McKenna, Stephen.  Adam Smith:  The Rhetoric of Propriety.  Carbondale: SIU Press, 2005.  Print.

  • M. argues in this work that when Smith’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres is read in connection with his other work and in the context of the time in which Smith was writing, there is a unique contribution to the study of rhetoric . . . Smith offers a new connection between the act of communication and the field/practice of ethics.

Chapter One:  Smith and the Problem of Propriety

  • Thesis statement of M.’s book:  “Smith’s approach to the study of human society was fundamentally rhetorical in conception, that this was for him an approach more fruitful than others he might have taken and that we may only judge the ideological content of his work once we have reckoned with this rhetorical undercurrent” (1-2).
  • Propriety defined:  “the stylistic virtue that wins audience sympathy by communicating correctly, clearly, and appropriately” (1).
  • M. notes that propriety is thought of in two ways:  1) purely intuitive; or 2) a stylistic effect that masks an ideology (this is the position of the postmoderns like Barthes, Fish, Lanham, etc.).

Chapter Two:  Smith and Propriety in the Classical Tradition

  • In this chapter M. provides a who’s who in the use of propriety as a rhetorical concept from antiquity (Greeks, Romans, etc.).  He provides this as a way to sketch Smith’s own intellectual biography.  M. also does this to demonstrate that, while understated/analyzed, rhetorical propriety has long been a central concern of the art of rhetoric.  M. asks the question, “how does one judge what language is particularly apt in a given rhetorical situation, and on what criteria is this judgment based?”
  • M. works through the Greek prepon to demonstrate how propriety has long been the act of appear conspicuously before the eyes (26).  This definition seems to imply that propriety itself has always been a visual-ocular rhetorical enterprise and highlights the sensory nature of rhetorical communication (an obviously important fact for a Common Sense philosopher!).  The themes of sensory perception, pleasurable aesthetic response, and a well articulated interlocutor in a social milieu will trail throughout the rest of the book as the main ways that M. discusses propriety in Smith’s rhetorical theory.
  • M. claims that Gorgias’s conception of propriety is similar to Hume’s observations on taste (31) because to be proprietous means not to be a normalized rhetor but to perform particular behaviors in concert with the demands of context, audience, and topic.  Spectatorial rhetoric comes into play here because it is through the mimetic act of becoming the audience/spectator that the rhetor can do a really effective job demonstrating rhetorical propriety.
  • M. notes that Aristotle’s work on propriety was really about being particularly clear to a particular audience (enthymeme!).  He also highlights that Aristotle would have considered propriety a form of logos because it involves a rational calculation of the efficacy of particular aesthetic communicative acts (43).  This is a Stoic belief (49) . . . propriety becomes bound to “obey culturally determined convention” . . . and in Ciceronian rhetoric this would also include an attention to the ethical.
  • Cicero’s distinction between general propriety (what separates us from the animals) and subordinate propriety (prepon acquired through an attention to self-control, temperance, and civilized behavior) is particularly useful and draws attention to how proprietous acts should always work in concert with the “human nature, social nature, and individual nature” to create an ethical-rhetorical propriety whole (50).
  • While Aristotle and the ancients – in varying degrees – see propriety as a function of logos, M. argues that Smith viewed propriety as a psychological function.  As he notes, “Smith treats propriety as virtually excluding reason; he emphasizes instead its functioning within the psychology of emotions” (43).

Chapter Three:  Rhetorical Propriety in 18th Century Theories of Discourse

  • In this chapter M. focuses more specifically on the 18th century and Smith’s work in relation to that of the philosophies of Bacon/Locke as well as the aesthetic/stylistic work of Shaftesbury, Hume, Addison, Steele, and Fenelon.  M. draws attention to the emphasis on propriety as a visual metaphor . . . because of this representation, rhetorical propriety and morality were united under the concept of the “spectator.”
  • M. argues at the end of this chapter (much like Agnew) that taste and propriety are social constructs developed out of shared discourse and shared social milieu.

Chapter Four:  Propriety in Smith’s Rhetoric Lectures

  • This chapter provides a summary of the Lectures on Rhetoric and Belle Lettres and makes the argument that Smith’s work is important because it draws together the emotive possibilities of language and one’s ability to sympathize under the broader heading of “propriety.”
  • Key difference between Smith and Aristotle:  “For Aristotle, if you are clear, you will be appropriate; for Smith, if you are appropriate, you will be clear” (81).  In many ways this is another argument for the social function of propriety . . . appropriateness (read: attention to the rhetorical situation) yields perspicuity – not the other way around.  This is best embodied by what McKenna calls his “central rhetorical tenant”:

Chapter Five:  Propriety in The Theory of Moral Sentiments

  • This chapter makes the argument that Smith’s moral philosophy is informed by his theories on rhetoric . . . not the opposite.  Specifically, M. argues that Smith’s notion of propriety actually informed his philosophical basis for a moral philosophy.  This is a strategic move that pushes Smith away from a moral theorist and toward a communication theorist.
  • M. notes that Smith considered invention not an act of discovery to be considered under the heading of logos, but instead a pathetic movement toward focused description.  Description can be divided into two forms:  direct description – enumerative and the most common way of describing something; and indirect description – this is a form of description in which “the writer or speaker describes the effects this quality [the quality being considered] has on those who behold it” (96).  Again, this is a return to the spectator position as a way to better understand how the description is affective upon the audience [2. Of course, here you’ll find resonances between Smith’s consideration of the audience/spectator and Campbell’s rhetorical principles of audience-centeredness.  A point to return to for the exam, for sure.].  In effect, the spectator becomes a distanced audience member as rhetor making claims (but constantly deferred from directly claiming in some senses).  The audience of the spectator – an audience from which he is comprised – is moved to and accepts the spectator position through effective spectatorial rhetoric.
  • Was that last paragraph a bit messy?  Here’s the position in summa:  “The rhetor must have an appropriate sentiment toward and object (which presumes having a certain ‘gentlemanly’ ethos cultivated and educated in civilized society), then the rhetor must use the method of description suited to the object and the aim of discourse.  The superior tactic is almost always the indirect method, which refracts the sentiment through the sensibility of another spectator of the object” (101).
  • On pages 114-117 M. describes how morality is actually constituted by a theory of “transactive emotions.”  Transactive emotions are the “moral sentiments” that compel people to act in particular, ethical ways.  In other words, the morality of any act isn’t necessarily in the behavior of the act; rather, it is in the sentiment or intent of the act itself:  were the intentions pure? ethical? You can judge the outcomes of an act; however, it is more important to understand how the emotive moral sentiments behind an act are ethical or not . . . . not necessarily the act itself.
  • What does Smith’s idea of propriety do for 18th century rhetorical theory?  It provides: 1) a close attention to the contextual nature of any rhetorical situation – in Smith’s consideration of propriety, situations, people, contexts, and times are all considered; 2) the role of reason is diminished with respect to moral thinking.  Instead, emotive transactions become the basis for moral sentiment; and 3) a theory of moral thought that understands it not as something that exists as a universal absolute but instead is negotiated, circulated, and agreed upon in practice among various interlocutors in a particular rhetorical situation.

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