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.”

Lee Siegel (Christina Gillham)

From this perspective, thinkers’ biographies, how they live and how they die, will appear inseparable from their ideas. A philosopher’s life and work become one continuous narrative. “Because our very life is an ongoing argument about the value of our life, the way we argue tells a story about who we are,” observes Siegel. Central to this approach is, unsurprisingly, Socrates, the man who took argument so seriously that he argued himself to death. The book’s “chief aspiration,” writes Siegel, is to treat argument “as Socrates ultimately practiced it.” Socrates’s entire biography was a rigorous, well-conducted, and multifaceted argument, in which he involved not only his friends and disciples, but also his opponents—and, eventually, the whole city of Athens itself. “At the end of his life, Socrates stripped argument down to its essence as a type of transcendent fusion of language, meaning, feeling, and action.” He celebrated the argument’s conclusion with a drink, in the privacy of his prison cell, surrounded by a handful of loyal, mournful friends.

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Why Argument Matters proudly bears the mark of the twenty-first-century Western liberal democracy within which it was born. That shows in the book’s thesis and conception, in its rhetoric and prose style, and even in the examples the author uses. “Argument is hope, sometimes at the chessboard and sometimes in the boxing ring,” states Siegel at one point. Informed as it is by an ethos of toleration and civility, the book suggests that a boxing match may be the most violent form of argument we are ever likely to encounter. We may passionately argue ourselves into existence, but we do so in one safe setting or another, in the pages of the New Yorker or Harper’s, in a fancy café, or with a group of friends in their apartment. Siegel unfolds his argument largely within the confines of his own contemporary liberal civilization, where everybody is nice, well-mannered, and well-behaved, and where the most brutal thing we might witness is a pugilistic event. Mind you: not a street fight or a bar brawl, but a well-regulated bout. Don’t get me wrong. When Siegel writes that “to exist is to argue your existence,” I think he makes an important point. But is a gathering of writers in Manhattan or even a boxing match in Las Vegas really the best place to test that point?

In his Kolyma Tales, Varlam Shalamov recalls a particularly low moment in the Gulag where he spent seventeen years: “At the age of thirty I found myself in a very real sense dying from hunger and literally fighting for a piece of bread.” That he survived to describe this moment is proof that Shalamov was able to “argue himself into existence” again and again in the direst circumstances. Similarly, writing about his internment at Auschwitz in If This Is a Man, Primo Levi notes: “Our language lacks the words to express this offence, this demolition of man…. We’ve reached the bottom. Lower than this we cannot go, a human condition more miserable cannot exist, is unthinkable.” Demolished though he was, Levi managed to argue himself back into life, and lived to tell his tale.

For someone dragged to the brink of extinction, as Shalamov and Levi both were, the notion that “to exist is to argue your existence” is not just a theoretical pronouncement. It can be the recipe for survival, the one idea that keeps you going. When Stalin or Hitler—or Putin—decides to make a very practical argument against your life, arguing yourself into existence takes on a completely different meaning and a new urgency. That survival under such circumstances is possible is the best argument imaginable for Siegel’s insightful idea. A discussion of how human beings manage to argue themselves back into existence even as they face the counterargument of a firing squad or gas chamber would have brought some more depth and drama to his book.


The notion that “to exist is to argue your existence” is not just a theoretical pronouncement. It can be the recipe for survival.

James W. Heisig’s In Praise of Civility offers a second example of a familiar word being used in an unfamiliar way. “Civility” is usually associated with a form of polite social interaction. It is urbanity at work—a mark of “civilization.” Heisig, however, gets off at another stop. The civility he praises in his book is not what dictionaries mean by that term. It is not good manners or proper decorum or something else of that kind. In fact, Heisig struggles to formulate his own alternative definition. He refers at one point to “a whole constellation of impressions, recollections, and images that you can walk around in without ever being able to put it all into words—or ever really seeing the need to…. Civility is like that.”

Instead of a neat definition of civility, Heisig devises a rough method for recognizing it: “You know civility when you see it. It is one of those things you feel in your bones before you can analyze it or put it into words.” The method—“thinking in anecdotes,” Heisig calls it—consists of recounting stories, from his own life and the lives of others (real or fictional), and mining them for meaning. Unscientific as this method may be, it is more than suitable for its purpose: the pursuit of wisdom. Through stories and fables and anecdotes, wisdom becomes flesh; that’s how we can touch it and it can touch us. From the anecdotes about the Cynic philosophers to the apophthegmata of the Desert Fathers to the koans of Zen Buddhism to the stories of the Sufis or the Hasidim, wisdom has often reached us in this narrative form.

