Stanley Fish 1938-
(Full name Stanley Eugene Fish) American critic, nonfiction writer, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Fish's career through 2000.
A provocative literary theorist and intellectual gadfly, Stanley Fish has earned distinction for his investigations into the subjectivity of textual interpretation, specifically his explication of the concept of an “interpretive community.” While in the first major portion of his publishing career Fish explored the role of the reader in determining the meaning of a text (as seen through the lens of seventeenth-century English literature), he later applied his particular brand of literary theory to legal studies. He has also critiqued the work of his own colleagues, questioning the tendency of academics in English literature to politicize their writings. Fish is known, if not always appreciated, by his peers for his controversial stances.
Fish was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on April 19, 1938. His family moved to Philadelphia, where he attended the University of Pennsylvania and received his B.A. in 1959. Upon graduating from college, he married Adrienne A. Aaron, with whom he had a daughter; Fish and Aaron divorced in 1980. He attended graduate school at Yale, earning his Ph.D., with a thesis on the English poet John Skelton, in 1962. Fish's first teaching job was at the University of California at Berkeley, where he received incremental promotions from the position of instructor, beginning in 1962, to that of professor of English in 1969. While at Berkeley Fish released his first book, John Skelton's Poetry (1965), as well as subsequent volumes that established his critical reputation. In 1974 Fish moved to Johns Hopkins University, where he was named Kenan Professor of English. During this period, he married his second wife, Jane Parry Tompkins, also a professor, in 1982. Fish began working at Duke University in 1985, where he served as Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of English and Law, chair of the English department, associate vice provost, and executive director of Duke University Press. Since 1999 he has held the position of dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Beginning his career with strictly academic subjects, Fish's writings came to include concerns outside of the classroom. His first book, John Skelton's Poetry, which grew out of his doctoral thesis, takes a radical perspective in interpreting Skelton's work. Fish contends that Skelton was basically a private poet and that his implicitly Christian verse serves as a record of the poet's religious development; at the center of Fish's argument is the “psychological (spiritual) history” of what he refers to as the “protagonist.” In his next book, Surprised by Sin (1967), Fish daringly argues that the subject of John Milton's masterpiece, Paradise Lost, is actually the reader. Fish attempts to show that the text of the poem, controlled by its author's didactic goals, uses different techniques involving form and theme to call attention to the reader's interpretive inadequacies; the reader's deficiencies are pointed out by the poem, making the reader open to being educated as to “the ways of God to men.” Self-Consuming Artifacts (1972) presents a more direct confrontation of the matter of form within a text. In this book Fish identifies two types of literature: rhetorical, which confirms and reinforces the author's position, therefore affirming the reader's expectations and “self-esteem”; and dialectical, which undermines, or “consumes,” the reader's self-esteem by challenging assumptions and subverting expectations. Fish contends that seventeenth-century writers such as John Donne, George Herbert, John Bunyan, and Milton construct texts that are consumed under their own authority—thereby winning Fish's favor. In Is There a Text in This Class? (1980), Fish continues to explore the idea of reader-as-subject. This collection of essays provides a broader statement of the author's notion that the reader, instead of merely discovering the meaning of a text, actually determines it. The author also calls into question the credibility of facts, maintaining that what are considered facts actually rely on certain assumptions within particular institutions. Facts thus depend upon the agreement of the members of an institution; if the nature of the institution is questioned, then the facts embraced by that institution can also be called into doubt. Is There a Text in This Class? emphasizes the role of an “interpretive community,” whereby meaning is attributed to a text through readers who, as members of such a group, share certain “interpretive assumptions.” Doing What Comes Naturally (1989) broadens the scope of the author's work in literary criticism to include legal studies. In this collection of essays, Fish examines the relation of theory to practice, the connection between meaning and context, and the influence of rhetoric on argument. In There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing, Too (1994), Fish argues that free speech cannot be separated from partisan politics and therefore scorns liberals who believe in the possibility of neutrality. Fish's interest in politics continued with Professional Correctness (1995), in which he criticizes academics for investing their scholarly writings with political meaning, and The Trouble with Principle (1999), in which he uses, among other examples, the debate over affirmative action to assert that an emphasis on principles impedes democracy.
Critics have greeted Fish's writings with a mixture of admiration and opposition. His first major scholarly work, Surprised by Sin, was praised by reviewers for its consideration of Paradise Lost, particularly in illustrating how the poem forces a sense of guilt upon the reader to open the reader to the work's instructive aims. This idea of the “guilty reader,” however, was also criticized for rendering the reader incapable of forming a critical judgment and thus precluding criticism of the work. Critics began to take serious note of Fish's ideas with Is There a Text in This Class? Fish's enervating writing style apparently played a significant role in the book's success in winning critics over to his argument that, even more so than the text itself, the reader's response creates the meaning of a text. There's No Such Thing as Free Speech generated a considerable debate. Fish was criticized for what was observed to be an overly strong cynicism concerning liberalism; on the other hand, the book was praised as helping to revive, through wit and word play, the rather weary state of current legal discourse. Critics also reacted strongly to Professional Correctness. While Fish's case that the university holds the most promise as a site for intellectual integrity was accepted, critics argued that he was incorrect in pointing to the academic world as the source of its own potential demise, instead locating the danger in the contemporary political climate; in any case, “professionalism” was not expected by critics to save the day. The Trouble with Principle again caught the attention of reviewers, who pointed out Fish's methods for exposing the actual lack of neutrality in the “democratic discourse” of liberals. Fish's opposition to the “principles” of liberalism, however, was not found to be either original in its stance or conclusive in terms of supplying a remedy for the current political state. Despite the criticisms found in response to the author's claims, Fish is known as an insightful critic of contemporary culture, one certainly not timid about potentially drawing the ire of his peers; whether they agree with him or not, critics have recognized Fish for the energetic creativity of his thought.
