Thomas W. Benson, "Richard B. Gregg and the Scholarship of Critical Disclosure," The Pennsylvania Speech Communication Annual 57 (2001): 1-14.


Richard B. Gregg and the Scholarship of Critical Disclosure

Thomas W. Benson

This essay appeared in The Pennsylvania Speech Communication Annual 57 (2001): 1-14

Thomas W. Benson
Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Rhetoric
Department of Speech Communication
227 Sparks Building
Penn State University
University Park, PA 16802

Office:              814-865-4201
Home:              814-238-5277
Dept:                814-865-3461


Richard B. Gregg and the Scholarship of Critical Disclosure

Thomas W. Benson

In one of his most famous essays, “The Ego-Function of the Rhetoric of Protest” (1971), Dick Gregg, a modest and rational man, calmly confronted the undeniable mystery of rhetoric, in which the public had been dissolved into the personal, the rational ideal into a psychological struggle for identity.

There are distinctive patterns in contemporary rhetoric which reflect a newly prominent personal stance. The peculiar characteristics and effects of this stance have not commonly received attention from students of rhetoric. Historically much of rhetorical and philosophical analysis and criticism tends to set “rhetorical discourse” within moral ideals which presuppose the principles of “rational” discussion. Such critical perspectives grant approbative notice to discourse which appears to coincide with the demands and constraints of “rationality” and disregard or deprecate discourse which falls outside these domains. My proposition is that analytical views which presuppose that “communicative intent” or even “feeling together” exhaust the primary goals of men’s and women’s serious discourse do not yield either useful or plausible descriptive and critical accounts of much current discourse. A chorus of “protest rhetoric” cannot be ignored; it is present, and its critical disclosure is required. (p. 89)

This paragraph summons up several of the themes that preoccupied Dick Gregg as a scholar. Dick seems to have understood his job as that of “critical disclosure,” a stance he took to his teaching, his scholarship, and his service to the discipline. The paragraph also reveals something of the scope of Dick’s interests, which were announced early and preoccupied him for all of his career.

Richard B. Gregg (October 16, 1936 to February 24, 2001) taught at Penn State University from 1963 until his death in February 2001. Gregg was born in El Dorado, Kansas, and grew up in Newton, Kansas, where he went to school. In high school, he was on the football and debate teams. He graduated from the University of Wichita in 1959 with a major in speech. He did his graduate work at the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned the M.A. degree in 1961 and the Ph.D. in 1963. He came at once to Penn State University, in the same year that Carroll Arnold joined the faculty.

At Penn State, Dick rose quickly through the academic ranks. He was promoted to professor in 1970 – unusually rapid advancement in that day or this. From his earliest career, Dick was an accomplished teacher, with a comprehensive mastery of his subject and a delightful capacity to present a clear statement of complex materials. Students always remarked on his kindness, patience, gentleness, and attentiveness. Dick once said that in his first years as a teacher, he had asked himself how he was doing, but he then realized that the real question was how his students were doing. He stuck with that commitment until the day he died. His students understood this about Dick and they adored him for it.

            Those of us who knew and loved Dick, and who have so recently lost him, remember him as a friend. Because we have been Dick’s colleagues, we also share a bond of interest in the scholarship to which Dick Gregg made so many notable contributions. For us, Dick’s scholarship and his work as our colleague were inseparable from his life as our friend, as it was in so many ways his gift to us. Dick was a deep and original thinker whose interests had an enormous range. Dick’s interest in rhetorical criticism and political communication led him to courses and a large number of distinguished scholarly essays on the rhetoric of foreign policy and of social movements. His interest in rhetorical theory led to a seminar and to essays on the work of Kenneth Burke. Dick was interested in the psychology of rhetoric, which led to the 1971 essay on the ego-function of the rhetoric of protest and to his 1984 book, Symbolic Inducement and Knowing, a synthesis of rhetorical theorizing based on recent findings in neurophysiology. Dick came to believe, as he said in the conclusion to his book, that “the study of rhetoric is the study of symbolic inducement as it manifests itself in neurophysiological, cognitive, and social levels of human activity.” All symbolic behavior, he argued, is fundamentally rhetorical. But though we are, according to Dick’s view, designed as rhetorical animals, rhetoric does not operate in a deterministic universe – we are hard wired to make choices. His work, and his life, point the way to those choices.

