Zen in the Art of Rhetoric: An Inquiry into Coherence
Zen in the Art of Rhetoric interrogates the role of dualistic thought in human communication and culture, and offers new insights into the similarities and differences that mark Eastern and Western conceptualizations of language. Beginning with a reconsideration of the relationship between Zen Buddhism and rhetoric, the book progresses through a series of essays that examines the epistemological assumptions shared by pre-classical and postmodern rhetorics and Buddhist metaphysics, suggesting that the conception of rhetoric articulated by the Greek Sophists parallels the questioning of duality posed by Zenists as well as the critique of negation advanced by some postmodern theorists.
Drawing on poetry, personal narratives, critical analysis, and epistemological explorations, this book expands traditional conceptions of rhetoric beyond an "art of persuasion" to a power to manage diverse conceptions of reality, freeing the study and practice of discourse from the essentializing constraints of foundationist philosophy. As an "inquiry into coherence," the book explores social, political, and pedagogical issues ranging from racism, to cultural and ethnic diversity, to the role of argument and persuasion in the creation and perpetuation of difference. The result of this exploration is an understanding of rhetoric as a Tao, a Way of being, thinking, and speaking grounded in what the author calls "dialogic coherence," an actively non-argumentative approach to language, life, and method that is based upon the philosophies and practices of the Eastern martial arts.
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Having read an earlier reader's brief criticism based on the egocentricity of the author, I began warily and indeed found that egocentric author in what seemed to me wearisome and gratuitous verbiage in the first chapter. But that sense of dullness quickly left as I immersed myself in the message of the book and found myself hungrily turning the pages of what is not necessarily an entry-level book on philosophy and rhetoric. Although my own experience with these genres is certainly lacking, by slowing down I was able to digest concepts that illuminated and substantized my own thoughts and experiences.
McPhail draws on many books with "Zen" in their title, but most heavily upon
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values
This book is a superb complement to Pirsig's masterwork, elaborating and clarifying key principles. Of greatest value to me is the key goal of transcending traditional dualist conceptions and binary totalities in order to have a perspective of wholeness. In terms of rhetoric, this means being able to use rhetoric for dialogue as well argument. McPhail's proposed approach is based on a founding principle that all things have a basic oneness and that we are better profited by interrelating things based on coherence to this oneness than by critical attacking or persuading (particularly, dissuading) based on the negative difference that has preoccupied classical and philosophical thought.
It is a challenging book, and I am looking forward to immediately starting a second round through it. The challenges it offers to the classically trained mind are significant, in that our most ancient assumptions may be called into question -- not a questioning of doubt, but of eager exploration with the understanding that because all things are interwoven with eachother, exploration will result in "otherness" that dissolves on inspection and adds to the greater whole.
While his more heavily philosophical chapters were slow going for me, with dictionary in hand, I found that his comparison to martial arts and his explication of both western and eastern approaches to world-view were precisely accurate for me and worked great. I recommend readers go through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance first -- it is a more digestible book that will lead well to this one -- and then come to this book with a willingness to increase understanding of how language shapes reality.