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Beyond Civility: The Competing Obligations of Citizenship

From the pundits to the polls, nearly everyone seems to agree that US politics have rarely been more fractious, and calls for a return to “civil discourse” abound. Yet it is also true that the requirements of polite discourse effectively silence those who are not in power, gaming the system against the disenfranchised. What, then, should a democracy do?

This book makes a case for understanding civility in a different light. Examining the history of the concept and its basis in communication and political theory, William Keith and Robert Danisch present a clear, robust analysis of civil discourse. Distinguishing it from politeness, they claim that civil argument must be redirected from the goal of political comity to that of building and maintaining relationships of minimal respect in the public sphere.


They also take into account how civility enables discrimination, indicating conditions under which uncivil resistance is called for. When viewed as a communication practice for uniting people with differences and making them more equal, civility is transformed from a preferable way of speaking into an essential component of democratic life.

Guarding against uncritical endorsement of civility as well as skepticism, Keith and Danisch show with rigor, nuance, and care that the practice of civil communication is both paradoxical and sorely needed. Beyond Civility is necessary reading for our times.


“In a much needed and thought-provoking study, William Keith and Robert Danisch examine the concepts of civility and incivility, offering both critique and justification for civility as a norm of political discourse. They reconceive civility as a kind of discourse that can help us solve political problems in a way that is more equal, less conditioned by economic, political, or social power, and more respectful of mutual humanity. This study offers a timely assessment of our broken public sphere.”


—Jennifer Mercieca, coeditor of The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations: Establishing the Obama Presidency

“One consequence of the current challenges to democracy is reconsideration of democratic institutions, norms, and habits. Beyond Civility is a model for how that can be done. While engaging strong critiques of the concept, Keith and Danisch demonstrate why [civility] remains an important commitment for both political sustainability and progressive change. By focusing on its paradoxical character, they show how civility and incivility negotiate deep problems of relationality. This is a thoughtful study of public communication for this turbulent time.”

—Robert Hariman, author of Political Style: The Artistry of Power

“William Keith and Robert Danisch offer a provocative and interesting take on democracy as a ‘wicked problem.’”

—Mary E. Stuckey, author of Voting Deliberatively: FDR and the 1936 Presidential Campaign

“Beyond Civility is a defense of civility and an argument for its centrality to democratic culture. It engages in topics that will be of great interest to rhetorical scholars. The authors’ breakdown of civility into weak/strong/pseudo and the argument stances in the ‘theater’ of public discourse are novel and important.”

—Jeremy Engels, author of The Politics of Resentment: A Genealogy

“Challenging the regular hand-wringing over a decline of civility in public discourse, William Keith and Robert Danisch take political divisiveness as a given in Beyond Civility: The Competing Obligations of Citizenship.”

—Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Ed

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What Effect Have I Had?

This is a book about communication practices and how to become a better partner, teammate, writer, speaker, and leader by improving your communication skills. The book makes the argument that communication is not a matter of transmitting information from one place to another. Instead, communication is a practice of producing effects on others. Once we start to ask: “What effect have I had?” we’ll be in a better position to improve our communication skills in a range of settings. By suggesting that we ask “what-effect-have-I-had-?”, Danisch shifts perspective on the kinds of questions, commitments, and interests that condition our understanding of communication and shows that once we change perspective in this manner then our sense of what a good communication practice is changes as well. Therefore, we ought to seek out practices that have the effects that we want, not practices that will help transmit our message from one location to another. We should think about what draws people to us and do more of that. The research seems to indicate pretty clearly what some of those practices are.

Pragmatism, Democracy, and the Necessity of Rhetoric

In Pragmatism, Democracy, and the Necessity of Rhetoric, Robert Danisch examines the search by America’s first generation of pragmatists for a unique set of rhetorics that would serve the needs of a developing democracy. Digging deep into pragmatism’s historical development, Danisch sheds light on its association with an alternative but significant and often overlooked tradition. He draws parallels between the rhetorics of such American pragmatists as John Dewey and Jane Addams and those of the ancient Greek tradition. Danisch contends that, while building upon a classical foundation, pragmatism sought to determine rhetorical responses to contemporary irresolutions.

Danisch highlights the similarities between pragmatism and classical rhetoric, including pragmatism’s rejection of philosophy with its traditional assumptions and practices. Grounding his argument on an alternative interpretation of pragmatism and its antifoundationalist commitments, he discusses the need to find appropriate rhetorics for American democracy and to delineate the intellectual conditions for the realization of such rhetorics.

