In one of the most famous events in twentieth century philosophy, Cassirer and Heidegger met at Davos, Switzerland, to debate their readings of Kant. The ensuing “Davos Debate” has served as both touchstone and litmus test for many subsequent thinkers. For our purposes, we can skip most of the scholarship the debate engendered and focus on the rhetorical import. Thomas Discenna has argued recently that Davos signifies a bifurcation in the history of rhetoric. Cassirer’s linguistic hopefulness squares off against the fascistic pessimism of Heidegger’s existentialism. Discenna, while an excellent reader of Cassirer, offers a one-sided account, shocked that any of “Heidegger’s apologists, and others who would salvage his work from its engagement with National Socialism” (260) might mine from Heidegger a rich vein of rhetorical ore. Indeed, Discenna even cites “recent efforts to read Heidegger into the rhetorical tradition” (248) as one of his motivations for writing his article:

However, as the Davos disputation makes clear, such efforts are fraught with peril for a theory of rhetoric that would seek not only an ontological ground but also a normative one. In other words, the debate at Davos makes clear the pitfalls in Smith’s claim that: “Heidegger’s work and his readings of Aristotle provide rhetoricians with ways to theorize the being of everydayness as rhetoric’s condition of possibility.” (248)

I am not convinced that Heidegger’s fascism or supposed nihilism taint his philosophy to such an extent that any attempt to rescue a rhetorical theory is fraught. For a fuller exploration of the ethical implications of Heidegger’s Nazism for rhetoric, see in particular Victor Vitanza’s Negation, Subjectivity, and the History of Rhetoric, especially chapters 4 and 5.

To summarize Discenna, Cassirer saw in language a universal ground upon which to build community; Heidegger saw being as an abyss toward which the only appropriate response is anxiety about our impending deaths. Indeed, Discenna reads Cassirer as even more logocentric than I do. He discerns in Cassirer a

plea for the primacy of language as the medium and ground for human life [that] not only stands in sharp opposition to Heidegger’s notion of an abyss but is also, as I shall argue later, a more hopeful account of being-with-others upon which to construct a theory of rhetoric. Ultimately, it is also a plea that Cassirer was unable to articulate. (254)

Discenna builds his argument on two termini: terminus a quo (origin) and terminus ad quem (goal). Cassirer neglects the origin and focuses on the goal, while Heidegger does the reverse. Cassirer’s (underdeveloped) origin is the universality of language upon which we can build a community (the goal). Heidegger’s (overdeveloped) origin is the abyss of being upon which we can build nothing (the neglected goal).

Few scholars of Heidegger would likely agree with such a characterization of his thought, and the false choice Discenna presents us with fails to persuade on its own ground. For Discenna, either we can attain a community based on normative rhetoric or we accede to nihilism and meaningless. Either rhetoric serves the ends of normative community (imposed by whom?) or life means nothing. If the former embraces rhetoric, it is not a particularly robust version of rhetoric.

However, Discenna helpfully points us toward the linguistic nature of our origins. For Hegel, Cassirer, Langer, and possibly Murray, language serves as the common ground upon which we can build. For Heidegger there is an origin that precedes language. Lyotard names this absent origin “figure.” And figure is always already rhetorical. That rhetorical abgrund provides Lyotard with the space for constructing a community that rejects normativity. Rather than What should we do? it asks us What might we become?

At Davos we see the antifoundationalist Heidegger oppose Cassirer’s positivist boxing-in of rhetoric. For those who doubt Heidegger can offer us a rich, democratic, hopeful rhetorical theory, I have only to recommend Thomas Rickert’s incredible Ambient Rhetoric. For now, we can say that Discenna is right in seeing Davos as a line in the sand. I just find myself standing on the other side.

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