The One Book You​ Should Read about ​Argument

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An argument is not making a loud and persistent noise to silence to convince others. Neither is it speaking faster or overtalking the other to “win” a point.

Argument can simply be defined as “a connected series of statements intended to establish a definite proposition.”

Stanley Fish in his book Winning Arguments says, 

  • “One general thing that can properly be said about argument is that it is essentially the art of persuasion, the art of trying to move someone from an adherence to position A—which might be political, economic, domestic, aesthetic, military, theological, whatever—to an embracing of position B” (Fish 2016, 7).

Below are some more impressive quotes about argument from Fish’s book:

  • “…Failure, at least as a possibility, is a condition of argument, for argument is, as Aristotle and everyone after him has said, the realm of the probable, the medium of exchange we engage in when the field of enquiry is structured by doubt and the absolute authority of God’s word or a mode of perfect calculation is not available. (If it were available, doubt would soon be dispelled, and there would be no reason to argue). In the absence of such an authority, the response to doubt is to argue, to put forward theses and proofs in the hope the matter can be clarified to the satisfaction of at least a majority of those in the relevant audience” (Fish 2016, 11-12).
  • “Basically, argument is the medium we swim in, whether we want to or not. Argument, the clash of opposing views, is unavoidable because the state of agreement that would render argument unnecessary—a universal agreement brought about by facts so clear that no rational being could deny them—is not something we mortals can ever achieve. 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. Therefore, any statement any of us makes is an argument because, as an assertion that proceeds from an angle, it can always be, and almost always will be, challenged by those whose vision is also angled, but differently so. Conflict, not agreement, is the default condition of mortality” (Fish 2016, 2).
  • Argument comes before truth or knowledge. “What this means is that knowledge and truth rather than presiding over the field of argument are what emerge in the course of argument; and because it is argument and not Reality with a capital R that produces them, truth and knowledge are always in the process of being renegotiated. There is no end, no stopping point, to this process and there is no end to—no resolution of—of argument” (Fish 2016, 2-3).
  • “In a world bereft of transcendence, argument can not achieve certainty; it can only achieve persuasion (and may not do even that), a resolution of the issue that lasts only until a more powerful act of persuasion supplants it” (Fish 2016, 12).
  • “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” (Fish 2016, 13).
  • “… Argument is everywhere, argument is unavoidable, argument is interminable, argument is all we have” (Fish 2016, 3).
  • “The fact that the skill of argument is neither an unalloyed good thing nor a diabolically inspired bad thing, but is sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both, has led the friends of argument to argue for argument’s “indifferent” status: it is not good or bad in itself, but can be either good or bad depending on the circumstances and the spirit in which it is deployed. Aristotle acknowledges that bad men may abuse it, but, after all, he observes that “is a charge which may be made in common against all good things”” (Fish 2016, 44).
  • “Devising a method for ensuring that the good kind of persuasion is not mistaken for or overwhelmed by the bad kind has been a project of rhetorical theorists from the beginning. Aristotle’s taxonomy of the components of persuasion at once pinpoints the danger and suggests a way of neutralizing it. Proofs in discourse can, he said, be of three kinds: (1) logos, roughly the rational force of one’s arguments in and of themselves; (2) ethos, the good character the speaker projects—you should believe me because of the kind of person I say I am; and (3) pathos, an appeal to the emotions and prejudices the speaker knows his audience to have—you should believe me because I speak to fears and desires you already feel and to values you already hold” (Fish 2016, 46-47).
  • “Of the three, logos is thought to be the most legitimate because it is the least tricked-up and angled, and it would be better, says Aristotle, if we could “fight our case with no help beyond the bare facts”” (Fish 2016, 47).

Philosophers, scientists and theologians have argued for millennia for or against the existence of God, religious “truths” and countless other topics. Fish’s book is a wonderful read if you are interested in understanding what an argument is and how to make one.


Aslam Kakar




Author: Aslam Kakar

Aslam is a Teaching Assistant and Ph.D. student in Global Affairs at Rutgers University. In his free time, he reads, writes and manages this blog. His reading interests are positive psychology, philosophy, religion, war, culture, politics and current affairs.

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