Philosophy and rhetoric have had a rocky relationship for a long time, going back to ancient Greece, but in this book a philosopher says they are not enemies.

Donald Phillip Verene (Professor of Metaphysics and Moral Philosophy at Emory University in Atlanta) has written a book to provide the necessary professional counselling to help these partners reconcile and reevaluate what they mean to one another. While it may be a while before other scholars accept his advice, I can faintly hear the sound of wedding bells in the future. “The true philosopher,” he writes, “is not an enemy of rhetoric, only an enemy of rhetoric when used sophistically…Great thought requires great use of language. From great philosophers we learn not only great ideas; we also learn how such ideas can be realized in words.” He puts it another way later in the book, in a sentence that encapsulates the essence of his argument: “The true philosopher puts into language what can only be apprehended beyond language.”

Early in the book, Verene finds inspiration in the works of Hegel, who “said that the philosopher must have as much aesthetic power as the poet.” Verene goes on to write that “Poetic power is what philosophy requires as its beginning point and constant companion. The mythology of reason is Hegel’s answer to Plato’s quarrel with the poets. If philosophy is a necessity, poetry is, too.”

So, as usual in philosophy, everything goes back to ancient Greece. It was Plato (428-348 BCE) who first suggested that poetry is a kind of rhetoric, writing in the Republic “there is an old quarrel between philosophy and rhetoric.” He argues that poets have no place in an ideal state as they spread misinformation and corrupt the minds of young people. And so, the rift that was already ‘old’ in his time resulted in a divorce. It is the terms of this divorce –  the fine print if you will – that Verene interprets in (primarily) the 17th and long 18th centuries.

“The ultimate basis of Plato’s quarrel with the poets,” he tells us, “rests on the fact that poetic speech is not sufficient to prepare us for death – because such speech is tied to the body. Only philosophic speech is fully in accord with the soul and with the Form of the Good.” I found the explication of death to be a crucial insight, and it explains why “Plato concludes his criticism of poetry in the tenth book of the Republic with affirmation of the immortality of the soul.”

This insight in included in the book’s most fascinating section, The Island of Pure Understanding. Here we meet Immanuel Kant (pictured here) in all his glory, as he lets the reader of his 1787 book Critique of Pure Reason “enter an enormous cave of experience, in which thought is thinking through all the various senses of its activity.” But the reader is issued a warning that certain concepts circulate without proper justification: fortune and fate, as elements of the human condition, should, like the poets in the Republic, be banished. Then, Verene says, Kant reveals that all of the Critique’s doctrine of the understanding, “depends upon an art concealed in the human soul, with no expectation that the nature of which will ever likely emerge.” Verene rightly expects “the reader may be astounded” by this. Finally, Kant reveals to the reader that within the cave is an island where all is pure and perfect. “Kant’s description of this island is the only poetic passage in all of the Critique.”

And here we get to the fine print. It appears that Kant’s ultimate goal here is to prove God’s existence, but “he folds the arguments for God’s existence into each other. Kant’s failure to realize that existence is a predicate leaves his criticism of the ontological argument ineffective…Kant has engaged in a petitio principii, for his criticism assumes that a logical predicate in this one and only one case cannot be a determining predicate.” Likening Kant’s Land of Truth to a “still life,” he then goes on to relate how Hegel regarded the “True as a Bacchanalian revel at which no one is sober.”

Verene writes that Hegel’s “flashing star of wisdom is that philosophy or metaphysics is not the formulation of abstractions [like Kant did] but the attempt to think each thing in terms of the whole of experience.” It is the tension between Kant and Hegel that recurs throughout this book, but its direct relation between philosophy and rhetoric can be difficult to discern. “Hegel inverts the claim common sense makes to be concrete thought and metaphysics to be abstract. Commonsense thinking is abstract thought because it keeps us from seeing things as they really are in their fully determinate nature.” This concept is at the heart of modern physics, where commonsense notions completely fail to capture the quantum world (Verene does not mention modern science or the quantum).

And it is here that Hegel captured the value of rhetoric in the guise of myth and poetry. Poetry is, Hegel says, the “instructress of humanity.” He advocates that “we must have a new mythology, but this mythology must be in the service of ideas, it must be a mythology of reason.” So while Kant is most often associated with “reason” in the Enlightenment, it was actually Hegel who set the agenda for the study and application of reason that forms the basis of scientific inquiry in the 21st century, an inquiry that still seeks the Land of Truth.

Verene concludes the book with a look at frontispieces to several famous works including Leviathan by Hobbes and Discours by Rousseau. He laments that almost no attention has been paid to these, “or their importance for the contemplation and comprehension of their themes.” This chapter alone is an extremely valuable one, which will hopefully induce someone to write a book-length exploration of the topic, although its inclusion here might seem out of place to some seeking a connexion with rhetoric and philosophy.

This is a powerful book, one that makes many demands on the reader. As Verene himself states, “A great work of philosophy is a twice-told tale. It bears reading more than once.”


The Rhetorical Sense of Philosophy is by Cornell University Press. It lists for $49.95


By Dr. Cliff Cunningham

Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books.