Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

What Is Golf?: Pragmatic Essentializing and Definitional Argument in PGA Tour Inc. V. Martin

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

What Is Golf?: Pragmatic Essentializing and Definitional Argument in PGA Tour Inc. V. Martin

Article excerpt

Edward Schiappa (*)


The act of defining words is a culturally-variable linguistic practice that has evolved over time (Robinson, 1950). The approach advocated here describes definitions as a form of rhetorically-induced social knowledge. That is, definitions are the result of a shared understanding of the world that is the product of past argument and a resource for future argument. Particularly when definitions become part of law or public policy, they can have rather significant consequences (Zarefsky, 1998; Walton, 2001). In short, definitions matter.

We make sense of the world by sorting phenomena into what philosopher Nelson Goodman (1978) describes as socially "relevant" kinds, not "natural" kinds. While some still cling to the idea that the world is divided into natural kinds of things, most contemporary philosophers suggest that our language and categories can never be proven definitively to correspond to such kinds, and indeed some argue that we should drop the whole notion that language is meaningful only if it faithfully "represents" reality (Rorty, 1991); hence we are better off viewing our efforts to categorize as social practices subject to change. Indeed, historical accounts of the natural sciences render the idea of natural kinds hard to defend. Over a century ago, Charles Darwin made the case that accounts of biological species are better understood as reflecting our own pragmatic categorizations than a reflection of an unchanging natural order (Hull, 1973). And Thomas S. Kuhn's (1990) work documents that the "natural kinds" hypothesized by scientists are vulnerable to revision over time. As Rom Harre notes, "Close examination has shown that the descriptive vocabulary of a scientific community is controlled by a shifting, historically contingent network of contexts, conceptual clusters, material practices, and social influences" (1986, p. 106). In short, we make sense of our world through categories that serve our various purposes, and thus our categories are as diverse as our needs and interests (Bowker & Star, 1999; Lakoff, 1987).

Definitions are one way that social groups try to formalize and stabilize categories, whether that group is made up of scientists defining entities like "planets" or "wetlands," a group of academics trying to define key theoretical concepts such as "the public," or public policy-makers defining legally-enforceable categories such as "death" or "person" (Schiappa, 1985, 1993, 1996, 2000). Typically one goal of persuading members of a social group to accept a definition of any particular X is to promote denotative conformity such that there is wide agreement on what sorts of phenomena should count as X and, often, an attempt to secure agreement about what sorts of behavior toward/with X are appropriate.

Definitional questions in the form of "What is X?" are problematic because they encourage a search for so-called "real" definitions-articulations of what X really and truly is. Such an approach to definitions is problematic because the idea of identifying the unchanging essence or nature of things is doubly vexed: first, all we have access to are things-as-experienced (phenomena), things-in-themselves (noumena) are inaccessible; second, definitions are linguistic, and there is no way to escape the historical contingency of any particular definitional proposition (Robinson, 1950). The "realness" of any proposed definition is theory-bound; that is, the belief that a particular definition captures the "real" nature of any given X is inextricably linked to a number of related beliefs that are held in a particular historical context and subject to possible revision (Schiappa, 1993). Furthermore, an emphasis on real definition often risks a deflection of important ethical and practical questions involved in defini tion. Once we abandon metaphysical absolutism, then we must acknowledge that any proposed definition is a purposeful action that occurs within a given social group and historical context. …

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