Category Archives: Stanley Fish

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.

Public reason

The New York Times' resident intellectual, Stanley Fish the question of "public reason" or "secular reason."  This is the classical liberal notion which underlies distinctions between church and state.  Whatever a public agent does, the distinction goes, it must be justified by secular–i.e., non-religious–reasons. 

As you might have guessed, Fish will have none of this.  His sole reason (at least his sole intelligible reason) is that the notion of "secular value" is some kind of contradiction.  All values are religious.  And since all morality (and hence all moral action) has to do with values, ergo ipso fatso.  He writes:

Nevertheless, Smith observes, the self-impoverished discourse of secular reason does in fact produce judgments, formulate and defend agendas, and speak in a normative vocabulary. How is this managed? By “smuggling,” Smith answers.

. . . the secular vocabulary within which public discourse is constrained today is insufficient to convey our full set of normative convictions and commitments. We manage to debate normative matters anyway — but only by smuggling in notions that are formally inadmissible, and hence that cannot be openly acknowledged or adverted to.

The notions we must smuggle in, according to Smith, include “notions about a purposive cosmos, or a teleological nature stocked with Aristotelian ‘final causes’ or a providential design,” all banished from secular discourse because they stipulate truth and value in advance rather than waiting for them to be revealed by the outcomes of rational calculation. But if secular discourse needs notions like these to have a direction — to even get started — “we have little choice except to smuggle [them] into the conversations — to introduce them incognito under some sort of secular disguise.”

And how do we do that? Well, one way is to invoke secular concepts like freedom and equality — concepts sufficiently general to escape the taint of partisan or religious affiliation — and claim that your argument follows from them. But, Smith points out (following Peter Westen and others), freedom and equality — and we might add justice, fairness and impartiality — are empty abstractions. Nothing follows from them until we have answered questions like “fairness in relation to what standard?” or “equality with respect to what measures?” — for only then will they have content enough to guide deliberation.

That content, however, will always come from the suspect realm of contested substantive values. Is fairness to be extended to everyone or only to those with certain credentials (of citizenship, education, longevity, etc.)? Is it equality of opportunity or equality of results (the distinction on which affirmative action debates turn)? Only when these matters have been settled can the abstractions do any work, and the abstractions, in and of themselves, cannot settle them. Indeed, concepts like fairness and equality are normatively useless, except as rhetorical ornaments, until they are filled in by some partisan or ideological or theological perspective, precisely the perspectives secular reason has forsworn. Therefore, Smith concludes, “conversations in the secular cage could not proceed very far without smuggling.”

The move there between the last two paragraphs is the suspect one.  Unless there is a definitional necessity to the "always" there, I think there there is ample evidence that it need not be the case.  Perhaps one might, to cite the obvious objection, claim that only an entirely abstract conception of justice can be the only satisfactory one–precisely because it is emptied of partisan perspective. 

Underlying this move is the notion that "normative" means "partisan, ideological, i.e., religious."  I think that's hardly the case.  Those things are instances of normativity, but they're not the only ones.

In what sense?

"In what sense" has got to be one of the most basic philosophical questions.  It aims, at the very least, to get clear about what we're talking about.  Because, as it turns out, words and concepts and such have different senses.  Justice, for instance, seems to mean different things.  And it would be important to avoid obvious equivocations.  So, for instance, if I am talking about a normative notion of justice, and you come back at me with empirical observations about the criminal justice system, I will be confused.  This seems to be a really straightforward point.  But alas.  Here's Stanley Fish, The New York Times' idea of an intellectual:

I don’t think that’s the way it happens or could happen. Let’s say (to give a humble example from literary studies) that there is a dispute about the authorship of a poem. A party to the dispute might perform comparative analyses of the writings of rival candidates, examine letters and personal libraries, research the records of printers and publishers, look at the history of reception, etc. Everyone who engages in the dispute will do his or her work in relation to well-established notions of what counts as evidence for authorship and accepted criteria for determining whether or not the evidence marshaled is persuasive.

But suppose, you think (in the manner of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault) that the idea of the individual author is a myth that emerges alongside the valorization of property and property rights so central to Enlightenment thought? Suppose you believe that the so-called author is not the source of the words to which he signs his name, but is instead merely a site transversed by meanings neither he nor any other so-called “individual” originates? (“Writing,” says Barthes, “is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin.”)

I am not affirming this view, which has religious (“not me, but my master in me”) and secular (it is the age or zeitgeist that speaks) versions. I am just observing that there are many who hold it, and that for those who do the evidence provided by printers’ records or letters or library holdings will not be evidence at all; for they do not believe in the existence of the entity — the conclusively identified individual author — it aspires to be evidence of. If no one wrote the poem in the sense assumed by the effort to fix authorship, that effort is without a point and the adducing of evidence in the absence of something to be proved will seem quixotic and even perverse.

