Truth and Rhetoric: The Promise of John Dean's Memory to the Discipline of Psychology



The paper unpacks the far-reaching theoretical and practical issues that underlay the classical debate between cognitive psychologist Ulric Neisser and discursive social psychologists Derek Edwards and Jonathan Potter on Watergate witness John Dean's memory. Accounting for their disagreements, Neisser claimed the mantle of the cognitive-ecological approach to memory and emphasized the psychologist's ultimate priority of truth over discourse, while Edwards and Potter claimed that of discursive/rhetorical psychology and focused exclusively on discourse over truth. As such, the debate at the time ended in mutual misunderstanding and the shadow of theoretical incommensurability. However, a rhetorical analysis of the arguments suggests that Neisser was right about truth when he intuitively sensed the importance of discourse, and Edwards and Potter were right about discourse when they did not lose sight of truth. Therefore, beyond the impasse there has remained a promise inherent in the debate: it demonstrated an imaginative attempt to undermine the absolute dichotomy of truth and rhetoric and demonstrate their mutual inter-dependence. As will be argued, such integration of traditional concerns of the psychologist entails the re-conceptualization of the discipline as political and moral science.