H. Lewis Ulman here examines the roles of language theory in eighteenth-century British rhetorics, linking those roles to philosophical issues informing twentieth-century rhetorical theory. In doing so, Ulman develops a general model of the "problem of language" for rhetorical theory, a model that transcends the impasse between realism and skepticism that marks both eighteenth- and twentieth-century rhetorical theory.
The nature of language was never more central to rhetorical theory than in the second half of the eighteenth century. Yet, until now, the articulation of theories of language and the arts of rhetoric in eighteenth-century Britain has received little attention. Ulman examines the role of grammar and theories of language in the formation of eighteenth-century rhetorical theory, investigating the significance of language theory for such key concerns of eighteenth-century rhetoric as verbal criticism, style, and elocution. His study highlights what he understands as the central motive of late eighteenth-century British rhetoricians—to construct for their particular cultural context philosophically rigorous accounts of verbal communication based on carefully articulated theories of thought and language.
Toward this end, Ulman examines three eighteenth-century British rhetorical treatises: George Campbell’s Philosophy of Rhetoric, Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, and Thomas Sheridan’s Course of Lectures on Elocution. He then identifies the continuities and discontinuities between the problem of language for eighteenth- and twentieth-century rhetorical theory and proposes a pluralistic stance toward the problem of language in rhetoric as an alternative to the theoretical standoff that currently characterizes the debate between realist and antirealist rhetorics.