Atwill – Rhetoric Reclaimed: Aristotle & the Liberal Arts Tradition


  • notes that the goal of a liberal arts education has been to “pass on ‘culture’ – to transmit the values, practices, and institutions a culture believes to be its fabric and framework” (1). Of course, the problem with this notion is what happens when we try to define “culture” – whose culture? For why? Is the liberal arts trying to create normative subjects out of people? Whose norm?
  • The “timelessness” of values is largely the result of the homogeneity of a culture who hold said values (2).
  • notes that as she reads the logon techne tradition from ancient times, she interprets it as something that challenges standards of cultural value rather than enforcing standards of cultural value.
  • She notes that this is revisionist (a strong way to put it by me) historiography inasmuch as the original texts don’t include a lot of evidence for reading logon techne as arguing for pluralist democracy; however, she does so on three points:
    • A techne is never a representational body of knowledge
    • A techne resists identification with a static, normative subject
    • Techne marks a domain of human intervention and invention. (2)
  • This can be summed up in one maxin: “a techne is knowledge as production, not product, and as intervention and articulation rather than representation” (2).
  • argues that the universalization of the liberal humanist subject parallels the universalization and normalization of the Athenian citizen: both traded radical equality for the interests of specific gender, class, race. (3). This is covered in chapters 2 & 5.
  • A final goal of this work: recalculate the value of difference and identity. This book serves as a heuristic to take “pleasure” in difference.


