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The personal, technical, and public spheres of argument: a speculative inquiry into the art of public deliberation.

Deliberative arguments in the public sphere necessarily pertain to the domain of probable knowledge-that kind of knowledge which, although uncertain, is more reliable than untested opinion or guesswork. (1) Public deliberation is inevitably probable because the future is invariably more and less than expected. The full worth of a policy is always yet to be seen. Argumentation offers a momentary pause in the flow of events, an opportunity to look down the present road as well as paths untaken. As deliberation raises expectations that are feared or hoped for, public argument is a way to share in the construction of the future.

To debate the public good or public policy presupposes that arguers and audiences have a sense of before and after, of that which leads to debate and that which may extend beyond it. To encounter controversy over the course of future events is always to raise the question, where will our deliberations lead? If public argument can yield no more than a probable answer to questions of preferable conduct, it can offer no less than an alternative to decisions based on authority or blind chance.

My purpose here is to consider the status of deliberative rhetoric. My guiding assumptions are that rhetoric is an art, a human enterprise engaging individual choice and common activity, and that deliberative rhetoric is a form of argumentation through which citizens test and create social knowledge in order to uncover, assess, and resolve shared problems. (2) As any art may fall into periods of disuse and decline, so it is possible for the deliberative arts to atrophy. Barring anarchic conditions, though, when one way of fashioning a future is foregone, another takes its place. Distinguishing deliberative argument from the social practices which have replaced it is difficult. Many forms of social persuasion are festooned with the trappings of deliberation, even while they are designed to succeed by means inimical to knowledgeable choice and active participation. The increasing variety of forums, formats, styles, and institutional practices--each claiming to embody the public will or to represent the public voice--demands careful attention. If such practices continue to evolve uncritiqued, deliberative argument may become a lost art.

I hope to elaborate this claim by proving three propositions. First, argumentative endeavors characteristically involve, inter alia, the creative resolution and the resolute creation of uncertainty. Second, particular arguments emerge in concert with or in opposition to ongoing activity in the personal, technical, and public spheres. Third, argument practices arising from the personal and technical spheres presently substitute the semblance of deliberative discourse for actual deliberation, thereby diminishing public life. Each claim involves a progressively greater degree of speculation. Hopefully, by attending to the creative enterprises of argument, and by examining the inherent tensions among the variety of alternative groundings, the present status of deliberative rhetoric can be uncovered and critiqued.


Whatever else characterizes an argument, to be recognizable as such, a statement, a work of art, even an inchoate feeling must partake in the creative resolution and the resolute creation of uncertainty. Some say the argumentative impulse, the quest to advance or dispense with the "incomprehensible, illogical and uncertain," arises from the human capacity for symbolization. Language itself imparts an ought which is forever broken and formed anew. (3) Others maintain that this impulse arises from a primitive feeling of dread, an unquenchable desire for completeness. (4) Of the ultimate source of uncertainty, I am not sure; but, my sentiments are in line with de Gourmont: "All activity has uncertainty for its principle." (5)

To say that all argument arises in uncertainty is not to say that all arguments are immediately controversial. O'Keefe performed a valuable service in directing attention toward ordinary encounters in life where words are exchanged instead of blows, and in pointing out that while these disputes are different from "products" produced in less personal contexts, they are nonetheless significant varieties of arguments. (6) But I contend that even self-evident reasoning, the highest form of argument by some standards, while not immediately inviting clash, is argumentative as well. To the medieval world, for example, the stars were luminescences, intelligences placed in the heavens by God. That they represented the eternal in the world was made self-evident by the fact that they neither disappeared nor varied from their orbits. When a super nova appeared in 1575, as Lewis reports, what had been self-evident became the focus of controversy which ultimately contributed to the collapse of a world view. (7) Not all disconfirmations of the "obviously true" are so dramatic. Nor do all occur in this way. But since arguments involve more than simple sensory perception, being made with some ingenuity, even those propositions which seem to be well instantiated within a cultural perspective persist only against a background of uncertainty.

The recognition that some human endeavors are commonly joined by uncertainty does not lead to any particular theory of argumentation. Indeed, such a recognition is a bit subversive of the traditional task of theorists who, since the breakdown of the Medieval Synthesis, have labored mightily to construct methods, procedures, explanations and even whole philosophies of argument. Scholars, seeking to establish that argument itself is grounded in particular theories of logic, psychology, sociology, or linguistics (or some combination), have sought to discover some underlying capacity of human existence which governs and gives meaning to the process of argument making. The work continues apace. Uncertainty persists. Until such a time when all the creative enterprises are reduced to a single underlying certainty, it may be useful to add to the repertoire of study the investigation of the manifold ways in which individuals and communities attempt to create and reduce the unknown. The study of why uncertainties appear, what they mean, how they are banished only to be reformed, and what practices shape the course of future events is important, for knowledge of argument's varieties may illuminate the values, character, and blindspots of an era, society, or person.

