We use language very much like a commuter who has taken the same train to work every morning for years: mechanically, distractedly, almost always with other things on our mind. Once a word, a sentence, or a turn of phrase has done its job, we leave it behind and move on, in the same unthinking way we leave behind the train car when we’ve reached our stop. Once in a while, however, we miss our stop, or get off at the wrong one by mistake. Our routine has been abruptly broken, and we are faced with a completely new setting—with another face of the world, as it were. We now contemplate everything with fresh eyes, slowly take in the view, and learn a lesson in re-enchantment. A similar thing happens when language makes unexpected stops and words are used with new meanings.
In Why Argument Matters, Lee Siegel makes a deliberate choice not to use the word “argument” with the usual meaning of a reason, or concatenation of reasons, that we offer for or against something (an idea, a position, a course of action). Instead, he deploys “argument” in preeminently biological terms: argument is someone’s act of assertion against the surrounding world. There is something distinctly non-rational, almost brutal about Siegel’s redefinition. The sheer fact of “occupying a space in the world” as human beings is for him “an argument with a society that needs to know we exist.” Unlike countless other writers (philosophers, logicians, scientists, legal scholars) who approach argument in terms of internal consistency, empirical evidence, or methodological rigor, Siegel considers it a tool for living, an instrument of adaptation. Above all, he is interested in argument as “the expression of a universal longing for a better life.” Why Argument Matters is about the roots of argument not in thinking, not in speech, but “in our very existence.” Such an argument is “as natural and inevitable a condition of our being as breathing.”
This bold change of perspective gives Siegel access to some refreshing insights. “It is nearly impossible to have a rational argument that is not built out of the sticks and stones of emotion,” he writes. And so much more than mere emotion, in fact. Most of us would agree that, in his “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. made a strong argument for civil rights. But it would be naïve to regard the argument’s logical structure or King’s “argumentation skills”—considerable as they were—as the primary source of the speech’s strength. What made this argument so devastatingly effective was the person of the speaker himself, his personal record and life history, as well as the life histories of those in front of him, on whose behalf he made the argument. The speaker’s voice and appearance, his entire physicality, the location and the context of his speech—all of this contributed to the argument’s force. Exactly the same combination of words coming from someone else’s mouth, or in another place or at another time, might well have fallen flat. Even the truth value of an argument may depend on the existential situation of the one who makes it and of those for whom it is made. For an argument, Siegel writes, “flows from our intuitive certainty that our right to exist is the most fundamental truth, and that our right to exist is bound up with our freedom to think about existence in specific ways.”