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Defining Reality: Definitions and the Politics of Meaning

CMS/W Associate Head Edward Schiappa. Author most recently of Argumentation: Keeping Faith with Reason

In “Defining Reality”, Schiappa shows the act of defining to be a specialized and learned behavior, and therefore one that can be studied and improved.

Defining Reality: Definitions and the Politics of Meaning Edward Schiappa Southern Illinois University Press, 2003
Defining Reality: Definitions and the Politics of Meaning
Edward Schiappa
Southern Illinois University Press, 2003

In Defining Reality, Edward Schiappa argues that definitional disputes should be treated less as philosophical questions of “is” and more as sociopolitical questions of “ought.” Instead of asking “What is X?” he advocates that definitions be considered as proposals for shared knowledge and institutional norms, as in “What should count as X in context Y, given our needs and interests?”

Covering a broad scope of argument in rhetorical theory, as well as in legal, medical, scientific, and environmental debates, Schiappa shows the act of defining to be a specialized and learned behavior, and therefore one that can be studied and improved. In response to theories that deem discourse to be persuasive, the author asserts that all discourse is definitive discourse that contributes to our construction of a shared reality.

Defining Reality sheds light on our methods of creating common truths through language and argumentation and forces us to reconsider the contexts, limitations, and adaptability of our definitions. Hinging on a synthesis of arguments regarding the significance of definitional practices, the book is bolstered by a series of case studies of debates about rape, euthanasia, abortion, and political and environmental issues. These case studies ground Schiappa’s concepts in reality and delineate the power of public discourse within legal contexts. Ranging widely among disciplines from philosophy and classical philology to constitutional law and cognitive psychology, this study substantially contributes to the scholarship of rhetoric and argumentation, particularly as they function in the realm of public discourse.

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Edward Schiappa
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Edward Schiappa

Edward Schiappa conducts research in argumentation, media influence, and rhetorical theory. His latest book is titled The Transgender Exigency: Defining Sex & Gender in the 21st Century, with brings together his long-time interests in definitional controversies and LGBTQ issues.

He has published eleven books, including Beyond Representational Correctness: Rethinking Criticism of Popular Media, Professional Development During Your Doctoral Education, and The Beginnings of Rhetorical Theory in Classical Greece. his research has appeared in such journals as Philosophy & Rhetoric, Quarterly Journal of Speech, Rhetoric Review, Argumentation, Communication Monographs, Communication Theory, and Law & Contemporary Problems.

He has served as editor of Argumentation and Advocacy and received NCA's Douglas W. Ehninger Distinguished Rhetorical Scholar Award in 2000 and the Rhetorical and Communication Theory Distinguished Scholar Award in 2006. He was named a National Communication Association Distinguished Scholar in 2009.

In 2016, Schiappa and his co-authors of “The Parasocial Contact Hypothesis” received the NCA’s Woolbert Award for work that has stood the test of time and has become a stimulus for new conceptualizations of communication phenomena. Schiappa is former Head of CMS/W and is John E. Burchard Professor of the Humanities.

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Edward Schiappa Written by Edward Schiappa