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Life Arts    H4'ed 8/7/16

Stanley Fish's New Book WINNING ARGUMENTS (Review Essay)

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Now, claiming to speak for God can be interpreted as an ethos appeal (in Aristotle's terminology). Presumably God is the ultimate authority. Today most public speakers in the United States do not explicitly claim to speak for God in the way in which Moses and Amos and other ancient Hebrew prophets did. Nevertheless, the theme of economic justice is alive and well in American political discourse -- for example, in Senator Bernie Sanders' campaign.

Now, in the book Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn't Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom (Harper/ HarperCollins, 2016), the prolific literary critic, law school professor, and public intellectual Stanley Fish develops two basic line of thought, as he himself notes in a handy overview:

(1) "The first thing this book tries to do is explain how argument works in different contexts" (page 1). For example, we have courts of law, and we have the court of public opinion. Of course we also have many other contexts in which we argue.

(2) "I am also engaged [throughout the book] in another project, not quite parallel, but not unrelated either. I am making an argument about argument and its relationship to the human condition" (page 2). By argument, he means "the clash of opposing views" (page 2). No clash of opposing views, no argument.

According to the Wikipedia entry about him, Fish holds a Ph.D. in English from Yale University (1962). Because Ong held a Ph.D. in English from Harvard University (1955), it is in the realm of the possible that Fish may not be entirely unfamiliar with Ong's work. But Fish may be entirely unfamiliar with Lonergan's philosophical masterpiece Insight: A Study of Human Understanding.

In English literary studies Fish established himself as a Milton scholar, and Fish occasionally mentions Milton in Winning Arguments. When Milton was a student at Cambridge University, he studied the French logician Peter Ramus' work in dialectic (also known as logic), written in Latin. Later in his life, Milton wrote in Latin a textbook in dialectic conformed to Ramus' dialectic.

As mentioned above, Ong's massively researched doctoral dissertation was a study of the work of Ramus and his allies and his critics. Later in Ong's life, he and Charles J. Ermatinger of Saint Louis University translated Milton's Logic in volume eight of Yale's Complete Prose Works of John Milton (Yale University Press, 1982, pages 139-407). But Ong is the sole author of the lengthy introduction.

Ong published the essay "Milton's Logical Epic and Evolving Consciousness" in a special issue of the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, volume 120, number 4 (1976): pages 295-305. Then Ong reprinted it, slightly revised, as "From Epithet to Logic: Miltonic Epic" in his book Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture (Cornell University Press, 1977, pages 189-212).

Now, among other things, Fish discusses Deborah Tannen's distinction between debate and dialogue and Gerald Graff's critique of her distinction (page 207). So I want to return here to the full title of Ong's all-important 1958 book Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason, mentioned above. By the Art of Discourse in the subtitle Ong means the art of debate. By the Decay of Dialogue in the main title, Ong means the decay of debate with real or imagined adversaries or adversarial positions. In short, dialogue means debate; debate means dialogue. In Ong's 1958 book, he characterizes following Ramus' method as monologic in spirit because one does not explicitly address real or imagined adversaries or adversarial positions -- so the monologic spirit of following Ramist method is what Ong refers to as the decay of dialogue.

Now, I have no reason to suspect that Pope Francis is familiar with Ong's 1958 book. But Pope Francis likes to encourage dialogue. From what he says, I suspect that he means that dialogue involves debate.

Now, Fish characterizes Aristotle's ethos appeal as "an argument by authority" (page 32 in his characterization of Pope Francis' eco-encyclical), which makes "an argument by authority" sound a wee bit unsavory and pejorative. After all, think of all the critiques of so-called authoritarianism and authoritarian persons.

In fairness, I should also mention that Fish accurately characterizes what Aristotle means by logos, ethos, and pathos on pages 46-47.

Now, whenever I presume to speak aloud, I usually am doing so because I think that I have enough authority about a certain matter at hand to authorize me to speak aloud in the given context. But Fish is an author, so we may wonder if he has enough authority to authorize him to speak and write about argumentation theory. Whether he does or not, he as an author is ineluctably presenting what he himself characterizes as "an argument by authority." But Fish's expression "argument by authority" sounds pejorative.

But I'm not done. Let's go back to attribution. When I use attribution, I attribute a certain admittedly debatable claim to a specific person. I may go on to disagree with that person's claim. Or I may present that person's claim in a way in which I clearly mean that I agree with it, even though I may not happen to say this explicitly.

In the cases in which I either implicitly or explicitly agree with a statement that I attribute to another person, am I presenting "an argument by authority" -- the other person's alleged authority? No, I am not necessarily doing that. You see, I may be well-enough informed to form my own separate judgment in agreement with the judgment expressed by the other person. In such cases, my attributions enable me to give credit to the other person and enlist the other person as an ally. In effect, I am showing that I am not the only person in the world who made the judgment expressed by the other person. (Typically, claim statements involve expressing admittedly debatable judgment about certain matters.)

Another way to think about Aristotle's ethos appeal is to note that an ethos appeal involves the orator or writer in identifying himself or herself as a person and as at least trying to connect himself or herself with the persons in the audience. Granted, a writer may be writing for an audience of people who are not usually present to him or her as he or she is actually writing, except perhaps in a kind of imagined way. But writers cannot imagine all of the real persons who may read their writings when their writing are published. I am here drawing on Ong's 1975 PMLA article "The Writer's Audience is Always a Fiction."

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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