The example might seem to be to the side of the (supposed) tension between faith and reason, but it is, I believe, generalizable. Evidence, understood as something that can be pointed to, is never an independent feature of the world. Rather, evidence comes into view (or doesn’t) in the light of assumptions – there are authors or there aren’t — that produce the field of inquiry in the context of which (and only in the context of which) something can appear as evidence.

Holy Crap.  The "valorization" of property has an empirical component ("your property is valorized at less than it was valorized at before") and a normative component ("your property ought to be valorized at more than it was before") and a conceptual component (your property is valorizable), among other components.  The question for the literary studies people is whether some person x wrote some poem y.  This is an empirically verifiable fact–just ask Foucault's estate.  The question for Foucault, I take it, is whether such knowledge will tell us anything about anything (well, in particular, about the "meaning" of the poem.  They're different questions which Stanley Fish has hopelessly confused.

And he has confused these two different sorts of claim in order further to confuse the difference between the methods of faith and the methods of science.  They're not, to reorient the analogy where it should (!) be, talking about the same thing.  And to make this all a tomayto-tomahto question of evidence just ignores one pretty basic philosophical question.

Compound error

I read these things and shake my head:

Last week’s column about Denis Rancourt, a University of Ottawa professor who is facing dismissal for awarding A-plus grades to his students on the first day of class and for turning the physics course he had been assigned into a course on political activism, drew mostly negative comments.

The criticism most often voiced was that by holding Rancourt up as an example of the excesses indulged in by those who invoke academic freedom, I had committed the fallacy of generalizing from a single outlier case to the behavior of an entire class “Is the Rancourt case one of a thousand such findings this year, or it the most outlandish in 10 years?” (Jack, No. 88).

That's Stanley Fish, the New York Times' interpreter of the academic world.  Sounds like he has been accused of a hasty generalization in the form of "nutpicking."  I'm not particularly interested in the merits of the charge–Fish seems even to concede it.  One minor observation.  I'm sure we are all guilty at one point or another for reasoning that badly.  The difference is that Fish gets to air out his errors in the New York Times.  Anyway, he makes things worse as he defends himself.  He writes (following directly):

It may be outlandish because it is so theatrical, but one could argue, as one reader seemed to, that Rancourt carries out to its logical extreme a form of behavior many display in less dramatic ways. “How about a look at the class of professors who … duck their responsibilities ranging from the simple courtesies (arrival on time, prepared for meetings … ) to the essentials (“lack of rigor in teaching and standards … )” (h.c.. ecco, No. 142). What links Rancourt and these milder versions of academic acting-out is a conviction that academic freedom confers on professors the right to order (or disorder) the workplace in any way they see fit, irrespective of the requirements of the university that employs them.

Eegads!  "Carrying the behavior to its logical extreme" is the characteristic marker of the slippery slope.  And its supported by an alleged fallacy of accident: certain very jerky professors are going to interpret academic freedom very broadly, and, since they will allege this, there must be a logical connection between academic freedom and being a complete nitwit.  Well there isn't.  Just because the connection is alleged by some–how many, not many I would guess–does not mean the connection obtains.  What Fish has done, in other words, is compound the error of one fallacy (the hasty generalization nutpicking variety) with three more:the slippery slope, the fallacy of accident, and the implied hasty generalization again!

Job Market

Anyone who has gone through the relentless misery known as the academic job market knows that one's political affiliations are the farthest thing from one's mind (and the least likely subject of conversation at any of one's many interviews).  One worries rather about the really long CV of one's competitors.  Having gone through that myself, I can say that George Will's whining about ideological imbalance in the humanities is uninformed and silly.  Speaking of a recent and most likely annoying book by Stanley Fish, he suggests that one ought to study the causes and consequences of there being so many lefties in academia.  Laying out his case for affirmative action for conservatives, Will writes: 

Fish does not dispute the fact that large majorities of humanities and social science professors are on the left. But about the causes and consequences of this, he airily says: It is all "too complicated" to tell in his book, other than to say that the G.I. Bill began the inclusion of "hitherto underrepresented and therefore politically active" groups.

Then, promiscuously skewering straw men, he says, "these were not planned events" and universities do not "resolve" to hire liberals and there is no "vast left-wing conspiracy" and inquiring into a job applicant's politics is not "allowed" and "the fact of a predominantly liberal faculty says nothing necessarily about what the faculty teaches." Note Fish's obfuscating "necessarily."