John Skelton's Poetry (criticism) 1965
Surprised by Sin: The Reader in “Paradise Lost” (criticism) 1967
Seventeenth-Century Prose: Modern Essays in Criticism [editor] (criticism) 1971
Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature (criticism) 1972
The Living Temple: George Herbert and Catechizing (criticism) 1978
Is There a Text in This Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities (essays) 1980
Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies (essays) 1989
There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing, Too (essays) 1994
Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change (nonfiction) 1995
The Stanley Fish Reader (essays and criticism) 1999
The Trouble with Principle (nonfiction) 1999
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SOURCE: A review of Surprised by Sin, in Journal of English and German Philology, Vol. 68, No. 3, July, 1969, pp. 517-21.
[In the following review, Lewalski praises Fish's interpretation of Milton's Paradise Lost, but objects to his suggestion that the text works upon the reader's own sinfulness and demands an uncritical leap of faith.]
The much-discussed interpretative cruxes in Paradise Lost—the heroism and magnificence of Satan in Books I and II, the sympathetic portrayal of Adam and Eve sinning, the unattractive harshness of God’s speeches in the Heavenly Council—have been viewed from two basic critical perspectives. William Empson, A. J. A. Waldock, and John Peter find a fundamental conflict between the human, psychologically valid responses evoked by the poem’s honestly presented dramatic scenes, and the commentary of the epic narrator which often counteracts or transvalues those responses under the pressure of the poem’s avowed didactic intention—to celebrate the intractable Christian myth. More common is the position of Douglas Bush, C.S. Lewis, Joseph Summers, and others, that the properly instructed, discriminating reader will find the epic narrator’s comments an accurate, sensitive index for his own responses to the dramatic scenes, except in the few instances where the poem may not wholly succeed in the dramatic realization of poetic intention. Stanley...
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SOURCE: A review of Self-Consuming Artifacts, in Journal of English and German Philology, Vol. 72, No. 4, October, 1973, pp. 536-43.
[In the following review, Miner praises the achievement of Self-Consuming Artifacts, though he takes issue with Fish's interpretation of Plato's Phaedrus and his dismissal of Thomas Browne. Miner also discusses Fish's perspective and importance as a leading practitioner of reader-response criticism.]
Critical movements are made up of people who find each other’s ideas or personalities congenial, or who share common enemies, and there seldom exists a common method of doctrine agreed upon in detail. The so-called reader-response school of criticism resembles the late New Criticism, and the present nouvelle critique, in meaning different things to its members, who nonetheless share certain common preoccupations. Most of the first generation of reader-response critics live in California, with Joan Webber (University of Washington) being the major exception. There are Stanley Stewart (Riverside), the generative semanticist Elizabeth Traugott (Stanford), and of course the Berkeley group of whom Stanley Fish is the best known. Among his colleagues, Paul Alpers probably shares his interests most fully. What is particularly interesting about the people named is that, at about the same time but from different backgrounds, they came upon the presumption...
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SOURCE: A review of Self-Consuming Artifacts, in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 32, No. 4, Summer, 1974, pp. 572-73.
[In the following review of Self-Consuming Artifacts, Uphaus finds contradictions in Fish's Platonic-Christian perspective and “anti-aesthetic” argument.]
For readers of this journal, the importance of Fish’s book [Self-Consuming Artifacts] rests with his challenge to the dominant assumption of the autonomy of art objects. Although Fish’s principal subject is the literature of seventeenth-century England, particularly that literature informed by a combination of Platonic and Christian assumptions, it is the discussions in the first chapter and in his well-known essay on “affective stylistics” (inserted as an appendix to this book) that form the core of Fish’s aesthetic or, more likely, anti-aesthetic. The first four pages of the book, in fact, enumerate the four theses, “at once discrete and independent,” on which the remainder of the book is based. These theses are, first, an historical argument concerning the opposition between two kinds of literary presentation: the “rhetorical” and the “dialectical,” the first of which is self-satisfying and even “flattering,” since it reinforces the reader’s expectations, and the second of which is “humiliating” because it disturbs and indeed undermines the reader’s conventional...
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SOURCE: A review of The Living Temple, in Journal of English and German Philology, Vol. 78, No. 2, April, 1979, pp. 255-58.
[In the following review, Mollenkott provides an overview of Fish's critical argument in The Living Temple and discusses paradoxical and controversial aspects of his assertions.]
If Surprised by Sin set off among certain Miltonists the reaction of Fish-baiting, and Self-Consuming Artifacts widened the scope of that reaction, The Living Temple: George Herbert and Catechizing will probably draw even more seventeenth-century critics into the current of swimming against the Fish. The reasons are not difficult to discern: Stanley Fish writes with clarity and strength, and with a certain absoluteness of tone that is bound to stir up controversy. The serenely confident subtitle of his article in the George Herbert Journal (Fall, 1977) is a case in point: “The Mystery of The Temple Finally Explained.” Furthermore, Fish is never trivial. He confronts central issues head-on, forcing his readers to evaluate their own positions against his calmly worded certainties.
