Combs, Steven C. The Dao of Rhetoric

In the introduction to The Dao of Rhetoric, Combs advocates for a study of ancient Chinese rhetorics in their own cultural texts and contexts as a means to challenge Eurocentric assumptions about communication, culture, and rhetoric (2).  Daoism, Combs claims, is especially worthy of study because of its antithetical rhetorical nature compared to ancient Greek rhetoric.  For instance, Daoism devalues persuasion and argumentation and is founded on an entirely different view of reality, which manifests in different conceptions of language and uses of rhetoric.  In classical Greece, a “two-world” notion of reality posits that through knowledge and reason, the underlying stable reality of life can be perceived and represented in language.  In Daoism, however, which is based in a “one-world” view of reality, an underlying stable reality does not exist; reality is always changing, thus cannot be ascertained by reason or language.  As Combs writes, Daoism “espoused views that are compatible with postmodern critiques that deny objective foundations for knowledge, essential meanings and identities, universal truths, and deprivilege reason and rationality” (4).  Combs also explains that rhetoric is rooted in philosophy of Daoism and used to make Daoism accessible and appealing (4).  Combs also aims to demonstrate how Daoist rhetoric can function as a method of rhetorical criticism, which has the potential to both “provide a lens for viewing limitations of current Western rhetorical theorizing” and vehicle for creating “exciting avenues for theory, criticism, and social action” (7). 


In Chapter 1 “Culture, Text, and Context,” Combs explains how the philosophical underpinnings of Daoist rhetoric are different from philosophical suppositions inherent in classical Western rhetoric (9).  Again, Combs explains how Western reason is a faculty believe to be able to get to true essence of things, to find cause, rational explanation, etc., for a hidden, fixed reality.  Daoism, on the other hand, believes universe is constantly changing and developing and is thus unknowable.  “Knowing [instead] rests on the ability to perceived the connections and interactions, the comprehensiveness, which constitutes the world”…. [And r]ational explanation lies ‘in mapping out the local conditions that collaborate to sponsor any particular event or phenomenon’” (10).   Combs explains that  foregrounding is a useful strategy in Daoism that can help us write rhetorically….Foregrounding context in daoist rhetoric is not done to make a claim about reality, but rather to describe influence of historical and cultural events, rhetors, and audience which are important to know about because at the time in which artifact was produced, these interactions were at work.  What is important to realize is that according to Daoism, “context does not imply causation.  Daoists reject linear explanations of events.  Texts are not caused by situations but are part of them (13).  Combs also differentiates between Confucianism and Daoism, explaining that while Confucianist rhetoric aims to determine a “strict conduct code, observance of rituals, and a resurrection of practices of sage monarchs,” Daoism, whose main goal is harmony, aims to align people with “eternal, universal force by living consistently with the natural world, recognizing the unity of things rather than their distinctions, and transcending the material world” (20).


With Confucianism participate relations between manmade things/people, Daoism align with nature of life.  Nature is outside of self and self is in nature.  No outside/inside binary.  Daoist—self is part of nature…..Unity between nature and self; rhythm is harmony; no distinctions….


In Chapter 2, Combs analyses Laozis rhetoric and identifies the philosophical underpinnings and commonly used rhetorical strategies and methods that were directed at rulers to urge a return to the natural way of life.  Laozi dissuaded argumentation because there was no universality to reality and language and perception are always limited (34).  He utilized negation (describing Dao by what it is not), paradox (contradicting to dissimilar things to show the “Dao is neither one things nor its opposite, but both simultaneously”, and analogy—all which are consistent with his philosophy, acknowledge limitation of language, and adhere to his natural way of communication (35-36).  Still, Daoists acknowledge purpose of language; is multi-modality might be move in direction of Daoism, certain things can be communicated better in certain modes.  Doaism interested in modality of communication; spontaneous, effortless, communication.  Daoists realize every assertion is local…


These rhetorical strategies are not unique but the philosophical view of argument in and of itself is unique….argument is made differently


Dao is “way” or “path;” but “de jing” is the design of all things…


In Chapter 3, Combs analyses Zhuangzi’s main us of the rhetorical strategy evocativeness—“the use of rhetoric designed to induce others to join in a communication interaction and engage in self-persuasion” …and “find Dao in their own lives” (38 and 40).  Thus, unlike Laozi who addressed rulers, Zhuangzi “offers common peasant a manual for practical living during an incredibly dangerous period in Chinese history…[and] suggests principles for appropriate ways to communicate” (43).  These strategies include going with flow, being a “natural” man, avoid contrived effort to persuade, use simple language,  and don’t communicate in ways that drawn attention to the self…So opposite from conquest and win that are goals of rhetoric…Similar to cooperation.  Egolessness…


Sunzi’s Art of War  main rhetorical strategy is parsimony:  use of extreme economy in the expidenture of resources.  Use minimal level of resources…Knowledge is necessary

 What do we mean when we say that we use Daoism as a method of rhetorical criticism? 


 Is Daoism effective for comparative rhetoric  vs.  performative contradiction?


 Comparative work can be strategic essentialism….





1 Comment

Filed under cultural rhetorics exam

One response to “Combs, Steven C. The Dao of Rhetoric

  1. Anonymous

    YAY! rhetoric

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