Category Archives: Stanley Fish

Never knew you cared

Stanley Fish reads two books on religion–one for, one against–and comes to a stirring, there-are-good-arguments-on-both-sides conclusion:

>Perhaps an individual reader of either will have his or her mind changed, but their chief value is that together they testify to the continuing vitality and significance of their shared subject. Both are serious inquiries into matters that have been discussed and debated by sincere and learned persons for many centuries. The project is an old one, but these authors pursue it with an energy and goodwill that invite further conversation with sympathetic and unsympathetic readers alike.

>In short, these books neither trivialize their subject nor demonize those who have a different view of it, which is more than can be said for the efforts of those fashionable atheist writers whose major form of argument would seem to be ridicule.

The chief value of these books on religion is that they are books on religion.

. . . like the pilot of a ship

Another puzzling piece from the nearly always puzzling Stanley Fish. He takes the usual line that “everyone advocates a point of view,” so everyone is a partisan, but then fails to understand the difference between principle and strategy. He writes:

>But the report gets off to a bad start when its authors allow the charge by conservative critics that left-wing instructors indoctrinate rather than teach to dictate their strategy. By taking it as their task to respond to what they consider a partisan attack, they set themselves up to perform as partisans in return, and that is exactly what they end up doing.

He then goes on to criticize the strategy of the American Association of University Professors. They set themselves up as “partisans” in the minds of those who can’t read very well. A few paragraphs later, Fish writes:

>My point is made for me by the subcommittee when it proposes a hypothetical as a counterexample to the stricture laid down by the Students for Academic Freedom: “Might not a teacher of nineteenth-century American literature, taking up ‘Moby Dick,’ a subject having nothing to do with the presidency, ask the class to consider whether any parallel between President George W. Bush and Captain Ahab could be pursued for insight into Melville’s novel?”

>But with what motive would the teacher initiate such a discussion? If you look at commentaries on “Moby Dick,” you will find Ahab characterized as inflexible, monomaniacal, demonic, rigid, obsessed and dictatorial. What you don’t find are words like generous, kind, caring, cosmopolitan, tolerant, far-seeing and wise. Thus the invitation to consider parallels between Ahab and Bush is really an invitation to introduce into the classroom (and by the back door) the negative views of George Bush held by many academics.

>If the intention were, as claimed, to produce insight into Melville’s character, there are plenty of candidates in literature for possible parallels – Milton’s Satan, Marlowe’s Faust, Byron’s Cain, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Shakespeare’s Iago, Jack London’s Wolf Larsen, to name a few. Nor would it have been any better if an instructor had invited students to find parallels between George Bush and Aeneas, or Henry the Fifth, or Atticus Finch, for then the effect would have been to politicize teaching from the other (pro-Bush) direction.

>By offering this example, the report’s authors validate the very accusation they are trying to fend off, the accusation that the academy’s leftward tilt spills over into the classroom. No longer writing for the American Association of University Professors, the subcommittee is instead writing for the American Association of University Professors Who Hate George Bush (admittedly a large group). Why do its members not see that? Because once again they reason from an abstract theoretical formulation to a conclusion about what instructors can properly do.

Bush is the President. The president is kind of a like a captain of a ship, insofar as he is a leader of people. Leaders of people can lead well or badly. Is Bush like the one who leads badly, or not.

The more obviously silly point of Fish’s argument is that he seems to think literature can only refer to other literature. So, if it’s parallels you’re looking for, don’t look at real people. Literature has nothing to say about that. Besides, easily offended Bush lovers might be offended.

Scent of a herring

Stanley Fish weighs in on all the chatter about "political indoctrination" at American Universities.

Once again, the question is how many of them are there? Anne Neal, president of the conservative watchdog group the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, asks that question on camera, and answers it by reporting that in a survey of students a “significant percentage…complained that politics was being introduced in the classroom” and 42 percent “said their book lists were one sided.”

Here again there’s the part we should take seriously and the red-herring or fake-issue part. Book lists take their shape from the instructor’s judgment that a particular text is important to the area of inquiry. There is no reason – at least no pedagogical reason – to demand that a book list contain representatives of every approach out there. The judgment that a list is “one sided” is a political not an academic judgment (and the fact that students are making it makes it even more suspect), and enforcing it, as some state legislatures now want to do, would be a blatantly political act.

