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The Politics of Meaning
The University of Minnesota
A lecture presented for the Center for Interdisciplinary
Studies of Writing and the Composition, Literacy, and
Rhetorical Studies Minor
No. 11 ♦ 1998
The Politics of Meaning
The University of Minnesota A lecture presented for the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies of Writing and the Composition, Literacy, and Rhetorical Studies Minor Speaker Series No. 11 ♦ 1998 Lillian Bridwell-Bowles, Series Editor Holly Littlefield, Editor
THE CENTER FOR INTERDISCIPLINARY STUDIES OF WRITING
UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA227 LIND HALL 207 CHURCH STREET S.E.
MINNEAPOLIS, MN 55455 Director: Lillian Bridwell-Bowles, Professor, English Associate Director: Hildy Miller Assistant to the Director: Ann Browning Secretary: Terri Klegin Research Assistants: Lisa Ebeltoft-Kraske, Todd Gardner, Elizabeth Leer, Holly Littlefield, Lauren Marsh, Michael Seward, Mary Strunk Policy Board: Dorothy Anderson, Assistant Professor, Forest Resources; Deb Balzhiser Morton, Graduate Student, Rhetoric; John Carlis, Associate Professor, Computer Science; Terence Collins, Professor, General College; David Frank, Associate Professor, Mathematics; Laura Gurak, Associate Professor, Rhetoric; Holly Littlefield, Teaching Specialist, Carlson School of Management;
Toni McNaron, Professor, English; Carol Miller, Associate Professor, American Studies; Robin Murie, Coordinator, General College; Margaret Phinney, Assistant Professor, Education and Human Development; Gerald Rinehard, Director of Undergraduate Studies, Carlson School of Management; Don Ross, Professor, English; Muriel Ryden, Professor, Nursing;
Edward Schiappa, Professor, Speech Communication; Geoffrey Sirc, Associate Professor, General College; Billie Wahlstrom, Professor, Rhetoric; Constance Walker, Associate Professor, Curriculum and Instruction Copyright © 1999 by The Board of Regents, University of Minnesota All Rights Reserved ISBN: 1-881221-33-7 The University of Minnesota is committed to the policy that all personnel shall have equal access to its programs, facilities, and employment without regard to race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, disability, public assistance status, veteran status, or sexual orientation.
Preface In the fall of 1998, the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies of Writing (CISW) and the Minor in Composition, Literacy, and Rhetorical Studies sponsored a lecture by Professor Edward Schiappa from the University of Minnesota’s Speech-Communication department. A revised version of his lecture, “Constructing Reality through Definitions: The Politics of Meaning,” is published here.
In this lecture, Professor Schiappa discussed the ways that politics comes into play when defining words. Words do not have “essential” meanings; we assign meaning to them that may vary vastly depending on their political implication. For example, changing the definition of the term “wetland” can result in the loss of thousands of acres of wetlands.
Edward Schiappa is a national expert on classical and contemporary rhetorical argumentation theory. Among his many articles and books are The Beginnings of Greek Rhetorical Theory;
Protagoras and Logos: A Study in Greek Philosophy and Rhetoric; and Warranting Assent:
Case Studies in Argument Evaluation. He is also Associate Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Minnesota.
The Center’s primary mission is to improve undergraduate writing at the University of Minnesota. This speaker series, along with colloquia, faculty development workshops, conferences, publications, and other outreach activities are designed to foster active engagement with issues and topics related to writing among all of the members of the university community. In addition, the Center annually funds research projects by University
of Minnesota faculty who study any of the following topics:
• curricular reform through writing across the curriculum,
• characteristics of writing across the curriculum,
• connections between writing and learning in all fields,
• characteristics of writing beyond the academy,
• the effect of ethnicity, class, and gender on writing, and
• the status of writing ability during the college years.
We are pleased to present Professor Schiappa’s lecture as part of the ongoing discussion about Writing Across the Curriculum. One of the goals of all Center publications is to encourage conversations about writing; we invite you to contact the Center about this publication or other publications and activities.
Part One: An Overview of the Project The primary thesis of this project is that definitional disputes should be treated less as philosophical or scientific questions of “is” and more as sociopolitical or pragmatic questions of “ought.” While I am not advocating a total abandonment of the legitimate factual or empirical matters that acts of defining involve, I am advocating that greater emphasis be put on the ethical and normative ramifications of the act of defining. It is my belief that many important problems facing people in a variety of roles—as citizens, family members, employees and employers, scholars, etc.—might be faced more squarely and productively by approaching definition as constituting rhetorically induced social knowledge. Definitions bring into existence a special sort of social knowledge: a shared understanding among people about themselves, the objects of their world, and how they ought to use language; knowledge typically taking the form of an explicit and often “authoritative” articulation of what particular words mean and how they should be used to refer to reality. Describing definitions as “rhetorically induced” calls attention to the persuasive processes that definitions inevitably involve. Not all definitions are accepted and used. A major tenet of this project is that the difference between those definitions that are accepted and used and those that are not is a matter of persuasion, and hence many arguments concerning definitions are open to rhetorical analysis.
