What follows is an attemptto engage in a constructive critique of William Balthrop's definitionof argument as a discursive form or symbolism. He contends thatargument should be understood as "a particularized form of languageuse which serves the function of 'reason-giving.'" While thisdefinition is widely accepted in the community of argument scholars,I find some elements in Balthrop's thesis problematic. Specifically,I argue that Balthrop's rather stubborn insistence on the discursiveor textual nature of argument prevents his definition from gaining auniversal support in our research community and that anon-linguistic, presentational form of communication can betranslated as a discursive text hence subject to argumentativeanalysis, following Daniel O'Keef.
Balthrop contends thatargument is always discursive or linguistic, for non-discursivesymbols, which lack the concept of the "negative," are untranslatableinto (mutually exclusive) propositions. According to this view,argument is always a textual artifact, and such presentationalsymbols as work of art or non-verbal cues cannot be of themselvessubject to argumentative analysis. This is based on the assumptionthat those who study argument always adopt an "objectivist" point ofview, that is, a perspective which commands that we becomethird-person non-participants.
This, however, cannot applyuniversally. An ethnographic study of argument, for example, requiresthat a researcher adopt a "participant's" point of view.
An ethnographer's task isto describe and explicate arguments as they are construed in aparticular community of arguers. As a "participant-observer," s/hehas to "translate" seemingly untranslatable presentational (that is,non-discursive, non-textual) symbols into a "discursive text" ofargument. Also, constructivist approaches advocated by such scholarsas Charles Willard adopt a more participant-centered perspective inorder to describe and understand ways in which real-world arguersconstrue argument. Willard succinctly points to the discursive"functions" performed by a non-textual form of communication in aspecific context of interaction: it is his contention that naivesocial actors translate or "construe" each other's behaviors andutterances as arguments in situ. Willard's definition of argument isbased on the premise that non-discursive symbols are in fact"translatable" as arguments or propositions forparticipant-arguers/social actors in the process of mutualperspective-taking.
Balthrop's discursivethesis precludes such alternative research agendas as Willard's, forit insists that a phenomenon of communication, if it has something todo with argument, must be a linguistic text readily available tonon-participant researchers in the first place. Before engaging in atask of defining argument, we should rather ask ourselves, Whichperspective can provide a more useful definition of argument forwhom/what purpose? Balthrop seems to have underestimated thesignificance of a perspective that influences one's choice of adefinition: How one should define what one wants to study is aperspectival, not a definitional, question. While his claim on thetextuality and discursivity sound reasonable within his ownperspective, absent careful considerations of researcherユs points ofview that influence his/her choice of a definition, I find the basisfor his claim rather fragile.
I find Dan O'Keefe's ideaof "linguistic explicability" more defensible and flexiblethanBalthrop's. According to O'Keefe, argument does not have to be alinguistically explicit, verbal text; it should only belinguistically explicable, namely discursively reproducible, eitherby a researcher or a participant, as (a set of) propositionalutterances. O'Keefe's idea of linguistic explicability is perhaps aweaker and more flexible version of Balthrop's discursive thesis: itposits that, if it is translatable into a discursive form, anartifact subject to argumentative analysis does not have to be"originally" discursive, while still allowing researchers to use suchmethods as textual grammar or informal logic (or "new logic," inBalthrop's terminology) for their analysis.
From this view point, anartistic, presentational utterance can be identified and described asan argument if it is discursively translatable by an artist; then aresearcher can apply textual-grammar to analyze how that argumentserves as the function of reason-giving. Or even an analysther/himself can become a "translator." After all, students ofargument are receivers of argument before being researchers.
For example, Guernica, apainting, is originally non-linguistic. It is not verbal nordiscursive in the first place, and, given that Picasso has beenalready dead for years, it is impossible for us to have him translatehis work into verbal symbols, that is, a discursive text of argument.Nevertheless, if we can linguistically reproduce his non-verbalmessages as a set of texts by way of translation, perhaps we will beable to analyze Picasso's "arguments." What is Piccaso's "claim"regarding the (Civil) War(s) in Spain? What are his "reasons"insupport of that claim? These I believe are all legitimate questionsstudents of argument seek to answer.
If the essence of anything,be it argument or else, can only be functional, then any definitionof argument must take into account the discursive "functions" thatcould be performed by a non-textual form of communication. Easing theemphasis on the explicit discursivity as an essential characteristicof argument, Balthrop's discursive thesis can become more useful andmore universally acceptable to researchers with/across variousperspectives, persuasions and disciplines.
Note*This column expressesmy firm refusal to a dogma that we must write/argue only in our"mother" tongues.