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The Problem of Pluralistic Expertise: A Wittgensteinian Approach to the Rhetorical Basis of Expertise



This essay draws on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work to argue for a practice-oriented concept of expertise. We propose that conceptualizing types of expertise as having a family resemblance, relative to the problems such expertise addresses, escapes certain limitations of defining expertise as primarily epistemic. Recognizing the pragmatic purchase on actual problems a Wittgensteinian approach provides to discussions of expertise, we seek to understand the nature of expertise in situations where the people who need to make a difficult decision do not possess or have access to the epistemic status that traditionally confers expertise. These are situations where people need to answer difficult questions that, while they may be informed by expertise in the epistemic register, are ultimately decided by expertise that weighs certified knowledge against the intractable characteristics of a particular situation. We suggest that there is not—even deep down on a conceptual level—only one kind of expertise, but multiple kinds of expertise that resonate with diverse kinds of problems.
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Social Epistemology
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The Problem of Pluralistic Expertise:
A Wittgensteinian Approach to the
Rhetorical Basis of Expertise
Zoltan P. Majdik & William M. Keith
Available online: 28 Jul 2011
To cite this article: Zoltan P. Majdik & William M. Keith (2011): The Problem of Pluralistic
Expertise: A Wittgensteinian Approach to the Rhetorical Basis of Expertise, Social Epistemology,
25:3, 275-290
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The Problem of Pluralistic Expertise:
A Wittgensteinian Approach to the
Rhetorical Basis of Expertise
Zoltan P. Majdik and William M. Keith
This essay draws on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work to argue for a practice-oriented con-
cept of expertise. We propose that conceptualizing types of expertise as having a family
resemblance, relative to the problems such expertise addresses, escapes certain limita-
tions of defining expertise as primarily epistemic. Recognizing the pragmatic purchase
on actual problems a Wittgensteinian approach provides in discussions of expertise, we
seek to understand the nature of expertise in situations where the people who need to
make a difficult decision do not possess or have access to the epistemic status that tra-
ditionally confers expertise. These are situations where people need to answer difficult
questions that, while they may be informed by expertise in the epistemic register, are
ultimately decided by expertise that weighs certified knowledge against the intractable
characteristics of a particular situation. We suggest that there is not—even deep down
on a conceptual level—only one kind of expertise, but multiple kinds of expertise that
resonate with diverse kinds of problems.
Keywords: Expertise; Rhetoric; Wittgenstein; Practice; Judgment; Epistemology
Classes of expertise are generally unified by shared reference to epistemic catego-
ries. In The rhetoric of expertise (2011), Johanna Hartelius demonstrates why an
epistemic approach to understanding expertise is important to a nuanced apprecia-
tion of the complex pluralistic modes of expertise she identifies. Asking “what is
expertise” and “who is an expert,” her book insightfully explores the many
Zoltan P. Majdik is Assistant Professor of Communication at North Dakota State University. William M.
Keith is Professor of Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Correspondence to:
Professor Zoltan P. Majdik, NDSU, Department of Communicaion, Fargo ND, 58108-6050, USA. Email:
Social EpistemologyAquatic Insects
Vol. 25, No. 3, July 2011, pp. 275–290
ISSN 0269-1728 (print)/ISSN 1464-5297 (online) ! 2011 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2011.578307
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different types of expertise that exist in the social, political, medical, and techno-
logical domains of our lives. This multiplicity of expertises has in common a rhe-
torically defined and negotiated relationship to knowledge: Hartelius states that
expertise begins with a question of “whose knowledge and experience [...] is
worth the most” and leads to an understanding where “to be an expert [...] is to
rhetorically gain sanctioned rights to a specific topic or mode of knowledge”
(2011, 1 and 2).
Using knowledge to specify a shared ground for defining expertise generates a
useful spectrum of perspectives through which to theorize and understand exper-
tise beyond the bounds of formal accreditation and certification. Yet it seems to
miss a crucial dimension: simply having knowledge or skill cannot be enough. It
has to be deployed in an expert way within the constraints and demands of a par-
ticular situation. Conceptualizing expertise as bodies of knowledge elides ways in
which expertise can be a practice oriented primarily not toward different forms of
knowledge, but toward the resolution of a problem. From this perspective, the
defining characteristic of “expert” and “expertise” is not bound (simply) to the
possession of knowledge, or processes of knowledge acquisition or production, or
connections to knowledge networks, but instead flows from problems that require
resolutions. Problems (and solutions) are relative to situations and vocabularies of
description, and subject to be validated and justified as legitimate in the eyes of
relevant others.
Consider the couple that needs to make a decision about their ability to keep
and raise an unborn child with a known genetic condition, for example, or the
spouse who must choose between continuing or withdrawing her partner’s life
support, or the patient who needs to decide whether or not to undergo chemo-
therapy, or the sufferer of a rare but non-lethal condition who needs to judge
quality of life with the condition against the small chance for improvement after
exposure to prolonged invasive treatment. All of them exhibit at some point a kind
of decisional expertise—their ability to judge the problem and make a final deci-
sion—and that expertise cannot always reference the relevant specialized bodies of
knowledge with as much insight and depth as those with specialized and general-
ized knowledge in areas related to these decisions could. Yet, in situations like the
ones mentioned above, people without this type of knowledge often are charged
with having to make a decision without being able to let others make the decision
on their behalf; in such situations these people become final decision-makers,
expected to know best how to respond to an exigency and to resolve a particular
Such a practice-centric view of expertise originates outside the epistemic regis-
ter; it starts not with bodies of knowledge, but with people in quandaries. The epi-
stemic approach is hampered, not so much by its insistence on the importance of
knowledge but by insisting on a single common characteristic among all types of
expertise. Pluralistic modes of knowledge possession, acquisition, and relation still
leave the concept of expertise reliant on the existence and possession of a body of
specialized knowledge.