But then there’s the part we should take seriously: professors who use the classroom as a stage for their political views. Maloney speculates that perhaps one out of seven perform in this way. I would put the number much lower, perhaps one out of twenty-five. But one out of 10,000 would be one too many.

This kind of crap makes academics bristle. We’re paid, believe it or not, to have well-grounded views on things within the purview of our expertise. For some of us, that expertise includes knowing what makes a view well grounded. It is inevitable, therefore, that professors (even those in the humanities) will pronounce on "political" questions.

The more important thing to remember, however, is what one letter writer to the New York Times said (in reference to some David Brooks’ griping about leftist academics): If I could only indoctrinate my students to do the reading, proofread their papers, and show up to class on time, I’d consider myself a success.


The most facile critique of Rawlsian liberalism consists in claiming that liberalism espouses values just like any other system, so it’s really no different from them. This is a favorite tactic of Stanley Fish:

>But right there, in the invocation of “free development” and “mutual forbearance,” Starr gives the lie to liberal neutrality. Free development (the right of individuals to frame and follow their own life plans) and mutual forbearance (a live-and-let-live attitude toward the beliefs of others as long as they do you no harm) are not values everyone endorses.

So one cannot claim that one is for religious liberty, and be religious, without contradicting himself. If one is, say, Catholic, and one endorses a political system based on government neutrality toward any non-human sacrificing religion, then one is, on Fish’s ever more childish analysis, espousing yet another system of value, as intolerant of intolerance as intolerance is intolerant of tolerance. It’s just crap.

John Holbo at Crooked Timber makes a related point about Fish:

>I would also like to request a moratorium on critiques of liberalism that consist entirely of a flourish for effect – with accompanying air of discovery – of the familiar consideration that liberalism is inconsistent with blanket, categorical tolerance of absolutely every possible act and attitude. That is, liberalism is incompatible, in practice, with any form of illiberalism that destroys liberalism. If something is inconsistent with liberalism, it is inconsistent with liberalism. Yes. Quite. We noticed.

And this points out the silly category problem of Fish’s analysis. Every mental attitude (political, eschatological, metaphorical, emotional, ethical, and so on) is exactly the same. So if I endorse religious liberty, I value it; if I belong to a religion, I value it; if I like Vernaccia, I value it; if I like the Detroit Lions, I value them. All values, all the same. But maybe, just maybe, the problem is the use of values. Maybe they’re not all the same.

Olde Tyme Religion

Stanley Fish ought to dump the subject of religion. In his last blog entry, he moves the goal posts far away from the Atheist trio of Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris. According to Fish, they argue that textual criticism shows the Bible to be a bunch of made up stuff by people who lived along time ago. So therefore there is no God–at all (so Fish says they say). He writes:

>So there’s the triple-pronged case. Religions are humanly constructed traditions and at their center are corrupted texts that were cobbled together by provincial, ignorant men who knew less about the world than any high-school teenager alive today. Sounds devastating, but when you get right down to it, all it amounts to is the assertion that God didn’t write the books or establish the terms of worship, men did, and that the results are (to put it charitably) less than perfect.

Then Fish goes on to point out how dumb that is, because:

>If divinity, by definition, exceeds human measure, the demand that the existence of God be proven makes no sense because the machinery of proof, whatever it was, could not extend itself far enough to apprehend him.

But that just changes the subject. As Fish says, Hitchens, et al. are talking about religions and their historical and textual basis. To be exact, Hitchens et al. in this particular instance deny that the Bible, with its stories of a man who walked on the earth, healed the sick, and blessed the Greeks (and so on and so on) constitutes reliable evidence for the existence of God. Skepticism regarding the literal historical truth of a foundational religious text, however, is a different matter from denying the possible existence of a Pseudo-Dionysian God beyond being. Denying the existence of such a Being–that is to say, a God, on Fish’s description, beyond existence, proof, knowledge or interaction with the world–is impossible.

*clarity edit 6/28. Thanks Ugo.