The question is not whether the fact "necessarily" says something about teaching but whether the fact really does have pedagogic consequences. About the proliferation of race and gender courses, programs and even departments, Fish says there are two relevant questions: Are there programs "with those names that are more political than academic?" And do such programs "have to be more political than academic?" He says the answer to the first is yes, to the second, no.

The "consequences," however, of this phenomenon have been studied.  Turns out, say some, students are unlikely to be indoctrinated.  I know I say this a lot, but I'm tired of being called an indoctrinator: I can't even indoctrinate my students to underline or italicize the title of that leftist handbook, The Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics.  When they get that, perhaps will move on to my views about race and gender. 

Lay bare the structure

Discussions of bias seem to take on a similar pattern.  Aside from the groundless hurling of the "you're biased" accusation, someone will quickly make the claim that "bias" is inevitable and that we all have our own unjustified biases, so why bother.  Here is yet another way, the Stanley Fish way, to deal with questions of bias:

I agree that it is important to have a position on such questions of truth, but the classroom is not the place to work that position out; the classroom is, however, the place to consider the efforts of men and women to work it out in the course of centuries. Steven Brence may or may not be right when he announces that an “untenable” Hobbesian notion of individualism is responsible for “much of contemporary conservative thought.” But “untenable” is not a judgment he should render, although he should make an historical argument about conservative thought’s indebtedness to Hobbes. Save “untenable” for the soapbox.

Sarah asks, what good does academic conversation “do us if it does not put us in a better position to assess current theories and thoughts?” It depends what you mean by assess. If you mean analyze, lay bare the structure of, trace the antecedents of, then well and good. But if it means pronouncing on the great issues of the day — yes we should export democracy to the rest of the world or no we shouldn’t — then what she calls assessing I call preaching.

Sarah touches on what is perhaps the most urgent question one could put to the enterprise of liberal education. What, after all, justifies it? The demand for justification, as I have said in other places, always come from those outside the enterprise. Those inside the enterprise should resist it, because to justify something is to diminish it by implying that its value lies elsewhere. If the question What justifies what you do? won’t go away, the best answer to give is “nothing.”

Now I hate to be the guy who draws the facile conclusion, but isn't "laying bear the structure of" a kind of "pronouncing on"?  I mean, if I say, "this argument has the structure (and say content) of an equivocation," aren't I pronouncing on it?  Or should I not teach logic, because it's biased?

Fish hook

Stanley Fish laments:

The difference between making arguments and analyzing them is not
always recognized, and when it is missed, readers get outraged about
things I never said.

Denying such subtle philosophical distinctions–obvious to all–is what Stanley Fish often does in his columns.  I don’t mean this as an argumentum ad hominem tu quoque–you’re wrong Stanley because you do it  too–because, after all, he’s right, after all, about this.  Such distinctions ought to be a little more frequent in his columns (and radio "appearances"), especially when he critiques the arguments of others.  Here’s an example from today’s column:

He proceeds to write:

This distinction between tribal identity politics and policy or
interest identity politics could of course be challenged (as it was by
many posters), but the challenge would be to its cogency or adequacy,
not to its agenda, because it has none. The distinction is descriptive,
not normative
. In offering it, I do not say, “practice identity
I only say that those who do take identity into
consideration either by voting for someone on the basis of an identity
affiliation or choosing a candidate because he or she is perceived to
be friendly to identity interests are not doing something patently

Get that–he doesn’t say "practice identity politics," he says "it’s not wrong to practice identity politics."  For those who practice identity politics, "it’s not wrong to practice identity politics" is the same as "keep practicing identity politics–it’s ok really"  He’s making a distinction that regards what one ought to do (or ought not to do). 

But more to the point, Fish’s distinction in this passage regards–and I think we wrote about this a bit ago–the kind of non-distinction drawing about "identity politics" he complains about in others.  Fish asserts that any interest voting is "identity" politics.  That seems fine, but it has the air of a truism.  Besides, that’s not the kind of "identity politics" that people are talking about.  So calling every interest "identity" does nothing to address the issue that most people have with identity politics.  It’s like saying "everything is political."  May be true, but it’s uninformative.

The plain phenomena

Stanley Fish often plays the equivocation game.  This game consists in solving a real philosophical problem by erasing or denying  some of its critical semantic and conceptual distinctions.  It's more parlor trick than intellectual move.  I heard him do this the other day on NPR's "Talk of the Nation."  Near the end of the section a caller had made the claim that one ought not to vote narrowly on his or her own interests.  Some minutes later, even after another caller had spoken about a different issue, Stanley Fish returned to make the point that it's just false that you cannot vote your own "interests."  It's impossible, in other words, not to vote your interests.  