The Living Temple begins with an overview of Herbert criticism in which such people as Williamson, Wedgwood, Grierson, White, and Martz are ranged on the side of Herbert as the resolute craftsman of achieved ease, security, and quiet orderliness, while...
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SOURCE: “Culture and Anarchy,” in The New Republic, February 14, 1981, pp. 36-8.
[In the following review of Is There a Text in This Class?, Graff provides an overview of Fish's critical perspective and exposes fundamental logical flaws in his assertions about the nature of perception and social communication.]
One day in 1971, Professor Stanley Fish tried an experiment in one of his literature classes. Pointing to a random list of names on the blackboard left over from a previous class, Fish told the students “that what they saw on the blackboard was a religious poem of the kind they had been studying,” and he asked them to interpret it. Immediately, he reports, the students began to find intricate allegorical meanings in this “text.” For example, the name “Ohmann” at the end of the list was seen as representing “omen,” “Oh Man,” “amen,” and so forth.
Now one might think this incident only shows how deplorably susceptible college students can be, or how cynically they will go along with the often mechanical ritual of classroom explication. But for Fish the behavior of the students was not an aberration but a model of all acts of textual interpretation, and of interpretation as such. It illustrates the main polemical point of Is There a Text in this Class?, which is that the meanings of texts are not discovered but created by readers. Thus “it...
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SOURCE: A review of Is There a Text in This Class?, in Criticism, Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 177-81.
[In the following review of Is There a Text in This Class?, Strohm provides a summary of Fish's critical arguments and offers a positive assessment of the volume.]
Is There a Text in This Class? is Stanley Fish’s critical autobiography, a collection of twelve essays published over the last decade (Chapters 1–12) and four previously unpublished lectures delivered at Kenyon College in 1979 (Chapters 13–16) held together by an introductory outline of the development of his thought and by prefatory notes at the head of each chapter which identify the circumstances of each essay’s composition, the shortcomings of its findings, and the position it occupies in the narrative of the formation of the viewpoint the book finally espouses. The hero of this chronicle is interpretation, and its villain is “ordinary language,” “a kind of language that ‘merely’ presents or mirrors facts independently of any consideration of value, interest, perspective, purpose, and so on” (p. 97). “Ordinary language” goes by many names, but it always makes the same claim: the world is objectively knowable, and language, at least at some level, transparently represents that world. “It is not too much to say,” Fish remarks, “that everything I write is written against that claim, in...
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SOURCE: “The Professor Knows,” in New York Review of Books, December 17, 1981, pp. 64-6.
[In the following unfavorable review of Is There a Text in This Class?, Wolfheim finds contradictions and logical lapses in Fish's theory of literary interpretation.]
Stanley Fish is a prominent professor of English who now teaches at Johns Hopkins University; he is a seventeenth-century scholar of distinction and a force among those literary critics who not merely assert but exercise the broader claims of their subject. In Is There a Text in This Class? he provides us with a decade’s reflections on what literary criticism is and what literary works are. Thus Fish follows the general practice of contemporary literary criticism, which insists on the right both to determine the method it uses and to define the objects it investigates. In this way it resembles philosophy.
The first essay, entitled “Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics,” appeared in 1970 and Fish calls it with hindsight an “early manifesto,” for the central idea of this essay, revised and extended, provides the content of the four John Crowe Ransom Memorial Lectures, delivered in 1979, on which the book ends. The stronger of the intervening essays fill in the steps by which a bright idea about critical method is gradually elaborated into a far-reaching theory about the literary object....
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SOURCE: A review of Is There a Text in This Class?, in Modern Philology, Vol. 80, No. 1, August, 1982, pp. 113-16.
[In the following review of Is There a Text in This Class?, Yu provides an overview of Fish's critical perspective and commends his “charm, wit, and acumen” but dismisses his elaborate defense of a “lopsided thesis.”]
To the question posed by the title of this book, its author has provided the most succinct answer at the outset. “There isn’t a text in this or any other class if one means by text what E. D. Hirsch and others mean by it, ‘an entity which always remains the same from one moment to the next’ (Validity in Interpretation, p. 46); but there is a text in this and every class if one means by text the structure of meanings that is obvious and inescapable from the perspective of whatever interpretive assumptions happen to be in force” (p. vii). A meaningful text, in short, is the creation (dare we say, fiction?) of a reader, or, more precisely in Fish’s terms, a community of readers. Such an ostensibly forthright view, however, has taken the author ten years for its discovery and elaboration, the process of which is lucidly recapitulated in some twelve reprinted essays which make up the first and longer half of [Is There a Text in This Class?]. The second half consists of four lectures. The book itself thus is less a systematic...
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SOURCE: “Doing Something Different,” in London Review of Books, July 27, 1989, pp. 20-2.
[In the following review of Doing What Comes Naturally, Ellis finds logical fallacies in Fish's argument and disapproves of his alignment with certain fashionable schools of contemporary criticism.]
Before Stanley Fish started doing what comes naturally he wrote standard works of literary criticism which dealt, as most such books do, with particular literary figures and periods. Then, in 1980, he published his first volume devoted to theory of criticism, Is There a Text in This Class?, a collection of his essays from the Seventies. Doing What Comes Naturally is Fish’s second volume of theory, but while this, too, is a collection of his essays from the previous decade, it is quite different in important respects. Is There a Text was devoted to a single issue in theory-reader-oriented criticism—and the sequence of the essays chronicled Fish’s progress as he grappled with the problems raised by a subjectivist view of interpretation; there was something almost autobiographical about the way in which the editorial introductions to successive essays commented on each as a stage in Fish’s thought. The relative paucity of references to other work on this topic reinforced the general impression of an individual’s lonely theoretical journey.
