Spheres of Argument: 30 Years of Influence

Article excerpt

Thirty years ago in the Spring 1982 issue, The Journal of the American Forensic Association (now Argumentation and Advocacy), published a "Review Symposium on Argument Fields." The special issue, which was edited by Charles Arthur Willard, included essays by a number of leading scholars in argumentation including: David Zarefsky, Joseph Wenzel, Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar (one of the first journal essays by a brand new assistant professor who had yet to complete his Ph.D.), Robert Rowland, and an essay by G. Thomas Goodnight, which at first glance seemed to be out of place. Unlike the others, Goodnight's essay focused on "spheres," not "fields," of argument.

Thirty years later field theory is no longer a core topic of debate within argumentation studies, but the situation is very different in relation to spheres of argument. The study of the public, personal, and technical spheres of argument that Goodnight inaugurated with his groundbreaking essay remains vibrant today. It is not too strong to say that all of the many scholars, using a variety of approaches, who study public controversies of various kinds owe a debt to Goodnight for foregrounding not only the role of argument in public deliberation, but the way that other spheres overlap with and influence the public sphere.

The present special issue pays tribute to the enormous influence of Goodnight's work on spheres of argument and research traditions that emerged out of that focus. Perhaps one of the most important virtues of the issue is that it reprints Goodnight's original essay that helped create the research tradition. In addition to this foundational work, the issue includes David Zarefsky's thoughtful consideration of the argument tradition in which Goodnight was working and of the influence of the spheres concept. The issue also includes three case studies that usefully extend Goodnight's work. Edward Schiappa considers the interaction of the public and technical spheres in the legal and political debate about Proposition 8 in California, which overturned same-sex marriage. He uses the case study to inform the debate about the boundaries between, and proper relationship among, the three spheres of argument. Nicholas S. Paliewicz focuses on the interaction of the public and technical spheres in the debate about global warming. His essay makes the important point that, for the public, sphere to function properly in relation to highly technical issues like global warming, there is a need for representatives of the public sphere to apply precise standards drawn from the technical sphere in assessing scientific issues that relate to questions for public deliberation. Rachel Avon Whidden considers two case studies relating to vaccination in order to further reveal the complex interactions among the three spheres. She notes both that in some cases there may be a danger that application of personal sphere evaluation standards to technical issues may lead to inappropriate health decisions and also that large corporations may attempt to "colonize" the personal sphere when large profits are at stake. Finally, G. Thomas Goodnight himself concludes the discussion with a thoughtful reflection on the development of research about the spheres concept and a consideration about possible ways to extend such research in the future. It is fair to say that thirty years later Goodnight remains a provocative theorist.


In his essay, David Zarefsky makes the point that, of all the essays in the 1982 special issue on argument fields, the one that continues to strongly influence argumentation theorists to this day is Goodnight's essay. What is the source of this influence? It seems to me that there are several reasons for this state of affairs. The first is that Goodnight focused the attention of argumentation on the work that argument does or should do in public life. Implicitly, democracy itself is built around the presumption that societal problems can be solved and conflicts overcome if the public, their representatives, and other stakeholders argue strongly about the particular issue and then use the resources of argument to resolve any conflict or issue. …


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