Members of "societies" and "historical cultures" participate in vast, and not altogether coherent superstructures which invite them to channel doubts through prevailing discourse practices. In the democratic tradition, we can categorize these channels as the personal, the technical, and the public spheres. "Sphere" denotes branches of activity--the grounds upon which arguments are built and the authorities to which arguers appeal. Differences among the three spheres are plausibly illustrated if we consider the differences between the standards for arguments among friends versus those for judgments of academic arguments versus those for judging political disputes. Permitting a breadth between personal, professional, and public life is characteristically American. The independence of the spheres is protected by a variety of laws protecting privacy and discouraging government intervention in private affairs.

The standards for deciding which events fit into which spheres are sometimes ambiguous and shifting. Burke's notion of identification, however, lends precision to our thinking about this. (8) One form is invoked when a person tries to show "consubstantiality" with another. Another form is invoked through partisan appeals--partisanship being a characteristic of the public. The third form is invoked through a person's identification with his or her work in a special occupation--the essential ingredient of technical argument. These alternative modes of identification make the personal, technical, and public groundings of arguments possible.

The term "sphere" is not altogether a felicitous one because of its 18th and 19th century connotations of discrete, unchanging arenas where the virtuous play out life according to prevailing custom. One use of spheres as a grounding for rhetorical argument was to justify discrimination against females. Some anti-suffrage speakers justified discrimination on the basis that God had suited women to rule the home and men the professions. Their arguments were grounded in what appeared to be a natural order. (9) Yet from the changing activities of personal and public life, it should be evident that the spheres of argument are not entirely constant over time, and are subject to revision by argument.

It may seem historically inevitable that all groundings of argument change as lifestyles are reconfigured, as methods for discovering knowledge become modified, and as the institutions of governance change. But to reduce the spheres of argument themselves to ephemeral contexts or mere points of view is mistaken because all arguers face a similar problem in dealing with uncertainty. (10) An arguer can accept the sanctioned, widely used bundle of rules, claims, procedures and evidence to wage a dispute. Or, the arguer can inveigh against any or all of these "customs" in order to bring forth a new variety of understanding. In the first case, the common grounds for arguing are accepted, and argument is used to establish knowledge about a previously undetermined phenomenon. In the second, argument is employed as a way of reshaping its own grounds. In classical logic this choice was expressed in the contrast between inductive and deductive logic. In the variety of argument endeavors, this tension is expressed by attempts to expand one sphere of argument at the expense of another.


Scholars seek a single explanation of the varieties of argumentative endeavors. Earlier in this century, an attempt was made to ground argument in restricted notions of reasons; variations on the basic forms were imperfections awaiting correction. (11) Contemporary theorists, recognizing that not all arguing is comprised of rigorous adherence to stipulated forms, have turned to psychology and sociology to provide explanatory principles in describing the variety of processes. Cognitive psychologists maintain, roughly speaking, that individuals must make sense of the world through whatever apparatus they can employ; thus, since all argument must be conceived and perceived by individuals, the study of mental processes is preeminent. (12) In contrast, other theorists maintain that humans develop through language into a universe of symbols which shapes and is shaped by intersubjective forms of understanding; hence, since individuals can only be known through social expressions, the study of language is preeminent. (13) Others split the difference by developing theories of interaction among individuals and society. (14) These arguments about arguments are useful in extending our concepts about what any particular disagreement may mean. But, if the study of argument per se is unhinged from particular epistemological commitments, then the creative tension among alternative groundings of disagreement can be uncovered. From a critic's perspective, argument may be approached as a way of coming to understand the transformations of human activity through the variety of practices employed in making argument.

Studying the current practices of the personal, technical, and public spheres is a useful way to uncover prevailing expressions of the human conditions (the views of the world implicit in particular practices of making argument), and perhaps to discover avenues for criticism. A relatively complete investigation of these practices is the subject of a much longer treatise. However, I would like to present an illustration to demonstrate some of the divergent aspects of practice.

Begin with an example made classic by Willard, strangers arguing in a bar at the airport. (15) This is a relatively private affair. Unless an ethnomethodologist is present, it probably will not be preserved. The statements of the arguers are ephemeral. Since no preparation is required, the subject matter and range of claims are decided by the disputants. Evidence is discovered within memory or adduced by pointing to whatever is at hand. The rules emerge from the strangers' general experience at discussion, fair judgment, strategic guile and so forth. The time limits imposed on the dispute probably have no intrinsic significance to the disagreement. The plane will take off. An interlocutor will leave. Others may join in and continue the discussion. Those formerly involved in the dispute may replay the disagreement, embroidering it in the retelling. But the chance encounter is at an end.