276 Z. P. Ma jdik and W. M. Keith
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This is not to say that situations like the ones described above do not benefit
from a notion of expertise defined by its epistemic dimension. Still, delimiting
who can be an expert and whose decisions come from a place of expertise to the
provenance of epistemic principles limits our ability to act as experts. In other
words, if we find ourselves in any of the situations just mentioned, and approach
them from a definition of expertise that limits the enactment of expert choices to
knowledge, we probably perceive ourselves unable to make the kinds of legitimate
and justifiable decisions that the situations demand. Thus, if we want to think of
expertise as a communicative and deliberative construct, we need to extend the
possibilities for defining it, lest a narrow concept denies legitimacy to those who
need to make real choices in real exigencies, where traditional expert agreement is
Alternatives to classifying and defining expertise do not look promising, how-
ever. An account of expertise that does not rely on an epistemic approach to pull
together pluralistic types of expertise into a shared conceptual foundation appears,
on the surface, to be unable to avoid radical relativism. Such an “anything goes”
concept of expertise is unsustainable, of course: if anyone can legitimately call
themselves an expert on a subject matter, or if the deciding criterion of “expertise”
is one’s own judgment, the concept of expertise itself loses its usefulness. A radi-
cally individualistic conceptualization of expertise elides not only the social nature
of expertise—decisions make a difference when they are compelling to a larger
public, whether a political one, or one delimited by a shared problem—but also its
social function and use: the personalized definition of expertise negates the ability
of expert judgments to be tested and validated by relevant others and so to extend
beyond the resolution of a particular problem.
To address the twin problem of extending what counts as expertise beyond epi-
stemic principles, while avoiding a relativism that would render expertise incon-
gruent with its own social form and function, we draw on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s
work. Wittgenstein encountered a similar problem in philosophy to the one we
outline here. Philosophy seeks a principle: a common denominator that unifies all
aspects of something (language use, knowledge, and so on). This is problematic
when, as Wittgenstein observed with language, the unifying imperative imposes
false similarities on disparate uses, or denies the validity of disparate uses if they
do not fit existing logical and formal norms. For Wittgenstein, the range of empir-
ically observable language uses exceeds the scope of philosophical theories about
language, leaving us unable to encompass all language use within philosophical
The alternative to philosophical unity appears just as problematic, however. If
we acknowledge all uses of language without striving for a unifying principle, we
arrive at a radically relativistic view of language. Wittgenstein’s solution was to
propose a concept that at once would unify disparate language uses and resist the
temptation to discover one shared, formal governing principle.
(1953) argued in Philosophical investigations that uses of language could not be
unified through a single principle, but nonetheless could be recognized as linguistic
Social Epistemology 277
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activity. He famously used games as a conceptual parallel: just as we can recognize
the many different types of games we participate in as games, even though they
often are so different in scope, purpose, rules, and participants that they possess
no common ground, so can we recognize disparate uses of language as language,
even though they share no underlying relations:
I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family
resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, fea-
tures, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same
way. And I shall say: “games” form a family ... And for instance the kinds of number
form a family in the same way. Why do we call something a “number”? Well, perhaps
because it has a direct-relationship with several things that have hitherto been called
number; and this can be said to give it an indirect relationship to other things we call
the same name. And we extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we
twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that
some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.
(Wittgenstein 1953, §67)
The metaphor of “family resemblance” allowed Wittgenstein to conceptualize
shared relations in uses of language without the requirement of a unifying princi-
We propose that the philosophical problems prompting Wittgenstein to con-
ceive of “family resemblance” parallel the problems with pluralistic types of exper-
tise that scholars of expertise encounter in their treatment of expertise. Specifically,
we argue that taking Wittgenstein’s idea of family resemblance as a starting point,
we may approach “expertise” as a practice that relates to forms of life; practice-ori-
ented concepts of expertise would add to, rather than replace, the epistemic ver-
sions of expertise. We propose that conceptualizing types of expertise through the
family resemblance they bear relative to the problems they are posited to solve
maintains “expertise” as a heuristic, yet leaves room for enactments of expertise
that vary significantly. Conceptualizing expertise as practice escapes epistemic limi-
tations, and legitimizes a wider range of enactments of expertise. We will first
explicate expertise as practice, and then explain the role of judgment in that prac-
tice. Finally, we will address contexts of use for expertise, and criteria of success.
