Author: Stanley Fish'

Publisher: HarperCollins

ISBN: 978-0-06-222665-5

Prolific Stanley Fish, perhaps best known for How to Write a Sentence (which I reviewed in this blog), has just published his eighteenth book, Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn't Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom. 

The title is a double entendre. It could mean "here's how to win arguments" or it could mean "here are arguments that win." The jacket flap copy author took the latter meaning: ". . .  Stanley Fish . . . reveals how successful argument can be used to win over popular opinion." Actually, it doesn't.

Indeed, Fish argues (you'll excuse the word) persuasively that a successful argument only provokes further argument. "Argument could produce certainty only if we lived in a world where a settled dispute stays settled because its resolution has been accomplished by a measure everyone accepts and accepts permanently." But, as he points out, we don't live in that world. 

Rather than tell readers how to frame their arguments for maximum effect, Fish does something much more interesting. He indicates why no argument is going to persuade a Trump supporter or a Clinton supporter to change. No scientific data will persuade a climate-change denier that it is real or man-made. No husband's entirely reasonable defense of working late will ease his wife's feelings of abandonment. No academically certified Holocaust denier will find a job teaching a university that prides itself on being open to all ideas, even the most abhorrent. 

Fish, who is a professor of law at two universities, does point out that it is possible to win an argument in a court of law, but it's not the participants who decide who won. It's a judge or a jury. (The same is true in an academic setting in a formal debate.) In a courtroom, unlike in a political debate, in a bedroom, or in a classroom, formal rules constrain what can be used in one's argument. No discussion of a criminal defendant's character for example. But even a decision of the US Supreme Court can be overturned (eventually). After all as Chief Justice Taney wrote in 1857, "[Negroes] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit." And a civil war, not argument, changed that decision. 

Rather than explaining how to win an argument or providing examples of winning arguments, this relatively short book helps the reader (this reader at least) understand the function of argument in life, when not to argue (an argument with one's spouse is almost always a bad idea), and how to spot a flawed argument (not that it would change your mind anyway). 

Fish gives an example of this last point: In any issue involving science—smoking/cancer, human activity/global warming, immunization/autism, evolution/intelligent design—there can be no absolute and conclusive answer. A research consensus "is merely the present thinking of fallible men and women." New evidence or discovering a flaw in the source data can always disrupt the consensus. (Too bad for those who want clear, unambiguous conclusions.) Therefore the consensus should not be the basis for action. I.e., we shouldn't spend money to discourage smoking or regulate acid rain until there's conclusive evidence that smoking causes cancer, human activity causes global warming, immunizing children causes autism, and more and more and more. 

But! But! But! We've just argued that, for a scientific question, the evidence is never all in. As Fish writes, "if incomplete evidence is the inevitable condition of inquiry, you can't cite the incompleteness of evidence as a reason for failing to act on the evidence that is in." 

Much as I enjoyed Winning Arguments, I would have enjoyed it more if it had an index and a bibliography. Fish bases some of his points heavily on other works and it would have been handy to have them easily available. Still, the book is a provocative and fascinating discussion of an important topic.