The aura of Doing What...
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SOURCE: “Fish's Consequences,” in British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 29, No. 1, Winter, 1989, pp. 57-64.
[In the following essay, Kivy examines various contradictions and logical flaws of Fish's theoretical perspective, particularly those involving distinctions between demonstration and persuasion models of criticism and their respective implications for literary interpretation.]
I want to examine, in this essay, the consequences for the practice of criticism there would necessarily be if what Stanley Fish says about that practice were indeed the truth. I am not interested, here, in truth, but in consequences. Fish believes that the implications of his view for the practice of criticism would be business as usual. I will argue that this cannot be correct, and that Fish’s position, in this regard, is deeply confused.
To put the matter baldly, there are, in Fish’s view, two opposing models of the literary critic’s activity: what Fish calls the demonstration model, and his own, which he calls the model of persuasion. As he describes them:
In a demonstration model our task is to be adequate to the description of objects that exist independently of our activities; we may fail or we may succeed, but whatever we do the objects of our attention will retain their ontological separateness and still be what they were before we approached them. In a...
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SOURCE: A review of Doing What Comes Naturally, in MLN, Vol. 104, No. 5, December, 1989, pp. 1189-91.
[In the following review, Donoghue offers a positive assessment of Doing What Comes Naturally.]
Stanley Fish states that Doing What Comes Naturally “reduces to an argument in which the troubles and benefits of interpretive theory are made to disappear in the solvent of an enriched notion of practice” (viii). In dismissing the premise, still powerful in mainstream American literary studies, that what we do with any given text must be accountable to some general theory of interpretation, Fish sets himself an extremely ambitious task. In order to succeed, he must identify and account for phenomena and processes that, in every instance, resist general definition (indeed such terms as “phenomena” and “processes” misleadingly formalize the concept of practice employed in this book). In my opinion, he succeeds completely. Drawing from fields as diverse as literary studies, the law, psycho-analysis, baseball (“Dennis Martinez and the Uses of Theory”), and popular music (“Short People Got No Reason to Live: Reading Irony”), Fish presents one compelling example after another of the “unreflective actions that follow from being embedded in a context of practice” (viii), and has, in this collection of essays, made another major contribution to the study of interpretation....
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SOURCE: “Is There a Fish in This Class?,” in Dissent, Vol. 37, Spring, 1990, pp. 259-60.
[In the following essay, Siegel comments on Fish's sophistry and apparent lack of concern for the real-world implications of his theoretical arguments, as demonstrated by his remarks at a public lecture.]
Stanley Fish, the Duke University Arts and Sciences professor of English, chair of the Duke English Department, distinguished professor of law, and self-described “academic leftist,” has just finished a dazzling performance. The overflow audience at Princeton has sat rapt as Fish, who made his reputation as a critic of Renaissance poetry and a theorist of “self-consuming artifacts,” demonstrates the sheer absurdity of the law. Time and again he shows that what is clearly X in a legal text can, by dint of judicial interpretation, become not X.
Contemptuous of conservatives like Allan Bloom who search for certainties, Fish has, in the manner of a certain sort of law school radical, described how the law is unpredictable because it “is nothing but manipulation and power. Legal decisions,” he concludes, “are but ad hoc rhetorical performances.” But, here he hesitates for a moment. Obviously pleased with himself, Fish explains that while radicals anxious to expose the manipulation of power see this as an indictment, he doesn’t. Fish, who once described himself as a longtime...
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SOURCE: “Fish's Argument for the Relativity of Interpretative Truth,” in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 48, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 223-30.
[In the following essay, Stecker examines Fish's theoretical claims about the contextual modes of literary meaning and interpretation, as presented in Is There a Text in This Class; Stecker concludes that Fish's effort to assert the validity of interpretative assumptions as an alternative to relativism or foundationalism ultimately results in its own form of relativism.]
There are four interrelated philosophical problems about the interpretation of literature. While I speak here of literature, these problems can be extended to any interpretive procedures concerned with human action or the products of human agency: the interpretation of all art, of all texts, of individual behavior, of history, etc. One problem concerns the correctness of interpretations. Are interpretations correct or incorrect (true or false), or neither correct nor incorrect? A second problem concerns the standard of acceptability. If there are correct interpretations, is this correctness what we are chiefly concerned with in deciding whether an interpretation is acceptable? A third problem concerns the number of acceptable interpretations. Are there many acceptable interpretations of a given work or just one? A final problem concerns the...
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SOURCE: A review of Doing What Comes Naturally, in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 4, Autumn, 1990, p. 707.
[In the following review of Doing What Comes Naturally, Hauptman commends Fish's writings on academic professionalism and the impossibility of “critical self-consciousness,” but finds much of the collection jargon-ridden and unconvincing.]
Stanley Fish is one of the most important practicing critics of the U.S. His previous works, especially Is There a Text in This Class?, have been extremely influential; his studies of the intersection of literature and law are at the cutting edge of criticism; and his writings on professionalism are amazingly astute. Finally, it is obvious that, as chairperson of English at Duke, Fish has been instrumental in developing one of the finest departments in the country as well as in helping to reinvigorate the South Atlantic Quarterly, which is now a superb journal.