A Practice-oriented Expertise
A conceptualization of expertise as practice-oriented originates from a recognition
that practice invokes two dimensions: an individual one (whereby practice can be
seen as enacting, using, or applying skills, knowledge, or behaviors repeatedly and
habitually) and a social one (whereby practice can be seen as validated, accepted,
publicized, and institutionalized by a social group); Wittgenstein links practice to
“obeying a rule” (1953, §202), which invokes both dimensions. On its surface, the
division suggests that the core of practice is individual, with a social dimension
adding pragmatic use-value. Yet, a practice limited to only one individual
278 Z. P. Ma jdik and W. M. Keith
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engagement is empty, in part because the range of its use is limited, but more
importantly because, lacking the validation, legitimization, and judgment by oth-
ers, its use is unsubstantiated, and possibly devoid of any traction with the reality
with which it engages. This is because expertise, even a practice-oriented model
that revolves around the resolution of a particular problem, cannot simply be mea-
sured by outcome. We can imagine two oncologists, both of whose patients expire:
in one case, the doctor made all the “right” choices; in the other, the doctor exhib-
ited little adherence to accepted treatments and principles, making the “wrong”
choices throughout the treatment process—with the same result. Regardless and in
spite of the outcome, few would judge the second doctor to be an expert, while
most would consider the first to be one. The difference lies in the nature of the
choice-making, rather than the result.
Thus, conceptualizing expertise as practice requires us to consider it as some
form of individual engagement with the social and material world (for the purpose
of resolving a problem), but do so with the understanding that any enactment of
expertise involves understanding of that problem and its solutions that could, as
possibility rather than necessary actuality, be projected on to future cases. Expertise
as practice, therefore, is the process of being able to articulate reasons for—thus
operating under a requirement to socially validate and legitimize—an individual’s
enactment of expertise.
Practices and/as Judgments
Wittgenstein’s understanding of practice in Philosophical investigations suggests pre-
cisely this kind of consideration of practice. For Wittgenstein, practices can be put
to social uses (e.g. the use of language in enactments of social relations) as well as
individual uses (e.g. the use of language to talk about personal desires, perceptions,
and preferences). The two are not weighted evenly, however. Michael Luntley
(2003, 107) proposes that for Wittgenstein’s practice “it is repeatability across time
that is at issue, not across subjects” for the centrality of philosophical grammar
and rule-following to his work.
Repeatability across time as a core characteristic of a practice introduces situ-
ated judgment to Wittgenstein’s practice. Wittgenstein contrasts this kind of prac-
tice to an a posteriori interpretation of a sequence of behaviors:
This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule, because any
course of action can be made out to accord with the rule. The answer was: if any
action can be made out to accord with the rule, then it can also be made out to con-
flict with it. And so there would be neither accord nor conflict here.
It can be seen that there is a misunderstanding here from the mere fact that in the
course of our argument we give one interpretation after another; as if each one con-
tented us at least for a moment, until we thought of yet another standing behind it.
What this shews is that there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation,
but which is exhibited in what we call “obeying the rule” and “going against it” in
actual cases. (1953, §201)
Social Epistemology 279
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From this vantage point, practices depend on individual judgment, which exhib-
its a kind of intelligible regularity. If practice is characterized by repeatability
across time, judgment becomes the mechanism by which the individual makes
choices about whether a current engagement with a problem, or application and
use of skills and behaviors to a problem, is beneficial to the resolution of that
problem, and thus ought to be continued. Bryan Garsten’s explication is useful
By judgment I mean the mental activity of responding to particular situations in a way
that draws upon our sensations, beliefs, and emotions without being dictated by them
in any way reducible to a simple rule ... If practical judgment is a capacity to make
decisions without reference to rules or laws, it seems to be defined largely by its law-
lessness. (2006, 7 and 115)
Here, expert judgments, grounded in practical judgments, would not necessarily
invoke pre-existing principles, or rules or laws. In Artificial experts, Harry Collins
(1992) showed that whether or not a philosophical reconstruction of expertise
invokes principles, axioms, deduction and the like, actual expertise takes many
forms, sometimes even in the same domain (e.g. he compares the various habits
of expert cricket batters). Sometimes experts “use” explicit rules of thumb or
principles, sometimes they rely on their developed judgment and perception.
Whether or not experts went to school and learned principles, or use them to
justify their judgments, these principles are not necessarily part of making a judg-
ment. Confusing rational reconstruction with actual process parallels the miscon-
ception that the “laws of physics” keep airplanes in the air; it is actually the
difference in air pressure on either side of the wing, which scientists can then
later explain with laws of physics. Aristotle’s account of moral reasoning invokes
the idea of moral sight, the “eye of the soul” (llasi ... sg1 wtwg1), which
stems from the possession of the faculty of phronesis (2004, 1144a10): one does
not deduce the right thing to do, one sees it. Thus, since expert judgments do
not necessarily invoke pre-existing principles, they are more like Aristotelian “sit-
uated judgment”:
We make decisions using criteria drawn from our own perspectives—from our experi-
ences, our emotions, and even our prejudices. Insofar as Aristotelian deliberation
involved thinking through our intentions in relation to an end of our own, it incorpo-
rated and encouraged situated judgment. (Garsten 2006, 129)
This kind of judgment is not easily justified, however, in part because, as Garsten
(2006, 116) shows, the extension of a Hobbesian “publique reason” in contempo-
rary democratic theories casts suspicion on citizens’ capacity for practical judg-
Individuals’ judgments are implicitly understood not as harboring partial truths and
insights from experience that might be drawn into such deliberations but instead as
cloaks for self-interest, instruments of pride, or vestiges of prejudice. (Garsten 2006,
280 Z. P. Ma jdik and W. M. Keith
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Thus, for Garsten, the recovery of practical judgment was critical for democratic
engagement—itself a form of expertise invested in citizens of a democracy. Indeed,
the purpose of rhetoric to Garsten was “to draw out the best of practical
judgment,” recognizing that “the best of practical judgment was found in the
activity of deliberation” (2006, 129).