It is too soon to offer any sort of comprehensive account of Dick’s contribution to scholarship in rhetoric, but it is not too soon to begin the process.

Gregg appears to have been interested in the psychology of communication from the time of his earliest publications, though his views changed and deepened as his reflections matured. Gregg’s interest in the psychology of rhetoric was part of a larger concern that emerged early in his work--that human beings are not, cannot be, and should not expect to be as “rational” in their rhetorical behaviors as an Aristotelian argumentative perspective assumes. In “Implications of Schiller’s Logic for Rhetorical Theory” (1962), Gregg argued that Aristotelian, syllogistic logic, though capable of weighing formal validity, was inadequate as a means for arriving at the truth of a matter in rhetorical dispute. Gregg writes that

If there is a central message in Schiller’s writing, it is that no one formula, no one system, is universally applicable when it comes to judging argument. He makes it clear that truth occurs in different ways in different contexts, a fact which scientists have long known. This means that various fields will have different standards and criteria for truth. What is true in one situation may be false in another; the analyst must be willing to judge truth and falsity, probability and improbability, according to the context in which he is operating, and will acknowledge that the criteria for judging truth or probability in a murder case will differ from criteria utilized in an aesthetical controversy, which in turn will differ from those relied upon to establish an argument concerning chemical analysis. (p. 35)

The question of truth was not simply a matter of the standards of judgment, but had to do with the basic facts of human psychology, a proposition that seems to have struck Gregg with the force of a revelation. In the Schiller essay, Gregg grappled with the issue of solipsism, and refused to be drawn in:

Outside events beyond human control, such as acts of nature, do occur. Yet even such events as these must be filtered through men’s perceptive organs, which are often emotionally influenced, and then must be recorded in men’s minds. What the human mind accepts as truth at this point is merely a twisted facsimile. (p. 34)

 In “Rationality and Evidence” (1966), Gregg observed that among scholars of argument, “There is general agreement that the essential elements of rational argument are probative evidence and sound, consistent reasoning based on evidence” (p. 8). And yet, he argued, “a person’s reaction to and evaluation of argument often bear little resemblance to the textbook definition of rationality” (p. 8). At this early part of his research career, Gregg seemed to see psychological issues as a necessary part of the rhetorical agenda, but as in large part a negative force. Our emotional side tended to distract, even overwhelm us. “We must,” he argued, “be prepared to understand and explain the non-logical aspects of argument which are likely to be present, as well as the rational elements which we hope to make paramount” (p. 8). We needed, thought Gregg at this stage, to understand the non-logical so that we could overcome it, so that the rational could be paramount. “Rationality and Evidence” is a brief and anecdotal piece, and it would surely be forgotten if Gregg had not pursued his interest in the psychology of rhetoric more deeply, which he soon did.

In “A Phenomenologically Oriented Approach to Rhetorical Criticism” (1966), Gregg started to work out the implications for the critic of his growing conviction that, “all behavior is determined by and pertinent to the perceptual field of the behaving organism, or, in other words, behavior is not so much a function of an external event as it is a product of the individual’s perception of the event” (p. 83).  He sketched a critical approach that sought to identify the “cognitive imagery” characteristic of rhetors and bodies of discourse.