James W. Heisig (Courtesy of Resource Publications)

Heisig certainly has some stories to tell. An uncommonly learned scholar, he works in both Western and Eastern philosophy, Christian theology and Buddhism, comparative studies and interfaith dialogue. He writes in, and translated from, several languages. While he has been based in Japan for the past several decades, he has lectured all around the world, and has a loyal following in several countries. No wonder that, when it comes to “thinking in anecdotes,” Jim sensei is a masterful performer. The stories he shares are not just gripping, but pithy and positively edifying. Mixing self-deprecation and a keen sense of observation, Heisig tells us how he learned about civility as he lined up to take an elevator in a department store in Japan, helped an elderly lady cross a busy street in London, received help from a donkey driver in Crete, acted as an interpreter for a distinguished Japanese philosopher in Bologna, or tried to pull the leg of a young monk at the Ryōan-ji temple in Kyoto. He also retells colorful stories from The Arabian Nights, tales of Buddhist monks, Zen masters, good caliphs, and others. The result is a gem of a book, as entertaining as it is wise, a work in which storytelling and philosophizing become one and distinctions between genres and disciplines are gleefully discarded.

What initially seems to be a defeat—Heisig’s failure to find a satisfying definition of civility—eventually turns into a triumph. Having spent some time with Heisig’s anecdotes, we emerge better prepared to understand not only what civility is but how it works in practice. For the most important thing about civility, in Heisig’s view, is its unobtrusive performance: “Civility is not the acquisition of a certain fund of knowledge or a certain capacity for good judgement. It is an art that needs practice and refinement.” This may be just another way of saying what a difficult thing civility is. As a “quest of the invisible, the inaudible,” it belongs to the elusive domain of nuance. True civility, hating to draw attention to itself, prefers to remain inconspicuous. Pursue it a trifle too insistently and it’s gone: you’ve been uncivil. Strictly speaking, civility can’t be pursued at all—at least not in the way we pursue other things. Our role is only to let it happen, to make room for it. Civility, writes Heisig, gives us “the chance to get over ourselves.” It is not so much “something we do, but something that happens when we get over ourselves and get out of the way.” Indeed, it would happen “a lot more if we just got out of the way until it was clear that we were needed.”

Through stories and fables and anecdotes, wisdom becomes flesh; that’s how we can touch it and it can touch us.

As one reads Heisig’s reflections on civility, one often gets the feeling that he is referring not to something ordinary, but to an exceptional state of mind that borders on saintliness: “Civility is a form of love,” he observes at one point. To be truly civil we need to rid ourselves of any pettiness and narrow-mindedness, of egotism and selfishness, and embrace extreme humility instead. “Genuine civility is radically selfless.” In short, Heisig’s resignification of civility is so drastic as to make the concept almost unrecognizable. If you no longer find ordinary civility in his account, it’s because there is almost none there. To be civil in Heisig’s sense is next to impossible, just as Nietzsche thought it was next to impossible to be a true Christian.

In Praise of Civility is a short book, and given its “unrepentant reliance on stories and anecdotes,” it may seem like a simple one. But it’s not. Its apparent simplicity is a deliberate disguise. Behind the easygoing, accessible façade, this is a profound study of the human condition. Civility may appear to be a minor philosophical topic, yet Heisig places it at the center of a web of reflections on what makes us human and what can compromise our humanity, on the neglected importance of prejudice in life, on routine and the “ability to see through the surface of things without losing sight of the surface,” on our mortality and finitude, and on the fundamental role of storytelling in the construction of our identity: “We invent ourselves anew each time we tell a story. To our last conscious breath, the whole story is forever in the making.” Heisig’s argument for civility is both subtle and compelling: by letting civility happen—knowing when to get out of the way—we take better care not only of others and of the world itself, but of ourselves. Such care can save us, if anything can.

Siegel’s argument-as-a-form-of-self-assertion may seem the opposite of Heisig’s civility as “radical selflessness.” On closer inspection, they are complementary. They are invisibly tied together as two aspects of the same quest for a dignified life. When pushed down, we preserve our dignity by arguing ourselves into existence. But in situations where arrogance and graceless self-assertion are the path of least resistance, we can retrieve our dignity by lowering ourselves and embracing “civility” in Heisig’s highly demanding sense. 

Why Argument Matters
Lee Siegel
Yale University Press
$26 |160 pp. 

In Praise of Civility
James W. Heisig
Resource Publications
$17 | 136 pp.

Costică Brădăţan is the author, most recently, of In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility (Harvard University Press, 2023).

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Published in the November 2022 issue: View Contents
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