The centrality of judgment to practice affects how we think about expertise. If
we approach expertise, not from a definitional question (“What is expertise? Who
is an expert?”, as Hartelius [2011, 3] puts it), but from a place of judgment (How
do we judge expertise? How do we judge whose voice counts as an expert voice?),
the grounds for conceptualizing expertise change. The roots of expertise are here
not static epistemologies against which individual actions are evaluated in order to
be granted or denied the imprimatur of expertise. Instead, expertise emerges as a
fluid concept that can only be judged against the particulars of a situation, problem,
or exigency that necessitate the enactment of an expertise. The primary criterion for
expertise, thus, will always be whether an engagement with a particular exigency
works; if it works repeatedly over time, it has traction in the realities of the situa-
tion and becomes codified into a practice.
Judgment removes a practice-centric vision of expertise from the insularity
of the repeated private enactment of choices and actions in response to partic-
ular problems. Few would contest the claim that the oncologist of our earlier
example, who eschews established principles in the treatment of his patient, is
not and should not be called “expert” if he continues treating patients without
being able to judge, and without engaging the lack of traction his approach
has in his patients’ realities. Judgment is central to expertise, because it forces
the practice of expertise into a relation with the empirical world. As Luntley
sees it:
The concept of practice that I am extracting from Wittgenstein is the engagement of
judges with the world ... It is, however, an activity in which the world is directly pres-
ent in this attention of the subject. This requires the notion of direct apprehension of
how things are, a direct presence of truth-conditions. (2003, 115)
If we conceptualize expertise from the perspective of Wittgensteinian practice, we
conceptualize it as originating out of particular, context-specific exigencies pre-
sented to the subject.
Practices in Contexts of Use
The idea of expert practice argues that the truths on which judgment and
action rest can be limited to those truths that are relevant to the particular
context to which individuals turn their attention. The approach of practice
through judgment invokes moral judgment, in so far as judgment extends from
the agent’s values and interests in his or her engagement with the world. In
applications of expertise that involve such moral judgment, judgment is there-
fore about ultimate particulars.
There can be no absolute (i.e. non-interpreted,
Social Epistemology 281
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non-judgment-requiring) rule about the connection between principles and the
choice of action; there is always a “leap,” as we will show below. This allows for
individual differences: people rationally (i.e. in ways they could make explicit)
make different judgments in difficult situations. Why? Partly because the ultimate
particulars of each situation differ, and partly because any given person has a his-
tory of making choices, and of knowing how those choices worked out relative to
his/her own value horizons. In other words, the role of judgment in a practice is
limited to considering relevant only those truths that pertain to the exigency that
gave rise to the practice (this is a corollary of our “problem focus”). “Practice,”
to follow Luntley:
is a relation of an agent to the world. It is not their action as such, but the way they
are related. It is an engagement that gives them the capacity to act, including, centrally,
linguistic actions, and these are normatively structured. Practice is not, however, the
subject’s non-linguistic actions except in so far as they’re intentionally characterized.
(2003, 117)
While expertise-qua-practice engages with the world in this manner, and cannot
be seen as only the relativistic and self-referential property of the individual, the
neglect of a discursive dimension of practice would leave it with limited pragmatic
use. Judgment connects the practice of expertise, in a particular case and context,
to the reality that impinges upon that particular case. This allows an individual to
address the quandaries of the case in ways that could be repeated in the future.
But when only the person who addresses the case can perceive his or her expertise
(as a private flash of intuition, a thought, a belief, or a conviction), the behavior
in which the person engages cannot be called practice, nor can it be called exper-
tise. Just as Wittgenstein (1953, §202) argued that there can be no logically private
language, nor can there be a private practice (to the extent that “obeying a rule” is
a practice, and “to think one is obeying a rule is not to obey a rule. Hence it is
not possible to obey a rule ‘privately’”), there cannot be logically private expertise
in practice. When Wittgenstein characterized rule-following in Philosophical investi-
gations, he perceived practices as existing in their use—a use that is intelligible,
not in its conceptual adherence to something deeper, but in its intelligibility vis-a
vis the situation in which it existed:
“How am I able to obey a rule?”—if this is not a question about causes, then it is
about the justification for my following the rule in the way I do. If I have exhausted
the justification, I have reached bedrock and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined
to say, “This is simply what I do.” (Wittgenstein 1953, §217)
Luntley (2003) points out that the key to this passage is in Wittgenstein (1953,
§289): “To use a word without a justification does not mean to use it without
right.” “Right” places the act into a framework in which it is intelligible, in princi-
ple, “by being seen in the ongoing directness of our engagements” (Luntley 2003,
118). Instead of seeking causal (thus, conceptual and essential) reasons for acting,
we find those reasons in the situation itself.