For those familiar with a little bit of Plato and Aristotle, this sounds a lot like the following: it's impossible, so said Socrates, to know the good and not do it.  If you don't do the good, you don't know what it is.  Those in philosophical land will recognize this as the problem of akrasia.  They will also notice that there might be any number of plausible interpretations of Socrates's position.  Let me draw on one for the purposes of illustration.  You will always do, Socrates seems to say, what you view as the good.  Even if its bad, you view it as the good.  It's the good because all actions aim at the good.  Even if the good is bad.  For you it's the good.  See?

Nor did Aristotle.  He said this view "contradicts the plain phenomena."  People do all the time what they know they shouldn't be doing. 

So on one reading, the Socratic position plays on a semantic ambiguity in order to claim that "doing the good" is a "definitional"  or "analytic" truth. 

Having said all that, let's return to Stanley Fish.  In his column in the New York Times he makes a similar point:

We should distinguish, I think, between two forms of identity politics. The first I have already named “tribal”; it is the politics based on who a candidate is rather than on what he or she believes or argues for. And that, I agree, is usually a bad idea. (I say “usually” because it is possible to argue that the election of a black or female president, no matter what his or positions happen to be, will be more than a symbolic correction of the errors that have marred the country’s history, and an important international statement as well.) The second form of identity politics is what I call “interest” identity politics. It is based on the assumption (itself resting on history and observation) that because of his or her race or ethnicity or gender a candidate might pursue an agenda that would advance the interests a voter is committed to. Not only is there nothing wrong with such a calculation – it is both rational and considered – I don’t see that there is an alternative to voting on the basis of interest.

The last claim–there is no alternative to voting on the basis of interest–has that "analytical" ring to it.  Notice, however, how Fish uses that broad analytical sense of interest to make the more narrow claim that one must vote for one's identity interests. Fish ought to know that these are two rather different senses of the term "interest."  But he doesn't.  Following this he asserts:

The alternative usually put forward is Crouch’s: Vote “for human qualities” rather than sectarian qualities. That is, vote on the basis of reasons everyone, no matter what his or her identity, will acknowledge as worthy.

That really isn't the real alternative.  The real alternative would return to the sensible discussion of interest.  If we grant that it's analytically true that everyone votes his own interest, we can put aside the question of interest as telling us nothing interesting, and return to the discussion we were having before–which of my many interests ought to be the deciding factor in voting in a democracy?  My economic interests?  My racial identity interests?  My religious interests?  My professional interests, my family interests, my friend's interests, my leisure interests, my civic interests?  Knowing that I must vote for one, because that's the nature of reality, doesn't help me figure which one.   

Knowing how

Stanley Fish, attempting to praise the skill of thinking critically:

Taking as an example the concept of IQ, William Haboush says that while a scientist will use it, a humanist “will ask what does it mean? Is it one thing or many? Who made up the questions used in measuring it.” This, then, is critical thinking – the analytic probing of formulas, precepts and pieces of received wisdom that too often go unexamined and unchallenged. This skill, Warren Call claims, is taught in humanities courses where students “analyze ideas, differing viewpoints, justifications, opinions and accounts” and, in the process, learn how to “construct a logical assessment . . . and defend their conclusions with facts and lucid argument.”

That certainly sounds like a skill worth having, and I agree that it can be acquired in courses where literary texts, philosophical arguments and historical evens are being scrutinized with an eye to seeing what lies beneath (or to the side of) their surfaces. But it also can be, and is, acquired elsewhere. Right now millions of TV viewers are acquiring it when they watch Chris Matthews or George Will or Cokie Roberts analyze the current political moment and say things like, “It would be wrong to draw any long run conclusion from Hilary Clinton’s victory in New Hampshire because in other states the voting population is unlikely to be 57 percent female and 97 percent white,” or “If we are to understand the immigration debate, we must go back the great waves of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” or “Homelessness is not a single problem, but a nest of problems that cannot be solved piecemeal."

Fish's example refutes itself.  Nevertheless, while it's probably true that one can acquire critical thinking skills by imitating critical thinkers, it would be wrong to confuse the practical aquisition of these skills with an understanding of their nature, origin, and limits.  A musician who has learned by ear may sound good, but she or he won't have the same level of mastery as one who has also studied musical theory.


From these shallow and uniformed reflections on the nature of "justification" it's obvious that Stanley Fish doesn't know much about the humanities:

To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said – even when it takes the form of Kronman’s inspiring cadences – diminishes the object of its supposed praise.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle, a frequent subject in courses in the humanities, had the following to say:

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities. Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth. But where such arts fall under a single capacity- as bridle-making and the other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall under yet others- in all of these the ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued. It makes no difference whether the activities themselves are the ends of the actions, or something else apart from the activities, as in the case of the sciences just mentioned.

Sometimes, it seems, the justification for the activity is the activity itself.  When it is, it's still a justification.