Suppose that the conversation is preserved, however, and that the arguments are abstracted from their original grounding to serve as examples in supporting claims about a theory of argument. Consider Professor Willard's own arguments about the argument. In his transformation of assertions, grimaces, glances, and self-reports from the original dispute into examples which illustrate observations about the nature of argument, the concrete particularity of the original dispute is lost. But what is to be gained is the advance of a special kind of understanding among members of a professional community of which Willard is a part, the community of argumentation scholars. In creating his statement, Willard narrows the range of subject matter to that of the interests of the requisite community. He brings together a considerable degree of expertise with the formal expectations of scholarly argument (footnotes, titles, organization, documentation, and so forth). The technical arguments are judged by referees as worthy of preservation. Once the research is published, the community addressed may join into the dispute. Of course, Willard and his critics may engage in ad hominem attacks, vestigial products of the private sphere, but what engages the community--and continues to do so long after the disputants turn to other battles--is the advance of a special kind of knowledge.

Now if the illustration can be extended just one more step, suppose that the disagreement within the technical field grows so vehement that there arises two groups in unalterable opposition: Willard followers and Willard opponents. Then neither informal disagreement nor theoretical contention is sufficient to contain the arguments involved. The dispute becomes a matter of public debate. Both groups may take to the public forums governing the technical community's business, each contesting for leadership and control of scarce resources. If one side or the other is dissatisfied with the verdict, then the boundaries of the special community are in jeopardy, as disgruntled advocates appeal to a more general public. Willard may be taken to court and tried by his peers, or he may attempt to have legislation passed that would outlaw what he and his followers believe to be harmful teachings. Once the public sphere is entered, the private and technical dimensions of the disagreement become relevant only insofar as they are made congruent with the practices of public forums.

If a public forum is appropriately designed as a sphere of argument to handle disagreements transcending private and technical disputes, then the demands for proof and the forms of reasoning will not be as informal or fluid as those expressed in a personal disagreement. Yet, since the public must encompass its sub-sets, the forms of reason would be more common than the specialized demands of a particular professional community. Moreover, whereas the public forum inevitably limits participation to representative spokespersons (unlike a chance discussion), an appropriately designed public forum would provide a tradition of argument such that its speakers would employ common language, values, and reasoning so that the disagreement could be settled to the satisfaction of all concerned. Most characteristically, though, the interests of the public realm--whether represented in an appropriate way or not--extend the stakes of argument beyond private needs and the needs of special communities to the interests of the entire community.

The illustration need not be pursued further. The major point to be made is that the ways of making arguments are various. The notions of private, technical and public spheres are useful in describing the manners in which disagreements can be created and extended in making argument. Some disagreements are created in such a way as to require only the most informal demands for evidence, proof sequences, claim establishment, and language use. These may typify arguments in the personal sphere where the subject matter and consequences of the dispute are up to the participants involved. Other disagreements are created in such a way as to narrow the range of permissible subject matter while requiring more specialized forms of reasoning. These typify the technical sphere where more limited rules of evidence, presentation, and judgment are stipulated in order to identify arguers of the field and facilitate the pursuit of their interests. Transcending the personal and technical spheres is the public, a domain which, while not reducible to the argument practice of any group of social customs or professional communities, nevertheless may be influenced by them. But the public realm is discrete insofar as it provides forums with customs, traditions, and requirements for arguers in the recognition that the consequences of dispute extend beyond the personal and technical spheres.

The preceding illustration is intended to be a starting point in examining the differences among argumentative practices. It is not intended to be the foundation of a taxonomical scheme which approaches the study of argumentation by the classification of statements, situations, and customs within established contexts. In the world of arguers, any particular argumentative artifact can be taken to be grounded in any one of the spheres or a combinatory relationship. But the question confronting those who would create ways of raising uncertainty or settling it (and this includes argumentation theorists and critics as well) is the direction in which the dispute is to be developed.

Some critics of argument attempt to provide the links between one sphere and another. Thus, neo-Aristotelian scholars attempted to explain the relation between private life of orators and their public successes. (16) Others, perhaps musing over the creative possibilities of providing a "perspective by incongruity," rip arguments from generally accepted grounding by idiosyncratically extending the argument by analogy. Richard Gregg and Girard Hauser, for example, attempted to construe Nixon's Cambodia address as comparable to a potlatch ceremony, a ritual practiced among certain tribes of North American Indians. (17) These informed criticisms reflect the ongoing attempts of arguers themselves to reform the grounding of disagreement.

To demonstrate how grounds of argument may be altered, I would like to draw upon several historical examples. In each case, what had been accorded as an appropriate way of arguing for a given sphere was shifted to a new grounding; different kinds of disagreement were created. The first example shows how matters of private dispute can take on a public character. The second demonstrates how matters of public judgment can become subjected to the technical domain. The final illustration involves the cooptation of the technical by the public.

