cambridge University Press, 2006, 343 pages


D iscusses the basics of constructing arguments and identifying logical flaws. Nicely printed, but like many books of this genre, the writing suffers from terminal PCness that makes it difficult to take the author seriously. It also makes reading the book an unpleasant chore. The information is also presented at a very low level. When the author says this book presents basic tools for beginners, he is really not kidding.


See also Writing Books