Printer Friendly

Goodnight's "speculative inquiry" in its intellectual context.

At the time G. Thomas Goodnight published his essay on spheres of argument, which he called "a speculative inquiry into the art of public deliberation," the "hot topic" within argumentation studies was argument fields ("Speculative" 214). Scholars had picked up on a term first used by Stephen Toulmin in The Uses of Argument. There Toulmin maintained that two arguments were in the same field if their data and conclusions were of the same "logical type" (Uses 14). (In this formulation, "logical type" was left undefined.) This was an effort to find a standard for evaluating arguments that recognized a middle ground between whimsy and caprice, on one hand, and formal deduction on the other. Toulmin was engaged in the same general project as Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca: revitalizing the concept of the reasonable. He was implying that arguments should not be evaluated purely on their effectiveness, nor should they be dependent on formal requirements. Instead, they should be judged in the context of other arguments with the same types of data and inference.

By the late 1960s, however, Toulmin had moved away from this notion of fields and had come to regard them as akin to academic disciplines. In Human Understanding, he distinguished among compact, diffuse, and would-be disciplines as well as the undisciplined and the undisciplinable. He implied that arguments within a given discipline could be assessed only by those who belonged to that discipline and who had the specific training and knowledge that it required and presumed. Now membership in an argument field was a characteristic not of arguments but of arguers; fields defined distinctive argument communities. This being so, the question of how to differentiate argument fields was a matter of great importance. If an argument could be understood, say, as falling either within the field of science or the field of religion, the choice of field might well be a decision about which side of the argument would prevail. There was extensive discussion on conference programs and in the pages of this journal about whether fields should be defined by academic disciplines, or by broad-based world-views (Marxism and behaviorism, for example), or by the purpose of the arguers, or in some other way. The central theoretical issue was what to do about arguments that could be situated in more than one field or that seemed to transcend field boundaries.

Fields were useful for matching arguments with the professional communities of those interested in them, but the concept left important unanswered questions: Was it better for an argument to reside in one field or another, if there is a choice? Were all fields, in principle, equal and on the same plane? Was public affairs itself an argument field, or did it somehow stand apart from all argument fields, belonging to an altogether different category of discourse? And if the latter, did public argument trump field-based argument, or vice versa? Intuitively, it seemed that the concept of argument fields was of great value, and yet the concept seemed to be almost inherently vague.

The combination of significance and ambiguity motivated scholarly attention. One track at the second biennial Alta conference, in 1981, was devoted to argument fields (Ziegelmueller and Rhodes). In part, it offered a theoretically broader perspective for long-standing interest in studying legal argumentation. Discourse conventions of lawyers, July deliberations, structures of reasoning in the judicial opinion, and similar topics now could be seen as valuable not only in their own right, esoteric as they might seem, but also as a powerful case study of an argument field. Similarly, the field concept helped to warrant emerging areas of study in scientific argumentation, political argumentation, and religious argumentation, for example. Not all the Alta papers on field were case-specific, however. The conference also included papers on methods for investigating fields, concepts of reasonableness that were field-dependent, and theoretical perspectives on argument fields.

Concurrently with the interest generated by the Alta conference, David Thomas, then editor of this journal, commissioned a special issue on argument fields in the spring of 1982. It was guest-edited by Charles Arthur Willard and included five articles (Gaonkar; Goodnight, "Speculative"; Rowland; Wenzel; Zarefsky). I opened with a synthesis of three key questions: "For what purpose is the concept of argument fields introduced?" (Zarefsky 192) "For any given argument, what determines what field it is in?" (196) and "How do fields develop?" (200). Wenzel followed with an essay proposing that fields should be understood as "the propositional content of a disciplined, rational enterprise with an epistemic purpose" (204), stressing the utility of a relatively narrow conception of the term. Rowland argued that fields are identified by and organized according to the arguers' shared purpose. And Gaonkar believed that the study of argument fields could benefit from examining Foucault's critique of scholarship in the history of ideas. Strong as these contributions were, they were eclipsed by the centerpiece essay in the journal, G. Thomas Goodnight's "The Personal, Technical, and Public Spheres of Argument: A Speculative Inquiry into the Art of Public Deliberation." This is the best remembered and most often cited article from the issue. It quite rightly received the National Communication Association's Woolbert Award for research that has stood the test of time for ten to fifteen years following its publication.

Goodnight put the controversy about argument fields into a whole new context. He was not concerned with boundaries among fields but instead with the larger question of how field-centered discourse differs from other kinds. He explained in a footnote that a primary focus on fields insufficiently accounted for the grounding of arguments and neglected the dimension of time (Goodnight, "Speculative" 223, note 24). To overcome these problems, he introduced three spheres: the personal, technical, and public. Field-centered discourses could be found within the technical sphere.

