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Philosophy and Rhetoric 40.1 (2007) 36-50

Theoretical Pieties, Johnstone's Impiety, and Ordinary Views of Argumentation
Jean Goodwin
English Department
Iowa State University

The greatest single influence on rhetorical theory throughout its long history, and likewise on its daughter or sister enterprise, the theory of argument, has without doubt been students.

In part, the influence has been bad. Docile students have (it seems) offered little resistance to their teachers' theoretical hobbyhorses, being willing to cram for the exam, or the speech, fantastical systems of staseis, topoi, figurae and five or seven part formulae for developing arguments. Even the more realistic bits of lore have proved so eminently learnable that as Sperber and Wilson (1990) have pointed out, students have not pressed us, teachers and theorists, to elaborate them further over eighty generations of basic courses.

Recalcitrant students have also caused us problems, and it is this bad influence that I want to examine here. Some students, we think, resist argument. They bring negative attitudes to our classrooms. Their misconceptions shut down learning; they are wrong; moreover, they are somewhat insulting. So we have in response been tempted to a sort of preachiness, an apologetic stance—a piety about our subject. I suppose we've all caught ourselves doing it; I know I have: the first day of class defense of the dignity of argument.

Like most defensiveness, this reaction feels unsatisfactory. We seem to be prisoners of what we take to be our students' limited views. In this essay, I am going to enlist the aid of Henry W. Johnstone Jr. to help show us an escape. Impiously, Johnstone accepts and even elaborates some of our students' common critiques of argument. He challenges us, teachers and theorists of argument, not to resist these critiques, but to acknowledge and embrace them. And in this way he invites us to a more complex understanding of our subject and to a deeper conversation with our students. [End Page 36]

I want to close this essay by opening such a conversation, listening to what students actually say about their experiences with argument. To begin, however, let us recall the conversation we open with our students in our textbooks, starting with chapter one, page one.


We frequently say things such as "Yesterday, Rhonda and Janice had a terrible argument" or "those two are always arguing." Much of our ordinary usage of the term argument implies two people engaged in interpersonal conflict. Argument thus becomes a synonym for verbal hostility.

(Rybacki and Rybacki 2004, 1)

Argument is conflict: this is what we think many students come to the basic argument class thinking. The idea turns up even in the earliest works of the American debate tradition—for example, in George Pierce Baker's recognition that "many people" believe argument to be mere "contentiousness" (Baker and Huntington 1905, 2). Our best textbooks ever since have opened by constructing an ordinary student/reader who takes argument to be "a kind of (usually unpleasant) interpersonal exchange," like "quarrels" or "squabbles" (Inch and Warnick 2002, 6, 7), "angry," involving a "desire to win" (Rieke, Sillars, and Peterson 2005, 11), "unhealthy, destructive of human relationships and thus [to] be avoided" (Hollihan and Baaske 2005, 7), "futile" (Foster 1908, 280), and "aggressive, hostile, and stubborn" (Patterson and Zarefsky 1983, 6). And at least some textbooks from the tradition of teaching written argument in English departments project a similar reader, one for whom "that word"—argument—"sets off alarm bells . . . because it evokes images of quarreling or worse" (Williams and Colomb 2001, xxviii).1

Our textbooks propose a variety of sources from which students could have picked up this view. The debate process itself, with its attack and defense, its victory and defeat, Ehninger and Brockriede admit, may "understandably" induce "the casual observer" to regard it "as a species of competition or conflict" (1963, 19). Some textbooks go on to blame "the traditional model for teaching argumentation and debate" (Inch and Warnick 2002, 68)—that is, other textbooks—for actually promoting the idea...


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