In 19th Century America, the poor were generally considered to be poor because of personal character flaws. As explained by adherents of the Gospel of Wealth, poverty was a sign of God's disfavor. The poor were poor because they were lazy, spendthrift, or simply engaged in pursuits that did not deserve reward. Arguments made to the poor and about the poor were grounded in the private sphere; poverty was essentially an issue between a man and his Maker. (18) Thus harder work, more saving, and greater self-reliance were encouraged so that all could share in a prosperous abundance provided by God. Help was cajoled from the rich only as a gesture of Christian charity. With the advent of the Progressive movement, however, the grounding of arguments about poverty gradually shifted from the private to the public sphere. Converting the doctrines of Darwin and his social proponents to a recognition that the environment shaped people and the environment could be altered, Progressives gradually transformed the issue of poverty to a public concern, one that was a shared rather than an individual responsibility. (19) Even though attempts to return the issue of poverty to the private sphere sometimes arose, the Progressives were successful in placing the issue on the public docket.

The public question of the treatment of the "environment" offers another example of the transformation of argument grounding. Extending from the early part of the 20th century were various public movements to protect the heritage of all Americans from the pursuit of private interests by preserving part of pristine America. The vanishing wilderness was the common concern of artists, preachers, naturalists, indeed any citizens who wished to see nature's works preserved. (20) While these movements were successful in restricting some exploitative practices and protecting some of the wilderness, it was not until the public environmentalist movement of the 1970s that the grounds of appeal became more restricted. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, a work combining lyric style and limited scientific fact, projected a future world where the growing poisonous by-products of industry permeated the cellular structures of all living individuals. (21) So strong was the public concern, that a relatively new technical community blossomed, ecologists. Yet, with the competing demands for energy, a private interest made public in terms of job loss, the ecologists could not take the environmental protection principle to its ultimate extent. Rather, state-of-the art practice becomes a tentative balancing between projections of competing demands of energy and ecology. These complicated equations are the only answer to a public movement that finds itself making opposing demands. (22)

The realm of public argument can give rise to the ascendency of technological fields, but public interest may also circumscribe the practice of technical argument. Certainly one of the most outrageous "perspectives by incongruity" of all times was the forlorn attempt by Nazi partisans to create by act of national will a purely German science. Less obviously, national governments influence the conduct of argument communities by providing resources for equipment, training, and information transmittal. These inducements made in the "public" interest may influence the selection of subjects, techniques and results that are made by theoretically apolitical communities of inquirers. The degree to which present defense efforts induce scientists away from other possible avenues of research is well known. What the configuration of technical argument communities might be if they were not so subordinated to the limits placed by the public interest is an open question.

In each example, the transformation of grounding is evident. Poverty could be the matter of private disagreement so long as the issue was not grounded in questions of public interest and responsibility. The environment was a public issue; but as the implications of public interest demanded trade-offs that could be made only by technical judgments, ecology was given over largely to the technical sphere. Finally, whereas scientists at least in theory should he able to create communities of inquirers without regard to the demands of the public, public leaders nevertheless provide parameters for scientific argument. Although these examples illustrate how some disputes become transformed, it can be demonstrated that some theories of argument attempt to create an organizing perspective where a single sphere grounds all argument practice.

One example of an attempt to harness the varieties of reason under the aegis of a single sphere is that of Toulmin in Human Understanding. (23) In this work, it may be recalled, Toulmin seeks to explain the evolutionary development of fields. In the grand synthesis, the most highly developed forms of reason are mirrored in, but not perfectly reproduced by, developing other disciplines. At the crown sits physics. The court is made up of "compact disciplines;" the hinterlands are ruled by the "diffuse disciplines;" the colonies, by "would be disciplines;" and political and ethical argument are found only in the wilds of the "undisciplinable." The advance of reason is equated with single-mindedness of purpose. Society supports these communities of reasoners, presumably because it benefits from the technological applications of discoveries. Such a hierarchical explanation of the uses of reason, I submit, is a technical view par excellence. (24) The rules and procedures of the forums guarantee critique; individual allegiances and commitments make little difference in the long run, and the relationship of the disciplines to the public is guaranteed to be felicitous.

If Toulmin's notion of fields is to be accepted as the governing method by which arguments are to be recognized, constructed and evaluated, then what becomes of the personal and public spheres of argument? One of the contributions of Willard's critique of Toulmin is that he points out the personal dimensions to any argument which cannot be accounted for within a strict technical view. (25) It may be added that it is uncertain whether the personal inclinations, stubbornness, and curiosity of men and women attracted to scientific endeavors influence the ways in which problems come to be known and accepted as resolved as much as the independent methods to which they ascribe. The relation between Toulmin's view of argument and the public sphere is also open to question. Is it the case that a scientist's work is without intrinsic political significance? Opponents of eugenics and proponents of creationism would certainly not agree with the claim that scientific communities are propelled only by a curiosity more intense than lay folk. Is it the case that public reasoning itself can be improved by specialization and compactness? This question will receive more detailed analysis in the latter portion of the essay. For now, though, it is important to note that a theory of argument that would ground reason giving in the technical sphere is in opposition to requirements of personal and public life.


What sphere of argument seems to be prevalent at this time? This is an important question because changes in the grounds of reason cannot be viewed as unequivocal advances. Susan Langer reminds us that "each new advance is bought with the life of an older certainty." (26) My belief is that the public sphere is being steadily eroded by the elevation of the personal and technical groundings of argument. The decline is not entirely a new phenomenon because it is rooted in the dilemmas of Twentieth Century American life.