Why is it then that the massive compilation Doing What Comes Naturally is often so tediously disappointing? Why do its twenty-two diverse essays (virtually all of which have appeared previously) fail to communicate or fail to stimulate intellectually? It is partially because Fish maintains “membership in a community of interpretation” that fosters intellectual charlatanism by overburdening the reader with tongue-numbing jargon, unquenchable...
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SOURCE: “Serious or Rhetorical?,” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. XL, No. 4, October, 1990, pp. 339-47.
[In the following review of Doing What Comes Naturally, Fowler finds shortcomings in Fish's theoretical positions and specious arguments, but commends his ability to skillfully dissect the inadequacies of vying critical stances.]
Stanley Fish seems always ahead of the game. Over more decades than seems possible for anyone to stay with it, he has kept up a brilliant cascade of fluent criticism, always au fait, always state of the art, always extending the operations of a school beginning to be fashionable, always knowing pointed questions to put it to. This might be a way of calling him a superlative trimmer, shrewd at seeing through to the limitations of current criticism, and gauging when to move on. Or, it could imply that he simply likes to triumph in debate, to exercise forensic skills in exposing current irrationalities. But Fish is no mere critical Jaws chomping up the competition, still less a trimmer, but rather a consistent devotee of pragmatic self-revision.
From new criticism against the new criticism in Surprised by Sin (1967)—an often excellent study of Paradise Lost seasonably reintroducing non-aesthetic explanation—he moved to a cautious version of deconstruction (Derrida minus the total undecidability) in Self-Consuming Artifacts...
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SOURCE: A review of Doing What Comes Naturally, in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 49, No. 4, Fall, 1991, pp. 375-78.
[In the following review, Shiner provides discussion of Fish's theoretical arguments in Doing What Comes Naturally, particularly those involving legal studies. Shiner offers a positive assessment of Fish's collection, though he concludes that it is “not a great book.”]
The position of Stanley Fish in the canon of canon-busters is deservedly assured. This splendid collection of essays [Doing What Comes Naturally] is required reading for all ichthyophiles (and -phobes), and indeed for anyone who wishes to be entertained and instructed by one of the best minds of our generation. Although only three of the twenty-two essays are not previously published, I guarantee that no one, with the possible exception of Fish himself and his Press editor, has read all of these essays already. The sources range from seven law reviews to such postmodern-establishment journals as Critical Inquiry and New Literary History to lit classics like PMLA, Raritan Review and the Times Literary Supplement and esoterica like Trial(s) of Psychoanalysis. Taken as a whole, the book is a brilliant tour de force. If there is anyone, and perhaps there are none such among the readers of JAAC, who doubts that Fish deserves his reputation, let them...
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SOURCE: “Johnny One-Note,” in The American Scholar, Vol. 60, No. 4, Autumn, 1991, pp. 608-13.
[In the following review of Doing What Comes Naturally, Neth commends the scope and ambition of Fish's writings, but objects to his “self-fulfilling” assertions and “disingenuous” motivations.]
Stanley Fish’s intellectual ingenuity and argumentative rigor were established in his previous books, Surprised by Sin (his controversial study of Paradise Lost, published in 1967) and its sequel, Self-Consuming Artifacts (1972), and in his first full-length incursion into the arcane realm of literary theory, the collection of essays that Fish, with the interrogative irony and critical hyper-self-consciousness that have become his trademarks, characteristically entitled Is There a Text in This Class? (1980). The common thread running through these earlier works is Fish’s conviction that literary texts are always and unavoidably interpreted from a finite, contingent perspective, that there is no such thing as a definitive interpretation based on the text’s objective meaning. Rather, Fish maintains in the first two books, readers participate in the constitution of a text’s meaning by the ways in which they respond to the author’s rhetorical strategies. In the latter volume, he speculates that meaning depends on “whatever interpretive assumptions happen to be in...
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SOURCE: A review of Doing What Comes Naturally, in Modern Language Review, Vol. 87, No. 1, January, 1992, pp. 160-61.
[In the following review, Bertens offers a positive assessment of Doing What Comes Naturally, which he concludes is “an irreverent, important book that addresses highly interesting issues with force and clarity.”]
In his preface, Stanley Fish tells us that he can imagine at least two objections to this massive collection of essays [Doing What Comes Naturally]. A first charge might be made against the extraordinary diversity of a collection that offers essays on Austin’s speech-act theory, on the work of Wolfgang Iser, on the (supposed) idiosyncrasies of legal interpretation, on the blind submission of articles to professional journals, on professionalism and anti-professionalism within academic criticism, on the reception of Paradise Lost (from 1942 to 1979), on change, on rhetoric, on the theoretical impossibility of theory, and so on. Paradoxically, the other objection that Fish has in mind comes down to the complaint that all these essays are essentially the same, a proposition to which he readily agrees, and he is right, as usual: his essays address related, if not actually identical, issues, and a number of them repeat the same argument in different terms or within a different context. There is, then, an undeniable element of repetition in these...
(The entire section is 958 words.)
SOURCE: “The Professor's New Clothes,” in The New Republic, December 6, 1993, pp. 42-6.
[In the following review of There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing, Too, Sunstein objects to Fish's brand of abstract pragmatism and his dismissal of all human claims as mere “politics” without distinction. Sunstein contends that Fish's theoretical notions pose self-defeating implications for free expression and educational reform on university campuses.]
