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Life Arts    H4'ed 8/7/16

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

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Ong served as the president of MLA in 1978. I had the privilege to attend the MLA annual convention in New York City when Ong delivered his Presidential Address. The executive vice president of MLA singled out Ong's tact for special praise in introducing him. Ong was a polymath. He has been described as a scholar's scholar.

Next, I want to turn to something Fish says. He explicitly characterizes Pope Francis' widely reported eco-encyclical as "an argument by authority" (page 32).

In part, the pope's eco-encyclical was widely reported in the secular press because he repeatedly criticizes our contemporary capitalistic economic system. The secular press glories in sensationalistic stuff. So the pope's repeated criticisms of capitalism were widely reported. But let us note that the pope prudently did not offer an alternative economic system.

But let me quote Fish himself on the pope's eco-encyclical:

"As I write, Pope Francis has just issued his encyclical on global warming and poverty [e.g., the pope's criticisms of capitalism include references to poverty]. It doesn't say anything that hasn't been said before by researchers and politicians [and by certain previous popes], but my guess is that because it is the Pope who is saying it, his arguments will have an effect greater than anything that might have resulted from all the scientists in the world issuing their own encyclical. The truth of global warming is more likely to be established by AN ARGUMENT FROM AUTHORITY than by data that supposedly speaks for itself" (pages 31-32; I've added the capitalization here for emphasis).

Incidentally, in the remainder of the paragraph from which I have quoted, Fish goes on to make certain qualified points about interpretation and argumentation that are compatible with and indeed consistently with points Ong makes about interpretation in his article "Hermeneutic Forever: Voice, Text, Digitization, and the 'I'" in the journal Oral Tradition, volume 10, number 1 (March 1995): pages 3-36.

In fairness to Fish, let me note that he does not happen to specify exactly what makes the pope's eco-encyclical "an argument by authority." Fish just categorizes it and moves on. Nor does he claim to have read the pope's eco-encyclical; Fish just notes that the pope has issued it.

In the parlance of the Roman Catholic Church, a papal encyclical is, by definition, a publicly proclaimed circular letter to be circulated among the bishops and practicing Catholics around the world. Papal encyclicals contain a given pope's teachings about certain matters. The church claims to have teaching authority (known, in short, as the magisterium). According to the church's teaching, papal encyclicals are said to be authoritative for practicing Catholics. I'll discuss this point further momentarily.

But first I want to spell out explicitly here that the Roman Catholic Church has a hierarchical governing structure, with the pope at the top. At first blush, this hierarchical structure is top-down. Certain critics have criticized the church for being authoritarian and for allegedly inculcating authoritarianism in practicing Catholics. But the same church authorities teach practicing Catholics that they should follow their consciences -- but they are supposed to form their consciences by considering church teachings.

Figuratively speaking, conscience is catch-22. For example, this catch-22 will allow Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, an Ayn Rand fan, to read Pope Francis' eco-encyclical and then publicly state that he disagrees with certain statements that the pope makes in it.

For the sake of discussion, let us imagine that "all the scientists in the world issu[ed] their own encyclical" about global warming, as Fish suggests. This exercise in imagination something that is not likely to happen in the near future brings us back to what, exactly, or what all exactly, does Aristotle mean by ethos. Put differently, does the pope's ethos involve qualities that many scientists may not even claim to have?

Before Pope Francis issued his eco-encyclical, he garnered a lot of media attention. He walks the walk. He doesn't just talk the talk. As a result, he has MORAL stature that most scientists understandably do not have.

So Pope Francis' ethos in his eco-encyclical arises in part from his official position in the church and in part from his personal example.

So how many scientists who are concerned about climate warming want to reject Pope Francis as an ally? Can we have a show of hands?

As to the possibility that the pope's eco-encyclical would have a greater effect than an imagined encyclical issued by all the scientists in the world would have, I will just say that thus far the pope's eco-encyclical has not had a very great effect, except for the effect of garnering a lot of publicity in the media.

Now among other things, Fish, who evidently is Jewish, calls attention to the article "The Argumentative Jew" in the Jewish Review of Books in 2000 by Leon Wieseltier, who evidently is Jewish (page 208). As OEN readers know, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is Jewish.

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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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