'Winning Arguments' Brings Political Rhetoric to Daily Life

By Romeo, Nick | The Christian Science Monitor, August 3, 2016 | Go to article overview

'Winning Arguments' Brings Political Rhetoric to Daily Life


Romeo, Nick, The Christian Science Monitor


Donald Trump has inspired many vivid comparisons during his most unusual presidential campaign. He has been likened to a toddler, Hitler, a third-grader, Mussolini, and a sea turtle, among other things. However disparate these items might seem, they are united by what each is not: a fully rational human adult.

A new book by Stanley Fish makes a surprising addition to the bestiary of Trump metaphors: Michel de Montaigne, the Renaissance intellectual and essayist. Fish sees in both Trump and Montaigne an artfully crafted facade of artlessness. "I'm not of superior intelligence, Montaigne is telling his audience; I'm not coming at you with canned points; I'm just telling you what I think," Fish writes. Similarly, "Trump tells his audience 'I don't use teleprompters, I just speak from the heart.'"

Despite the promise of its title - Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn't Work in Politics, The Bedroom, The Courtroom, and The Classroom - Fish's odd little book is not a study of rhetoric so much as a defense of his view that reality is rhetoric. This position, first developed by the ancient Greek Sophists, denies that there are any objective standards of reason that can ever decisively resolve arguments. There is no bedrock truth about anything, simply a swirl of language and argument where the more persuasive prevails. "There is nothing to the side of argument - no cleared space of thought, science, calculation, or revelation - that will provide us with an independent measure for assessing its validity." This is the world in which Trump and Montaigne are alike.

Is this in fact the world we inhabit? Fish would reject the appeal to fact in the previous question because the existence of such a stable epistemic ground is precisely what he denies. We are, in his words, "limited creatures who can only see through a glass darkly, and will never experience a face-to-face encounter with the Real." If this is the case, then Fish has no secure basis to make his relativist assertion - all the evidence he might offer in its support would be slanted, partial, and hopelessly removed from any essential truth. And this defeats his entire project. Given his initial premise, we might with equal legitimacy prefer just the opposite account - one in which we can access certain objective knowledge. Like the Sophists in antiquity, Fish snares himself in a self-refuting argument: if we take seriously his statement that no truths exist, then the claim will also apply to itself.

This observation about the self-defeating nature of an extreme form of relativism dates back to one of Plato's most brilliant dialogues, the "Theaetetus." More recently, the intricacies of self- refuting propositions have been explored by philosophers John Searle and Hilary Putnam and the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, to name only a few. Fish is either unaware of this broad literature on mind and reality or strategically loath to consider it. Either way, the omission impoverishes his book.

Other elements of his arguments are more persuasive. He devotes considerable space to documenting various intractable debates in which agreement between opposing sides does indeed seem impossible. Analyzing what feels all-too-familiar during a campaign season, he describes the mental mechanics of these impasses: "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. …

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