Circumstance, curiosity, and conviction now took Gregg’s inquiries in a new direction. He had for some years pondered the inevitability of emotion and other psychological processes as disruptive agents in the human search for rational public action. Now the times presented new proof of the emotionality of rhetoric, and the importance of frame of reference, as the 1960s swept forward with the Civil Rights Movement, anti-war protests, a renewed feminism, and the confusions of the counter-culture. Dick was rising fast, working hard, and raising a family, when he found a new challenge. He appears to have been confronted with something like the reflection that Saul Bellow attributes to the protagonist of his novel, The Dean’s December (1982 / 1998). Stranded in the apartment of his dying mother-in-law in Bucharest, Romania, the dean ponders his life in Chicago.

Not quite sufficient to say that at this moment in history the philosophical problems are identical with the political ones. This is true. It’s okay. Only it’s insufficient. You had better go see in detail exactly what is happening. (p. 161)

In 1968, Dick Gregg, along with Jack McCormack and Doug Pedersen, taught a special ten-week course in speech to African American men and women “living in a ghetto area in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania” (Gregg, McCormack, and Pedersen, 1970, p. 2). What Gregg had theorized as the psychology of differing frames of reference now presented itself as the politics of “antagonism and distrust” (p. 3). Gregg, McCormack, and Pedersen found that “our pre-course planning proved irrelevant” (p. 3), and they found themselves subjected to testing of their good faith.

We were the targets of a great deal of invective which ostensibly condemned and threatened us, and implicitly established the speaker’s credentials as a black man. All during the term we noticed that whenever new students came into class or new black community members dropped by, the ritualistic pro-black, anti-white catechism would be repeated all over again. Initially, we were tempted to say, “Enough! Stop! We’ve got the message.” We soon realized however that the essential message was from blacks to blacks, and that as whites we were not the intended audience. (p. 4)

The three white liberals, who portray themselves as having started out on something of a rescue mission, learned that they were not and could not be at the center of their students’ education, and they found themselves discovering ways to contribute even as they relinquished leadership.

The lessons of his experience in the ghetto, together with his long-term interest in the psychology of rhetoric, now led Gregg to a major realization of his ideas in “The Ego-Function of the Rhetoric of Protest” (1971). Gregg observed that,

The rhetoric of protest would “logically” seem to be aimed at those in power or positions of authority who appear responsible for the conditions being protested. The usual view of rhetorical communication expects the entreaties, appeals, arguments, and exhortations of those asking for change to speak somehow to the basic reasoning and feeling capacities of those in authority. But contemporary public protest does not make this kind of appeal. Rather than raise a few specific issues which might be dealt with by programmatic changes or legislation, spokesmen for protest movements thrust forward a host of issues or demands. In many cases the demands go beyond the power of the authorities to act; it somehow seems unreasonable to expect the president of a Pennsylvania university to be able to grant amnesty to Bobby Seale. And when authority figures try to respond to individual issues, they find protest leaders moving to a perspective which includes the total social, political, and economic scene, demanding sweeping revolutionary change. . . . Rhetoric, as we usually understand it, seems to flee the scene, leaving in its place coercion, threat, and intimidation. (pp. 73-74)

Gregg argued that protest rhetoric is certainly rhetoric, but not “as we usually understand it,” since, though it is couched in terms of demands and grievances, it is directed to authority figures “only indirectly, if at all, and programmatic concerns become incidental to more personal functions” (p. 74). The chief function of such protest rhetoric, argued Gregg, was its “ego-function,” the affirmation, refurbishing, and constituting of “self-hood through expression” (p. 74). Gregg looked to the rhetoric of Black Power, Women’s Liberation, and “student rebellion,” where he found repeated appeals to self-hood through conflict with the status quo. “What is most directly at stake in contemporary public rhetoric,” wrote Gregg, “is precisely life-style, or self-hood” (p. 86).

