The art of dialectic between dialogue and rhetoric: The Aristotelian tradition

The art of dialectic between dialogue and rhetoric: The Aristotelian tradition. By Marta Spranzi. (Controversies 9.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2011. Pp. xii, 239. ISBN 9789027218896. $158 (Hb).

Reviewed by David Pruett, Austin Community College

Marta Spranzi’s book aims to trace ideas about ‘dialectic’ through several centuries’ worth of philosophical and scholarly texts, from Zeno of Elea, Socratic dissoi logoi, Plato’s Republic, and Aristotle’s Topics, through Cicero and Boethius, to Renaissance philosophers Rudolph Agricola and Agostino Nifo. Dialectic is defined by Aristotle in the Topics as a ‘method by which we shall be able to reason deductively from reputable opinions’ without ‘saying anything self-contradictory’ (14). S argues that Aristotle’s Topics ‘contains the germs’ for two kinds of dialectic (1). The first, disputational, entails a rule-governed question-and-answer debate between two interlocutors. The second, aporetic, is an evaluation of equally persuasive opposing opinions, in order to resolve difficulties; this kind of dialectic may be practiced by an individual.

After tracing the threads of theories about dialectic through ancient and medieval texts, S arrives at the Renaissance, a time when Aristotelian dialectic became an important contributor to evolving epistemologies. S describes the unique maturing of the two kinds of dialectic: disputational as developed by Nifo, and aporetic by Agricola. Then, introducing Renaissance literary theories of Carlo Sigonio, Torquato Tasso, and Sperone Speroni, S discusses the inventive function of disputational dialectic by authors writing inquisitive dialogues. Finally, S links dialectic to rhetorical ‘invention’, particularly when it comes to sorting through opposing, and reputable, opinions.

In Ch. 1 (11–38), S discusses the earliest uses and definitions of the term ‘dialectic’, resting on Aristotle’s Topics and sophistical refutations. Ch. 2 (39–57) surveys essential developments of the idea of dialectic in the Latin tradition, as carried forward by Cicero, Boethius, and the Scholastic philosophers. Ch. 3 (59–63) briefly highlights renewed interest in dialectic in the first half of the sixteenth century. In Ch. 4 (65–98), this renewed interest is seen to produce the ‘new dialectic’ movement, culminating in Agricola’s De inventione dialectica, which first theorized the relation between dialectic and rhetoric and sparked a resurgence of interest in Aristotle’s treatises.

Ch. 5 (99–132) expands on the renewed interest in Aristotle’s treatises, focusing on how the texts were translated and interpreted, especially in light of new translations into Latin of commentaries by Alexander of Aphrodisias and Averroes. In Ch. 6 (133–60), S discusses Renaissance theories of literary dialogue, especially those of Sigonio, Speroni, and Tasso, which argue that Aristotelian disputational dialectic is ‘the art of all dialogical reasoning’ that supports literary dialogues (134). Ch. 7 (161–72) jumps to the twentieth century to show the presence of dialectic in contemporary argumentation theories of Stephen Toulmin, Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, Frans van Eemeren and Rob Grootendorst, and Douglas Walton.

By limiting her analysis to a small set of writers and texts, S effectively illuminates the ways philosophers and scholars use and re-envision the concept of dialectic as it re-appears in the history of ideas down through the centuries.