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Wittgenstein’s “bedrock,” thus, “is simply the encounters that we do not need
to talk about, not because they are ineffable but because they are the sorts of
encounters in which we simply see the directness of what we and others are doing”
(Luntley 2003, 118). Expertise, as conceptualized through practice, may be oriented
primarily toward solving a problem. But only if such a practice can, in principle,
become socially intelligible, justifiable, and legitimizable can the enactment of
expertise to solve a particular problem become a particular kind of expertise
designed to address a particular kind of problem.
The Question of Success
Thus, if so far in our essay the primary criterion for judging a practice was
whether a practice works in a given situation, the extension of that criterion into
expertise would cover whether others can agree that it works. Actual agreement
across subjects need not be the ground on which disputes over expertise are
fought, but the possibility of agreement is that ground; namely, the possibility of
intelligibility in the context of a particular situation. Here, again, judgment
becomes instrumental, as the judgment of whether a particular practice works in
the context of a particular situation necessarily involves a possibility of judgment
outside the self. Because the correctness of something cannot be judged through
recourse to an inner mental image (Wittgenstein 1953, §265), “the use of [words]
stands in need of a justification which everybody understands” (1953, §261). Con-
sider a third oncologist, one who uses non-traditional treatments that over time
help as many or more patients than the first oncologist’s traditional treatments.
That oncologist would have expertise in the treatment of cancer even if the oncol-
ogist would not in actuality justify said treatments to others. The expertise is
embedded in the situation and in the possibility of justification, even if no one
asks for justification (cf. Wittgenstein 1953, §217). That the act is intelligible, as
practice, if the context of a particular situation allows for the resultant practice to
be, in principle, intelligible to others.
Wittgenstein’s extension of practice into a social and linguistic dimension car-
ries pragmatic implications for our view of expertise. While practice—whether
conceived generally, or as an enactment of expertise—is primarily a function of
pragmatic considerations made intelligible within the context of a particular situa-
tion, it also invokes a necessary linguistic layer that creates possibilities for others
to evaluate the legitimacy of practices. While individual practice may be simply the
individual’s enactment of skills and behaviors, it is in the linguistic action of prac-
tice where the relation between practices and particular situations are made intelli-
gible in a “grammar,” by which Wittgenstein means the structural regularities, or
rules broadly understood, of language use.
However, Wittgenstein fails to address, directly, a pragmatic dimension to this
perspective on practice. If oncologist number three could communicate reasons for
why she is, and should be, judged to be an expert, and forward what Habermas
Social Epistemology 283
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(1984, 23) calls moral–practical validity claims to the rightness of her norms and
actions to a group that could validate those claims, the pragmatic use-value of her
expertise would be extended significantly. Expertise subsists in the legitimization of
expert judgment by a public that encounters the same or similar problem as the
expert does. When the resolution of a particular problem is the core of expertise,
the development of an understanding that can be projected to future cases is its
telos; Jonsen and Toulmin (1988) have given a history of this concept as “casuistry.”
The individual enactment of a practice can, thus, be pragmatically useful in
resolving particular problems, but is meaningless when it becomes subject to social
judgment unless it can be judged not only by whether it works, but also by whether
good reasons can be given as to why it works. Even without explicit justification,
the “doing” “is something within the space of reasons .. . that could be placed
within a rational framework” (Luntley 2003, 118). In the framework, as shown
above, reasonableness exists not in conceptual justification, but in our direct
encounter with the world. In the social space, expertise-as-practice thus always
exists not only in relation to the truth-conditions of a particular case, but also to a
counterfactual condition. This counterfactual asks whether the practice could be
judged as intelligible in the context of a given situation—could be tested for cor-
rectness” (Wittgenstein 1953, §265) outside someone’s subjective imagination and
experience—if the practice was integrated into a public vocabulary and grammar.
Our conceptualization of expertise, shifting from a descriptive and insular prag-
matic judgment to a counterfactual and normative judgment of social intelligibility,
demands that we pay attention to the possibility of intersubjective understanding.
Recognizing the intersubjective dimension of expertise-as-practice extends par-
ticular enactments of expertise beyond the particular case, and strengthens the
concept of expertise. Just like in theories of deliberative democracy, the subjecting
of ideas to a deliberative public is seen as strengthening the ideas, the consider-
ation of making practices of expertise available to deliberative testing by a public
validates, selects, and certifies those practices that best address a particular
Here the Wittgensteinian perspective poses two critical questions. First, if we
expand the pragmatic uses of expertise beyond the particular case that gives rise to
a particular enactment of expertise to enabling other enactments of expertise in
the context of other particular problems, the specificity of “expertise” becomes dif-
ficult to identify. For even in its symbolic expansion into the social space, the par-
ticularity of a problem, exigency, or case should remain central to our
understanding of expertise. In other words, the non-traditional oncologist may be
able to give reasons and justifications for her treatment that are intelligible to a
(general or specialized) public, but the expertise communicated remains an exper-
tise defined from (and thus limited to) particular treatments of cancer. This under-
standing may appear similar to other ways of seeing expertise (an oncologist, by
any definition, has a different type of expertise than an airplane designer). But it
differs, in so far as in an epistemic definition of expertise, the oncologist and engi-
neer are defined as experts on shared epistemic grounds: their expertise is seen as
284 Z. P. Ma jdik and W. M. Keith
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derived from a shared principle of knowledge possession, acquisition, or relation.
