The endless political debates, arguments, accusations, and rants filling up our airwaves have worn down many of us. Personally, as I am on the eve of my annual Maine vacation, I look forward to a break from all of it. Even as I admit this, I also know that we have had earlier times when politics seemed mired in such murky depths. More importantly, every day every one of us are engaged in arguing about everything from politics to sports to religion, and the list continues.
Arguing can be exhausting and often seem pointless. However, there are other ways of looking at this. Stanley Fish, Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn’t Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom (New York: Harper, 2016), is a thought-provoking discourse on the nature of argument, and a timely one at that. Fish, the prolific legal scholar and humanist, gives us an assessment of the value of argument and how we should view it. No matter what practical insight one might draw from this book, we are reminded that our world is one of arguing, about everything and at all times. Fish suggests that we not try to avoid such discussion, but that we embrace it in ways that might produce positive ends.
The strength of Fish’s book, indeed of most of his books, is his clear writing, supplemented by numerous examples from a wide range of scholarship, current events, and popular culture. While presidential politics were not far from my mind, I was most interested in how Fish examines academic arguments, my daily environment Fish notes that the “basic economy of the academy” is as follows: “you advance and prosper to the extent that the solutions you offer to intellectual puzzles are found persuasive and are subsequently credited to as their originator. Promotions, honors, and influence follow” (p. 162). That’s a pretty good description of life in the academy, except that it’s missing the focus on generating revenue that seems to be a necessary part of the modern corporate university. Fish also handles, delicately, the issues the academy will not debate, such as Holocaust deniers, and grapples with the broader question of whether academic arguments matter all that much (I’ll let you decide what he concludes).