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WALKER, Jeffrey

Spring 2006, pages 143 - 154

What Difference a Definition Makes, or, William Dean Howells and the Sophist's Shoes

Starting from a chance quotation in William Dean Howells' "Novel-Writing and Novel-Reading," this essay reflects on the differences (and relations) between what classical tradition would call "grammatical" and "rhetorical" approaches to discourse. and, likewise, what might be called "hermeneutic" and "productive" approaches to rhetoric. The grammatical/hermeneutic approach is oriented towards reaching an understanding of what a text says or means, or what its argument is, while the rhetorical/productive approach is characterized by the questions, How was it done? and How can I do that? It is this latter approach. the orientation toward the cultivation of productive discursive skill. that disciplinarily makes rhetoric, as opposed to a variety of philosophy or literary criticism. This notion is further aligned, on one hand, with a revisionist "sophist's history of rhetoric," and, on the other hand, with a "sophistic" approach to rhetorical education derived from the tradition of Isocrates.