Monday, February 13, 2006

Renaissance Rhetoric of Ramus Part 1: Issues

The following post is comprised of my notes written on Walter Ong's book "Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue"

Issues: What's Going on anyway?

Ramus was a 16th century academic who had an acute concern for logic with a distaste for symbolism, but who was eminently concerned with language (4). Ramism is a kind of logic, or dialectic (the two were essentially synonymous for Ramus), but it is unlike the more rigorous ones the precede it during the Medieval period (which were more concerned with scientific rigor and complexity) (7). Ramism was decried by strict logicians on this count. Ramism, as Ong likes to put it, is a set of mental habits, a conditioning of the mind toward a certain disposition or orientation toward the world and toward thought itself (7-8). Ramus' popularity was not universal, but his influence was ubiquitous throughout Europe, though in varying degrees. His name became synonymous with Rhetoric (9).

One of the issues that Ong will trace throughout his book is the fact that Latin was the predominant language of the academy, rather than the vernacular languages of any particular country (i.e. German in Germany, English in England, French in France, Italian in Italy, etc.) (10-11). Latin dominated the academy on all educational levels and subject as the primary language of discourse through the 16th, 17th, and up into the 18th century (10-11). It was only during the 18th century that vernacular languages began seeing frequent use in academia (12). Interestingly, Ramism was at the forefront of the vernacular movement in England, France, the Netherlands, and Germany, despite the fact that most of his own works were read in Latin only.

The intellectual heritage that Ramus inherited considered Rhetoric, Dialectic, and Logic to be synonymous in practice, even if distinctions were attempted in theoretical treatments (21). Medieval rhetoric, which was practical in orientation and motivation, was being replaced in the humanist tradition by a more elaborate art, in order to teach Latin expression as a literary or stylistic instrument (21). The connection between Rhetoric and probable argument, as well as the connection between Rhetoric and Dialectic, was gradually replaced by a very narrow and largely ornamental rhetoric. The art of Dialectic subsumed classical understanding of Rhetoric, but did away with probabilistic argument altogether.

There was also a movement in the humanist tradition toward an organizing principle of pedagogy. The exigencies of teaching young boys whose mental development was unprepared for the problems and issues of mature fields of study led to the reorientation of teaching material (22-23). The mantra of "is it true?" was replaced by the mantra of "is it teachable."

Ramus' own work represented a singular challenge to Aristotelian philosophy and method (23). Ong continually charges Ramus with misunderstanding Aristotle, and even owing Aristotle much debt for much of his own work. The later chapters explain in detail where Ramus' orientation and approach to Aristotle lead him to misunderstand and reformulate his philosophical observations.

Ong separates Ramus' career into four periods:
1. Rhetorical (largely Ciceronian)
2. Dialectic/Methodical
3. Dialectic on Mathematics
4. Religion

One of the key issues that recurs throughout Ramism is its desire to be as free from Rhetoric (which it deems mere ornamentation) as possible.

Ramus' self-proclaimed reforms were centered on logic for use of erudition, with a special focus on reforming Aristotle's Organon (41). One of Ramus' novelties was his application of logic throughout all curriculum levels, a result of the Renaissance influences rather than Medieval ones (41). Ramus' views on Aristotle are largely filtered through later commentators. Ong traces his intellectual heritage thus (from p. 42):

1) Dialectic in Cicero
2) Dialectic in Quintillian
3) Agricola's Dialectic in Humanities (particularly influential)
4) Galen
5) Hippocrates
6) Aristotle--with extreme dislike
7) Plato--esp. the dialogues
8) Aristotle--viewed as deceptive
9) Aristotle--relies upon the matter and form distinguishing categories heavily

Ramus is not first, not is he alone in his conflation of Aristotelian dialectic (logic that deals with terminating probabilities) and scientific logic (geometrical reasoning that deals with certainties), for the Medieval tradition was first to mark them as one form (44).

Ong marks out Ramus' use of the word commentitia as characteristic of his understanding from 1543 onward (45). He used the word in various references to Aristotle to mean inconsistency, arbitrary usage, irrelevant material, and poorly systematized description. Of these, perhaps the last is most informative of Ramus' mental sensibility. Systematization through dichotomies and diagrams come to epitomize the visual representations of his mental adjudications of knowledge (though he would not consider it making a judgment at all) (45-47).

In addition to his rejection of Aristotle's approach to knowledge and teaching, Ramus' history of dialectic ignores much of the Roman and all of the Medieval periods, arguing that the classics had a "true dialectic" which his age had revived (47-48). While Ramus prizes Socratic and Platonic dialectic, his own dialectical method will reveal itself to be radically distinct from either. Ramus was also critical of the Italians, giving little credit to their influence during his own period (48). He was particularly antagonistic toward their emphasis on rhetorical eloquence (Ramus prized dialectical logic, though he himself was an eloquent speaker). The tension that exists in Ramism is largely a tension between the traditions of logic and rhetoric (49).

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