Writing in the late 1920s, Charles Beard, a great Progressive historian, saw that America had changed. Whereas his country in the 18th Century was characterized by "congeries of provincial societies," modern technology introduced greater specialization, interdependence, and complexity. These changing conditions challenged the looseknit governmental structure of an earlier era. Psychology did offer new opportunities to serve the common good, especially through public health programs, but it also carried with it new problems. He observed, "Technology brings new perils in its train: falling aircraft, the pollution of streams, and dangerous explosives. It makes possible new forms of law violation: safe blowing, machinegun banditry, wiretapping, and submarine smuggling." (27) Beyond the capacity of government to deal with new social responsibilities, the historian noted an even more fundamental issue.

Beard believed that the nature of government was being inexorably transformed to "an economic and technical business on a large scale." As "the operations of public administration become increasingly technical in nature," the governors turn increasingly to specialized knowledge provided by "chemistry, physics, and higher mathematics." (28) What starred Beard were the implications of this transformation for democratic self-government. If it is the case that specialization is necessary to make knowledgeable decisions, then what value is the participation of common citizens? Entertaining the notion that the United States might best be ruled by a technically trained elite, he concluded that even though such a group might be better acquainted with a range of facts, "it would be more likely to fall to pieces from violent differences than to attain permanent unity through a reciprocal exchange of decisions." His reason: "[T]ranscending the peculiar questions of each speciality are the interrelations of all the specialities; and the kind of knowledge or intelligence necessary to deal with these interrelations is not guaranteed by proficiency in any one sphere." (29)

Since Beard's time, the bill of particulars has changed. Presently, concerns that trouble the administration of government include unanticipated missile launchings, ozone depletion, and atomic power incidents. New technology makes possible plutonium theft, computer crime, and airplane hijacking. But the essential issue persists. Certainly technical knowledge has burgeoned over the past fifty years, but it is not certain that the general knowledge which Beard thought necessary to govern a Republic has become any more refined.

The reasons for this doubt are many. Even as politicians have come to rely upon pollsters and mass-communication strategists to formulate sophisticated rhetorics, audiences seem to disappear into socially fragmented groups. Denial of the public sphere is accompanied by celebration of personal lifestyle, producing what one critic has called the "me generation" (30) and another, "the culture of narcissism." (31) As arguments grounded in personal experience (disclosed by averaging opinion) seem to have greatest currency, political speakers present not options but personalities, perpetuating government policy by substituting an aura of false intimacy for debate. Thus is privatism celebrated and the discourse continued.

Meanwhile, issues of significant public consequence, what should present live possibilities for argumentation and public choice, disappear into the government technocracy or private hands. As forms of decisionmaking proliferate, questions of public significance themselves become increasingly difficult to recognize, much less address, because of the intricate rules, procedures, and terminologies of the specialized forums. These complications of argument hardly invite the public to share actively the knowledge necessary for wise and timely decisions. Given the increasing tendency of political rhetoricians to produce strings of "ideographs," untrammeled by warrants or inferences, and given the tendency of government to proceed by relying upon the dictates of instrumental reason, the realm of public knowledge, identified by Dewey and later addressed by Bitzer, may be disappearing. (32)

Of course, what once constituted public argument is not entirely gone. Some of its semblance remains. (33) The mass media continue to present the drama of politics, but some vital elements of a deliberative rhetoric are carefully excised. At this juncture, I would like to reconstruct a series of "news reports," aired on some major networks during the spring and summer of 1981. Actually, the stories were not "news" at all, but projected happenings should the Reagan forces find success in making budget reductions. Each "spot" was presented on a day when the Reagan adherents had made some headway in passing their version of reform.

Typically, a female reporter comes on camera saying that she is in some small town in the hinterlands of the United States. An issue is identified, usually the reduction of funds for domestic policy or the termination of a federal program. Residents are interviewed. Some are led to say that, yes, there is no fraud or corruption, and the money has been well spent by hard working souls. When asked what could be done if the funds were to be terminated, to a person, the interviewees responded with a rueful grin, "I just don't know. There is nowhere else to go." Since my political sentiments are somewhat in line with the implied argument of the narrative, I first mistook the reports for a reinvigorated form of public critique. But, on one evening just after the Reagan administration had won a particularly key vote in the Congressional budget battles, an especially gripping narrative was broadcast.

The media found a woman's prison in Florida, where, in what appeared to be something like a summer cottage, female prisoners were incarcerated but allowed to stay with their newly born offspring. As the camera zooms in, the reporter says that a movement is afoot in the Florida legislature to shut down the program which would permit mother and child to remain together. The scene abruptly shifts to two wizened legislators, speaking in deep southern accents. One says in effect, "We need to save the taxpayer every dime we can." The other rejoins: "These women deserve to be punished." Back to the cottage. The female reporter asks the mother/inmate with babe in arms: "What will you do if they pass the cut?" The woman becomes terrified, and clutching the child, tearfully cries: "I don't know. He is all I have. Don't let them take my baby away."

