Culture Magazine

The Study of Rhetoric as a Route to Cognitive Empathy?

By Bbenzon @bbenzon

John Bowe, An Ancient Solution to Our Current Crisis of Disconnection, NYTimes, Nov. 27, 2023.

While rhetoric had its detractors, starting with Plato, Bowe points out that it was

the cornerstone of education until the 1700s.

Across Western Europe, students from about the age of 12 onward learned logic, social skills, critical thinking and speech techniques as a single, integrated discipline by means of a 14-step verbal and cognitive curriculum known as the progymnasmata.

Exercises began with simple recitations and enactments of fables and short stories. Later drills trained students to compose and deliver short speeches of praise and blame and, eventually, long discourses on complex themes. By writing with the intent of performing for others (rather than writing objectively for the page), students learned the art of blending fact with opinion. By mastering the techniques of persuasion, students became proficient at spotting others’ manipulative use of language.

Bowe goes on to argue:

My interest in rhetoric began in 2010, during a chat with my extremely reclusive Iowa step-cousin. He’d lived alone until the age of 60 in his parents’ basement with no friends, no girlfriends, then surprised the entire family by meeting someone and getting married. I asked him how he’d mustered up the courage to approach his future wife, given the depths of his isolation. “I joined the Toastmasters,” he said, referring to what is likely the world’s largest organization devoted to teaching public speaking. He’d never seen a therapist or taken meds. One or two dozen hours of speech training changed his entire life.

I’ve since learned that this is what speech training does. When speakers put themselves in their listener’s place, they find it easier to explain themselves. The confidence that we can make ourselves known and understood is transformative.

Apparently, scientists agree. Hannah Hobson, a lecturer in psychology at the University of York who has studied the connections among language, communication and mental health, especially among neurodiverse youth, has found repeatedly that the inability to express feelings or ask for help can often correlate with existing or developing mental health issues among youth. Conversely, she told me, improved communication skills correlate with youngsters’ emotional development and mental well-being.

Bowe doesn't elaborate on that part, putting yourself in your listener's place, but that's also called cognitive empathy, something Robert Wright is interested in. He even believes that it can save the world. Well, it's more like he believes that it's necessary, though likely not sufficient.

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