Precisely what I mean by “rhetorical analysis” will become clear as the project progresses, but two points of explanation may be helpful at the outset. First, rhetorical analysis typically focuses on persuasion conducted through symbolic means. The word
rhêtôr—an experienced public speaker. Believing that such skills could be analyzed and better understood, Aristotle defined “rhetoric” as “an ability, in each [particular] case, to see the available means of persuasion” (Kennedy 1991, 36). Today the term rhetoric is used to designate two different sorts of practices: specific acts of persuasion, such as a public oration (sometimes disparagingly referred to as “mere” rhetoric), as well as the analysis of such acts.
As historian and rhetorical critic David Zarefsky has put it, “rhetoric may be taken to be the study of the process of public persuasion. It is the study of how symbols influence people” (1986, 5). In the context of this project rhetoric is meant in this second sense, though the persuasive processes that definitions involve take place in private as well as public settings.
A rhetorical analysis of definition, then, investigates how people persuade other people to adopt and use certain definitions to the exclusion of others.
Second, a rhetorical analysis is not at odds with a “philosophical” analysis. In fact, rhetorical analysis is an important part of what has been described as a return to “practical philosophy.” Stephen E. Toulmin has offered an eloquent argument for a return to “practical philosophy” that engages contemporary social concerns. Specifically, he suggests that the line between politics and philosophy is no longer helpful in an age when “matters of practice” are literally “matters of life and death” (1988, 343). Part of Toulmin’s turn to practical philosophy is motivated by a rejection of the Platonic goal of absolute certainty resulting from “geometrical” reasoning and his contention that philosophers need to return to the study of persuasive argumentation (1958). Toulmin notes that contemporary “philosophers are increasingly drawn into public debates about environmental policy, medical ethics, judicial practice, or nuclear politics... These practical debates are no longer
Accordingly, I have organized this project into a series of theoretical propositions about language, meaning, definition, and reality, illustrated with a series of case studies. I have done so in the belief that certain ideas that are often dubbed “philosophical” have important consequences for how we live our lives. Though the link between philosophizing—talking about topics such as “meaning” and “truth”—and the very pragmatic question of how we ought to live is as old as Socrates (if not older), we typically proceed as if the link is only relevant to a very few special people, such as Mohandas K. Gandhi, Karl Marx, or Martin Luther King. As Toulmin implies, some topics addressed by professional philosophers are relevant to all of us. We all think and act with a set of beliefs about what the world is like, what is ethical, and how language works. In this sense we are all guided by assumptions that one potentially can articulate and examine. This project is motivated, in part, by the belief that it is time to take many important ideas that are well-known among professional philosophers of language in order to identify those that can inform and enhance the discussion of pressing issues. As Toulmin puts it, “it is time for philosophers to come out of their self-imposed isolation and reenter the collective world of practical life and shared human problems” (1988, 352).
Tonight my task is twofold. First, I want to make a brief case for the rhetorical approach to definitions in general terms. Second, I want to share one piece of the project as an illustration of where the project is heading. Specifically, I want to talk about a definitional controversy involving “wetlands” to explore and illustrate the thesis that all definitions are political.
The study of definition has a long and distinguished past. For readers interested in the history of the many attempts to describe and define “definition,” I recommend Richard Robinson’s concise book, Definition (1950). I have no intention of trying to chart that history or to provide a comprehensive account of previous philosophical investigations into such matters as meaning and reference, though I will draw from such literature where it is relevant to do so. For the purposes of this project, the prototypical formal definition is a standard dictionary definition. Other typical examples are legal definitions, such as those found in Black’s Law Dictionary (which culls definitions from statutes and court rulings), or definitions set forth in scholarly publications. Ostensive definitions are informal definitions that involve little more than pointing to something and labeling it. I discuss ostensive definition later, but set it aside for the remainder of this presentation. Other concepts that are not considered here under the rubric of “definition” include the idea that any predicative part of a sentence (X is Y) is a definition, and such pithy sayings as when “Bismark is said to have ‘defined’ politics as the art of the possible” (Robinson 1950, 13).
Definitions are traditionally regarded as involving strictly factual propositions. It used to be quite common to believe that questions of fact are very different from questions of value. The separation of fact and value has relied on various metaphysical distinctions, such as the theory that “facts” involve objective reality, and “values” reflect subjective human preferences. Though most philosophers have abandoned many of the metaphysical distinctions used to separate facts and values, most people, including highly trained scholars, continue to assume that matters involving is and ought are so distinct that they require very different ways of thinking and arguing about them. My objective in this project is to show
than “is,” and then to note how a pragmatic approach to definition further bridges the gap between facts and values. Before arguing these points, however, it is necessary to have a firmer grasp of how definitional disputes are usually understood.
Definitions typically are treated as reporting one of two kinds of fact. What often have been called “real” definitions are attempts to describe what something “really is.” When someone asks what piety is, or “What is piety?” that person typically wants to know more about the phenomenon to which people are referring when they say “piety.” Indeed, virtually all questions of the form “What is X?” are asking not “How do we use the word ‘X’?” but instead are asking what X is, in reality. This sort of definitional fact can be called a fact of essence.
The earliest recorded examples of questions involving facts of essence, at least in Western history, are described in the fourth-century BCE writings of Plato and Xenophon.