The contemporary debate about free speech on the campus follows a predictable script. On one side stand the self-described absolutists. Proudly decrying political correctness, they claim to insist on principle. Invoking the specter of McCarthyism, they say that we may always control action, but that we may never control speech, however offensive we find it. On the other side are people who like to use the words “politics” and “power.” They think that restrictions on speech are really all over the place, and that those restrictions are a product of—no surprise—“politics” and “power.” For them, the question is not whether we should restrict speech, but whether the left or the right gets to decide whose speech will be restricted. In the words of Stanley Fish, free speech is “not an independent value but a political prize.”
This is a confused and dreary debate, but it has major consequences,...
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SOURCE: “Only Words,” in The Nation, January 31, 1994, pp. 135-37.
[In the following review of There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing, Too, Scialabba commends Fish's “dazzling facility” but disagrees with his views on affirmative action.]
“Poetry makes nothing happen,” Auden wrote—nothing political, anyway. And neither does philosophy, as Richard Rorty has recently shown. You’d never know it, though, from the last decade or so of all-out cultural polemics. The sky is falling, warns the right, and it’s the fault of tenured radicals and trendy artistes. Racism, sexism and imperialism remain unsmashed, complains the left, and it’s the fault of the dominant cultural/ideological formations and of the literary/artistic canon that underwrites their hegemony. Along with several grains of truth, a certain amount of chaff has found its way into the arguments on both sides, as Rorty has pointed out with unfailing, almost excessive tact and Stanley Fish has pointed out with unflagging, almost excessive energy.
One can identify a master argument on each side. The right declares: Judgments about merit, desert, responsibility and liberty—whom to admit, hire, elect, promote, aid or punish, what to teach, what to prohibit—should be made according to permanent, neutral, objective, universal criteria, which will be acknowledged as valid and...
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SOURCE: “The Higher Gamesmanship,” in Commentary, Vol. 97, No. 2, February, 1994, pp. 58-61.
[In the following review, Silver gives an unfavorable assessment of There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing, Too, which he dismisses as “a parody of liberalism.”]
Stanley Fish, a professor at Duke University, is a famous Milton scholar who has also written a great deal on the theory of literary criticism and the philosophy of law. His recent and more general notoriety, however, rests on his participation in a series of public debates with Dinesh D’Souza, the author of Illiberal Education,1 on the status of “political correctness” on our campuses. Fish’s latest collection of essays, There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, contains several essays written for those occasions, as well as articles on legal theory, pragmatist philosophy, and current trends in literary studies.
Fish observes here that it was an odd move of “central casting” to have him posed against D’Souza as a defender of the leftist agenda and a partisan of the effort to redefine the academic curriculum in order to accommodate the goals of “multiculturalism” and “diversity.” He is, after all, the wrong person to lend moral support to a movement that aims to undermine his own decades-long scholarly commitment to 17th-century poets, surely the most...
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SOURCE: A review of There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing, Too, in Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 87-8.
[In the following review, the critic provides a summary of Fish's ideas and positions presented in There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing, Too.]
While the current impulse in the so-called “canon wars” may be toward conciliation, there’s little likelihood that Fish will have a seat at the peace table if multiculturalists and traditionalists bury their differences and shake hands on the White House lawn. Fish, a professor of literature and law at Duke University, is an idiosyncratic and infuriating army of one. Welcoming the charge that he is a “contemporary sophist,” he does battle with all sides while coyly refusing to stake out an agenda of his own. His battle cry is “Hearkening to me will lead to nothing. Hearkening to me, from my point of view, is supposed to lead to nothing.”
Fish’s latest collection [There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech and It’s a Good Thing, Too] is a smorgasbord of law, literature, and campus politics. Last year the author traveled the country with the right-wing polemicist Dinesh D’Souza, and several of the essays printed here are culled from their acrimonious exchanges. In them, Fish argues that much of the debate about political correctness has taken...
(The entire section is 680 words.)
SOURCE: A review of There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing, Too, in Journalism Quarterly, Vol. 71, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 476-77.
[In the following review of There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing, Too, Andersen commends Fish's thought-provoking writings, though he notes that Fish raises more questions than he resolves.]
Stanley Fish, professor of English and Law at Duke University, recently named to head the Duke University Press, has combined previous articles, speeches, an interview, and new material to yield a provocative, frustrating, ultimately engaging book.
Despite its title, the book does not focus on free speech. Only two chapters emphasize free speech issues, although the arguments relative to legal studies, political correctness, literary criticism, and the professoriat clarify his arguments relative to free speech. Taken as a whole, the book offers a feast for those interested in current intellectual issues, philosophical, legal, and political.
Fish does not provide a ringing endorsement of free speech or set forth a theory ala Meiklejohn, O’Neil, Haiman, or Van Alstyne. However, professors and advanced students will find useful challenges to many perceptions or assumptions that undergird approaches to First Amendment issues, particularly by those of an ultra liberal or conservative bent....
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SOURCE: “It's All Just History,” in London Review of Books, June 9, 1994, p. 9.
[In the following review, Malcolmson provides an overview of Fish's theoretical perspective and arguments in There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing, Too. Malcolmson commends Fish's dissection of political correctness and multiculturalism but finds contradictions in his historical determinism and disavowal of principle.]
