Donald Trump has inspired many vivid comparisons during his most unusual presidential campaign. He has been likened to a toddler, Hitler, a third-grader, Mussolini, and a sea turtle, among other things. However disparate these items might seem, they are united by what each is not: a fully rational human adult.
A new book by Stanley Fish makes a surprising addition to the bestiary of Trump metaphors: Michel de Montaigne, the Renaissance intellectual and essayist. Fish sees in both Trump and Montaigne an artfully crafted façade of artlessness. “I’m not of superior intelligence, Montaigne is telling his audience; I’m not coming at you with canned points; I’m just telling you what I think,” Fish writes. Similarly, “Trump tells his audience ‘I don’t use teleprompters, I just speak from the heart.’”
Despite the promise of its title – Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn’t Work in Politics, The Bedroom, The Courtroom, and The Classroom – Fish’s odd little book is not a study of rhetoric so much as a defense of his view that reality is rhetoric. This position, first developed by the ancient Greek Sophists, denies that there are any objective standards of reason that can ever decisively resolve arguments. There is no bedrock truth about anything, simply a swirl of language and argument where the more persuasive prevails. “There is nothing to the side of argument – no cleared space of thought, science, calculation, or revelation – that will provide us with an independent measure for assessing its validity.” This is the world in which Trump and Montaigne are alike.
Is this in fact the world we inhabit? Fish would reject the appeal to fact in the previous question because the existence of such a stable epistemic ground is precisely what he denies. We are, in his words, “limited creatures who can only see through a glass darkly, and will never experience a face-to-face encounter with the Real.” If this is the case, then Fish has no secure basis to make his relativist assertion – all the evidence he might offer in its support would be slanted, partial, and hopelessly removed from any essential truth. And this defeats his entire project. Given his initial premise, we might with equal legitimacy prefer just the opposite account – one in which we can access certain objective knowledge. Like the Sophists in antiquity, Fish snares himself in a self-refuting argument: if we take seriously his statement that no truths exist, then the claim will also apply to itself.
This observation about the self-defeating nature of an extreme form of relativism dates back to one of Plato’s most brilliant dialogues, the "Theaetetus." More recently, the intricacies of self-refuting propositions have been explored by philosophers John Searle and Hilary Putnam and the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, to name only a few. Fish is either unaware of this broad literature on mind and reality or strategically loath to consider it. Either way, the omission impoverishes his book.
Other elements of his arguments are more persuasive. He devotes considerable space to documenting various intractable debates in which agreement between opposing sides does indeed seem impossible. Analyzing what feels all-too-familiar during a campaign season, he describes the mental mechanics of these impasses: “Rather than listening to and weighing what your opponent says, you hear his words as the surface issue of deep ideological commitments you fear and despise.”
These types of arguments are not rational exchanges – no piece of evidence or list of reasons will ever convince one combatant that the other is correct. Religion and politics are conspicuous as fields of such mired debate, but the same process can unfold in other domains. In a clever reading of Milton’s "Paradise Lost" and contemporary marriage manuals, Fish notices a similar dynamic in domestic disputes. The attempt to win is vain precisely because of the desire to win: “The desire to be right is what produces the impasse and ensures that closure will never occur.” In the words of Milton, “And of their vain contest appeared no end.”
Fish sees this vexed and futile mode of argument wherever he looks – in politics, science, the legal system, religion, relationships, and academia. These observations are valid and well-documented, but the inferences he draws from the phenomena do not follow. The fact that endless argument characterizes aspects of many areas does not mean that objective progress is imaginary. The history of science, from the Copernican revolution to the germ theory of disease to the discovery of penicillin, offers many cases in point. However intense the arguments these topics generated, there were right and wrong answers to their fundamental questions.
These are just some of the inconvenient counterexamples that Fish fails to consider. To save his argument that arguments never reveal reality but instead somehow create it, he limits himself to a narrow range of topics, occasionally asserting that these cases somehow prove that every other topic is similar. In a discussion of climate-change deniers and the tobacco industry, for instance, he recounts how industry consultants made some people doubt the reality of climate change and the harmful effects of smoking simply by implying these topics were controversial. This does indeed prove a very limited version of his case – arguments created certain subjective realities in the minds of those who believed corporate misinformation campaigns. But to conclude that there is no truth about these matters is delusional.
On some level Fish also seems to know this. He talks about “testing” ideas and “seeing” conclusions, and even distinguishes “good” and “bad” uses of persuasion. A vocabulary that presumes objective standards of knowledge belies the relativist morass that he elsewhere champions.
It’s true that humans are easily misled both by rhetorical tricks and our own cognitive biases. Truths of all sorts are subject to reversal, difficult to perceive, and often context-dependent. But rather than joining the tradition that starts with Aristotle’s "Sophistical Refutations" (a treatise on how to notice the tricks of sophistry) and continues with works like Daniel Kahneman’s "Thinking, Fast and Slow" (a guide to some common errors in human cognition) Fish has chosen not to write a book that helps illuminate methods of reasoning and argument most likely to arrive at the truth. Instead, he makes an eloquent but incoherent case that such a goal is always doomed.