‘The Practice of Theory: Rhetoric, Pedagogy, and Knowledge in the Academy’ by Bernard-Donals (1998)

A summary and review

This post follows my previous post reviewing research that approaches academic writing as a transformative social practice. Specifically, I am documenting how writing scholars have harnessed the social philosophy of Critical Realism to argue that academic writing: a) is epistemically and ontologically important in describing and representing knowledge, albeit not exclusively so; and b) can be an agent of/for social change.

If anybody has read these two books – Judd and Bernard-Donals – I would welcome a discussion about them. Specifically, I would welcome reflecting on their relevance to current academic writing practices and forms. For example, is their project of ‘reclaiming reality’ a worthy and meaningful one, particularly in light of current debates about post-Truth politics and the relativist discourses that have emerged (cf. alternative facts)? Can it inform debates about the status of alternative writing and assessment practices, such as multimodal and multilingual forms of academic communication? But also, is there something of a ‘straw man’ argument in their critiques of other writing traditions?

I found this book difficult to read, much denser and less reader-friendly than Judd’s. I’m also not comfortable with some of the characterisations of other writing traditions, but maybe I simply have too many gaps in my knowledge. I think part of my discomfort is also because Bernard-Donals is having this conversation with a tradition of American rhetoric and composition scholars who are steeped in the classics (Plato and Aristotle); are schooled in hermeneutics and rhetoric, right up to the post-modernism of Richard Rorty; and are comfortable with philosophising and historicising academic writing in ways that are incommensurable with, or irrelevant to, skills-based approaches.

The book is also difficult because there are practically no paragraph breaks! It’s like reading in apnoea from start to finish.

In a nutshell, this is what Bernard-Donals is saying: rhetoric is a means to/a method for knowing the world. This world is real and is composed of both social and natural structures and mechanisms that are measurable, observable, objective. In other words, he subscribes to a foundationalist ontology in which language/writing is not constitutive of reality but is descriptive of it. By being descriptive of reality, it remains ontologically distinct from it. Language/writing, then, is epistemic/transitive as opposed to ontological/intransitive. This matters because it allows us to see writing as one of many ways of interpreting and describing the world, one that, presumably, is not inherently superior to other ways (although Bernard-Donals does not make such a normative claim).

Having established that the social and natural worlds exist independently of their knowers (and writers) by appealing to Bhaskar’s critical realism, he seems to claim that writing can intervene critically in (how it describes?) reality. It is this critical intervention that allows rhetoric to be an agent of change and transformation, something that non-foundationalist and relativist conceptualisations of writing are incapable of, according to Bernard-Donals.

My understanding of the Critical Realist distinction between ‘epistemological and ontological’ in relation to writing is that an epistemological understanding of writing sees writng as a means to an end: writing is a method which provides access to knowledge of the world. In other words, it helps us to know things. On this account, academic writing is a transitive process that provides access to knowledge of reality which is intransitive (i.e. real/objective, not dependent on who is describing it or how they are describing it). The underlying assumption is that there exists an external objective factual reality, that there are several ways (methods, means, modalities, etc.) to describe reality, writing being just one of these ways.

Both Judd and Bernard-Donals think of writing as ‘epistemological’ in this sense. They argue that by ‘reclaiming reality’ (which is Roy Bhaskar’s socio-scientific project), a realist ontology does away with the reification of interpretative relativistic hermeneutic and anti-foundationalist ontologies because a Realist philosophy acknowledges that there are material structures, mechanisms and tendencies that exist independently of language. Once reality has been reclaimed, then language and its written forms, via the intentional author as agent, can do the methodological work* of intervening critically on these material structures in order to change them, not merely describe them and re-describe them as part of a sui generis language game:

“Re-description does not change the material [real] constraints by which you are bound” (Bernad-Donals, p. 228).

Bernard-Donals is here lamenting the relativism of the hermeneutic tradition underlying politicised discourse that allows for real social phenomena such as ‘riots’ or ‘poverty’ do be re-described in ways that deny their structural, historical and material reality. This denial, he argues, does little to change reality. For example, the re-description of the 1992 Los Angeles ‘rioters’ as ‘thugs’ by some of the media denies the real material structures that generate the social, racial, and class injustices that trigger revolts and that lead to physical, social, and psychological harms. These social injustices are as real (structural) as the facts (physical) of the natural world. In this sense their reality remains unchanged, regardless of whether it is (re)described, observed, documented or written about.

Acknowledging that academic writing may be able to change the reality of what it is representing matters for establishing what kind of writing practices the academy chooses. For example, a well-argued and persuasive essay does not make it a true or a socially just essay. However, as Judd has argued, if academic writing is to advance the educational mission of social justice, its writing pedagogies need to support this aim: it is not enough for students to write about any reality they desire, however persuasive, well-supported and logical their writing may be. This is why expressivist, cognitivist, and socio-constructivist writing pedagogies do not lead to social change.

Instead, a critical realist pedagogy can lead to changes in material practices because it is concerned with the truth and in unveiling the underlying structures, mechanisms and tendencies of reality, both social and physical.

An ontological understanding of writing, by contrast, is one that collapses intransitive knowledge of reality with transitive knowledge: what this means is that language/writing becomes the reality it purports to represent. This is what Rorty meant when he claimed that it is language all the way the way down, meaning that there is no reality beyond or outside language – we each create our own incommensurable narratives and stories with no way of externally arbitrating which story is true because there is no world outside of language. Post-post modernists such as Hilary Lawson hold this kind of ontological view of language.

Critical pedagogist Freire is also criticised by Bernard-Donals for much the same reasons, arguing that Freire (and educationalist Ira Shor) collapses the reality of the world with how language describes it when he suggests that in order for social change to come about, both the oppressed and the oppressor simply need to change their descriptions of the world and come to see the world as each describes it. This conflation of language with reality is what Roy Bhaskar has described as an epistemic fallacy, namely the view that how we come to know about the world (eg epistemologically through language) is how the world is (ontology).

The above ontological approach to rhetoric has been referred to as the ‘rhetorical turn’, a position that has been discredited for being relativistic and inimical to social change and transformation because it denies the existence of an objective natural and social world. Similarly, Judd, whose critical realist approach to academic writing is inspired by Bernard-Donal’s, dismisses expressivist and socio-constructivist approaches to academic writing for being socially non-transformative.

Instead, critical realism is put forward by both writers as a conceptual toolkit for reclaiming the power of writing as an agent of change. However, this is where I am not clear about the implications of all this for academic writing: are both Judd and Bernard-Donals arguing that all academic writing needs to advance social justice? If so, then how and who determines what social justice looks like and for whom? There seems to be an underlying normativity to critical realism and I can’t get my head around what implications this has for academic writing….

*”language and its written forms, via the intentional author as agent, can do the methodological work of intervening critically on these material structures in order to change them, not merely describe them and re-describe them”: what does this mean in practice i.e. what kind of ‘methodological work’ and how does methodology lead to change?


Bernard-Donals, M. (1998). The Practice of Theory: Rhetoric, Knowledge, and Pedagogy in the Academy (Literature, Culture, Theory, pp. I-Vi). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bhaskar, R. (1979). The Possibility of Naturalism: A Philosophical Critique of the Contemporary Human Sciences. Routledge.

Bhaskar, R. (1989). Reclaiming Reality: A Critical Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy. Verso.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury Press

Judd, D. (2003). Critical realism and composition theory. Routledge.

Lawson, Hilary (2001). Closure: A Story of Everything. Routledge.

Rorty, R. (2008). Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press. doi: https://doi.org/10.1515/9781400833061