You’re soaking in it!

It's been a long time since I've read Stanley Fish's column in the New York Times Online.  One reason is that I'm semi-boycotting the Times and their paywall; the other reason is that Fish is a terrible columnist.  Thankfully he's no longer the only type representing the humanities, so it's safe to go back there. 

A favorite theme of his is that philosophy and other such things are abstract activities that have little to do with what one actually believes.  He often drives this point home with sophistical equivocations on the meaning of "philosophy," etc.  A quick look at the archive here supports this notion–or rather supports the notion that this is what most bothers me about Fish. 

Equivocations such as his are such an easy thing to spot; and his general view is such a shallow one that you'd think, well, I guess you wouldn't think.

Here's today's contribution:

The question is whether religion should be considered philosophy. For a long time, of course, philosophy was included under religion’s umbrella, not in the modern sense that leads to courses like “The Philosophy of Religion,” but in the deeper sense in which religious doctrines are accepted as foundational and philosophy proceeds within them. But for contemporary philosophers religious doctrines are not part of the enterprise but a threat to it. The spirit is as Andrew Tyler (38) describes it: “to be skeptical, critical and independent so that you’re not so easily duped and frightened into submission by religious dogma.” Courses in the philosophy of religion tacitly subordinate religion to philosophy by subjecting religion to philosophy’s questions and standards. Strong religious believers will resist any such subordination because, for them, religious, not philosophical, imperatives trump. The reason religion can and does serve as a normative guide to behavior is that it is not a form of philosophy, but a system of belief that binds the believer. (Philosophy is something you can do occasionally, religion is not.)

But aren’t beliefs and philosophies the same things? No they’re not. Beliefs such as “I believe that life should not be taken” or “I believe in giving the other fellow the benefit of the doubt” or “I believe in the equality of men and women” or “I believe in turning the other cheek” are at least the partial springs of our actions and are often regarded by those who hold them as moral absolutes; no exceptions recognized. These, however, are particular beliefs which can be arrived at for any number of reasons, including things your mother told you, the reading of a powerful book, the authority of a respected teacher, an affecting experience that you have generalized into a maxim (“From now on I’ll speak ill of no one.”).

A little philosophy might help Fish think through this more carefully. 

In the first place, "philosophy" has a lot of meanings, even in the context of contemporary philosophy, so it's not helpful or meaningful to say "contemporary philosophers" as if they shared some single meaning. 

Second, "beliefs vs. philosophies" is an opposition few philosophers would recognize (at least as Fish means it).  Perhaps Fish means something like attitudes regarding particular propositions and attitudes regarding attitudes about particular propositions.  Those are clearly different, one is whether you endorse proposition p, the other is what you think it means to endorse proposition p.  Fish seems to think "philosophy" only regards the latter, the meta view as it were.

But that's not the case.  For many philosophers, the subject of which views are the correct ones is indeed a philosophical one.  Is it morally permissible, for instance, to tax inherited wealth?  An answer to this question might appeal to an abstract principle, in the same way a religious "belief" might do, or it may appeal to something else, in the same way a reglious belief might do.  The particularity of the belief in question isn't the point (as Fish seems to think).   All of our beliefs,by the way, are particular; and indeed all of them might be subject to the same kind of causal explanation he seems to think critical (at least this is what my mother has always said). 

So in the end Fish can't get the idea that some of the stuff philosophy deals with is entirely meta (what is the nature of belief?); some of the stuff it deals with is not meta (looking for an adjective here): is stealing ever just?

Finally, contrary to Fish, philosophy is not optional in the way he imagines it to be.  To the extent that you have beliefs at all you're doing philosophy inasmuch as the little thing that stiches your beliefs together–the inference–is a big deal for philosophers.  It only appears optional to Fish, I think, because he's doing it wrong.

5 thoughts on “You’re soaking in it!”

  1. I guess I'd like for Fish to be clear about what it would take for philosophy to matter.  Does literature (or lit crit, for that matter) or economics pass the test?  It seems that his criterion for it being worthwhile is that everyone can agree or at least acknowledge its results.  I'm not sure many disciplines are going to matter in the end, given this requirement.

  2. Yeah, someone, somewhere–maybe Leiter's blog–pointed out after the last column that Fish has discovered the distinction between meta-ethics and normative ethics. Well, perhaps he's part of the way to discovering that distinction since he seems to veer around about what counts as a philosophical thesis–sometimes its a meta-ethical claim,  sometimes an epistemic claim sometimes a moral principle.

    Fish begins by referring to his "argument" that "abstract moral propositions do not travel into practical context." Or as he puts it later "I’m just denying to philosophy one of the claims made for it —that its conclusions  dictate or generate non-philosophical behavior — and there is no reason that my denial of philosophy’s practical utility should not take a philosophical form."

    But, I'm lost to reconstruct an argument here. All I see is various ways of asserting this claim. It seems to me that there might be two ways of trying to defend this claim (if Fish could get clear about what it is he is defending). First, one might try to gather some statistical evidence through polling etc. to see whether abstract moral principles or meta-ethical views have any impact on moral decision-making. Second, one might try to argue, philosophically, that there is no use for principles in moral decision making. If you went the latter route, it seems that you might need to argue for moral particularism.

    As far as I can see without spending more time than is seemingly deserved, Fish seems to rest his case on his thought experiment. Imagine an absolutist who has just been persuaded of relativism and vice versa. What will have changed about their moral outlook? Fish answers "almost nothing" and then proceeds to claim that your view on relativism will not impact your decision whether to take a job or not or divorce your wife or not.

    But, this doesn't seem particularly obvious to me. Imagine someone holds a) moral absolutism and b) a view about the sanctity of marriage on the basis of say a divine command theory. And let's say they lose their conviction that moral claims are absolute. This might affect their normative theory and it might affect their concrete view about marriage and it might affect their decision to divorce or not divorce. It need not, since at each stage another justification might step in and do the work of the moral absolutism.

    So at best his conclusion should be your meta-ethical view need not imply direct consequences for your moral principles or actions. (Notice the change in the form of the thesis above from "travel" to "dictate." The stronger view may be true for many philosophical theses (though I suspect not all), the weaker one seems likely to be false.

    When we get to normative ethics (moral principles), Fish's view is that moral principles don't (can't?) travel to moral decision-making. This seems stronger than moral particularism if that argues that moral principles are superfluous for moral decision-making. It seems to me that if you hold moral particularism to be true, it ought to have some effect on your moral decision-making, at least insofar as it would rule out certain forms of moral reasoning, even if it resulted in the same conclusion.


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