definition as argument

I’m hoping that some of my readers, particularly those who have taught at the University of Maryland, can point me in the direction of essays that present definitions as arguments. At different points in time, particular terms come under debate (e.g. marriage, patriotism, justice); what I’m looking for are essays that argue for or against a particular definition of some term. It doesn’t matter so much what the term is.

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10 thoughts on “definition as argument

  1. I’m fairly certain that neither of these is what you’re looking for, but it’s late and I’m tired and nothing else immediately comes to mind.
    I read Martin Heidegger’s “Building Dwelling Thinking” this morning, and much of it is a definition argument, complete with etymological evidence for terminology. He is essentially arguing that we use the terms “building” and “dwelling” (especially the former) much too unthinkingly and that “building” actually entails, etymologically and philosophically, a responsibility to care for the place we are, to care for the earth. My guess, though, is that there’s too much else going on and it’s too dense to really be what you’re looking for.
    The other essay, which I’ll be teaching some time this semester is Freud’s “The Uncanny.” I don’t know if it’s fair to say that he’s arguing in favor of a particular def’n though.
    I think Reagan’s daughter had an editorial (at CNN? seems weird but that’s what I’m remembering) supporting gay marriage that was largely defining marriage (and love). Searching for that on Google, the first thing I got instead was this editorial from the other side, defining marriage to oppose gay marriage. Not saying it’s a good example, only jsut skimmed it, but there it is. I think I have a copy of the Reagan editorial at the office–I’ll look for it in the morning.

  2. Oh, I just thought of one that’s really interesting–the prologue to Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind is entitled “The Condition of Wilderness” and he argues, first against a series of simplistic definitions of the term “wilderness,” then against the legal def’n laid out in the Wilderness Act of 1965, then against simply throwing your hands in the air and saying wilderness is “those places people call wilderness.” Instead, he proposes “a spectrum of conditions or environments ranging from the purely wild on the one end to the purely civilized on the other–from the primeval to the paved.” “As a basis for definition,” he says, “the spectrum of environments puts a premium on variations of intensity rather than on absolutes…. Yet the spectrum idea can permit distinctions to be made between wilderness and such related concepts as scenery, country, outdoors, frontier, and rural.”
    Don’t know exactly what you want this for, but it’s only 6 pages long and it’s smart and not what you would normally think of as a formulaic definition essay, but still clearly within the genre.

  3. As I recall, Lisa used a Newsweek article on “Genocide” the last time she taught definition. The article was exactly about how important the use – and definition – of that particular word held such a political charge in the situation in Sudan. Students really seemed to get the idea.
    If I come across the article, I’ll pass it along – though you should be able to track it down easily enough.

  4. Oh god, that’s like the definition of videogame studies or ludology or whatever, this whole war over what are videogames REALLY. Too tired to find the refs but if you want em I might later.

  5. Katie McShane, Ecosystem Health from Environmental Ethics.

    Argues for continued use of the obviously metaphorical concept “health” as applied to ecosystems by exploring accepted definitions of the term.

    This one was used to great effect by a friend of mine who is a student of Ed Schiappa. It sounds like you must already be familiar with Ed’s book Defining Reality, which is on this very topic.

  6. Thanks, everyone, for suggestions. I’m good for now.
    I had a student who was having trouble with an assignment in my writing class in which students must define a term of their choosing for an audience of their choosing. Your comments have helped me explain in further detail the logic behind the assignment, and I greatly appreciate your input.

  7. This might fit the bill:
    Hillery, George. 1955. žDefinitions of Community: Areas of AgreementÓ. Rural Sociology, 55(2):111-123.

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