A practice-oriented perspective affords no such shared common ground, as the
definition of expertise flows from the specifics of a problem, rather than from the
stability of certified knowledge.
The lack of a shared principle/knowledge/theory between different experts and
expertises exposes expertise to a problem of relativism. If there are no identifiable
shared principles that define and unite expertise, is the concept of “expertise” ren-
dered too general to be of use? The practice-oriented perspective makes it appear
so. This is the problem Wittgenstein faced in his assertion that, in general, there
are no problems of philosophy. He thought that our attempts to bring unity to
thinking about language and concepts confuse us; we are “bewitched” by pictures
or theories that explain only a part of a conceptual territory, and blind us to the
rest of it. The problem for expertise is similar: the focus on expertise as the posses-
sion of a subject matter (and its acquisition, legitimation, social role, and so on)
may make it difficult to see types of expertise, not as dimensions of an ideal type
but as members of an extended family.
Our argument for expanding our perspective on expertise benefits from this
insight, in that the family resemblance of varied problems, to which enactments of
expertise relate, leaves the idea of “expertise” as a heuristic intact, while maintain-
ing possibilities for enactments of expertise that in their reference to what legiti-
mizes them as “expert” vary widely. Thus, in some contexts expertise can only
come from certification, in others it requires knowledge, in others training, in oth-
ers it is grounded in personal values, and so forth.
The second question is less easily resolved. If the extension of expertise-as-
practice into the social space adds in principle pragmatic use-value to particular
enactments of expertise, then how can the expertise of the non-traditional oncol-
ogist, the couple making a decision about keeping the unborn child with a
genetic condition, the spouse choosing between continuing or withdrawing her
partner’s life support, or the patient uncertain about the net benefits of invasive
chemotherapy in actuality be translated into the social space? Wittgenstein’s
counterfactual condition provides few answers, albeit by design; waving one’s
hand at a diversity of practices and uses is philosophically exciting, but rings
hollow pragmatically. Yet, the question is pressing, and multifaceted. Should rea-
sons given by these people as to why they make the choices they end up making
be intelligible to all, or only to others facing similar decisions? What are the
structural and symbolic barriers for these people to assert their expertise in mak-
ing a decision they are, ultimately, tasked with making? How can they translate
their particular reasons for making a decision in their particular case to a public
group? These are not questions easily answered by our Wittgensteinian perspec-
tive of expertise. But they are questions introduced by this perspective, and we
believe relevant to the continued development of an understanding of expertise
that encompasses the family of expertises that can be brought to bear on a given
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The importance of considering expertise from the kind of Wittgensteinian perspec-
tive we outlined here can be found in the examples we used in the essay, as well as a
range of other situations. In the end, we are less concerned with advocating the
adoption of a strictly Wittgensteinian perspective per se—a concern that would, after
all, be rather un-Wittgensteinian in its conceptual rigidity. We are, however, con-
cerned with advocating a recognition of the pragmatic purchase on actual problems
a Wittgensteinian sensibility provides in discussions of expertise. This is particularly
true in situations where the people who need to make a difficult decision—who by
legal fiat, moral imperative, social mores, or cultural convention are charged with
making an ultimate and final choice on a complex matter—do not possess or have
access to the epistemic principles that traditionally confer expertise. This is not to
say that such situations cannot, sometimes, benefit (through counsel, etc.) from the
kinds of expertise that originate from the epistemic register. But in situations where
people are charged with ultimately making a decision without recourse to letting
others make the decision on their behalf, the preferences, values, or plans of these
people come to play a critical part in making a choice. Disregarding this kind of deci-
sion-making from a conceptualization of expertise can only result in one of two
views: either, we agree that it is acceptable for people to make certain difficult and
far-reaching decisions from a position of non-expertise, thereby acquiescing to the
understanding that any one of these decisions could have been stronger had it come
from a position of expertise and that, thus, responsibility or blame for potential neg-
ative outcomes rest with the decision-makers only; or, the people in these complex
situations should not be given the autonomy to make a decision, or their autonomy
should be limited.
To illustrate the perils of either viewpoint, we offer the following example from a
2006 New York Times story.
Drew Highmead of suburban Philadelphia knew he car-
ried a genetic mutation that already had killed many members of his family. He also
knew that he and his wife wanted a child, and research and consultations with
genetic counselors told them that his probability of passing on the genetic mutation
was 50%, that the mutation increased the chance for developing colon cancer
roughly 20-fold, that the mutation could cause cancer around the age of 45, and that
someone developing cancer from this mutation would have about a 90% chance of
survival if the cancer was caught early enough. The Highmeads knew that for a little
more than $25,000, in vitro fertilization and a procedure called Preimplantation
Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) allowed them to select an eight-cell embryo that would not
carry the genetic mutation, and they knew they would have to do so at the expense
of a number of other embryos.
