Learning Skills

Definition Based Arguments


Web Resources for This Assignment

For General Education 110

Confucius and Democracy Internet Discussion

Arguments that Use Definitions   We have already discussed the nature of complex definitions; these are concepts or terms that involve do not have a single, unvarying definition, such as "freedom" or "democracy." The definitions of these terms vary over time and across cultures; yet we still often use these terms in arguments, sometimes without defining them. When, however, we use a definition of a term, rather than the term itself, as the basis for an argument, this is called a "definition-based argument."

   Definition-based arguments identify terms or concepts that vary widely in meaning and commit the argument to either a baseline definition or one of the many variants of the term. A baseline definition is a definition that the author of the argument asserts as a definition of a term that crosses all the uses of the term. Using a baseline definition hinges on the reader or listener agreeing with this assertion; if the reader or listener does not accept the baseline definition as either accurate or universal, then the argument falls down.

   Using one of the specific variants of a definition (say, what "freedom" means to Martin Luther versus what "freedom" means to us), commits you to making an argument. For instance, if you were to talk about American democracy, then your definition of democracy would be entirely based on the nature of American government (representative democracy) which is an entirely different concept and practice than Greek democracy (the Greeks would not consider American government to be a democracy but rather an oligarchy). Use of a variant definition allows you more detail in your definition, but also severely limits the universal applicability of your definition.


The Assignment

For General Education 110

   I want you to re-examine your work on Confucius and democracy. When you applied Confucian thought to constructing a democractic government, chances are you came up with a completely different version of democracy than the one you started with. In this exercise, I'd like you to identify the baseline definition of democracy that underlies your argument. What is your understanding of the universal definition of democracy that you employed in answering this question? After you've done that, I want you to write a paragraph describing the definition of democracy that arises from applying Confucianism to the concept. Does this definition fit into your baseline definition? If not, how would you modify your baseline definition to accomodate the new variant definition that you've come up with? Finally, in a last paragraph, I want you to explain how you would incorporate this newly modified baseline definition directly into your argument on Confucius and democracy (and I want to see baseline definitions in all the work you produce from now on!).

Richard Hooker



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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-29-97