Chapter I – Rhetoric, Humanism & the Liberal Arts

  • notes that this work is an exploration of two incommensurable paradigms vis-à-vis rhetoric: the Quintilian tradition of understanding the liberal arts as a normative conception of knowledge and subjectivity and an older, Greek understanding of the liberal arts that identified knowledge with techne, or art, that is practicable, emergent, contextual and potentially liberating (5).
  • Three characteristics of techne that A. wants to explore: 1) techne is dynamic and never normative – it’s a power and a set of strategies to be deployed kairotically; 2) techne resists normalization of the subject – different subjectivies are established through its deployment; and 3) techne is a space for intervention and invention. It resists power and normalization by challenging the relations of power. It is knowledge as production, not product and intervention/articulation, not representation (7).
  • Method: A. rearticulated humanism using 20th century accounts of humanism and postmodern critiques of knowledge and subjectivity.
  • Key terms for the book: 1) Human – The notion of common, essential features that transcend gender, culture & history. These are typically rooted in an ancient non-existent past that normalizes subjectivity by universalizing it. The humanities are a means of actualizing the human in the individual; 2) knowledge – again, universalized in the same way as the human and concerned, in large part, with the construction of character; 3) value – Value is tied to two ideas: 1) knowledge is “man’s potential”; and 2) man’s distinguishing feature is knowledge (10).
  • argues that productive knowledge rejects the notion of knowledge from the Liberal Arts tradition because it is not embodied – it is Platonic knowledge. For A. techne, or productive knowledge, rejects the universalization and normalization of the subject.
  • Assumptions of A.’s method: 1) A theory of knowledge (epistemology) carries with it a theory of subjectivity, and, therefore, social relations (10). As such, knowledge in the LA tradition reflects a philosophical notion of humanism . . . not a rhetorical one.
  • highlights that the genealology from ancient Greek humanism to Roman humanitas to the liberal arts tradition of the 19th century is tenuous at best (14-7).
  • The tautology underpinning most of the Humanities (according to A.): “the humanities reflect human value; human value is inculcated through the humanities” (18).
  • Atwill notes that Humanist treatises have the unfortunate tendency to universalize particular rhetorical situations. This leads to a normalized subjectivity . . but poses problems for how we think about specific historical and cultural exigencies (21).
  • Atwill highlights how the particular is universalized in humanism, demonstrating how Renaissance humanism “man” is most “man” when he reflects Christian notions of God, and acts most like God. If not divine, humanism often reach toward a “suprahuman” end – an ideal end whose ideality is rooted in the dominant set of cultural values and an act that reaches beyond an individual’s history.
  • Atwill notes that a key paradox of humanism is that it both argues that the humanist subject embodies a particular moment but also transcends the values of that culture/moment. This is how the “classical” becomes the “timeless.”
  • Atwill contrasts Plato and Isocrates, highlighting that while Plato’s ideal man privatizes the public values and lives them toward an ideal Republic, Isocrates instead argues that honor and esteem are established by the rhetor’s active intervention in the affairs of the polis (27). For Plato, political action should be used to please the Gods, not for deliberation in the assembly. Isocrates argues against this position, arguing that wisdom in private and public affairs should be harmonious. Isocrates’ position doesn’t emphasize that rhetoric produces an “ideal man”; rather, because of the contingency of rhetorical situations, it argues that it can help students “seize the advantage.” (34)
  • For Isocrates, rhetoric pursues those things that allow sound governance of the home and the commonwealth. . . in other words, there is not distinction between the private and public.
  • Atwill argues that Iscorates’ notion of “character” is invariably rhetorical, it is tied to discourse and to the particular social and political exigencies found in the polis and oikos (28).
  • From Rome, we get an emphasis on the production of character – but not the Isocratean character of contingency but the character of Cicero’s “ideal orator” (30).
  • Atwill highlights the contingent nature of Aristotle’s philosophy by demonstrating how the topoi and the “art of ethos” are situated and contingent . . . not a static body of philosophical knowledge. This situatedness is contrasted with Quintillian-ic notions of “the good life” of business and ethics as the enterprise of a philosophy, not rhetoric (32).
  • Atwill argues that the movement from Ciceronian rhetoric – a rhetoric of the assembly, courts and senate – to Quintillian rhetoric – a rhetoric of the classroom – was largely the result of the supremacy/success of the Empire and the transition away from Roman republicanism (33).
  • The humanist critique of Isocrates: Because his rhetoric is situated and contingent, it can make interventions . . . but those interventions cannot be grandiose and transcendent – they cannot fulfil a great mission. As such, they do indeed just “seize the advantage” (35).
  • In the section on Quintillian and Cicero, Atwill demonstrates how Cicero was concerned with actual rhetorical success as much as producing the “consummate orator.” This conflicts with the creation of the universalized liberal humanist subject of Quintillian (the true knowledge and virtue) as it acknowledges the contingency of rhetoric making.
  • Atwill notes that Renaissance humanism’s engagement with rhetoric worked hard to depoliticize patterns of economic distribution (39).
  • The “depoliticization of rhetoric” at the university/padaeia has, according to A., worked in two ways to produce normative liberal subjects: 1) a normative subject produced in the education of the depoliticized tradition (Quintillian/Medieval/Rennaissance) ensures the continuation of hegemonic power; and 2) philosophical traditions of rhetoric (Plato) have produced normative accounts of knowledge and social realities . . . which also naturalize particular social relations and universalize specific class values (41).
  • How do we get away from teaching the “things” of humanism? “[T]ransgressing the boundaries of the humanist paradigm may be less a categorical challenge to specific relations of power than the opening of spaces for the construction and expression of alternative models of subjectivity, knowledge, and value” (44).
  • A key question re: Isocrates: Ethos is produced by the rhetor’s intervention in the affairs of the polis; and the affairs of the polis intervene in the production of the rhetor’s ethos. What would it mean to recast our conception of the subject in terms of rhetorical ethos – a contingent, temporal subject that exists only in a situated, discursive exchange? (45)
  • A key question to Atwill’s entire study: Is it possible to envision the humanist project as the democratization not of virtue but “of advantage,” the negotiation and invention of diverse standards of value, subjectivity, and knowledge? (45)


Chapter Two –


  • Atwill begins by acknowledging that the “accomplishments of art are, paradoxically, tied to its boundaries” (47). This is at the core of Atwill’s argument: all art intervenes at the boundary space when limitation is recognized; as such, art creates a third way in the dialectic that transgresses and redefines boundary. Techne is just such art.
  • uses the story of Hephaestus to highlight how techne both: 1) makes up for a weakness; and 2) transforms a situation (Ares/Aphrodite story).
  • Working philologically and from sources, A. highlights how techne is intimately related to subjectivity: it can mean to fabricate or construct, is a tool, and is an extension of man himself. In this way, techne is inseparable from humanity/culture, but it also shapes humanity/culture as well (54).
  • Techne is identified with metis or cunning intelligence. Metis is contingent and indeterminate – it isn’t anthropocentric and is associated with powers of transformation.
  • Techne is identified with Kairos, or the moment of exact timing (especially for advantage). By definition, Kairos can’t necessarily be taught as it is emergent, requiring just the right ability to recognize when to deploy techne. IoW, it requires knowledge derived from a “habituation” or being accustomed to. In essence, it is a difference in “knowing how” and “knowing when” (59).
  • As A. highlights, knowing “when” to deploy techne doesn’t just make particular rhetorical performances fit occasions, it can also change the occasions themselves, producing new, alternative situations for in(ter)vention (60).
  • argues that techne mitigates bia and kratos (or power and domination). She finds this in the Prometheus myth, but also highlights how it challenges the ancient order of violence and piracy that maintained the social order in pre 4th century BCE Greece.
  • discusses the fates (moira) to highlight how Prometheus used techne to challenge and change the fate of man. In this way, his cunning intelligence challenged the harmony of the Gods and made a space for intervention to improve the lot of warlike humans.
  • A useful way to think about topoi and techne: “Generally, the more invention is concerned with the distinctive mark of a ‘thing’ rather than a ‘path’ to an end, the more it reflects philosophy’s concerns with substance, identity, and attributes” (67). For A., techne is the process of making paths – not to intended destinations, but to remake the map entirely.