What the Highmeads knew were the interconnected hierarchies of scientifically
validated odds and qualifiers on the one hand, and the personally lived experience of
losing another family member to colon cancer on the other hand. What the special-
ized expertise of physicians and counselors alone could not tell them was whether
they should go through with PGD. The Highmeads had to enact a particular type of
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expertise: they had to judge the problem not from a grounds of personal values that
could be contrasted to scientific expertise (where the latter provides value-neutral
data unattached to advice or judgment), but from a place of expertise that meshes
their expertise with that of the specialized physicians and counselors. Thus, to make
that choice, the Highmeads (and others who want to make use of this or other com-
plex technologies) needed to balance within a rational framework technical expertise
with a personal expertise that weighs one’s values, beliefs, interests, and emotions
against various tradeoffs and outcomes. They needed, for example, to balance techni-
cal uncertainty against conditions generative of personal guilt, as illustrated by the
following excerpts (from the “Highmead” case as well as other, similar ones drawn
from the same article):
Couples like the [Highmeads], by contrast, face an even more complex calibration.
They must weigh whether their desire to prevent suffering that is not certain to occur
justified the conscious selection of an embryo and the implicit rejection of those that
carry the defective gene.
“I couldn’t imagine them telling me my daughter has cancer”, he said, “when I could
have stopped it.”
As Ms. [Jonas] prepares for her eggs to be extracted next month, she has nightmares
that the child she selects will drown in a swimming pool, as opposed to a child chosen
by fate, who might carry the cancer-risk gene but would have been a good swimmer.
“At least I know I’ve done whatever I can do with the information I have,” said
Ms. [Jonas], an adjunct lecturer in women’s studies at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology. “I can’t control everything.”
In other instances, individuals balance personal values against the recalcitrance of
To do it, they had to overcome their own misgivings about meddling with nature.
They had to listen to religious concerns of Mr. [Highmead’s] family and to the insis-
tence of Ms. [Highmead] that the expense and physical demands of in vitro fertiliza-
tion were not worth it, given that the couple could probably not get pregnant without
it. They had to stop asking themselves the unanswerable question of whether a cure
would be found by the time their child grew up.
For many couples, going to such lengths to ensure that a child will be born free of a
predisposition to a certain kind of cancer is anathema. Breast and colon cancer, the
two most common cancers for which genetic susceptibility tests are available, can be
detected early and are often treatable, and even those who die of them often lead long
and productive lives.
Another consideration emerges out of social and cultural conventions, where certi-
fied expertise can offer suggestions and solutions that then need to be weighed
against cultural norms and standards of acceptability and correctness:
More young patients are finding that their answer lies in trading natural conception
for the degree of scientific control offered by the procedure. And if the growing
Social Epistemology 287
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interest in screening for cancer risk signals an expanded tolerance for genetic selection,
geneticists and fertility experts say it may well be accompanied by the greater use of
[...] the burden of selection weighs heavily. [...], who carries the BRCA1 breast can-
cer mutation, said her partner had initially described preimplantation diagnosis as a
“pact with the devil.”
Or, in another range of cases, people may need to balance culturally charged ideo-
logical values against their personal values. The radically different yet rational and
intelligible choices that emerge out of these complex deployments of expertise, in
both the previous and the following example, illustrate the centrality of “use” and
The woman said she suspected that the prevailing unease over genetic selection and
the question of when life begins also kept doctors from suggesting P.G.D. “Those val-
ues should not be dictating recommendations by doctors,” said the woman.
For many couples, preimplantation diagnosis is an appealing option precisely because
it does not require terminating a pregnancy, a step that is common after an amniocen-
tesis reveals that a fetus has a severe genetic disease but is essentially unheard of for
predisposition to common cancers.
But some people who believe life begins with conception think P.G.D. is as unethical
as abortion and perhaps more pernicious because it is psychologically less burdensome.
Unused embryos may be frozen indefinitely, skirting one moral issue, but at a cost of
several hundred dollars a year.
Similarly, conceptions of “family” require reconciliation among those affected
(among other considerations, whether or not unborn members of a family should
be considered “family”):
But the same knowledge makes others who carry the mutations take particular offense
at the selection procedure, which they say implies that they themselves, and many
members of their family, should never have existed. It raises the specter of eugenics,
they say, in the most personal terms. “It’s like children are admitted to a family only if
they pass the test”, said [...], 32, a teacher who tested positive for a BRCA mutation.
“It’s like, ‘If you have a gene, we don’t want you; if you have the potential to develop
cancer, you can’t be in our family’.”
In sum, people need to answer difficult questions that may be informed by exper-
tise in the epistemic register, but that are ultimately decided by expertise that
weighs certified knowledge, not against conceptual principles but against the
intractable characteristics of a particular situation. Should parents like the “High-
meads” choose whether to admit one embryo over a number of others to their
family based solely on its genetic makeup? From the ones that returned negative,
which one should they select? Should they act against their own concerns as well
as the religious, financial, and physical concerns of their families for the luxury of
making choices for an unborn, non-existent being? Should they favor the benefits
288 Z. P. Ma jdik and W. M. Keith
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of genetics for one individual over the risks and harms to a larger group? When
offered, should they add another test (e.g. for Down syndrome at an estimated cost
of $2000, eliminating more embryos)? Where should they draw the line in design-
ing and engineering their unborn child, and should they exclusively consider what
is best for the child, best for them, or best as a social and legal precedent? If they
choose to go through with PGD, should they re-screen the 16-week-old fetus
because the chance of PGD having failed is as high as 3%? If so, what would they
do if the PGD had indeed failed? If the genetic mutation was not for colon but
instead for breast cancer, would they select the gender of the unborn child based
on its lower probability for a specific cancer? And how will they tell the child they
choose the story of how it came to be born?