The story was so startling that I began to wonder what could be done for this person, but upon reflection I found that there was not enough information to even begin acting. Later, as I came to think about the entire series of stories as arguments, I discovered that while the reports superficially appeared to be a form of political propaganda-which although one-sided, invites public participation at least through influencing attitudes-actually, they were a different species altogether. The reports always presented the individual as a victim of social forces. Decisionmaking bodies, apparently bereft of human emotion and lacking common sense, were to make decisions based upon inscrutable principles. Like viewing the winds of a rising hurricane, the signs of power politics were to be seen as a kind of natural disaster, sweeping up the deserving and undeserving alike. The reports were crafted in such a way that no intelligent assessment could be made concerning the issues involved. One had no idea of the reasons for the cuts, the credibility of the sources, the representativeness of the examples, etc. But even beyond these characteristic inadequacies, the stories simply did not invite action. These were reports of human tragedies in the making, and, like witnessing other calamities of fate, the participation invited was that of watching the drama play out.

The paradox of expanding communication technology and the decline of the public sphere is not unique to our own time. Dewey puzzled over the simultaneous appearance of new devices (the telephone, motion picture, and radio) and the disappearance of the public. (34) Another communication revolution is taking place, with the advance of improvements in broadcasting techniques, satellite transmission, and computer processing. Instead of expanding public forums, these devices seem to be geared to producing either refined information or compelling fantasy. That the media could be employed to extend knowledgeable public argument but do not suggests the decline of deliberative practice. Mass communications by and large seem to be committed to technical modes of invention. These artfully capture the drama of public debate even while systematically stripping public argument of consequences beyond the captured attention given to the media itself. And the media's own patterns of argument create a view of life where the trivial and mundane eternally interchange with the tragic and spectacular by the hour. What could be a way of sharing in the creation of a future is supplanted by a perpetual swirl of exciting stimuli. Thus is deliberation replaced by consumption.

While Beard did not project a comfortable solution to the problems of meshing technical and public argument, he did formulate a significant challenge:

Government carries into our technological age a cultural heritage from the ancient agricultural order and yet finds its environment and functions revolutionized by science and machinery. It must now command expertness in all fields of technology and at the same time its work calls for a super-competence able to deal with the interrelations of the various departments. It must also reflect "the hopes and energies, the dreams and consummation, of the human intelligence in its most enormous movements." Constantly it faces large questions of choice which cannot be solved by the scientific method alone-questions involving intuitive insight, ethical judgment, and valuation as of old. Science and machinery do not displace cultural considerations. They complicate these aspects of life; they set new conditions for social evolution but they do not make an absolute break in history as destiny and opportunity. The problem before us, therefore, is that of combining the noblest philosophy with the most efficient use of all instrumentalities of the modem age-a challenge to human powers on a higher level of creative purpose. Its long contemplation lights up great ranges of sympathies and ideas, giving many deeds that appear commonplace a strange and significant evaluation. (35)

Beard's summary of the dilemmas of The Republic in the Machine Age points to a critical enterprise for argumentation theorists. If the public sphere is to be revitalized, then those practices which replace deliberative rhetoric by substituting alternative modes of invention and restricting subject matter need to be uncovered and critiqued. In pointing out alternatives to present practice, the theorist of argument could contribute significantly to the perfection of public forms and forums of argument. If this task is undertaken, then deliberative argument may no longer be a lost art.


(1.) For a discussion of the relation between knowledge, rhetoric, and the public see Lloyd F. Bitzer, "Rhetoric and Public Knowledge," in Rhetoric, Philosophy and Literature: An Exploration, Don M. Burks, ed., (West Lafayette, IN: 1978), 57-58. My own assumptions are that the public argument is a viable mode of arguing to the extent that (1) the future is not seen as completely determined; (2) discourse is viewed as capable of presenting and evaluating alternatives for acting or restraining action; (3) individual judgment and action are relevant to the options at hand; (4) the process adheres to freedom of inquiry and expression, with the longer term goal of establishing a true consensus; and, (5) a community of common interests can be discovered and articulated through discourse. See G. Thomas Goodnight, "The Liberal and the Conservative Presumptions: On Political Philosophy and the Foundations of Public Argument," Proceedings of the [First] Summer Conference On Argumentation, Jack Rhodes and Sara Newell, eds. (Annandale, VA: Speech Communication Association, 1980), 308.

(2.) Thomas B. Farrell, "Knowledge, Consensus, and Rhetorical Theory," The Quarterly Journal of Speech, 62 (February 1976), 1-14. This essay maintains Farrell's distinctions between social and technical knowledge. Although Carleton's observation that the lines between social and technical knowledge are sometimes ambiguous is correct, the reply is nonresponsive to a basic problematic uncovered by Farrell. The arguer must rely either upon an actual consensus such as that which characterizes a technical field with exact specifications for argument or the arguer must project consensus from his or her own personal experience or estimation of the social milieu. ["What is Rhetorical Knowledge? A Response to Farrell-and More," Quarterly Journal of Speech, 64 (October 1968), 313-328.] That some aspects of social knowledge become subjected to technical transformation and that the implications of some fields must be resolved by social knowledge indicates merely that arguers are able to reshape the grounds upon which arguments occur.