Chapter Three – Arts of Invention and Intervention


  • A key quote for how techne relates to invention: “Because techne defines itself in terms of intervention and invention, it is concerned solely with situations that yield indeterminacies that would allow one to discern the opportune moment and to ‘seize the advantage’” (70). From this definition, techne is often defined against nature, spontaneity and chance.
  • According to Atwill, the work found in the Hippocratic corpus defines art as a model of knowledge in order to distinguish medicine and philosophy. The arts of the physician and rhetor overlapped in many areas . . . and the indeterminacy was the domain of the physician/rhetor, not the philosopher.
  • For Atwill, Aristotle equates epistemologies with social boundaries . . . and this is particularly apparent when we think of “theoretical” knowledge. For the ancients, theory was to be pursued by those with “curiosity” to explore and observe . . . but with no practicable purpose. In this sense, those that create “theory” are those in a socioeconomic position to do so: the leisure class.
  • argues that “empeiria” or “experience/practice” differentiates techne from philosophy but it also differentiates it from chance/magic and the irrational (79). This is important, as it connects techne to embodied performance/experience. This also underscores memoria as a core component of techne: to remember is to have experienced . . . and to be able to produce practicable action from this experiential/embodied knowledge. Again, all arguing against the Platonic emphases on the ideal.
  • highlights that “form” for Aristotle is distinctly dynamic; as such, art (as production) plays an important role in muddying Aristotle’s notion of mimesis: what is to be represented if it is in a constant moment of flux? Of course, mimesis is good for Aristotle but bad for Plato (even though the nature of the term, and its reliance on “form” is itself so problematic vis-à-vis dynamism).
  • spends much time with Ancient Medicine in this chapter because the physician is so much like the rhetorician: trained in techne, they must both make critical interventions at times, and must evaluate whether those interventions are working or benefitting.
  • Chance and techne share a relation as well: chance defines the boundaries of techne . . . and as techne prospers (like with spontaneity), chance diminishes. The relation among techne, Kairos and chance is especially apparent in the ancient Greek writings on navigation. Chance and spontaneity are related to techne because of time (95-99).


Chapter Four – Prometheus and the Boundaries of Art

  • uses this chapter to uncover the role that techne plays in “authorizing specific models of social, political, and economic order” (103). The “craft” of such labor as smithing, medicine and navigation functioned as catalysts to transform the social and political order via wealth redistribution in ancient Greece.
  • A key quote from the chapter: “Techne remains inextricably tied to power, and every exchange of techne disrupts a relationship of power and creates a new one.” (104).
  • highlights how Prometheus’ cunning use of techne is double-edged – but in its double-ness it always transforms nature itself (and the world of men, too). See how Pandora came to be.
  • This chapter provides a fascinating read of the historical transformations of 8th and 7th century BCE ancient Greece – a movement from agrarian cult aristocracy tribalism toward oligarchy, standardization, the polis, and rhetoric . . . all with techne at the center.
  • highlights that as time went on, techne shifted away from its disruptive role, becoming less a body of socially valuable knowledge and more an individual trait or gift of nature. This shift included an attendant shift in the interaction of techne and power: techne became a way to reinforce social boundaries, not disrupt them (111).


