A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

A Review of Gehrke’s The Ethics and Politics of Speech

Review of The Ethics and Politics of Speech: Communication and Rhetoric in the Twentieth Century by Pat J. Gehrke 2009, Southern Illinois University Press 

Benjamin Smith, Northeastern State University

Enculturation: http://www.enculturation.net/ethics-and-politics (Published: January 25, 2016)

Pat J. Gehrke’s The Ethics and Politics of Speech: Communication and Rhetoric in the Twentieth Century examines the development of communication studies and rhetoric as both a discipline and a practice.  Gehrke investigates how the relationships between ethics, politics, and speech developed as well as how they continue to evolve in the present day.  Further, Gehrke examines the nature of ethics in speech and rhetoric in order to uncover and interrogate common assumptions, the limits of the field, and the naturalness of those limits. Gehrke works from a speech communication perspective and uses a historical approach that, while neither claiming to be comprehensive nor authoritative, does investigate and detail the major conflicts, movements, and challenges faced by both rhetoric and speech communication in the twentieth century.  Clearly Gehrke’s focus is on recovering ignored aspects of the history of rhetoric as discussions of the foundations of rhetoric and its purposes are initially focalized through an historic lens but often detour into epistemological exercise. Primarily, though, Gehrke considers the role of ethics and politics throughout the history of speech communication and aims to intervene in the field by examining the last century and questioningthe disciplines of rhetoric and speech communication have been labeled, and explores “not only how thinkers have grappled with the relationship between ethics, politics, and speech but also what modes of ethics and politics might be available for communication today” (2).  In doing so, Gehrke aims to trace historical thought and to unearth the means by which the perceptions of rhetoric and speech communication have been created.

Beginning in the first decades of the twentieth century and with the emergence of speech communication and communication ethics, Gehrke maps the relationships between available models of persuasion and psychological views of mental health common to the era.  Later, Gehrke traces the debates over the nature of rhetoric and the ethics of speech communication during the 1950s to 1970s.  Finally, the book ends in the 1990s with the return to the philosophy of speech communications, rhetoric, and how those philosophies inform practice.

In the book’s first chapter, Gehrke focuses on the development and early stages of the discipline of speech communication and its commitment to ethical representation in the first few decades of the twentieth century.  Gehrke employs an engaging narrative style along with a heavy emphasis on historical research.  The field’s focus on efficacy in oral persuasive methods is noted as bringing socials sciences, particularly psychology, to the discipline.  Psychology was seen as a means to understand, relate to, and persuade an audience; Gehrke notes that for speech communication, “one of the first foundational questions..became the structure and function of the audience’s mind, which meant more specifically the essential structure of human psychology” (17).  During this period, a concern for mental health and “mental hygiene” pervaded as a means to to turn the discipline away from public speaking to a focus on the individual, personality development or personal mastery, and everyday conversation.  Science brought an emphasis on logic and reasoning, and from this emphasis began the drive towards emotional repression in individuals in favor of total rationality and personal mastery.

In chapter two, Gehrke begins to examine the changes in those first few decades of the twentieth century, when scholars of speech communication began the movement towards educating citizens to participate in a democratic society.  He examines the roles of educators and the shift in education to public oratory in order to form a politically-concerned citizenry during this era of transition, an era resulting from the connection between participation in a democratic society and education in speech.  This connection and commitment to democracy and, in turn, the broadening of the discipline, began a move towards training military and government personnel.  Educators developed programs and courses to train officers during wartime while scholars examined the use of speech as an act of force.  As such, Gehrke examines the role of the difficulties in speech communications education and the use of force—particularly in the case of Adolf Hitler—as an easy entrance into the discussion of ethics and politics as the field struggled to balance the education of a moral character and the whole person during the years surrounding and including World War II.  

Gehrke chronicles the rise of rhetoric to prominence in post WWII America in his third chapter, outlining four major themes: the perceived ethical crisis in speech, both as an academic discipline and in social communication practices.  This ethical crisis had roots in the influence of European existentialism and the perceived absurdity of the human experience.  Gehrke, writing of the initial reaction to this crisis, notes that “speech communication scholars, and especially rhetoricians, began to consider communication’s ethical function to be its role as the means by which one comes to be an individual with agency in the world” (62).  Such a crisis led naturally to rhetoric scholars seeking out an ethic for rhetoric and to the second theme: the problem of moral criteria.  Rhetoric, then, would come to largely replace psychological principles as the course of ethics within speech communication.  Gehrke’s third theme, that of a return to reason as the foundation for communication ethics, was not based in science but rather philosophy and logic rather than appeals to emotion and passion.  Rhetoric, in response to the identity crisis of existentialism, developed into an era of Neo-Aristotelian revival in which rhetoricians sought a means of persuasion without a reliance on social sciences. The fourth and final theme for this chapter recalls the challenge and sway of existential philosophy toward the “recuperation of emotion and the de-privileging of reason [in order to] open a space for passion” in a new philosophical mode of inquiry for moral inquiry (81). 

