Words Matter, Whatever Stanley Fish Says

Review: Stanley Fish, 'Winning Arguments: What Works and What Doesn’t Work in Politics, The Bedroom, The Courtroom, and The Classroom'

November 12, 2016

I wish publishers could be sued for false advertising. They, and not the authors, are typically the ones that slap titles on books in an attempt to make them market-friendly. Yet frequently the titles seem like a bait-and-switch, enticing you to buy an entirely different book than the one you brought home. Such a bait-and-switch is Stanley Fish’s newest turn as a public intellectual. His career as a bad boy academic began in the 1970s and 80s (after a more predictable start with work on Milton, to whom he returns in the book in hand) with something called Is There a Text in This Class? that everybody, just everybody, in academic circles was talking about, and that made the intellectually squishy notion of "interpretive communities" one of the phrases du jour in English professor circles.

What the publishers decided to call his newest book is silly: Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn’t Work in Politics, The Bedroom, The Courtroom, and The Classroom. Be warned: there is nothing in this book that tells the reader how to win arguments. Or even that can tell you which arguments will win. Instead, it’s a light version of the younger academic Fish, whose point then was that people will never agree about the book they have read, and who now wants us to see that we will never win the arguments we want so dearly to win. Not in politics. Not in the bedroom (the title even gets in some sex, which is completely absent in this book). Not in the courtroom. And though most of us don’t care about the classroom, there either. As Fish has it so cutely, speaking to the reader: "So repeat after me: argument is everywhere, argument is unavoidable, argument is all we have."

Actually only the first two of Fish's three assertions here are true. Argument is not in fact all we have; we can figure out why we disagree and put down the gloves. The book is dedicated to Richard Rorty, whose work is summarized thusly: "There is no such thing as a non-discursive access to truth." Sigh. That’s the post-modern Fish, the one who insisted that there was no such thing as an accurate reading of a literary text, but only the view of the group you belong to. So now of course he’s arguing that argument goes on forever. His argument is that people don’t change their minds, and he’s Exhibit A.

What he thinks is his shocker is this: "Argument is the medium we swim in." We’ll never get to the point where we don’t argue. So this book is an appreciative jog through various arguments, smiling and non-judgmental. As Fish notes in one of his chapter dividers, "Evidence Doesn’t Do It." Arguments aren’t about rationality, so those who think they will take somebody down with rationality are out to lunch. (I have to admit a real weakness for this point, as academics are prone to thinking that they can bludgeon others into silence by mere logic.)

Certainly Fish is right that words don’t win arguments. What he doesn’t talk about is the fact that something does. We are swayed by many things: the physical attractiveness of the person talking, our sexual relation to them (we may give in to our spouse for reasons unrelated to how rational or compelling his or her argument might be), and whether we need to curry favor to get a job, among many others. But Fish is logocentric, which is unsurprising given that he started as a literature professor: word-centered. So he assumes the primacy of words even while he’s arguing for their impotence—which, in a nutshell, is the nature of his now-outmoded post-modernism.

The problem with the notion of "interpretive communities" (all this was back in the day when literary theory was a concept to be reckoned with, whereas now it’s dead) was that any person can at the same time be a member of many groups: how do we know which one defines his or her interpretive community? Now, the idea that books are read by "interpretive communities" doesn’t hold water. Yet Fish built a career on the insistence that there was in fact no "text" (in the sense of fixable entity) in the class, just as Richard Rorty built an intellectual career on the insistence that truth was something that was always relative. Sure. But some relatives are better than others. Now let’s move on, please. The post-modern theorists never did.

Of course it’s true that words don’t convince people. This point is dear to my heart as a professor at the US Naval Academy, now in my 30th year. The fact that words don't always persuade is why we have a military that shoots people. But as Clausewitz points out, war is part of a larger set of interactions which include diplomacy, which is to say words. Words are part of the arsenal. And sometimes they work—which means fewer of my students coming home in a box. Words aren’t merely amusement, as Fish seems to think.

I never liked the gleeful nihilism of the heyday of literature theory, based on Nietzsche, Derrida, and Foucault, that absolutely everybody had to subscribe to in order to get a hearing in the 80s and 90s in academia. I even explained why in a book about why arguments seem so intractable: Why Liberals and Conservatives Clash. My theory is related to that of the Berkeley philosopher George Lakoff, who points out that disagreements in surface issues (eg. abortion, gay marriage, immigration) come from divergences in underlying presuppositions. Articulating the "you say potayto, I say potahto" nature of our basic divergences can cause us to put down our boxing gloves.

Conservative ethics is expressed in actions (of which the favorite is the "thou shalt nots" of the Ten Commandments) whereas liberal ethics is expressed in terms of actors. So if a conservative and a liberal are asked if I may steal this loaf of bread, the conservative responds in terms of the action—thou shalt not steal; the liberal asks what the circumstances of the actor are. Is my family starving? Who owns the bread? Is this the first time? Thus liberals are prone to talk and conservatives aren’t. This exasperates conservatives. But if they see it as a structural difference, it might not. It’s going to happen every time, just the way a Bahstun Yankee is going to talk differently from a Geogiah boy. Live with it.

Similarly, the Georgetown linguist Deborah Tannen, whom Fish criticizes, argues that men see things differently than women. The idea ought to be congenial to Fish’s notion of "interpretive communities": what are the presuppositions that underlie your response? And then, if you have to get along, you just laugh and go on, given that you’ve left the realm of argument completely. Yet Fish thinks Tannen commits the error of thinking that male/female arguments can be resolved—the liberal error that I too find silly. But actually Tannen doesn’t have that effect, at least not in my household. When I find myself doing what Tannen says men do, namely trying to solve problems (because that’s what men do), and my wife finds herself doing what Tannen says women do, namely merely seeking sympathy for their plight, we both laugh and agree that we’re having a "Deborah Tannen moment." And then go fix dinner.

So no. Understanding the layer below the surface difference doesn’t win the argument. Fish is certainly right about that. But going to the level of presuppositions does stop the argument. It makes clear what can’t be resolved and why. And in politics it could work the same way—not that I expect this to happen in the near-term.

Fish is fun when he shows how successful arguers play another card entirely than the one their opponents think they are supposed to play: he likes people who cut the Gordian knot. So do I, because it shows how important words actually are. One side will always try to limit its opponents to moves the other side cannot win with—a sort of game of chess. Inventive arguing involves re-defining the possible moves. That’s how gay marriage, once a contradiction in terms, won the day, and simply became "marriage." Or how any successful legal argument carries the day. Fish’s strongest moments here are in considering these re-boots of the issues.

But when one argument wins, it’s not because of the words. It’s because of a thousand other things: people are ready to change, the world is different, nobody cares, somebody cares enough and is very vocal indeed. Words are only one small part of the world: that’s the real take-home point of this book, but it’s not one Fish offers.

Published under: Book reviews