Dick Gregg’s theoretical reflections about rhetoric now began a long and laborious maturation, eventually culminating in his book, Symbolic Inducement and Knowing: A Study in the Foundations of Rhetoric (1984). This book goes far beyond the psychological observations that had emerged in the first years of his work. It is the result of a systematic study of anthropological, neurophysiological, psycholinguistic, psychological, literary, and rhetorical theory—an enormous program of study that consumed years of diligent reading and reflection, discussed with graduate students in his seminars along the way. Gregg came to the view that

All that we experience, all that we “know,” all of the meaning we create and respond to is made possible by our innate capacity to symbolize. It is all symbolic behavior. Our neurophysiological processing is always and inevitably geared to structure our experiencing symbolically, and basic but complex principles of mind-brain activity guide and shape all of the symbolizing we engage in. (p. 131) . . .

“Reality” is symbolic reality. That is all we have. Our comprehension of how the world works and how we should function in relation to it is dependent on how our brains are organized to process the contents of our experiencing. (p. 133)

Gregg was aware that some readers might read his assertion of the mind-brain association as deterministic, and he was careful to disavow any such determinism. Though the brain imposes its structures, it is “a sophisticated, flexible, highly resourceful instrument” (p. 133), which always acts to abstract and classify, and does so by manifesting purpose, action, and choice (pp. 132-134). Late in his life, Gregg again acknowledged that “For some who espouse and emphasize humanistic perspectives, there will be deep-seated and longstanding feelings of aversion” to the claim that cognitive science can help explain rhetorical behaviors. “Our Western intellectual tradition has assumed a separation of the intellectual and emotional ‘mindedness’ of human beings from the material structures that house that mindedness. Part of the aversion may be the belief that neurophysiological findings will reveal deterministic tendencies that foreclose human initiative and choice. Initiative and choice lie at the heart of values dear to students of rhetoric. But if we look closely at what is known about the nuts and bolts of brain function, our aversion will disappear” (Gregg, “The Mind’s Eye,” 1998, p. 244).  And so, far from asserting that a neurophysiological perspective undermined rhetoric, Gregg argued that it affirmed the basis for a liberal, humanistic commitment to choice, beckoning rhetorical studies to a wider, rather than a narrower place in human action.

Dick Gregg’s commitment to the place of psychology in rhetorical theory is evident in his earliest writings, but changed markedly over the years of his study. He began by asserting that emotion and frame of reference were inevitable, and that rhetorical critics needed to take them into account, even if only to reinforce the primacy of the rational. In some of those early writings, he seems to regard human emotion as an unavoidable but perhaps essentially negative influence on rhetorical reasoning. By the time of his article on the ego-function of the rhetoric of protest, Gregg had at least partly changed his view, arguing that critics who understood protest as flawed argument were missing the point of a rhetoric activated primarily out of an impulse to re-shape identity. With Symbolic Inducement and Knowing, Gregg moved beyond the dichotomies of reason and emotion, mind and body, and asserted the inevitability and positive value of understanding formal symbolic inducement as always both emotional and rational, mindful and embodied.

In addition to his work as an original rhetorical theorist, Gregg was a consistently skillful rhetorical critic, drawn especially to the rhetoric of domestic and foreign policy. His essays on Watergate, Richard Nixon, television newscasting, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Arthur Vandenburg, and Dwight Eisenhower engage a formidable narrative and analytical perspective. Though his work as a theorist clearly enriched his work as a critic, and though his critical work usually strove to add something to rhetorical theory, the criticism never existed merely to illustrate a theoretical point. Gregg’s essays on Arthur Vandenburg and Dwight Eisenhower, written twenty years apart, help to illustrate how he experimented with his notion of phenomenologically-based criticism in the context of complex events.