This chapter marks Gehrke’s assertion that rhetoric was required to take on the role of a philosophical enterprise, one that could create, build, and explore its own theories and lines of inquiry.  The philosophic potential gave rhetoric the opportunity to find a higher scholarly and political position, and would lay the groundwork for a definition as a field “beholden to none but itself...capable as the source and the testing ground for the question of good speech” (87).  Rhetoric, with a new sense of its own significance, would then begin to delve into an existential crisis of what makes rhetoric, rhetoric.

Chapter four is perhaps the most philosophical chapter, focusing on the ontology of rhetoric as a discipline as well as the search for an ethics of communication by means of uncovering a “unifying essence of mankind that could serve as the first premise for rhetorical theory” (89).  Not an easy task. Citing such communication scholars as Karlyn Campbell and William Hesseltine and rhetoric scholars such as Kenneth Burke, Gehrke explores these ontological questions to both uncover the innate essence of humanity (as doing so was directly connected to understanding the nature of persuasion) and to define exactly what rhetoric and speech communications, as fields, should be doing.  Answers provided by scholars during this era are few in number; however, they agree a definition of rhetoric should be concerned with the question of ethics and politics if only because doing so does not provide any conclusive answers and thus should be studied extensively.  This indeterminacy and ongoing inquiry raised the status of rhetoric as a discipline, as it highlighted the power and nature of what rhetoric could do—what it should do—naturally.

Gehrke’s examination of the philosophical underpinnings of modern rhetoric detracts from his original historical focus; while the bulk of the text is devoted to an historical exploration of the nature of ethics in speech communications and rhetorical—or, in other words, to use history as a lens by which we can understand these fields—here, he reverses his approach.  He slips out of his role as an historian and takes on a philosopher’s perspective.  Explicating philosophical notions is certainly important to understand this era in the history of rhetoric; Gehrke’s approach, moreover, clouds a tight narrative of history in favor of pontification.

Chapter five traces this evolution in rhetoric towards politics in the late 1970s and into the 1990s.  The increasing concern of what rhetoric actually is begins this exploration with its own definition.  However, the text then examines conflicts over what the goals and function of rhetoric should be.  Epistemological concerns and ontological debates pervade, serving to strike to the heart of what it means to study and practice rhetoric.  Gehrke wades through objectivist and relativist debates, to highlight the inclusion of philosophy to not only understand differences but to establish that “rhetoric specifically and speech communication more generally claimed a scope of study that could cross any disciplinary boundary and a significance that was fundamental to any human endeavor” (111).

Here Gehrke examines three themes: agency, language, and community.  He begins his study of agency by looking at how rhetoric and communications scholars such as Ronald Arnett scrutinized the ideas of will and agency.  Such questions lead naturally to the relationships of rhetoric, ethics, and politics.  Because will and agency are required for these three areas, will and agency became foundational ideas for the study of human interaction.

The second theme Gehrke notes is that of language and representation.  During this period, rhetoric became increasingly concerned with the limits of language and language’s role in human relationships.  These questions lead to the third theme: community.  It is community which links the twentieth century to the twenty-first; how ethics and politics reinforce earlier values and theories of communication while evolving and questioning those same values as they function in human relationships and communities. 

Gehrke’s conclusions largely restate his methodology and goals for the project, namely to question the means by which rhetoric relates to and informs ethics and politics and how ethics and politics relate to and inform rhetoric and speech communications, both as disciplines and practices.  In order to do so, Gehrke applies a Foucaldian view of history; namely, to unsettle the perceptions of history as they are in order to propose and promote questions and questioning of the discipline’s history.  In short, he has shown that the history of rhetoric is much broader and more varied than previously conceived.

Gehrke highlights the tensions in rhetoric’s twentieth century history and marks an alternative path to understanding, one not marked by carbon copied notes.  A lack of unity in what the goals, mission, or practices of rhetoric and speech communication is not a concern, it is a privilege.  By eschewing agreement, Gehrke continues to open the space for continuous investigation that was of paramount importance for rhetoric in the discovery of its own definition during the 1970s—a space that continues to grow in its importance today.  Tracing the history and development of the rhetorical, social, and political foundations of speech practices offers a broad, yet focused view of speech communication from the immediate past and, as a result, offers new connections forged to uncovered assumptions.

The Ethics and Politics of Speech: Communication and Rhetoric in the Twentieth Century recovers and focuses a particular angle of the history of rhetoric and speech communication as a discipline in the twentieth century.  While it is not the complete history nor a philosophical treatise on what rhetoric should be, the book does not profess to be either.  Instead, it gives close attention to historical waves and developing movements throughout the twentieth century, focusing on an integral part of the history of rhetoric that adds to a more complete view of rhetoric in recent American history.  The text makes solid attempts to unravel the philosophical crises in the last few decades, but its best moments are those found in the historical sections in which impressive detail and care were given to construct a history that, until Gehrke’s text, has gone largely unnoticed.