Recent national events caused me to think about George Campbell again. I think this eighteenth-century rhetorician has something to say about how conspiracy theories take hold and move otherwise reasonable people to irrational action.
In a previous post I discussed George Campbell’s sermon “The Duty of Allegiance” as an argument against the Declaration of Independence and the American revolution. George Campbell also wrote a major rhetorical work, The Philosophy of Rhetoric, which is an interesting title because philosophy and rhetoric have been at odds since Plato. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, the editors of The Rhetorical Tradition, say that this work “has been justly praised as the turning point in the development of rhetoric in the eighteenth century, as the first modern rhetoric, and even as the first real advance in rhetorical theory since Aristotle” (901).
In devising his system, Campbell draws on philosophers such as Aristotle, Locke, and Hume, plus Christian moral reasoning and empirical science. However, the essence of his rhetorical thought is fairly simple. In his view, the mind has four “faculties,” and the goal of every speech is “to enlighten the understanding, to please the imagination, to move the passions, or to influence the will” (902). Each of these ends could be a primary purpose of the speech, but in his view, if the end is to move the will, the speech will move through the other faculties in a regular progression because “each subsequent species is founded on the preceding” (902). Here is a chart:
This progression through the faculties is what I thought of when I heard about the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Thousands of people were moved to this action. This involves persuading the will. How was this done?
Informing (or Misinforming) the Understanding
In Campbell’s system, persuading the will starts with informing the understanding. But what if this is not informing, but misinforming? Campbell does not really deal with this possibility in The Philosophy of Rhetoric, but in his sermon against the American revolution, as I noted in my previous post, he calls Americans who support the rebellion “our deluded fellow subjects on the other side of the Atlantic,” who “are but the tools of a few ambitious, interested, and designing men, both on their side of the water and on ours.” Campbell is arguing here that supporters of the American revolution have been misinformed by the ringleaders. One aspect of this misinformation is blaming the king for what the parliament has done.
Pleasing the Imagination
Once we have been misinformed, the next step is to activate the imagination. We can imagine a world in which people like ourselves are powerful. We can imagine a world in which the things we have been misinformed about have been corrected, in which the wrongdoers we have been misinformed about will be punished, the scapegoats scorned and eliminated.
Moving the Passions
The next stage is to move the passions. Even with a vision of an attractive imagined world based on misinformation, we are not yet ready to act to bring it into being. We need to feel it. We need to be angry enough or inspired enough to get off the couch, stop ranting on social media, and do something. In today’s media environment, this is mostly done with memes, images, and slick political ads.
Influencing the Will to Action
The next step is to move the will to action. There are those who know how to push us forward in this final step without overtly telling us exactly what to do and taking responsibility for it.
Using the System for Analysis and Persuasion
The point is that this process, which could be used for positive ends, is subverted by misinformation at the start. We might reduce it to the following questions:
- What are the facts? (Countermeasure: Fact-checking)
- What do they mean? (Countermeasure: Argument)
- How do you feel? (Countermeasure: Sympathy, empathy, and calm)
- What are you going to do about it? (Countermeasure: Deterrence)
These questions and countermeasures, judiciously employed, might help counteract the powerful effects of conspiracy theories. They can also be used to promote fact-based and well-reasoned policies.
Of course, this is a vastly simplified and inadequate summary of George Campbell’s work, which is certainly worth further study. Campbell’s attempt to move from Aristotelian syllogisms and enthymemes to a more empirically based system of argument is certainly more consistent with modern science than classical rhetoric is. And though his psychology, based on four faculties of the mind, is outdated, it still provides a useful way of conceptualizing the process of persuading people to action.
Bizzell, Patricia. and Bruce Herzberg, Eds. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001.