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

Author:Goodnight, G. Thomas

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.


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