People who can find the world in a grain of sand are not necessarily people one wants to spend a lot of time with. At a recent conference held in a SoHo gallery in New York, the moderator spoke of interventions and discursive spaces, of enacting positions in a performative way, of avoiding both essentialism and relativism. He spoke of crucial theoretical work. To a person of my generation, this rap is utterly familiar, even homey; one has to struggle to imagine a time when things were different. Nevertheless, the idea of crucial theoretical work appears to me laughably pretentious. Crucial to whom? How? Why?
Stanley Fish has created a role for himself as America’s most theoretical anti-theorist, an eager nay-sayer splashing about in Philosophy’s vain, ever-babbling spring. He has polemicised steadily on behalf of an anti-foundational pragmatism, his only timeless principle being that there are no timeless principles. As an American and a...
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SOURCE: “Free Speech: No Such Thing,” in The Review of Politics, Vol. 57, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 368-72.
[In the following review, Evans offers a positive analysis of Fish's postmodern perspective and critical legal-studies arguments in There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing, Too.]
This collection of popular and academic essays continues the project of the author’s Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies (1989) in which he employs principles of postmodernist literary theory to analyze a variety of academic topics of current interest. The new collection [There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech and It’s a Good Thing, Too] expands the treatment to include popular discussions as well as academic analyses. This expansion is exemplified in the title essay, an oblique defense of university speech codes that was published in Boston Review in 1992, and in the majority of essays of Part I of the book, which are Fish’s responses to Dinesh D’Souza (author of Illiberal Education), delivered during a series of live debates over the term “political correctness” and related issues. Besides these essays, the present work contains a variety of critiques of recent developments in legal and literary theory as represented, for example, in the Critical Legal Studies movement, the legal theory of...
(The entire section is 1995 words.)
SOURCE: “The Death of Self-Criticism,” in Times Literary Supplement, November 24, 1995, pp. 6-7.
[In the following negative review of Professional Correctness, Eagleton derides Fish as a disingenuous conservative who, despite his relativist claims, dismisses the validity of political criticism in the interest of preserving the status quo.]
Nobody can seriously disagree with Stanley Fish. If you understand what he is saying, then you and he share an “interpretive community” which runs deeper than any local wrangling. If he can’t understand what you are saying, this is probably because you inhabit a world of discourse incommensurable with his own, and so present no more challenge to his case than the cawing of a rook. Two incommensurable discourses are no more in conflict with each other than a metaphor and a meat pie. For Fish, you are always either a paid-up member of the club or languishing in the outer darkness, either complicit or irrelevant. Like any lawyer, he likes to win, and in a kind of intellectual equivalent to jury-stacking has so rigged his theories that he can never lose.
The trick only works, of course, as long as interpretative communities are first violently homogenized, then puristically kept apart. There can be no serious fuzziness of frontiers, no internally contradictory communities, no ambiguous overlap between ways of talking, no occupying of...
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SOURCE: “Motormouth Silliness,” in New Statesman & Society, December 8, 1995, pp. 27-8.
[In the following review, Cunningham presents a strongly negative assessment of Fish's assertions in Professional Correctness.]
If decibel levels settled arguments, Stanley Fish would be the cock of the critical walk. The American theorist has had little fresh to say about the nature of criticism for a long time. He continues to attract attention, though, by booming out the old stories with ever greater stridency. Should you presume to venture a demurral, you’ll be met by a mere repetition in a louder voice. Professor Fish doubtless thinks, in the words of the poet, he’s meeting you “upon this honestly”. He’s not even meeting you.
“Yet once more” is the going trope of these tarted-up versions of the 1993 Oxford Clarendon lectures. Yet once more: they’re the opening words of Milton’s Lycidas. A renowned Miltonist, Fish opens with a little flash sparring over what they might mean. “Is ‘Yet’ to be read as ‘Despite’? or is this the ‘yet’ of exasperation? Is this the ‘once-moreness’ of a profound and disappointed weariness: ‘My god, must we do this again?’ ‘Yet once more?’” And so on. It’s part of a demonstration of what a professional reader can do with a text—versatile, supple, having his way with the words—to get the rich...
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SOURCE: “Criticism vs. Citizenship,” in The Nation, December 18, 1995, pp. 792-97.
[In the following unfavorable review of Professional Correctness, Perlstein provides an overview of Fish's rise to prominence and dismisses as naive his assertions about the place of literary criticism and humanities scholarship in light of the grim realities facing aspiring university professors.]
I have just returned from a scholarly conference on the sixties, where I met Michael. In 1971, Michael was a high school senior in Winona, Minnesota. Flush with visions of possible worlds, he skipped college, joined a communal farm and became an early coordinator of the co-op movement. Michael soon discovered he had a gift for listening empathetically to the stories lonely old farmers would tell him; so, incongruously, this child of the upper middle class soon found himself a griot of upper-Midwestern agrarian history. As historical museumship boomed in the wake of the bicentennial celebration, Michael organized several successful traveling local history exhibitions. The state historical society in Wisconsin was eager to offer him a job.
Civil service rules, though, required a college degree. So at 31 Michael quit the farm and paid his way through the University of Wisconsin as a freelance research assistant for the historical society, rooting through the papers of various New Left and civil rights...
(The entire section is 2586 words.)
SOURCE: A review of There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing, Too, in Modern Language Review, Vol. 92, No. 2, April, 1997, pp. 412-13.
