Assistant Professor, Department of English
Carnegie Mellon University
Martyrdom (bearing witness) is so essentially rhetorical, it even gets its name from the law courts.
Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives
In the passage above, Kenneth Burke points to the essential connection between law and rhetoric, even suggesting that a speech act may be defined as rhetorical simply by its relationship to courtroom oratory. Similarly, legal scholar James Boyd White has argued that law is a branch of rhetoric and that the lawyer represents “the modern rhetorician in its purest form.” Lawyers are among the most familiar figures of public argumentation in our society and they assume a unique role in their advocacy surrounding particular cases, a casuistic form of reasoning that has long been one means of defining rhetoric itself. Although definitions of rhetoric vary widely, Aristotle defined rhetoric and the faculty of discovering the available means of persuasion ”in any particular case,” and rhetoric has often been defined as being concerned with particular audiences and questions rather than with universal audiences or general questions. Thus, the study of legal advocacy, particularly that surrounding the adjudication of particular cases, is useful not only as a means of understanding law but as a resource for exploring a variety of conceptual issues involving rhetoric. In this way, the study of judicial rhetoric is a valuable source for understanding not only legal discourse but forensic rhetoric more broadly, the exchange of accusation and defense regarding responsibility for past events. It offers a valuable opportunity to study the ways in which people seek to persuade each other of the applicability of general rules to particular cases.
Despite the intimately intertwined history of law and rhetoric, particularly evident in the rhetorical origins of the evidentiary and procedural rules of modern law, the professionalization of law in the modern era has tended to deny the rhetorical roots of law and to promote the idea that legal discourse is objective and autonomous, much as modern scientific discourse long denied that it uses rhetoric to discover or convey scientific knowledge. The perspective that legal discourse is not rhetorical has even been expressed by legal practitioners such as Francis Wellman, who wrote at the turn of the twentieth century that the great orations of trial lawyers had become useless because modern juries were impervious to such rhetorical acts, composed as they were of “practical business men accustomed to think for themselves, experienced in the ways of life, capable of forming estimates and making nice distinctions, unmoved by the passions and prejudices to which court oratory is nearly always directed.” Perhaps as a result of this denial of rhetoric in modern law, the study of modern legal advocacy has been largely neglected by both rhetorical and legal scholars. As legal historian David Cairns recently noted, no history of modern legal advocacy has been written nor has any modern legal advocate or teacher even tried to explain legal advocacy as Aristotle or Quintilian did the forensic rhetoric of the classical era. The rhetorical study of legal discourse therefore has broader significance for the revival of rhetorical study in the modern era as well, because it requires a deep reconsideration of the denial of rhetoric that followed the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment which continues to this day.
My research primarily focuses on legal rhetoric and argumentation, particularly the relationship of legal discourse to cultural identity in global contexts. More broadly, I’m interested in the history and theory of rhetoric, the relationship between legalism and casuistry in forensic argument, the role of narrative, memory, and proof in discourse about the past, and the comparative study of conflict resolution methods. You can read more about my research interests on the Research Interests and Publications and Talks pages. I recently accepted a position as Assistant Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University where I will start teaching this summer. The Rhetoric of Nationalism page outlines a course I’m teaching at Carnegie Mellon University during the Summer II session of 2013, and the Law and Globalizations and Argument pages outline courses I’m teaching at Carnegie Mellon University during the Fall 2013 semester.