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Winning Arguments by Stanley Fish

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Winning Arguments
Stanley Fish
HarperCollins 2016
Rs 399, PP 213

It is widely believed that Indians are an argumentative lot. Mr Amartya Sen even wrote a book perpetuating this belief by titling it “The Argumentative Indian”. Not that I am in a position to argue with him on this issue since I have no data to conclusively prove that we are not argumentative at all. Therefore, I am faced with no choice but to accept his verdict that as a nation we love to argue –a lot.

That being the case, it is extremely important that I learn to win as many arguments as I can, as there is a very good chance that I will be involved in a few on a daily basis. Hence, when I was asked to review this book whose complete title is “Winning Arguments – What works and doesn’t work in politics, the bedroom, the courtroom and the classroom” by Stanley Fish I was only too eager to start reading it as soon as I could.


Now, much as I would like to, I have been unable to make any headway in the world of politics. Similarly, I have not qualified as a lawyer to be able to practice in the courtroom and dazzle the opposite counsel and the judges with my rhetoric and the deftness of my arguments, and I have passed out of school a long time back where the extent of my arguments were limited to whether someone had poked me with a pencil in the back, or pushed me while I was taking down my notes or had tried to copy my original nonsense that I was trying to pass off as an erudite answer during exams. Given my similar limitations on several subjects that are taught, there is no chance of me being accepted into the teaching profession unless the times are really desperate. And in that case just my presence is a winning argument.

Therefore, the topic of most interest for me, being married and all, was winning arguments while verbally sparring with my wife since that is an area that most husbands I believe could do with more than a little help.

However, as I started reading the book, it began to dawn on me that it is not at all as per my expectations. It is NOT A SELF-HELP book at all. While I cannot be sure what exactly it is, I do think that it is not for non-Americans, or people with little or no knowledge of the American justice system, its laws, its cultures, its TV serials, the issues that its society faces, its political system, its higher level educational system etc. In short, it is probably not for the rest of the world outside America, except maybe for academic and curiosity value.

Also Read: The Constitution of India: Role of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

Halfway through the book, since it not much was making much sense to me, I looked at the back jacket of the book to find out more about the author, and realised that he is a professor of law at several law schools and universities. No wonder.

Similarly, given the more than liberal sprinkling of Milton and Paradise Lost, I found that he has written a few other books on Milton and a book on Paradise Lost and is therefore quite comfortable talking about the subject.

And, yet, in parts the book makes for compelling reading. For example, the author states that Donald Trump actually has a method in his madness. While he appears to be breaking every rule in the political consultant’s handbook, the author believes that “he talks like Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), one of the smartest men that ever lived”. While his messages may seem disjointed, his core message always is: “I am Donald Trump; nobody owns me. I don’t pander to you; I don’t pretend to be nice and polite; I am rich and that’s what you would like to be; I’m a winner; I beat people at their own game, and if you vote for me I will beat our adversaries; if you want wonky policy details go with those losers who offer you ten-point plans; if you want to feel good about yourselves and your country, stick with me.” The author argues that “despite the lack of a formal centre or an orderly presentation, Trump was always on point because the point was always the same. He couldn’t get off message because the one message was all he had”.

He adds: “Trumps’ success – incomprehensible to political commentators – is a twenty-first century testimony to the truth classical rhetoricians made the basis of their pedagogy. They challenged students to make winning arguments for positions and causes it was thought no one could defend. They knew that argument could overcome any obstacle; and they knew, too, what Trump and Satan and Mark Antony and the merchants of doubt demonstrate: even in the most extreme cases, the achievements of argument are always wonderful (in the root sense of provoking wonder), especially when they are awful”.

In another example, in the chapter on domestic arguments, the one where I was most interested, the author quotes extensively from Milton’s Paradise Lost and possibly the first arguments between man and woman – Adam and Eve, and presents his rules of domestic quarrels:

  1. “They are performances of personality creation, and the personalities they create form quickly and tend to stick around for a long time”.
  2.  “They do not have a formal beginning, and by the time you know you are in one, it’s too late”.
  3. “They are never about their surface content, but about assymetrical needs each party is intent on satisfying in ways that act as negative triggers for the other”.
  4.  “Trying to walk back the words that have precipitated a quarrel will never work”.
  5. “Deep knowledge of the ways of domestic arguments does not insulate you from falling into the innumerable traps awaiting anyone who enters the arena”.

Finally, in the chapter he candidly admits that he himself, and the authors of marriage manuals as well make the same mistakes they classify and criticise, and that “when the rubber hits the road, my behaviour isn’t much different from the behaviour of the bumbling, terminally defensive, and self-regarding boob I was before I read a word”.

So much for following the advice from the book. Fat lot of good it will do me if the author has not fared any better thus far.

Having said all that the biggest learning for me was that Indians are not the only ones who are argumentative, the whole world is – Indians may only appear to be so, given the many languages that most of the country’s citizens speak. This is because arguments are about taking positions and have their roots in language. In the author’s own words: “Argument is everywhere, argument is unavoidable, argument is interminable, argument is all we