Danisch suggests that first-generation pragmatists articulated an orientation to the world that necessitates the practice of rhetoric. To establish such claims, he addresses William James’s philosophy of pluralism, Dewey’s attention to the practical arts, Addams’s belief in a social democracy, Alain Locke’s celebration of African American art, and Oliver Wendell Holmes’s judicial decisions. In each instance Danisch shows how different iterations of pragmatism point to and recommend the development of unique rhetorics capable of shaping particular forms of democratic life.


“Robert Danisch has given us a terrific book that will be of interest to a variety of scholars working in classical rhetoric and pragmatism, and those interested in the ways pragmatism and rhetorical theory can be brought together to inform ongoing efforts to revitalize democratic communication. This book proves that the uniquely American history of pragmatism is a goldmine of fascinating and important ideas not yet fully appreciated.”  

-Edward Schiappa, Paul W. Frenzel Chair of Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota


“In this suggestive study, Robert Danisch proceeds in typically pragmatist fashion, combining old ideas with new in order to achieve consequential results toward meeting our current intellectual and political challenges. Danisch usefully helps us think through the relations of rhetorical strategy to pragmatist principle and of classical rhetorical traditions to contemporary turns in neopragmatism. This is a welcome contribution to rhetorical pragmatism and its ongoing effort to promote sustainable cultures of democratic politics.” 

- Steven J. Mailloux, professor of English and Chancellor’s Professor of Rhetoric, University of California, Irvine


“This valuable and wide-ranging study creatively rereads the pragmatist tradition and brings it into contact with rhetorical theory. Robert Danisch reanimates sophistic and Aristotelian categories and convincingly argues that rhetoric completes the pragmatist philosophical projects of William James and John Dewey. In a particularly exciting series of chapters, Danisch goes on to show how Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jane Addams, and Alain Locke remake judicial, deliberative, and epideictic rhetoric in ways fitting for a large-scale, heterogeneous democracy. The book enriches our understanding of both pragmatism and rhetoric.”

- Peter Simonson, University of Colorado, Boulder

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Building a Social Democracy

Building a Social Democracy offers an alternative intellectual history of American pragmatism, one that tries to reclaim the middle of the twentieth century in order to push neo-pragmatism beyond its philosophical limitations. Danisch argues that the major entailment of the invention of American pragmatism at the beginning of the twentieth century is that rhetorical practices are the rightful object of study and means of improving democratic life. Pragmatism entails a commitment to rhetoric. Rhetorical pragmatism is intended to be more faithful to the project of first generation pragmatism, to offer insight into the ways in which rhetoric operates in contemporary democratic cultures, to recommend practices, methods, and modes of action for improving contemporary democratic cultures, and to subordinate philosophy to rhetoric by reimagining appropriate ways for pragmatist scholarship and social research to advance.


“In this accessible yet learned study, Robert Danisch provides a stimulating account of the relationship—in theory and, he hopes, in practice—between the traditions of rhetoric and pragmatism and the flourishing of a democratic public conversation marked by inclusive participation and social hope. Beginning with a distinction between philosophical and rhetorical pragmatism, Danisch offers acute analyses of the major figures in pragmatist thought and shows how by remaining largely on the level of theory, several of them (including me) block the realization of the political/social program implicit in the writings of Dewey and James. A must read for students of rhetoric and American philosophy.”

– Stanley Fish, Florida International University and Benjamin Cardozo Law School


“Robert Danisch brings together a deep understanding of both pragmatist philosophy and rhetorical theory with a clear and persuasive account of politics as a social democracy. Danisch uses pragmatism and pragmatists to offer the grounds for a political theory of rhetoric which transcends strategy and function, and shows the path to a rhetoric which is at once constitutive and primed for action.”

– William Keith, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, author of Democracy as Discussion: Civic Education and the American Forum Movement, Lexington Books


“Danisch performs intellectual alchemy, changing the philosophical questions of recent pragmatism into the gold of rhetorical concepts vital to the pursuit of a flourishing democracy. Majestic in its scope, his book represents a prescient reminder that how we have received pragmatism is not the only way to think through its complexities and potentials. Put simply, Building a Social Democracy is one of the most useful and thought-provoking works to emerge out of the meeting of the pragmatist and rhetorical traditions.”

– Scott R. Stroud, University of Texas at Austin

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