The Many Purposes of Discussion

Man and woman talk in a business office with coworkers in background.
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When we enter into a discussion, we may think we know what our goal for the discussion is. But often discussants don’t have a shared goal, leading to difficulties.

Two models can help us better the mismatched intents we bring to our discussions—one ancient and one modern.

In the classical period, stasis theory helped rhetors create legal arguments.  Judicial proceedings raise the following questions (in order):  Did an act occur?  Should the act be defined as a crime?  Can the act be justified?  What sort of judicial proceedings should be called to judge the act? 

These four stases, or purposes of argument, debate questions of (1) fact, (2) definition, (3) quality, or (4) jurisdiction. In order for a debate over an issue to be productive, the issue must be first agreed to by those involved. For example, we cannot judge someone’s criminal culpability for an act that should not be defined as a crime.

Modern rhetoric and writing scholars have applied stasis to more general arguments, modifying the categories as needed.  Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee in Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students, for instance, offer categories of (1) fact/existence, (2) definition, (3) value/quality, and (4) policy.

Stasis theory helps ensure that discussants are on the same page when engaged in an argument, although this is hard to achieve.

Crowley and Hawhee consider the perennial abortion debate in the U.S.  They note that discussants are rarely in stasis. One group argues about the definition of life, but another argues about the value of people having autonomy to make their own medical decisions (see Ancient Rhetorics pp. 80-85). Unless or until discussants converge on the same question, productive discussion is not possible.

Even if discussants approach the same general stasis category, that does not ensure their arguments are in stasis with each other.  For example, the people in this discussion are both talking about the value of voting access (too lenient/not lenient enough), but they characterize that policy in divergent and contradictory ways.

In these examples, as in many of our discussions, one side does not engage the arguments actually made by the other side.

Two paths in a wooded area converge into one path.
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Contemporary argumentation theory shifts focus from the content of the discussion to the goals of the discussants, which also need to align for discussions to be productive.

Douglas Walton has described various goals argumentation can have, such as inquiry or negotiation. Arguments become fallacious in his model when argumentative moves suited to one goal are misapplied in another.

If, for example, I come to a discussion expecting to explore a range of possible options, but a fellow discussant comes to advocate for one particular option, we may quickly find ourselves at an impasse.

A shared understanding of our mutual purpose in a discussion helps us achieve better disagreements.

Better Disagreements → Many Purposes → Uneven Ground → What Seems to Be