POLITICAL THOUGHT AND ACTION IN RHETORICAL PERSPECTIVE Reflections on the rhetoric of conceptualisation of "politics"

par Kari Palonen, Université de Jyväskylä, Finlande

The term "rhetoric" has become fashionable also in the study of politics. In 1970 Roland Barthes insisted in rather derogatory terms on the omnipresence of rhetoric in the Western culture. Since that time this presence has been continuously accentuated and revaluated on the academic agenda. The work of numerous authors has been revisited from the rhetorical perspective. We are obliged to specify both which kind of rhetoric we are dealing with and for which purposes we are using the rhetorical approach.

All this also plays a role for the study of political thought. In this essay shall not discuss the application of the rhetorical vocabulary to the study of political thinkers and agents. My point is, on the contrary, in the analysis of the rhetorical dimension as an inherent political activity itself, more specifically in the rhetorical construction of politics as an activity-concept. The priority of political life to political thought, as Quentin Skinner put it in the preface of his Foundations of Modern Political Thought (1978, xi) contains an revolutionary inversion in the relationship between political thought and political action. In other words, by politics I refer to a qualified set of activities and practices, about which political theories are formed.

In my present paper I shall concentrate on an application of the rhetorical approach, which I have myself constructed and applied in my study A Struggle with Time. A conceptual history of politics as an activity (Palonen, forthcoming). I have turned the Weberian perspectivist view on knowledge and human sciences (esp. Weber 1904) into conceptual history, into a study on the formation and alteration of a number of rhetorical topoi from which we can expect to find expressions of on thematising politics-as-activity. With such topoi I the can introduce a sort of co-ordinates for the "struggle with time" that constitutes the activity of politics.

When talking about politics today, two perspectives are usually intertwined: politics-as-sphere and politics-as-activity. Whereas politics-as-sphere relies on spatial metaphors, politics-as-activity was conceptualised in temporal terms; it became politics as a phenomenon dealing with time. My book aims at a history of conceptualising the activity-concept of politics through illustrating the opening up of new conceptual horizons by alternative figures of time. A new concept of politics-as-activity is formed through a stepwise thematisation of its different possible horizons. The narrative is based on a number of topoi, around which the conceptualisation of the activity of politics took place. The process of the re-conceptualisation of politics in terms of activity has taken place quite simultaneously, roughly during the years between 1870 and 1970, in Britain, France and Germany.

Politics is in so far an extraordinary concept that in its thematisation the reference to the "real" examples appears to have been more crucial to the intertextual references to existing views on politics. When the authors suggest qualifications of politics in terms of activity, they rather attempt to conceptualise a phenomenon themselves than to continue or to revise previous views. Instead, a number of issues within daily practical debates, such as the political qualifications of voters, the salaries of parliamentarians, the political role of artists and the theatralisation of politics through the public performance of politicians have offered fruitful controversies through which to re-conceptualise politics through activity. For this reason, pamphlets and literary journals have frequently been more fruitful sources on the concept of politics than academic literature.

The construction of a repertoire of topoi has served as a narrative tool to structure the views, between which only fragmentarily real debates were introduced. The rhetoric of topoi enables me first of all to study the thematisation of the concept from different perspectives. The narrative then consists in relating the topoi to each other and constructing a historical view on the changes in the spectrum of the activity-concept of politics. Or, to apply the parliamentary analogy, the rhetoric of the topoi refers less to taking stand for or against in an already existing issue, but rather to the introduction of a new item on the political agenda and situating it in relation to the existing ones.

A major advantage of speaking of politics-as-activity in terms of topoi lies in the disenchanting insight that politics is something that cannot be formulated by simple definitions. The multiple topoi indicate a complexity in the debate that cannot be subsumed under an all-embracing view. There is no große Politik, but politics remains a multi-perspectivistic concept. We have always to ask which aspects or dimensions of the concept are or shall be thematised in the actual context. This kind of Weberian perspectivism also allows us to resist all sorts of Hegelian temptations to subordinate politics to anything beyond politics.

One of my reasons to speak of horizon lies in its endlessness. There are, of course, no specific grounds why there should be just nine topoi, and their number is a matter of expediency. Above all, I want to stress that the topoi on the activity of politics cannot be reduced to just a classification of two or three main alternatives. A broader repertoire of topoi indicates the complexity of the aspects that must be taken into account in the conceptual history of politics. It reminds us also that it is always possible to invent a new perspective, or ideal type if you want, that is not reducible for the old ones, in particular by einseitige Steigerung of some aspect of the old ones (see Weber 1904). In this sense, the rhetorical analysis of the topoi attempts to avoid closure and the obligation to classify new views within the old ones, although this still remains the most obvious possibility.

Each of the perspectives has also its own history, a profile with dates, names and texts as a typical or singular examples of a drawing made from its perspective. In other words, each topos contains a kind of repertoire for variation, partly thematised in other contexts of using the topos, which then can be actualised and revised when it is used for the activity of politics. For example within the topos of the commitment the voluntaristic and decisionistic versions differ essentially in their tone and history. Within the topos of game we can distinguish views rendering politics close to gambling, whereas for others the opposition between playfulness and seriousness is the crux of the matter

Now we can better see how my rhetorical version of conceptual history in terms of topoi differs from that what is fashionably called discourse analysis. Instead of including authors and their views to a few predetermined discourses, the repertoire of the topoi serves me as starting points for the analysis of profiled individual views, to which I attempt to give a voice. What is common and typical is discussed without an endless repetition of quotations and references for the same, above all as a result of the profile of individual views. The inclusion of a view into a definite topos does not exclude the discussion of the same formula under another topos. The mention of an individual author’s contribution as referring to a topos does not "normalise" it under that what is already known, but, on the contrary, gives a chance to extend the profile and range of the topos.

I surely understand the work as a part of conceptual history, Begriffsgeschichte. My metaphor of horizon shift from the discipline- to the activity-concept of politics is parallel to that what Koselleck has written on the transition in the concept of history from a mere discipline title to das Geschehen (see esp. Koselleck et.al. 1975). What he calls die Verzeitlichung der Begriffe concerns the formation of the activity-concept of politics more than anything else. However, my rhetorical construction of the horizons of the new concept, has no direct parallels in the work of Koselleck, and also my view on temporalisation of politics through the activity-concept differs from his paradigms of progress and acceleration (see Koselleck 2000). In so far there are no direct models for a study on the conceptualisation the activity of politics in terms of the repertoire of topoi.


Kari Palonen (b. 1947) is Professor of Political Science at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. He the founder and since 2003 again editor-in-chief of Redescriptions. Yearbook of Political Thought and Conceptual History (formerly Finnish Yearbook of Political Thought), co-founder of the History of Political and Social Concepts Group, chair of the European Science Foundation Network The Politics and History of European Democratisation (PHED). His recent publications include the books Eine Lobrede für Politiker. Kommentar zu Max Webers ‘Politik als Beruf’ (2002), Quentin Skinner. History, Politics, Rhetoric (2003) and Die Entzauberung der Begriffe. Das Umschreiben der politischen Begriffe bei Quentin Skinner und Reinhart Koselleck (2004). He has recently completed two yet unpublished monographs. A Struggle with Time. A conceptual history of politics as an activity and From Future Generations to Next Elections. Parliamentarism, democratisation and the politics of limited times and is currently working with a study on the genre of defences of professional politicians.