They’re bound to mess up

In his second commentary on Porphyry's Isagoge, Boethius argues that those who ignore the science of disputation are going to make mistakes (Patrologia Latina 64, 73A). He should have also pointed out that those ignorant of scientific disputations will likewise never learn the "incorrupt truth of reality." I think Stanley Fish falls somewhere in the middle: he's both ignorant of logic and science. He writes:

Dawkins voices distress at an imagined opponent who 'can't see' the evidence or 'refuses to look at it because it contradicts his holy book,' but he has his own holy book of whose truth he has been persuaded, and it is within its light that he proceeds and looks forward in hope (his word) to a future stage of enlightenment he does not now experience but of which he is fully confident. Both in the vocabulary they share 'hope,' 'belief,' 'undoubtedly,' 'there will come a time' and the reasoning they engage in, Harris and Dawkins perfectly exemplify the definition of faith found in Hebrews 11, 'the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.'

The evidence for the theory of evolution, my science oriented friends tell me, is vast and testable. On the basis of this vast and testable theory, Dawkins makes judgments (perhaps erroneous ones–remember children, this is science, people are bound to make mistakes, that's the point) about things and events that fall within the purview of the theory, such as the behavior of biological creatures–i.e., living things, like human beings. He claims that as we learn more about the brain–that thing with which we think, and whose wisdom is impaired with chemical substances found in booze–we will probably come to account for more and more human behavior. Confidence or rather faith in such progress is one reason why the study of neurology continues to be funded. One problem with Fish's claim is that he sophistically equivocates on the words "believe," "hope," and so forth. The fact that believers and science types both "believe," "hope" and "have faith" in other words, tells you nothing about what they believe and how they believe, but a lot about the multivalent nature of words. All cognizant beings stand in some kind of relation to the objects of their judgments–but that doesn't mean the objects of these judgments are all the same.

Value claims

Stanley Fish argues that advocacy is unavoidable. His argument has a kind of definitional inevitability about it. You know therefore that there’s something wrong with it. In his Times Select (sorry about the firewall for those without NYTimes accounts), he claims that it’s silly to look to eliminate spin from public discourse. Speaking of Unspun, a recent book about spin by Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Fish writes:

>But some of their examples suggest that active open-mindedness (even if it could be practiced, and I don’t think it could) may not be enough. The first example in the book of the spin you should be able to see through if you are sufficiently alert is a 2006 statement by Karl Rove to the effect that “Real disposable income has risen almost 14 percent since President Bush took office.” Jackson and Jamieson regard this claim as “so divorced from reality as to seem unhinged.” Why? Because the real disposable income Rove cited “was a statistic that measures the total increase in income, not how that income is distributed.” That is to say, the 14-percent increase did not benefit everyone, but went largely “to those in the upper half of society”; the disposable income of the lower half had “fallen by 3.6 percent.”

>Does this prove spin? I don’t think so. What it proves is that in Rove’s view, the health of the economy is to be gauged by looking at how big investors and property owners are doing, while in Jackson’s and Jamieson’s view, an economy is not healthy unless the fruits of its growth are widely shared. This is a real difference, but it is a difference in beliefs about what conditions must obtain if an economy is to be pronounced healthy. It is not a difference between a clear-eyed view of the matter and a view colored by a partisan agenda. If the question of fact is “do we have a healthy economy?” there are no independent bits of evidence that can tip the scale in favor of a “yes” or “no,” because the evidence put forward by either side will only be evidence in the light of economic beliefs that are structuring the arena of assessment. Those beliefs (roughly, “trickle down” and “spread the wealth”) tell you what the relevant evidence is and what it is evidence of. But they are not judged by the evidence; they generate it.

This smacks of a fairly undergraduate relativism about value claims (which, ironically, few of my undergraduates would hold). Evaluative terminology has an obvious flexibility–but it’s hardly true to lump all such claims into the same category. Economic health is not a matter of taste–some like hotdogs and trickle down economics, others socialism and foie gras. As the authors of the book seem to argue, one ought to be point out that what Rove means by health is at variance with what the listener–or for that matter the majority of mainstream economists–might consider health. So value claims ought to be unspun in front of their likely and incorrect interpretations. If Bush calls occupying a foreign country a “freedom plan,” it ought to be pointed out that it’s an abuse of language to call it “free.” While this is not a matter of simple fact, as Fish seems to imagine the author’s claiming, it is a matter of reasonable judgment.

The depressing thing here though is Fish’s embracing the mode of perpetual advocacy. On this silly view, no one is ever free from advocating his or her point of view–not even Fish, when he talks about advocating a point of view.