In our complex late-modern society, questions like these are not uncommon.
The increasing availability of technologies to lay people exposes us to technical and
moral risks, demanding decisions that have long-term impacts. The range of these
risks, the range of the quandaries we can find ourselves in, and the range of signifi-
cant decisions that need to be made suggest that there is space for more than one
kind of expertise. For the “Highmeads,” “the burden of playing God has been
trumped by the near certainty” of their child’s cancer-free life (Harmon 2006). They
chose to use PGD, chose to test for Down syndrome as well, and when she is going
to be old enough they will choose to tell their daughter about the circumstances of
her life. Others may decide differently. In any case, parents’ moral and practical
expertises interact with the medical and biological expertise of their doctors.
A priori, there is little ground to judge one of these parental decisions as more
valid than the other. This is where a Wittgensteinian view of expertise gains trac-
tion. “Expertise” as a concept cannot be reconciled by only one shared principle.
As a consequence, it is not comprehensible in a conceptual definition, but only in
its varied uses and enactments. We suggest, in other words, that there is not—even
deep down on a conceptual level—one kind of expertise, but kinds of expertise
that resonate with kinds of problems. In the context of some problems, expertise
is practiced from principles that differ significantly from other kinds of expertise
used in the context of other problems. This leaves ample space for expertise inside
the epistemic registers of knowledge possession, acquisition, or relations: without
doubt a significant type of expertise of increasing relevance. But it does not limit
expertise to these registers.
[1] While this anti-foundationalism is a familiar idea in postmodernism—from the logocen-
tric fallacy to the rhizome—and could be developed in several ways, we consider Wittgen-
stein’s articulation as particularly apposite for our purposes.
[2] See Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics: “All matters of conduct belong to the class of particular
and ultimate things” (Aristotle 2004, VI.xi.3).
[3] Names and locations are changed in our version of the story. The example is drawn from
the dissertation of this essay’s first author.
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Aristotle. 2004. The Nicomachean ethics. Translated by J. A. K. Thomson and H. Tredennick.
London: Penguin Books.
Collins, H.M. 1992. Artificial experts. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Garsten, B. 2006. Saving persuasion: A defense of rhetoric and judgment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press.
Habermas, J. 1984. The theory of communicative action. Vol. 1. Translated by T. McCarthy.
Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Harmon, A. 2006. Couples cull embryos to halt heritage of cancer. New York Times, 3 September
[cited 3 September 2006]. Available from
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Hartelius, E.J. 2011. The rhetoric of expertise. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Jonsen, A.R., and S. Toulmin. 1988. The abuse of casuistry: A history of moral reasoning. Berkeley:
University of California Press.
Luntley, M. 2003. Wittgenstein: Meaning and judgment. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Wittgenstein, L. 1953. Philosophical investigations. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. New York:
The Macmillan Company.
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... Majdik and Platt's "Fight or Flight: X the Question of Expertise" explores public reactions to the deployment of a new airport scanning techno public that x-ray backscatter machines were safe, but their rollout resulted in sudden, vehement, and strong public counter Notably, these protests occurred even though highly invasive security scanning had become a staple of air travel since 9/11. The authors investigate what this controversy meant for our understanding, use, and practice of expertise (see also Majdik & Keith, 2011a, 2011b. Whereas Majdik and Platt address a controversy about competing visions of expertise, Mehta's "Precaution Ascendant: Implications of Precautionary Rhetoric on Public Understanding of Science at the Local and National Scales" focuses on rhetorical strategies that leave no role at all, even in theory, for expertise. ...
... Notably, these protests occurred even though highly invasive security ad become a staple of air travel since 9/11. The authors investigate what this controversy meant for our understanding, use, and practice of expertise (see also Majdik & Keith, 2011a, 2011b. Whereas Majdik and Platt address a controversy about competing isions of expertise, Mehta's "Precaution Ascendant: Implications of Precautionary Rhetoric on Public Understanding of Science at the Local and National Scales" focuses on rhetorical strategies that leave no role at all, even in theory, for expertise. ...
... Some of Goldman's critics (e.g., Coady 2006, Scholz 2009) accept his general strategy of reaching a satisfactory definition of an expert through conceptual analysis, but question some-or, every-condition of his account. Others reject the methodology of Goldman's project and suggest alternative strategies for analysing the notion of an expert, such as a Wittgensteinian family-resemblance route (Majdik and Keith 2011), Edward Craig's practical explication approach (Quast 2018), and Nelson Goodman's symptom approach (Scholz 2018). In this paper, taking up insights from these approaches and from Goldman's most recent attempt to "advance a definition of expertise that … is in roughly the same territory of some of his critics" (2018: 3), I will demonstrate that a conceptual analysis still has an important contribution to make. ...
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