On Fish’s Winning Arguments

The arguments and perspectives of Stanley Fish’s book Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn’t Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom (Harper, 2016) will come as no surprise to those who are familiar with Fish’s more formal academic work. Here, he takes his longstanding antifoundationalism in literary, legal, and cultural interpretation to a popular audience, in a companion piece to his previous How to Write a Sentence. Between them, the two books constitute an engaging introductory rhetoric for contemporary non-academic readers.

This book also represents a kind of popular summation of many of the positions and arguments, both published and pedagogical, of much of the past half-century’s rhetorical scholarship. The ideas of Burke, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, and Toulmin all appear herein, as does the by now familiar figure of Rhetorica from the 15th-century Mantegna Tarot — interpreted in a way that will appear familiar to pretty much any teacher of rhetoric in higher education. Similarly, such popular textbooks as Lunsford and Ruszkiewitz’s Everything’s an Argument appear, along with such familiar literary and classroom texts as Antony’s funeral oration from Julius Caesar, numerous passages from Milton (certainly no surprise in a book by Fish), and Monty Python’s “Argument Clinic.” And of course Fish brings in much of his own past work, such as his concept of “Interpretive Communities.”

To say that there is nothing particularly original in the book’s central ideas is not a critique of it, however: the point of Winning Arguments is not to blaze new scholarly ground but to operate as popular communication of a kind that the humanities could, frankly, use more of. It brings much of the conventional practice and theory of rhetoric as it is currently taught into the public realm, and does so with an eye to helping move the public conversation forward. If the book has a purpose, it is to persuade its nonacademic readers that “argument is the medium we swim in” (2) and that in “a world bereft of transcendence, argument cannot achieve certainty; it can only achieve persuasion” (12). Contra Orwell and Habermas, two thinkers with whom Fish takes specific issue, we cannot achieve pure truth in our thinking either by simplifying our language or purifying our intentions; all we can do is keep arguing, keep negotiating, keep moving, keep muddling through.

This perspective allows Fish to mount some salient and interesting critiques, for example of the erroneous logic of denialism, whether of the harms of tobacco, climate change, or acid rain. The structure of denialism, Fish argues, goes like this: first, note that science’s conclusions are always provisional; second, note that scientific consensus is always just consensus among people; third, claim that action should only be taken when all the evidence is in; and fourth, conclude that therefore nothing should be done at present. The error in this sequence, Fish notes, comes in the fact that step three not only does not follow from but actually contradicts step one: for if it is the case that science is always provisional (and it is), then there is no such thing as all the evidence being in. Step three, which looks as if it is recommending caution, is actually asking for an impossibility in principle. Worse, it is a logical violation of the premises that the denialist himself started out by accepting.

Fish’s logic in such moments is both elegant and, one would hope, useful: if you want to know clearly just why denialism doesn’t make sense, this is why. Similarly cogent is Fish’s explanation of why fringe theories such as Holocaust denial and Oxfordianism don’t wash in the academy: because they are just procedurally and in principle at odds with what the academy does and how it conducts its work. Also impressive is Fish’s thinking on what Nyhan and Reifler call the backfire effect: the way in which contrary evidence can actually reinforce instead of weaken a strongly-held belief. This happens, Fish says, because the evidence always comes in for evaluation in terms of those already-existing beliefs; so that “Rather than listening to and weighing what your opponent says, you hear his words as the surface issue of deep ideological commitments you fear and despise.” (61) The problem, for Fish, always comes down to the uncomfortable reality that there is no objective, godlike neutral ground from which to evaluate evidence or counterclaims. By the time those claims arrive, you can already predict how they will be received if you know the predisposition of the receiver. In an amusing aside, he also points out that this is why alleged revolutions in academic thinking, such as the postmodern project, ended up leaving departmental structures largely unchanged half a century later: if the academy’s institutions are conservative, that is because its ideological predisposition is centred upon self-legitimation, and there is little that can be done about that.

This, however, is also where some of the limitations of Fish’s public communications project come in. Having made his theoretical positions clear early, he then reiterates them in separate chapters on specific areas of argument such as law, academic criticism, and, oddly, marriage. After a while, although it is a short book, repetition does begin to be an issue, which can be a problem for public communication. More problematic can be the way in which Fish downplays or undermines the very utility of his own project. When, for example, he notes correctly that hate speech is a real phenomenon, and that words “can eviscerate you” (23) and should therefore be taken seriously, he offers little in the way of understanding what, if anything, we can do about that. If it is really the case that we are always merely going to be muddling through, and that in a highly ideological and mostly conservative social reality, then what exactly are the public, now given understanding of these rhetorical matters, supposed to do with them? His major piece of advice here is, in essence, hang in there and give yourself a break:

[I]f there is any lesson in this book, it is the lesson that the hope of rationality — the hope that we can master the contingencies of our lives by assessing and cataloging the dangers we would like to avoid — is unlikely to be realized….chances are that the next time you stumble into a crisis…you will perform no better than you did when you were eighteen years old. And if you do perform better (as I hope to do) it will not be because you have mastered an art by reading about it or theorizing it or taking a course in it, but because you’ve been around the track a few times and are finally beginning to get the hang of it. (128)

In a much earlier book, Self-Consuming Artifacts (U of California P, 1972), Fish gives a reading of Augustine’s De doctrina christiana which argues that, in telling the Christian speaker to rely on God for inspiration, Augustine effectively erases the very basis for writing a Christian rhetoric, submitting himself to divine guidance to the point that “the subject — the art of preaching — has been shown not to exist” (Self-Consuming 34). There is an odd way in which Fish’s perspective in this new book mirrors the charge that Fish once levelled against Augustine; for if it is really the case that reading a book about rhetoric won’t help you much with it, then what in the end is the point of Winning Arguments? Fish is well known for his belief (repeated in this book as well) that academic arguments have no point beyond themselves; but surely a popular book such as this is not supposed to function according to that protocol.

Fortunately, Fish’s book is in fact more useful than that (and incidentally, he was wrong about Augustine, who constantly emphasizes the importance of work, not merely prayer, in the mastering of rhetoric). Although his argument is in some danger of itself becoming a self-consuming artifact, eaten by its own insistence on provisionality and the inevitability of ideology, its overall perspective and cogent analyses of contemporary cultural situations from a rhetorical point of view provide a fine and even admirable example of public humanities communication. It should at the least provide a model for more such books by more such scholars.