Fish on religion and liberalism

I think Stanley Fish doesn’t understand either liberalism or religion. He writes (behind the Times firewall):

>First of all, I stipulate to the usefulness of teaching the bible as an aid to the study of literature and history. I’m just saying that when you do that you are teaching religion as a pedagogical resource, not as a distinctive discourse the truth or falsehood of which is a matter of salvation for its adherents. One can of course teach that too; one can, that is, get students to understand that at least some believers hold to their faith in a way that is absolute and exclusionary; in their view nonbelievers have not merely made a mistake – as one might be mistaken about the causes of global warming – they have condemned themselves to eternal perdition. (“I am the way.”) What one cannot do – at least under the liberal democratic dispensation – is teach that assertion of an exclusive and absolute truth as anything but someone’s opinion; and in many classes that opinion will be rehearsed with at best a sympathetic condescension (“let’s hope they grow out of it”) and at worst a condemning ridicule (“even in this day and age, there are benighted people”).

In the first place (as we noted in an earlier post), there’s nothing incoherent about studying the body of propositions that compose any particular religious doctrine without embracing their truth. For instance, Fish has made the doctrine and the seriousness with which its adherents believe it without making us affirm it. If what he said about religion were true–you cannot teach it–then he couldn’t talk about why you can’t. Since you can–he has–then what he says is false.

Second, the Rawlsian liberal will point out that there is no absolute truth when it comes to matters of foundational questions of justice and political structure. This is quite a different claim from that which says there is no absolute truth at all. Liberals are not relativists, as Fish seems to think. There is of course plenty of absolute truth possible in matters empirical. These may inform, but do not form the basis of, our conception of justice. So in the end, no controversial system of value can serve as the basis of a political structure.

Religious life

Arguing that one cannot study religion academically, Stanley Fish writes:

>The difference between the truth claims of religion and the truth claims of other academic topics lies in the penalty for getting it wrong. A student or a teacher who comes up with the wrong answer to a crucial question in sociology or chemistry might get a bad grade or, at the worst, fail to be promoted. Those are real risks, but they are nothing to the risk of being mistaken about the identity of the one true God and the appropriate ways to worship him (or her). Get that wrong, and you don’t lose your grade or your job, you lose your salvation and get condemned to an eternity in hell.

But Professor Fish has a comparison problem. The penalty for getting questions wrong about religion on a test is a failing grade; the penalty for getting a chemistry question wrong in real life is death.

Cartoon liberalism

Stanley Fish, professor of law at Florida International University, illustrates a logical confusion as fundamental and pervasive as it is difficult to identify. In short, Professor Fish confuses the way a belief is held by some people with the logical character of that belief. Take the following, for instance.

>Mr. Rose may think of himself, as most journalists do, as being neutral with respect to religion — he is not speaking as a Jew or a Christian or an atheist — but in fact he is an adherent of the religion of letting it all hang out, the religion we call liberalism.

>The first tenet of the liberal religion is that everything (at least in the realm of expression and ideas) is to be permitted, but nothing is to be taken seriously. This is managed by the familiar distinction — implied in the First Amendment’s religion clause — between the public and private spheres. It is in the private sphere — the personal spaces of the heart, the home and the house of worship — that one’s religious views are allowed full sway and dictate behavior.

Here Fish is speaking of the attitude of Westerners to the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published recently in Denmark. There seem to be two basic confusions. First, Fish confuses the *political* neutrality of liberalism toward different kinds of metaphysical or theological claims with the *psychological* neutrality of individuals who affirm one or other (and there are many indeed) variation on liberalism. Individuals who embrace one or other of the liberal views caricatured by Professor Fish may do so as if it were a religion, but that doesn’t mean that the view is a religion–a religion, that is, of the sort characterized by liberalism.

Second, Fish employs the surprisingly amateur anti-liberal device of calling any recommendation for action, qua recommendation for action, a moral claim.

>This is itself a morality — the morality of a withdrawal from morality in any strong, insistent form. It is certainly different from the morality of those for whom the Danish cartoons are blasphemy and monstrously evil. And the difference, I think, is to the credit of the Muslim protesters and to the discredit of the liberal editors.

It’s vacuous to assert that all systems involving beliefs and actions are of the same logical order. If all action-inducing claims are moral claims, then none of them are. Liberals, of all stripes, consider this distinction between controversial moral claims and political structures to be the aim of their many and varied arguments for the superiority of their view. They may be wrong. But they’re wrong on the merits of their arguments, not because, as Fish alleges, they don’t have an argument.