“The Real World”
Is there a real world? There are those who deny it, and they are not the smallest fry in the ranks of the influential.
I’ve been reading a new book called Winning Arguments by Stanley Fish, a leading literary theorist. The book attracted me because the darkest years of my life were ushered in by bad arguments, against which I was unable to stand my ground.
What’s an argument? It’s a group of one or more sentences, called premises or reasons, supporting a last sentence, called the conclusion.
The bad arguments that were dangerous in my life, also dealt with by Fish, are sometimes called informal fallacies: the conclusion persuades, but not because of the truth or relevancy of the reasons that led to it. Instead, the “reasons” persuade because they
distract, confuse, intimidate,
seduce, shock, dazzle, fascinate,
embarrass, shame, enthrall, enthuse, or prejudice
the listener, so that she buys into the conclusion because of prompts irrelevant to its truth.
I bought Fish’s book hoping to learn how bad arguments could have exercised so great a power over me, especially since I’m about to get into editing the part of Confessions of a Young Philosopher where I revisit that experience.
What are the martial arts of words and body language – the techniques that “win” television debates? Stanley Fish’s book is lighter on that than I’d hoped. Since he’s been able to win public debates by pouring out what one listener called “cascading non sequiturs” (irrelevancies), Fish may be like the great chef who keeps his recipes close.
What he does share is the worldview of a martial artist of argument. His worldview is that
there is no real world.
He means, there is no world independent of what you or I choose to say about it. Therefore, if I rob a person of her grip on true views, putting my false opinions in her mind instead, I won’t be depriving her of anything to which she had a right. This because nobody’s opinions are based in truth. Opinions are just the upshot of persuasive power. The persuader may be an eloquent individual or the force of group consensus. Whatever their apparent cause, our opinions are traceable to persuasion. There is nothing else.
Socrates long ago distinguished arguing to find the truth from arguing to win. He valued the first, while warning against the second. Stanley Fish thinks it’s a false distinction. There’s nothing to argue for except to get one’s way — to emerge the victor, to gain power.
For the record, we can notice an inconsistency: the Fish view allows at least one thing to be real – power. However, people who don’t seek truth can’t be embarrassed by inconsistency. Although we’ve upended his argument, Fish is still standing.
Stanley Fish is a smart fellow. Accordingly, his opponents are not lightweights. He picks opponents of stature. One of them is George Orwell, author of Animal Farm and 1984. Orwell understood that totalitarian states degrade language, till it becomes fit for nothing but to carry the lies officially approved by the regime.
How to cure language? Orwell said one should begin with silence. In silence, try to picture the real thing that you wanted to write about. Get to know it. Discover its weight, texture and presence. Then and only then, find the words whose shape, sound and meaning fit that reality.
Stanley Fish disagrees. Silence won’t prepare you to meet the real thing. There is no real thing. Everything, big and little, is a byproduct of how we’ve been persuaded to speak about it. First come the words. Then comes the thing. Drop the words. The thing vanishes.
A man I know believed deeply in the linguistic construction of reality (Stanley Fish’s view). You couldn’t argue him out of it. Even to try felt like a fruitless power struggle, which was how he took it.
One day I met him after a long interval. He was unusually thin and pale. He looked very ill.
“What’s going on with you?” I asked him. “How are you?”
“I have terminal cancer. I’m dying,” he replied frankly.
By common consent, there was no talk of the linguistic construction of terminal cancer. Nor did the question get tossed about of whether, without the word “death,” there would be no death.
The modesty, simplicity and candor with which he lived his last days told me that he knew – had always known – that there is a real world with which, sooner or later, we must come to an understanding.