Modern Dogma and The Rhetoric of Assent (1974)

Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

Booth states early on in the book that philosophy is concerned with the search for truth and that rhetoric is the art of discovering defendable truths and improving those truths in shared discourse. That might suggest that rhetoric is intended as a methodology rather than a philosophy; however, to talk of improving beliefs or truths means that we are searching for some sort of truth and that in turn leads us back to philosophy.

For my own peace of mind, I decided to apply the Boothian approach of trying to avoid dichotomizing the issue. I think it is possible to look at the book as a philosophical treatise that offers a variety of ideas that can be put to use in the practise of rhetoric.

The Ethics of Rhetorical Behaviour

The next area of inquiry that might be directed at Modern Dogma concerns the kinds of practices that Booth might be suggesting we incorporate in our rhetoric.

  • The first would be understanding that rhetoric is more that just the ‘right’ choice of words. Booth works hard to dispel what he thinks is the current attitude towards rhetoric as simply a competition to win a war of words or ideas. For Booth, good rhetoric, as he often refers to it, is very much a state of mind. We have to understand that rhetoric is an act of exchange rather than an act of personal gain.
  • In conjunction with the notion of understanding, listening becomes a necessary aspect of rhetorical exchange. Listening represents a willingness to accept ideas/beliefs others than our own.
  • Pluralism plays an important role in Booth’s view of the ideal practice of rhetoric. He is keen on showing how all ideas have validity if they can be rationally defended.
  • Rhetoric is a means of achieving clarity. Rhetoric should be used to create an environment of understanding, that can then lead to cooperation rather than competition.
  • It must be stressed that the importance of rhetoric lies in its ability to lead to shifts in our understanding of truth. For good rhetoric to take place, truth has to be understood as not having any fixed values. If we begin any rhetorical practice with fixed valuations of our beliefs, we are never going to be able to convince anyone to assent to or to be able to change our own minds, regardless of the quality of the arguments being offered.
  • Most of all, Booth advises that we take responsibility for our rhetorical practices. In using rhetoric, the possibility of reaching some level of mutual assent is of greater importance than using arguments to garner support for ideas which may not be of any actual benefit to communicating parties.

The Nature of Value

Booth is deeply concerned with the ramifications of the fact/value split that modernism supports. For Booth, rhetoric is a way of approaching values in an objective manner, allowing us to examine the validity of our beliefs. The purpose of this examination is also to allow for the plurality of beliefs that are not dependent on dogmatism.


Booth’s view of rhetoric is community oriented. For him, rhetoric, whether in a piece of literature or in a dialogue, is an exchange of ideas. The key words to keep in mind when considering Modern Dogma are:

  • Language
  • Community
  • Resolution

Language is to be used to further understanding in any rhetorical community. The point is to reach “assent;” for him rhetorical situations that result in an impasse are reflective of a defective rhetorical culture. Finding a common ground of understanding through language can lead to new levels of truth. While this may seem too idealistic a notion for many who read Modern Dogma, it does serve as a worthy goal.