Chapter Five – Plato and the Boundaries of Art

  • In this chapter, Atwill takes up conflicting definitions of rhetorike, logon techne, paideia, philosophia, doxa and episteme (conflict: Plato on rhetoric as private philosophy vs. Isocrates/Protagoras on rhetoric as civic responsibility) and their uptake in considering social, political and economic orders (122). A. argues that the rule of Plato creates a weak version of the art of discourse and a model of subjectivity that is “defined by internal order rather than civic action” (122).
  • argues that Plato separated logic and rhetoric, making knowledge (logic) an issue of subject matter and techne an issue of social function (126-7).
  • argues that paideia is really a form of social behavior; it isn’t extricated from culture but is culture as knowledge itself (128).
  • Though they both use the term philosophia to describe their practice, A. highlights how Isocrates’ work with logon techne is very polis-directed while Plato’s does not advocate participation in politics.
  • Doxa: opinion rooted in context. Episteme: knowledge (scientific) rooted in a special skill or expertise. Isocrates practices doxa – Platonic knowledge is epistemic . . . but also gathered in a process of recollection and introspection (with an eye toward the soul). Of course, this is also found in Pythagorean geometry.
  • Differences of conceptions of knowledge: Plato—immutable and accessible by a small circle of the ruling guardian class; Isocrates—subject to change and accessible by all (137).
  • argues that Plato’s conception of nature and culture goes something like this:


  • Atwill provides (via Plato’s Protagoras) a definition of the logon techne tradition: “The proper care of his personal affairs, so that he may best manage his own household, and also of the state’s affairs so as to become a real power in the city, both as a speaker and a man of action” (150).
  • notes that Protagoras’ conception of techne could never meet Plato’s notion of knowledge because it is not “ a particular science of a particular kind of some particular thing of a particular kind” but is instead contextual, shifting and emergent (155).


Chapter 6 – Aristotle and the Boundaries of the Good Life

  • In this chapter A. argues that rhetoric is productive knowledge that exists outside of Aristotle’s typical division of theoretical and practical knowledge.
  • explores how rhetoric isn’t theoretical or practical knowledge in this chapter by considering his taxonomy of knowledge, its relationship to Eudaimonia and how Aristotelian rhetoric/philosophy contrasts with Isocrates’ views on the subject.
  • For Aristotle, theoretical knowledge is concerned with telos or the ends of a thing. It is concerned with what acts of exists by necessity and is a constituent of true knowledge (169). The telos, or end, of theoretical knowledge is definitely not practical.
  • Practical knowledge is concerned with action and human behavior. It has a well-defined telos – Eudaimonia.
  • Productive knowledge is defined by three characteristics: 1) concern with the contingent; 2) implication in social and economic exchange; and 3) resistance to determinant ends. Productive knowledge is in the service of another end but it is always involved in exchange.
  • spends a good deal of time highlighting how Eudaimonia is really a concept that points to the well-being making (internal) of a leisure/aristocratic class. Improvement of the self, here, is not an improvement of the polis but an improvement of the soul (which, of course, can be engaged by a very small number of people). It points to self-sufficiency (he who has time to think on such things) . . . but the only self-sufficient folks were the aristocrats. Hence, the productive art was self-directed and not in the service of the polis.
  • The notion of property and ownership is intimately tied to the growth of the self in Aristotle. So, Eudaimonia must, necessarily, be tied to a privatization of public resources (like land) under the guise of a productive art.


Chapter 7 – Aristotle’s Rhetoric and the Theory/Practice Binary

  • argues that the uptake of Aristotle’s Rhetoric by Cope and Grimaldi institute rhetoric as a theoretical discipline concerned with practice . . . and in so doing, move it away from productive knowledge and toward theory (which is, of course, antithetical to the Rhetoric Atwill is arguing for in this book) (193).
  • Relying on NE, A. notes that “The end of productive knowledge, in contrast to theoretical and practical knowledge, is always ‘outside itself,’ residing not in the ‘product’ but in the use made of the artistic construct by a receiver or audience” (195). Productive knowledge is concerned with the alternative possibilities created by interventions in situated contexts.


Chapter 8 – Arts of Virtue and Democracy

  • Atwill begins by noting that “The significance of containing rhetoric within the theory/practice binary resides in its transformation of an art of intervention into a discipline of representation. From this perspective, rhetoric is far more prone to reproduce the given than to invent new social possibilities. Invention is always constrained” (208). This is the wager that rhetoric has lost in the Liberal Arts tradition up until now.


Leave a Reply