Wednesday, October 31, 2007

my rhetoric

When I speak to you, I always say more than I mean. When you catch on, my come back is to try, by speaking even more, to intend even less. Know what I mean?

(So here I go again:

Let me speak to you what Robert E. Quinn speaks to us after being spoken to by Oliver Wendell Holmes:

Oliver Wendell Holmes once remarked that he placed little value on simplicity that lay on this side of complexity but a great deal of value on simplicity that lay on the other side. Put another way, there is a vast chasm between being simple and being simplistic. I would like to suggest something similar.

I believe that in any activity there are many novices, a few experts, and very occasionally there is an extraordinary master. If you ask a novice about a topic, the novice will give you a very simple (simplistic) explanation that will be of little value. If you ask an expert the same question, the expert will give you a complex explanation that will also be of little value. If you ask a master the same question, the master’s explanation may be simple, breathtakingly elegant, and remarkably effective. But the master’s answer will only be valuable, breathtaking, and effective if you and I are ready to hear it and act on it.

(Change the World: How Ordinary People Can Accomplish Extraordinary Results, xi)

So now that you ask, let me see if I can state this as simply as possible:

Aristotle is not only an expert about most things

but he is also only a novice about everything else.)


Jason said...


I love Quinn's explanation of novice/expert rhetoric, and I am intrigued by its application to Aristotle. I'd like to hear even more about that application!

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks for your comment, Jason. To be sure, Quinn doesn't even mention Aristotle once in any of his solid "change agency" books. No, Quinn's extraordinary masters include Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Mahatma Gandhi, Larry Bird, Monty Roberts, and a complex, eclectic assortment of men and a few women such as Norma Rae. So to be simply fair to Aristotle, let's note how Quinn writes nothing of Aristotle and but a little of women. (Quinn also writes to disparage the views of a [not named] "woman at a professional conference who was on the cutting edge of feminist theory." But that's for another conversation.)

Your comment actually inspired me to write my last post ("First Step"). Aristotle is quite an expert, with substantial and persuasive complexity. When you become an expert (say in X-logy or Y-istics with all the peculiar Greeky jargon), then Y-istics and X-ology will be quite useless to you (unless you become an insider expert too). Aristotle is a complex expert. And I am too when I speak about this stuff (whether linguistics or rhetorics or feministics or ESLology) with neighbors or family or friends.

But on everything besides the -ologies and the -istics, Aristotle is quite a novice. He has no clue what it's like to be a woman. (I should add, since my son went away to college, I have less of a clue what it's like to be a woman: my two daughters and wife remind me all the time.) At language learning, Aristotle is less than a rookie. He might conjecture that to study a language is a science; he could imagine it is an art; he may even gather a few techniques from other Greeks. But he himself won't do it. Why would he? (Why won't most Americans learn a language -- other than English?)

Aristotle is no Jesus. Now, Quinn writes about this extraordinary master as a masterful change agent. That's rhetoric, I know. Quinn says the master of change agency doesn't have to resort to the "telling strategy," or the "forcing strategy," or even the much better "negotiating strategy." No, people like Jesus and MLK and Gandhi are employing the "transformation strategy" of self change. Quinn rather masterfully identifies eight or so simple components of "transformation." This also changes profoundly, many all around and many following after you. (In my post, I just try to play with the idea that Jesus is a translation practitioner and theorist and is both (A) as transformative as an alcoholic in 12 steps) and (B) as transformative as a feminist doing recovery work.

With Alexander the Great and his other male Greek students, Aristotle probably uses all three strategies besides the transformational strategy. Aristotle's expertise is formed by his binary classification of any subject (what it is by it's natural features, and what it is not); then Aristotle sorts the classified subjects into a hierarchic map of knowledge. Some things naturally are above, the other things in the middle, the others below.

The suspicious thing (postmodernists would say) is that Aristotle by all his own categories is at the top of the heap. He's a man, a Greek man, a Greek speaking man, an educated literate Greek speaking man, an educated literate Greek speaking man with a woman, an educated literate Greek speaking man with a woman who bears a child, an educated literate Greek speaking man with a woman who bears a child who like her mother sits quietly while the man speaks with other educated literate Greek speaking men with their own women.

Oh, and the Greek men also have slaves, barbarians mostly, both women and men with some children. Natural born (white) race helps determine that.

So, now I've given an expert's (an Aristotelian perhaps) reply to your comment.

My post "First Step" is my attempt to start something else.