(3.) Charles W. Kneupper, "Paradigms and Problems: Alternative Constructivist/Interactionist Implications for Argumentation Theory," Journal of the American Forensic Association 15 (Spring 1979), 223.

(4.) Charles A. Willard, "On the Utility of Descriptive Diagrams for the Analysis and Criticism of Arguments," Communication Monographs, 43 (November 1976), 316; Charles A. Willard, "A Reformulation of the Concept of Argument: The Constructivist/Interactionist Foundations of a Sociology of Argument," Journal of the American Forensic Association, 14 (Winter 1978), 126.

(5.) Remy de Gourmont, Remy de Gourmont: Selections From All His Works, Richard Aldington, ed. (New York: Covici-Friede, 1929), 472.

(6.) Daniel J. O'Keefe, "Two Concepts of Argument," Journal of the American Forensic Association, 11 (Winter 1978), 121-128.

(7.) C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), 92-198.

(8.) Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Motives (New York: Prentice Hall, 1952), 20-29. Burke establishes three major modes of identification: consubstantiality, "in being identified with B, A is 'substantially one' with a person other than himself'; partisanship, "the ways in which individuals are at odds with one another, or become identified with groups more or less at odds with one another," and "Autonomous" identification [quotation marks Burke's], "the autonomous activity's place in this wider context [a larger unit of action in which a specialized activity takes place], a place where the agent may be unconcerned." Although these modes of identification aid us to understand the groundings of each argument sphere, arguers typically import one kind of argument to serve another's function. Thus, the politician can appeal to consubstantiality in order to masque partisan interests. A partisan movement can grow by having its participants uncover consubstantial interests, as the consciousness raising techniques of the woman's liberation movement were used to increase awareness of a shared identity. Moreover, disputes over what kinds of activities are autonomous occur as responsibility and authority are contested.

(9.) Joseph Emerson Brown, "Against the Woman's Suffrage Amendment," American Forum: Speeches on Historic Issues, 1788-1900, Ernest J. Wrage and Barnet Baskerville, eds., (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1960), 333-342.

(10.) It may be tempting to replace the concept of argument spheres with a more popular term like "social context." Most arguments are social productions. Those that are preserved and seem recurrent enough to be labeled as providing a custom or role may be subjected to sociological mapping. See for example, Bruce E. Gronbeck, "Socincultural Notions of Argument Fields: A Primer," in Dimensions of Argument: Proceedings of the Second Summer Conference on Argumentation, George Ziegelmueller and Jack Rhodes, eds., (Annandale, VA: Speech Communication Association, 1981), 1-21. Such mappings may be useful to arguers, who sometimes must project social expectations in order to frame a useful statement. But to view social characterizations as determinative is but to reify the perspectives of a sociologist who may see argument as independent of any particular arguer. So long as one can speak ironically, cross-up and recross expectations, and transvalue social norms, social context-no matter how delicately construed or thoroughly proscribed-cannot be said to be determinative.

(11.) William Kneale and Martha Kneale, The Development of Logic (Oxford University Press, 1962), 628-6.51.

(12.) See for example: Dale Hample, "A Cognitive View of Argument," Journal of the American Forensic Association, 16 (Winter 1980), 151-159.

(13.) Ray E. McKerrow, "Argumentation Communities: A Quest for Distinctions," Proceedings of the [First] Summer Conference on Argumentation, 214-228; Brant R. Burleson, "On the Analysis and Criticism of Arguments: Some Theoretical and Methodological Considerations," Journal of the American Forensic Association, 15 (Winter 1979), 137 148.

(14.) For an attempt to bridge the gap see Earl Croasmun and Richard A. Cherwitz, "Beyond Rhetorical Relativism," The Quarterly Journal of Speech, 68 (February 1982), 1-16. In the view of these authors, "reality" somehow "impinges" on individuals thereby supplying the prerequisite veridicality to guide the arguer's judgment. While the extramental universe need not be denied as a phenomena which sometimes thwarts the best laid theories of arguers, it is difficult to rid arguers of dialectical maneuvers which not only alter the grounds upon which world views are constructed but also present problems that cannot be resolved in a purely positivistic manner.

(15.) Charles Arthur Willard, "Some Speculations About Evidence," Proceedings of the [First] Summer Conference on Argumentation, 267-268.

(16.) The changing trends of rhetorical criticism mark the different ways in which the relation between or among spheres of argument can be viewed. Neo-Aristotelian critics often attempted to explain public success by exploring the private training, talents, and inclinations of the orator. Symbolic interactionist criticism often focuses on the public significance of private symbol systems, as movement studies demonstrate how the public sphere is reformed through opposition. Fantasy theme analysis charts the personal responses to public statement through its attempt to uncover social dramas.

