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Rhetoric, Modality, Modernity

Since antiquity, philosophy and rhetoric have traditionally been cast as rivals, with the former often lauded as a search for logical truth and the latter usually disparaged as empty speech. But in this erudite intellectual history, Nancy S. Struever stakes out a claim for rhetoric as the more productive form of inquiry.

Struever views rhetoric through the lens of modality, arguing that rhetoric’s guiding interest in what is possible—as opposed to philosophy’s concern with what is necessary—makes it an ideal tool for understanding politics. Innovative readings of Hobbes and Vico allow her to reexamine rhetoric’s role in the history of modernity and to make fascinating connections between thinkers from the classical, early modern, and modern periods. From there she turns to Walter Benjamin, reclaiming him as an exemplar of modernist rhetoric and a central figure in the long history of the form. Persuasive and perceptive, Rhetoric, Modality, Modernity is a novel rewriting of the history of rhetoric and a heady examination of the motives, issues, and flaws of contemporary inquiry.

168 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2009

Language and Linguistics: Philosophy of Language

Philosophy: Logic and Philosophy of Language, Philosophy of Society

Political Science: Classic Political Thought


“A scintillating account of the classical and early modern roots of political rhetoric, this book could not be more welcome or more timely. In an era threatened on all sides by pessimism and moralism, Struever’s response is to ask how one can produce possibility out of negation. Her answer lies in this vigorous, bold, and often edgy set of reflections which celebrate the powers of positivity, capacity, and life itself. Retrieving rhetoric as civic engagement, Struever offers a completely novel explanation of modernity as modality—less as an epochal marker than as a grasp of potentials and possibilities, and as a rejection of hegemonic determinism. Almost as a bonus, the book is filled with astonishing and original readings of a number of writers, from Aristotle to Hobbes, Vico, and Benjamin, to contemporary interpreters of modernity. Rhetoric, Modality, Modernity is a great gift from a wonderfully resourceful mind, and a joy to read.”

James I. Porter, University of California, Irvine

“In this brilliant and provocative essay, Nancy Struever revisits the quarrel between rhetoric and philosophy and argues that rhetoric is uniquely able to deal with the realm of possibility—the civic or political realm in which actions take place. Struever argues for the neglected modernity of early modernists such as Hobbes and Vico against the classical philosophical and Enlightenment paradigms, for which rhetoric lacks explanatory power. Hobbes and Vico secede from classical philosophical paradigms by virtue of their focus on modality and possibility rather than truth and necessity. Their insights find a modern equivalent in the work of Walter Benjamin, whose investigations into modernity are guided not by philosophy but by a rhetoric that is political at its core. Ranging widely from Aristotle and Cicero to Hegel, Hintikka, Peirce, and Williams, Struever challenges us to rethink the history of philosophy as well as rhetoric, and their relation to our own postmodern moment.”

Victoria Kahn, University of California, Berkeley

Table of Contents


List of Abbreviations         

Chapter 1.              Introduction: The Classical Background

Chapter 2.              The Modernity of Early Modernity 

                Hobbes and Rhetorised Psychology               

                Possibilities in Motion       

                Hobbes and Rhetorised Argument  

                Possible Agency and Possible Plot 

                Vico: An Alternate Scenario             

                Possible Agency 

                Rhetoric and Legal Possibility          

                Possible Plots      

                Hobbes and Vico

Chapter 3.              From Early to Late Modernity           

                Modality Sorts    

                An Exemplary Modernism 

Chapter 4.              Modernizing Rhetoric: Recuperation and Response    

                New Rhetorics     

                A Modernist Contest of Faculties   

Chapter 5.              Inquiry Possibilities            

                Conclusion: Using Possibilities        



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