[In the following review, Connor provides a summary of Fish's concerns and arguments in There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing, Too.]
In these courteously combative, affably brawling essays [in There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech and It’s a Good Thing, Too] Stanley Fish continues to rage against the mistaken objectivism and universalism that he detects not only in the neoconservative defenders of cultural tradition and the American way but also in the liberal promoters of difference and multiculturalism. First and last for Fish is the principle of the unavailability of transcendent truths or values of any kind, where ‘transcendent’ would mean not formed or governed by the restrictions and particularities of place, culture, and time. Unfortunately for the perspectivists and antifoundationalists who might go along with Fish’s arguments up to this point, he also holds that the acknowledgement of the relativity of all truth gives one absolutely no epistemological edge over those still mired in relativity, or exemption from their condition.
In a number of essays in the first part of this volume, Fish attacks the neoconservative attackers of political correctness for the rhetorical quarantining of...
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SOURCE: A review of Professional Correctness, in Modern Language Review, Vol. 93, No. 1, January, 1998, pp. 149-50.
[In the following review of Professional Correctness, Connor finds fault in Fish's pat conclusions and unwillingness to recognize ambiguity.]
This book, [Professional Correctness] which is a revised and expanded version of the Clarendon Lectures that Stanley Fish gave at Oxford in 1993, is directed against the ideal of interdisciplinarity at large in literary studies and the humanities and, more narrowly, the promise often held out by those who urge this ideal, that breaking out of narrow disciplinary assumptions will allow literary and cultural criticism to achieve a kind of political effectiveness that is presently denied to them. Fish ranges against such ideas objections of two slightly contrasting kinds. Firstly and more pragmatically, the realms of politics and of literary criticism are so distanced from and asymmetrically disposed towards each other that the chances of academic reflections on the constructedness of gender or the operations of ideology having any real effect on the workings of politics are almost nil. Secondly, and as a matter of philosophical principle, literary criticism and political practice must be seen as governed by their own, quite distinct forms of ‘immanent intelligibility’, to borrow a phrase that Fish himself borrows from the legal...
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SOURCE: “The Trouble with Stanley,” in National Review, February 7, 2000, pp. 46-8.
[In the following unfavorable review of Professional Correctness, Mansfield expresses appreciation for Fish's assaults on liberal intellectuals but objects to his strict contextual view of reality and his reduction of principle to mere rhetoric.]
The trouble with principle, we learn from Stanley Fish, is that it does not necessarily accord with what we like. And when it doesn’t, instead of sacrificing our desires to principle—as we should—we sacrifice principle to our desires.
It’s not a new point, but Fish, a man of the Left, uses it mainly to attack the stance of liberals toward religion. His book is a collection of previously published articles, all lively polemics employed against professors who do not write as plainly as he does. His opponents are liberals who concoct theories about how to treat people who are not as liberal as they are. Should liberals talk to them, give them a place at the table, deliberate with them? Fish puts his finger on the sore point: Should religious believers, who reject the ultimate authority of reason, be included in debates in which reason is the norm? Isn’t someone who speaks from his faith instead of his reason making an unjustified, special, privileged claim, one that willfully excludes others?
Liberals today are constantly...
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SOURCE: “Will the Real Stanley Fish Stand Up, Please?,” in Times Literary Supplement, February 25, 2000, pp. 6-7.
[In the following unfavorable review of The Trouble with Principle, Tallis finds serious shortcomings in Fish's skeptical relativism and disavowal of principle. Tallis contends that “principles alone are insufficient; but they are necessary.”]
Stanley Fish’s many enemies—he has been described as “the most feared English teacher in the world”—have served him well over the years. Notoriety has propelled him from stardom to megastardom. But this has sometimes prevented him from being taken as seriously as he sometimes deserves. He tends to be remembered more for his daftness (which he has in abundance) than for his good sense (which he also has in abundance). He is one of a tiny elite of sophists who have done well out of making half of the truth into the whole truth: theory cannot function alone, therefore theory makes no difference; facts are sometimes subject to interpretation, therefore there are no facts, only interpretations; and in The Trouble with Principle, timeless neutral principles (such as the right to free speech) often get into difficulties, therefore we should do without them. He has erected his stall on the quicksands of anti-foundationalism.
Anti-foundationalism is a theory—though Fish denies this description—about the...
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Begley, Adam. “Souped-Up Scholar.” New York Times Magazine (3 May 1992): 38.
Provides an overview of Fish's controversial theoretical perspective and its application to literary criticism, multiculturalism, and issues of political correctness.
Galston, William A. “The Trouble with Fish.” The Public Interest 139 (Spring 2000): 99-105.
A negative review of The Trouble with Principle in which Galston finds contradictions and dangerous implications in Fish's reduction of all political ideals to equal forms of rhetoric and his dismissal of independent normative justifications to differentiate between political good and evil.
Goldblatt, Mark. “Shaking the Anti-Foundation.”Reason 32, No. 3 (July 2000): 62-5.
Review of The Trouble with Principle.
Johnson, Richard. “Rhetoric Revived.” Yale Review 79, No. 3 (Spring 1990): 406-13.
An excerpted review where Johnson discusses Fish's interpretation of rhetoric in Doing What Comes Naturally.
McMenamin, Michael. “Permission to Speak Freely?” Reason 26, No. 1 (May 1994): 56-9.
Review of There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing, Too.
Meisel, Perry. “The Kingdom of Doublethink.” New York...
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