(17.) Richard B. Gregg and Gerard A. Hauser, "Richard Nixon's April 30, 1970 Address on Cambodia: The 'Ceremony' of Confrontation," Communication Monographs, 40 (August 1973), 167-181. By taking Nixon's address away from its most obvious grounding, namely the tradition of presidential war rhetoric, the rhetorical critics performed the critical function through poetic extension. In this manner the grounds of argument are extended to the point that the speech itself is made to seem arbitrary. But why compare Nixon's address to a potlatch ceremony? Why not a potato harvest, a pair of cufflinks, or any other random item? Any critic, through analogical extension, can ignore the processes through which the argument is made by a person or institution and supplant his or her private identification. Unless something is made known about the relation between argument and practical grounds, or at least live alternatives, a criticism of an argument may tell us more about the critic than the argument.

(18.) See for example: The American Gospel of Success, Moses Rischin, ed. (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1968), 3-91.

(19.) Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. (New York: Vintage Books, 1955), 174-214.

(20.) Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 141-160.

(21.) Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1962).

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

(23.) Stephen Toulmin, Human Understanding: The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1972), 364-411. There is a variety of views extending and supplementing Toulmin's. See Ray E. McKerrow, "On Fields and Rational Enterprises: A Reply to Willard," Proceedings of the Summer Conference on Argumentation, 40 t- 413; Charles Arthur Willard, "Argument Fields and Theories of Logical Types," Journal of the American Forensic Association, 17 (Winter 1981), 129-145; see also essays in this issue. Whether fields are differentiated by subject matter, logical type, language use, sociological character, or purpose is a matter of some disagreement. Perhaps one of the major characteristics of a field is the effort to define the boundaries of a specialized community of argument users. Given the tendency of those involved in rational enterprises to see the world through their specialty (Burke's notion of "occupation psychosis"), it would be surprising if a single notion of field could be acceptable.

(24.) The rubric of argument fields, in my estimation, is not a satisfactory umbrella for covering the grounding of all arguments. If it is claimed that anytime an arguer takes a perspective there is a field, then one term has been merely substituted for another. Alternatively, to claim that all arguments are grounded in fields, enterprises characterized by some degree of specialization and compactness, contravenes an essential distinction among groundings. Personal argument is created in a durational time dimension, as Willard and Farrell have pointed out. Points at issue can be dropped, appear again years later, be returned to, or entirely forgotten. From an external perspective, the private dispute may seem to be serendipitous, even while the interlocutors pursue the matter in its own time. The establishment of a field more or less objectifies time insofar as common procedures, schedules, measurements and argument/decision/action sequences are set up by common agreement. Herein the personal dimension may seem to be not strictly relevant or even counterproductive, except in special cases. A time of public debate may lead to the enactment of a future which increases or decreases individual and/or field autonomy as an outcome of what are figured to be pressing exigencies. Within a democracy at least, public time is not reducible to the rhythms of any individual unlike a pure dictatorship or the objectifications of technicians unlike a purely positivistic state).

(25.) Charles A. Willard, "On the Utility of Descriptive Diagrams for the Analysis and Criticism of Arguments," 308-312.

(26.) Susan Langer, Philosophy in a New Key." A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1978), 294.

(27.) Charles A. Beard and William Beard, The American Leviathan: The Republic in the Machine Age (New York: Macmillan, 1930), 7.

(28.) Beard and Beard, 3-19.

(29.) Beard and Beard, 10-16.

(30.) Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man." On the Social Psychology of Capitalism (New York: Knopf, 1978), 313-338.

(31.) Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: Norton, 1978), 31-70.

(32.) John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems (Chicago: The Swallow Press, 1927).

(33.) Although all rhetoric uses language, and although all language may be viewed as "incipient action" as it excites attitudes, distinctions should be made between those forms of discourse designed to keep us watching, while the symbols continue to dance, and those forms which invite the knowledgable conjoining of motion and action to construct a future. If distinctions are not drawn between the aesthetic and deliberative uses of argument, then the public sphere may be coopted by default, given over to those who control the means of producing elaborate symbolic events. How can untimely, irrelevant and even fatuous "public communication" be critiqued, if all rhetoric is fantasy?

(34.) Dewey, op. cit.

(35.) Beard and Beard, op. cit.

When this piece was originally published (see below) G. Thomas Goodnight was an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University. G. Thomas Goodnight, currently, is a Professor in the School of Communication at the University of Southern California. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to G. Thomas Goodnight, School of Communication, University of Southern California, 3502 Watt Way, Annenberg Suite 140, Los Angeles, CA 90089-0281. E-mail:

Editor's note: This piece was originally published in 1982 in the Journal of The American Forensic Association, volume 18, pages 214-227.
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Author:Goodnight, G. Thomas
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Date:Mar 22, 2012
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