Are Speechwriters Philosophers?

Obama with speechwriters
President Obama with speechwriter Dan Rhoads and Denis McDonough, national security aide

It probably sounds like an absurd question – speechwriters are a sign of decadence, aren’t we? We turn the language into sound bites, ravage all nuances and hypnotize the weak with rhetoric. Ours is a postmodern profession – more akin to advertising than Aristotle – right?

Not so, according to Thomas Conley (no relation) in his widely-regarded book “Rhetoric in the European Tradition.” Conley traces the speechwriting profession all the way back to pre-Socratic Greece. And in birthplace of modern philosophy, speechwriters were part of a philosophic movement that focused on training future generations of Athenian citizens for leadership.

Speechwriters pre-dated the Sophists – such as Protagoras and Gorgias – but quickly became identified with this movement that dominated Athenian philosophy until Plato. And then the Sophists’ methods were tagged as specious (transforming their good name, literally) and Plato banished the speechwriters from the philosophic temple.

But despite this, the grains of philosophic value remain. Consider the work we do every day. We take chunks of unrelated material and shape it, with themes and transitions, into a coherent story, one that reveals the speaker to have a point of view about a subject and the world.

Often, we are the first ones in an organization tasked with explaining, or in many cases apologizing for, ethical disputes.

We eulogize the dead and put their lives into a meaningful context. We motivate the newly graduated, drawing a map of the world before them.

Whatever popular philosophy there is in our culture today often passes from our keyboard to speakers’ mouths. But, as any philosophy PhD would tell you, that does not make you a philosopher. And the scholars have a point – many of us haven’t read deeply enough into philosophy to earn the title.

I would contend, however, that it would be time well spent. Every speechwriter could benefit from reading Ludwig Wittgenstein’s views of contextual language, Richard Rorty’s synthesis of contingent truths with pragmatic social responsibility and Paul Ricoeur’s unique linkage of rhetoric and metaphor.

A speechwriter concerned about the lack of civility in our public discourse should seek out Jurgen Habermas and his discussions of the public sphere. Those who are trying to get a handle on social media and rapid social change could learn quite a bit from Charles Taylor in his theories about the social imaginative.

So speechwriters could benefit from philosophy – and so too could philosophers benefit from a greater appreciation of rhetoric. It’s no accident that the most popular and entertaining philosopher in the world today – Slavoj Zizek – is a former speechwriter. Who else could synthesizes Hegel, Lacan and quotes from Quentin Tarantino movies into public performances that draw spillover crowds and inspire a popular documentary?

My theory is that, for the long-term health of the speechwriting profession, it’s in its best interests to promote the return of rhetoric to the philosophic umbrella. Those who aspire to the profession should be encouraged to receive undergraduate and master’s degrees in philosophy – and philosophy departments should expand their coursework to include rhetorical studies.

High school debate students are already exposed to this form of synthesis. Most cross-examination debates in American high schools are clashes between policy prescriptions – often the handiwork of Washington-based ideological think tanks – and philosophical frameworks in the form of “kritiks.” If high school freshmen are capable of this level of discourse, then why shouldn’t we do the same?

Over the long run, enhancing the speechwriting profession with philosophy could help us escape from communications departments, allowing us to assume counselor roles, like Theodore Sorenson had with John F. Kennedy. And giving philosophy students an alternative career path to college faculty positions – basically the only path open to them now – would undoubtedly enhance the value of these departments.

Maybe we’re about 2500 years too late, but now it’s the time to take on Plato and rescue the good name of the sophists. Speechwriter and philosophers of the world, unite.PunditWire Initials

The former chief speechwriter for Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, Dan Conley is a Chicago-based professional speechwriter and frequent op-ed contributor to major national publications.

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  • Allison Wood

    Thanks for this wonderful article, Dan. I have long desired to strengthen the philosophical underpinnings of my writing so I can become a more eloquent instrument of persuasion. You've given me many good ways to get started! 🙂

    A light-hearted place that some may want to begin is with Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein's enjoyable book, "Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar…Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes." It may be too flip for the serious scholars, but for those of us looking for an accessible entry point to these deeper waters, I highly recommend it.