Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn't Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom by Stanley Fish
First of all--this is a scholarly book, not a popular "how to" book. The author, Stanley Fish, is a world-renown scholar and professor. WINNING ARGUMENTS is not a "how to" book by any means. Rather, it is an intellectual journey into the essence of what argumentation is--and what it is not.
Right off the bat, the author explains the difficulty in argumentation. The professor explains that it's not just a matter of clarifying some terms, or looking up some information:
"We would all like to believe—on the model of Winston Churchill’s quip “Jaw, jaw, jaw is better than war, war, war”—that agreement on the facts or on policy can be reached through rational deliberation, a respectful exchange of views, a willingness to put yourself in the other fellow’s shoes, better information, a spirit of compromise, et cetera."
None of us see the complete, perfect picture--although we often insist WE do, and it's the OTHER guy who is amiss. Not true, says the author: "Each of us occupies a partial, time-bound perspective and none of us has access to the God’s-eye view from which the “big picture”might be seen at a glance."
We also might think that if we just stuck to the "facts," we could achieve agreement: "While the distinction between fact and opinion is a real one, what falls on one side or the other at any time is a matter of persuasion. You are entitled to your own facts if you can make them stick." In other words, there is no such thing as "no spin." What I think is spin is to you, FACT. "Spin, the pronouncing on things from an interested angle, is not a regrettable and avoidable form of thinking and judging; it is the very content of thinking and judging."
No, argumentation depends a lot on one's world view. Clarifying terms and a few minutes of discussion do not change world views. We start with presuppositions. "Most arguments, political and otherwise, are not about the issues that are on the table; they are about the worldview or deeper-than-deep commitments that underlie and give shape to the issues that are on the table."
Simply appealing to rationality is not sufficient either. "We would all like to believe—on the model of Winston Churchill’s quip “Jaw, jaw, jaw is better than war, war, war”—that agreement on the facts or on policy can be reached through rational deliberation, a respectful exchange of views, a willingness to put yourself in the other fellow’s shoes, better information, a spirit of compromise, et cetera. "
The author discusses why appeals to authority are so often futile. What one person considers authority is not at all the same as another person.
Adding further complexity to the discussion is this: Argumentation is not just about what we discuss. It's also about what we see: "Argument, in short, is embodied; it doesn’t take place in just the head but involves almost everything that comes before our eyes." Of course, advertisers know this well.
Finally, Dr. Fish suggests that we humans cannot ever actually see perfect knowledge. "For one effect of inhabiting the condition of difference—the condition of being partial, the condition of not being in direct touch with the final unity and full meaning of the universe—is that we long to transcend it; and, perhaps paradoxically, it is that longing, forever disappointed, that keeps us going."
So all in all, I thought WINNING ARGUMENTS was a fascinating book--but a difficult read. Be prepared to spend some time pondering over the meaty discussions. The author's writing style reminds me a lot of the late philosopher Mortimer Adler (see for example, his classic, "How to Read a Book.) The reasoning of Dr. Fish also reminds me of the famous theologian Cornelius Van Til. I did not see any references to Van Til, but I bet the author is well-acquainted with his scholarly works.