Several contributions emerge from Goodnight's classification of spheres. First, he transformed spheres from categories of social behavior to categories relevant to deliberation, the process by which people collectively confront their predicaments and reach conclusions under conditions of uncertainty. In a later essay, he defined spheres with greater precision as "certain expectations that have accumulated over time and provide contexts for argumentative discourse" (Goodnight, "Personal" 629). Goodnight's formulation positions argumentation as a core constituent of social life.

Second, Goodnight provided clear and sensible distinctions among the spheres. He focused on four criteria: who is affected by the discourse, who is eligible to participate in the deliberations, what expertise and training are required, and what evaluative norms apply. In the personal sphere, for example, the argumentation affects only those who are interacting, and only those in the particular personal relationship should participate. Prior involvement in and familiarity with the relationship constitute the requisite expertise; others may well regard the controversy as idiosyncratic or irrelevant. The evaluative standard is whether the position advanced will sustain and strengthen the interpersonal relationship. We find argumentation in the personal sphere in a wide range of the activities of daily life.

In contrast, the technical sphere is closed except to those who are familiar with the issues in conflict as a result of study and (often) certification as well as experience. Disputes about economics are for economists to engage; deliberation about weapons systems is for military planners; and arguments about religion and sacred matters are the province of theologians and clergy. Everyone else is outside the bounds of participation and, in effect, cedes decision-making power to the technical experts. This may be because they are not affected by the outcome or because they are not competent to formulate and evaluate claims. Arguments in the technical sphere may affect more people than actually participate in them. The conventions of the particular technical field supply the standards for argument evaluation.

Finally, argumentation in the public sphere at least potentially affects everyone within a polity or community. It concerns people generally, in their capacity as citizens. No special expertise or training is required in order to participate, nor is deference necessarily paid to those who have such expertise. The outcome of argumentation may affect everyone within the polity-a far vaster population than those who actually engage in the argument. If argumentation in the technical sphere often is about management and implementation, that in the public sphere is typically about policy and principle. The standard for evaluation is the "social knowledge" of the public, the storehouse of beliefs that are generally accepted and taken to be true.

The progression from the personal to the technical to the public sphere, then, is characterized by an increase in the range of people affected by the argument, an increase in the number able to participate and to constitute a relevant audience, a decrease in the specialized experience or knowledge required for participation, and a decrease in the specificity of the standards for evaluation.

A third implication of Goodnight's analysis is that the stakes in the controversy about argument fields is reduced considerably. If an argument is in the technical sphere, it makes little difference to most people what field it is in. It matters only to those who inhabit the particular field or fields and share its conventions. Others will be likely to see the dispute about the proper field for the argument as petty and inconsequential. The effect of the spheres of argument, then, is to see what I called "persistent questions in the theory of argument fields" in a wholly new light (Zarefsky 191).

Moreover, as a fourth implication of Goodnight's work, an argument's location in a particular sphere is not "given" or self-evident. The arguers place an argument in a sphere, and their placement always could be otherwise. For any argument, there is potential controversy about what sphere it is in, and there are consequences resulting from the outcome. A greater or smaller number of people will have stakes in saying something about it and the capability to do so. As a result, placing an argument in a sphere enacts the claim that widening or narrowing an argument's scope is a resource that the would-be loser can use to change the balance of forces involved in the argument (see Schattschneider, esp. Chapter 1). Claiming that what might be thought public arguments are really technical matters narrows the scope; insistence on seeing principled public arguments in what might be thought technical matters, widens the scope. Assignment of arguments to spheres is not a neutral process.

These four implications all concern the structural characteristics of a sphere. But Goodnight was not simply engaging in classification; he also was advancing an argument. He was concerned that the technical sphere was usurping the proper role of the public sphere, with the result that important matters of policy or value were wrongly treated as narrow technical questions. In an argument somewhat parallel to the work of Jurgen Habermas, Goodnight warns that "the realm of public knowledge" necessary for the proper functioning of the public sphere "may be disappearing," because government tends to proceed by "relying upon the dictates of instrumental reason" while political rhetoricians de-emphasize warrants and inferences in order to produce rootless "ideographs" (Goodnight, "Speculative" 225). This is a serious charge. The first tendency privileges technical discourse while the second empties public discourse of its deliberative potential and thereby disables the public sphere. Thus understood, classification of argument spheres is far more important for its warning than for its taxonomy.

