Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Argument from Definition Revisited: Race and Definition in the Progressive Era

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Argument from Definition Revisited: Race and Definition in the Progressive Era

Article excerpt

Interests are always served by definitions: the only question is which interests.

Edward Schiappa (1996, p. 227)

With some important exceptions, scholars in communication studies have avoided the systematic study of definition as it functions rhetorically, preferring instead to leave the systematic discussion of definition to philosophers. At best, we have considered definition indirectly or in passing, as in Kenneth Burke's (1950/1969) notion of identification, where "X" is defined as like unto "Y" in one or more important respects that make "X" more attractive for a given audience. Also, we have Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca's (1958/1969; see Goodwin, 1991; Schiappa, 1985, 1993; Zarefsky, Miller-Tutzauer, & Tutzauer, 1984) characterization of dissociation, in which a formerly unified concept is divided into two parts, with one of those parts being depicted as superior to the other. Yet, despite what we might plausibly describe as two well-known perspectives on the rhetorical importance of definition - one perspective synthetic, the other analytic-definition has received little attention. Debate coaches have written seriously about definition (e.g., Bahm, 1991, 1993; Shepard, 1973), but their work in applied argumentation studies usually has not been considered for its relevance to argumentation outside the classroom. In general, where argumentation scholars in communication studies are concerned, Zarefsky concludes that, with the exception of Ehninger and Brockriede's (1963) venerable textbook, "contemporary treatises on argumentation" have "largely overlooked the significance of definition" (Zarefsky, 1998, p. 1).

We should take definition more seriously, for definitions play an important role in our interpretation of the world, and most definitions are acquired from exposure to specific discursive communities in which those definitions are commonplace. Further, definitions, whether explicit or implied, are the points at which many arguments begin. In this essay, I wish to examine the ways in which the argument from definition functions. Specifically, I consider two novels published in 1912 that illustrate the argument from definition in descriptions of race during the Progressive era. Though arguments from definition encourage a perception that such definitions are permanent and unchangeable ("real definitions"), we ought instead to conceive of definitions as contingent and fluid categories that always are subject to revision and renegotiation. Also, based on this case study, my position is that, contra Richard Weaver, the argument from definition, far from being ethically superior to other argument types, poses specific ethical concerns that require careful consideration. In short, this essay's premise is that "definitions should be conducted in as ethical and productive a manner as possible," and I believe that Weaver's perspective is incompatible with such conduct (Schiappa, 1993, p. 415). While Weaver's neo-Platonic take on definition is in one sense an easy target in communication studies, a discipline that largely has embraced social constructivism (e.g., Charland, 1987; Cox, 1981; Goodwin, 1991; Schrag, 1985; Scott, 1967, 1976; Vatz, 1973), my aim in concluding this essay on definition is to explain why it is desirable for scholars in communication studies to adhere to some version of constructivism, rather than to a realist or idealist perspective.

Before moving to the case study, a brief discussion of the argument from definition may be helpful. In an important essay, Schiappa (1993) distinguishes between arguments about definition and arguments from definition. Arguments about definition, not surprisingly, are focused on finding the better definition in the context of resolving some larger disagreement. Schiappa's examples of arguments about definitions include the public debates over the definition of "death" (Schiappa, 1993) and the changing definition of "wetlands" during the Bush Administration (Schiappa, 1996). …

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