Gregg’s “A Rhetorical Re-Examination of Arthur Vandenburg’s ‘Dramatic Conversion,’ January 10, 1945” appeared in The Quarterly Journal of Speech in April 1975. Arthur Vandenburg (1884-1951) was a Republican senator from Michigan from 1928 to 1951. Vandenburg was an influential isolationist in the 1930s and a leading member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In the Senate speech of January 10, 1945, Vandenburg had usually been described as having made a dramatic conversion from isolationism to internationalism. In his essay, Gregg undertook two forms of revisionism. On the one hand, he proposed to revise the historical record by showing that Vandenburg’s “conversion” was not so sudden as the contemporary press and later accounts made it out to be; rather, Vandenburg, whose commitment to internationalism had grown during the years of World War II, was seeking to prompt President Franklin Roosevelt to “articulate more openly and publicly his foreign policy objectives and programs” (p. 156). On the other hand, Gregg also undertook a revision of rhetorical theory, arguing that the presumption of a unified “rhetorical situation” prompted rhetorical critics to oversimplify the complexities of rhetorical interactions. Gregg’s growing sense of the importance of a phenomenological approach, which emphasized contrasting and converging frames of reference, led him to see that the various participants in the rhetorical event—Vandenburg, the press, the administration—brought to it differing intentions, expectations, and perceptions.

The differing perceptions, intentions, and expectancies uncovered in our analysis prompt the conclusion that there was no one single exigence underlying the rhetorical situation on January 10, 1945, but what might better be described as a shared tension waiting to be reduced, a set of overlapping expectancies awaiting fulfillment, and a set of merging intentions poised for the happening that would bring forth response. What looks like dramatic impact on surface examination becomes less so in the realization that the building expectancies of both Vandenburg and the administration were leading to the same point. But if some of the drama dissipates, the richness of the ensuing interaction grows in our understanding. (p. 167)

In a 1994 essay on President Eisenhower’s Suez Crisis speech of 31 October 1956, Gregg argues that Eisenhower’s rhetoric works to create the effect of “distancing,” an effect that occurs at multiple levels within the text and among speaker, text, and audience. He continues to pursue his interest in the phenomenal worlds of speaker and listener, and he returns to his interest in the way the American presidency deflects debate about foreign policy, an issue that was central to his essay on Arthur Vandenburg twenty years before.

As strategy, the speech operated to distance the events to which Eisenhower refers from the United States and thus from any major concern of the American public. This was accomplished by bracketing events and by placing boundaries around them in such a way that the arena of action was not allowed to impinge upon vital concerns of the country.

The president’s attempt to place the issues and events he wants to discuss beyond the range of partisanship is itself a partisan strategy. . . . He places the entire address off limits, politically speaking. . . .

. . . . The realm of idealism professed by Eisenhower served to distance two areas of conflict in the world from the shores of this country and thus from the immediate concerns of the American public. With the presidential election only a few days away, the bipartisan, nonpolitical discussion announced by Eisenhower serves an important partisan objective. It mutes potentially volatile issues. . . .

. . . . Eisenhower’s speech “informed” the average American citizen that these events could be considered at a distance removed. (pp. 176-177, 184-185)

Throughout the essay, Gregg sticks close to the events and the text of Eisenhower’s address, and does not cite much in the way of theory, but the whole essay richly demonstrates his notion that in rhetorical transactions, inducement is as often exercised by form as by rational argument. The strategy of distancing is just such a formal inducement, redefining a situation and the relation of America and its president to that situation by silence and implication as much as by direct assertion. While he maintains his own distance from Eisenhower, Dick nevertheless treats his fellow Kansan with generous respect.

That attitude of generous respect was characteristic of Dick Gregg, even as he maintained his loyalty to the demands of critical disclosure. In a long career as a scholar, he was an outstanding advocate of rhetorical study and at the same time an important part of his department’s commitment to harmony among humanists and social scientists. In his view, social science and humanism had important news for each other and even where it was not clear that there were common intellectual agendas there was an obligation to mutual professional courtesy and support. He was a kind, decent, and modest man, loyal to his colleagues, and wise in council. He was taken from us too soon. His long record of scholarship is a lasting contribution to the discipline and sets a high standard for those he has left behind.


Richard B. Gregg (2001, February 27). The Kansan Online

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