Goodnight published his essay on spheres just three years after he and Thomas Farrell had examined the malfunction of the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island (Farrell and Goodnight). They had concluded that the surrounding discourse valorized the technical expertise of nuclear energy while subordinating those public advocates who wished to reopen the question of the Faustian bargain involved in the reliance on nuclear power. It is reasonable to imagine that grappling with the particularities of this case influenced Goodnight's thinking about the more general question of the relationship among argument spheres. The late 20th century offered many examples of such troublesome cases. The end-of-ideology argument of the early 1960s (Bell), President Kennedy's claim in his 1962 Yale University commencement address that economic policy is mainly about the technical management of a complex economy (Kennedy), Vice President George Bush's remark in a 1984 debate with Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro that he would explain to her the "difference ... between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon" during a discussion of foreign policy (qtd. in "Bush-Ferraro'), and some of the defenses of U.S. space policy in the wake of the Challenger disaster are illustrative examples. Meanwhile, indices suggesting declining civic participation and the professionalization of political campaigns are consistent with Goodnight's worry about the weakening of the public sphere.

The tripartite classification of personal, technical, and public spheres has been widely accepted; the principal question raised about it is whether the advent of digital technologies over the past 30 years has created additional spheres and whether the virtual spheres of social media are substantively different from "real" ones. Goodnight has been in the forefront of those advocating the rhetorical potential of digital media, so it would be interesting to see how he might revise the "spheres" essay to take their development into account. In contrast, however, the concern that the technical sphere is eclipsing the public has proved controversial and has attracted considerable attention in recent years. The essays in this special issue of Argumentation and Advocacy exemplify this concern. While some writers have shared Goodnight's worry for the public sphere, others maintain that we have witnessed the emergence of a different-looking public sphere, or multiple public spheres, that enjoy great health. Other writers cite emerging public controversies over basic scientific matters such as evolution or global warming as evidence that the technical sphere has not triumphed over the public; sometimes these writers add the wish that it would. Decrying the public sphere's seeming disregard for fact, they argue for the superiority of expert discourse, at least on certain topics. Still other writers maintain that the technical and public spheres are not clearly distinct, especially since technical experts also function simultaneously as citizens in the public sphere.

The controversy about the relative strength of the spheres is not likely to be resolved any time soon. I do not think that Goodnight would wish it otherwise. His writings emphasize the productive nature of dissensus and the ways in which conflict can contribute to improved understanding of the human predicament. Looking back, however, it is clear that his 1982 essay on spheres of argument changed the agenda for studying argumentation in context, introduced a strong cultural dimension to the notions of audience and situation, deepened understanding of warrants and grounding for arguments, and stimulated productive inquiry and reflective thought. One cannot ask of an article more than that.


Bell, Daniel. The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties. New York: Free Press, 1964. Print. "The Bush-Ferraro Vice-Presidential Debate." Debates.orb 11 Oct. 1984. Web. 15 Apr. 2012. <>.

Farrell, Thomas B., and G. Thomas Goodnight. "Accidental Rhetoric: The Root Metaphors of Three Mile Island." Communication Monographs 48 (1981): 271-300. Print.

Gaonkar, Dilip Parameshwar. "Foucault on Discourse: Methods and Temptations." Journal of the American Forensic Association 18 (1982): 246-257. Print.

Goodnight, G. Thomas. "The Personal, Technical, and Public Spheres of Argument: A Speculative Inquiry into the Art of Public Deliberation." Journal of the American Forensic Association 18 (1982): 214-227. Print.

Goodnight, G. Thomas. "The Personal, Technical, and Public Spheres of Argument." Encyclopedia of Rhetoric. Ed. Thomas Sloane. New York, NY: Oxford UP, 2001. 629-631. Print.

Kennedy, John F. "Yale University Commencement Address." 11 Jun. 1962. Web. 15 Apr. 2012. <>.

Rowland, Robert C. "The Influence of Purpose on Fields of Argument." Journal of the American Forensic Association 18 (1982): 228-245. Print.

Schattschneider, E. E. The Semisovereign People. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1960. Print.

Toulmin, Stephen. Human Understanding. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1972. Print.

Toulmin, Stephen. The Uses of Argument. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 1958. Print.

Wenzel, Joseph W. "On Fields of Argument as Propositional Systems." Journal of the American Forensic Association 18 (1982): 204-213. Print.

Zarefsky, David. "Persistent Questions in the Theory of Argument Fields." Journal of the American Forensic Association 18 (1982): 191-203. Print.

Ziegelmueller, George, and Jack Rhodes, eds. Dimensions of Argument: Proceedings of the Second Summer Conference on Argumentation. Annandale, VA: Speech Communication Association, 1981. Print.

David Zarefsky is Owen L. Coon Professor Emeritus of Argumentation and Debate, and Professor Emeritus of Communication Studies, Northwestern University. He and Goodnight were colleagues at Northwestern from 7975 to 2003. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to David Zarefiky, 1875 Chicago Avenue, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, 60208-1340. Email:
COPYRIGHT 2012 American Forensic Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Zarefsky, David
Publication:Argumentation and Advocacy
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2012
Previous Article:The personal, technical, and public spheres of argument: a speculative inquiry into the art of public deliberation.
Next Article:Defining marriage in California: an analysis of public and technical argument.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters