Stanley Fish

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Barbara K. Lewalski (review date July 1969)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2220

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 Fish’s study [Surprised by Sin], a brilliant exploration of Joseph Summers’ casual suggestion that Milton at times employs the narrative device of the guilty reader, undertakes to synthesize these apparently irreconcilable positions.

Mr. Fish admits, and indeed multiplies, the tensions and conflicts noted by the Empson/Waldock school, but he relates them all to what he takes to be Milton’s controlling intention—to force the reader to act out his first parents’ Fall in his own consciousness, and by this means to provoke and then expose the reader’s sinful attitudes and responses so as to promote his reformation. The terms of this fascinating thesis are cogently outlined in Mr. Fish’s prefatory statement:

My subject is Milton’s reader, and my thesis, simply, that the uniqueness of the poem’s theme—man’s first disobedience and the fruit thereof—results in the reader’s being simultaneously a participant in the action and a critic of his own performance. … In the course of the poem, I shall argue, the reader (1) is confronted with evidence of his corruption and becomes aware of his inability to respond adequately to spiritual conceptions, and (2) is asked to refine his perceptions so that his understanding will be once more proportionable to truth the object of it. The following chapters, then, will explore two patterns—the reader’s humiliation and his education—and they will make the point that the success of the second depends on the quality of his response to the first. Wherever possible, the crises of the reading experience will be related to the crisis at the center of the narrative, the fall of Adam and Eve.

(p. ix)

With much of this there can be no argument: the poem is concerned with the education of its reader as well as of its hero, Adam; this subject forces a uniquely close identification between hero and reader; and its literary method constantly propels the reader to understand and judge his values and attitudes.

Yet there are problems attending Mr. Fish’s approach, the most important being that it makes literary criticism of this poem impossible. While critical humility before Milton’s achievement is a wholly appropriate stance, Mr. Fish’s theologically grounded insistence upon the defects of “fallen” readers deprives them of any basis for criticizing the poem: everything in the poem must be assumed to succeed entirely (and Mr. Fish reads...

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it in that spirit), for whatever difficulties fallen readers encounter must result from their own defects rather than their author’s. Furthermore, Mr. Fish’s theory makes proper response to the poem depend, finally, not upon literary perception but upon the quality of the reader’s faith, his regeneration. This is to define Milton’s “fit reader” very narrowly indeed: he must not only be informed about and sensitive to the values explored in the poem, but he must also be, in strict theological terms, an elect Christian.

Mr. Fish does not often state the case so baldly but he does not shy away from the conclusion: at one point he declares, “the reader who does listen obediently will have participated in something more than a literary experience, since this poem is concerned with his very salvation. … In short, for the Christian reader Paradise Lost is a means of confirming him in his faith” (p. 55). Or again, he observes that “assenting to the authoritative interpretation of the poem … is as much an act of faith for the reader as keeping the divine command is for his first parents; and in both cases reason’s best service is to admit its lack of jurisdiction” (p. 254). T. S. Eliot’s classic discrimination to the contrary, here poetry and doctrine are made indissolubly one. The reverse is also true: faulty reading is a sign of spiritual malaise, and critical dissatisfaction with any aspect of the poem (or with Mr. Fish’s treatment of it, for there is no way to distinguish between the two) is evidence of the critic’s own unredeemed condition:

Not that the poem is finally ambiguous … rather, its readers are ambiguous, and their ambiguities (crookednesses) are reflected in the interpretations they arrive at. There is, however, only one true interpretation of Paradise Lost, and it is the reward of those readers who have entered into the spirit of Milton’s ‘good temptation’ and so ‘become wiser by experience’: others ‘sport in the shade’ with half-truths and self-serving equivocations and end by accusing God or by writing volumes to expose the illogic of His ways.

(p. 272)

It is time now to hazard the brand of unregeneracy and consider particular interpretations, most of which display Mr. Fish’s impressive critical gifts—a firm grasp of significant thematic ideas and a fine sensitivity to poetic texture. Mr. Fish is at his most persuasive in describing the “intangling” of the reader in the folds of Satan’s rhetoric as a means of exposing his “fallen” vulnerability to specious rhetoric. Offering acute, illuminating analyses of the small details of epic similes and descriptions as well as of larger elements of theme and action, Mr. Fish shows how the reader is forced to re-evaluate his judgment of Satan by being led to experience the unreliability, inadequacy, or falseness of what had seemed to be clear and dependable descriptions and perspectives.

He is again wholly persuasive in his brilliant elaboration and extension of Arnold Stein’s mock-epic interpretation of the battle in heaven. Here also, analyzing small linguistic details, the manipulation of allusions, and the pattern of events in which threatened combats are constantly averted and the battle which takes place cannot be ended, Mr. Fish shows how Milton brings the reader to reassess any admiration he may have for martial heroism or power, and to discover true heroism in the loyal angels’ will to maintain loyalty and obedient service whatever the circumstances, without even the ego-satisfaction of winning promised victories or knowing themselves necessary to the defenses of heaven. Similarly convincing is Professor Fish’s proposition that the reader is led to an intuition of primal innocence by being forced to admit his own distance from it, as he (unwarrantably) finds evil implications in terms such as “loose,” “wanton,” “error,” “wandering,” “dishevelled,” used in description of the Edenic state. While hardly a complete account of how we come to understand Edenic innocence, this argument carries force as Mr. Fish notes the etymologies upon which Milton calls, and the guilty presence of Satan as a sounding-board for our own responses. In these cases the literary experience of the poem is shown to be the adequate cause of the “guilty” reader’s re-evaluations.

This is not so, or not quite so, in other cases, where proper response is finally a function of the reader’s regeneration. In discussing the Council in Heaven Mr. Fish demonstrates cogently that God’s speeches are contrived as logical definition and argument according to Ramist methods, and notes further that these speeches acquire an extrinsic rhetorical dimension by reason of the reader’s need for clear, certain propositions after the delusions of Satan and the confusions of Chaos. In developing his argument Mr. Fish seems to overstate the case for unadorned heavenly discourse as embodying the Puritan distrust of rhetoric, equivocals, and metaphor. If rhetoric in the customary sense is indecorous for God’s speech, one need not conclude that it is seen as corrupt in itself; like everything else in Milton’s universe its value depends upon the end to which it is put. And in fact the discourse of the Son is charged with affective warmth and persuasive earnestness, and the Father’s own language, while giving the effect of plainness, makes considerable use of rhetorical schemes of words.

The larger problem with this episode centers upon Professor Fish’s contention that terms such as “Ingrate” in the Father’s speech are simple, emotionless description, and that all the overtones of harshness and querulousness are supplied by the reader out of his own guilty defensiveness. This assertion makes reading these speeches an extra-literary matter, for the reader of a literary work can only respond in terms of the meanings and emotional connotations of words; he has no literary means for discerning what a heavenly or innocent audience might hear in those words. In fact, it becomes clear, the reader will intuit this quality of God’s language and his own guilty projections only insofar as he is a regenerate man.

Similarly, Professor Fish holds that the reader is led to “fall” like Adam and Eve through being provoked to reason about the causes of the fall—a use of reason in an area outside its competence which is analogous to Adam and Eve’s use of reason where they should simply have obeyed. The reader can preserve himself against his fall only by the means available to Adam and Eve—the leap of faith: “The inner resource is of course, faith, which is what remains to Adam and the reader (and to Eve) when circumstances and their own intelligences misinform them” (p. 270). Again the conclusion is that the poem can be read only by the regenerate reader, for he alone will understand, against the dramatic pressures of the moment, what Adam might do besides eat the apple with Eve. Finally, such a reader, despite the depressing prophecy of human history in Books XI and XII, will be able to experience Adam’s ecstasy in apprehending Christ as a focus of restored unity: “If he has done his part, the reader is raised to an imaginative, almost mystical apprehension of what the poem has continually asserted from a thousand varying perspectives—Salvation is through Christ” (p. 328).

Mr. Fish’s critical reading of the poem is penetrating, just, and often brilliant, and his exploration of the undoubtedly important device of the “guilty reader” is a valuable contribution to the literature on the poem. My chief quarrel is with the assumption that the reader must intuit the positive values of the poem primarily through learning to distrust his own responses as guilty and corrupt, and through making a “leap of faith.” I believe this poem is available to literary criticism, whose concern must be with what the poem as literary construct displays, not to the pure of heart but to the discriminating reader. The poem, I would argue, works progressively on the reader’s consciousness, demonstrating to him by degrees that the issues and terms with which it is concerned are vastly more complex than he at first supposed, and so leading him to expand his moral horizons. The reader learns more of Milton’s God than the voice he hears in the Heavenly Council: God is also shown as the supernal light, the ground of all being including Chaos, the source of the astonishingly active forces of generation and creativity throughout the universe. The reader learns more of Eden than his first startled and perhaps guilty responses to Edenic sensuality; through four long books he is taught by literary description and incident the meaning of Edenic innocence and the great range of action and growth which it may include. Moreover, he has been given literary models against which to measure Adam’s response to Eve’s fall—the wise, mature heroism of Abdiel and the Son—and so he is not thrown back simply upon the resources of faith.

The poem proposes to justify—that is, to display the justice of—the ways of God to men; it does not propose itself as a surrogate for religious experience. When Milton identified the poet’s gifts as having power “beside the office of a pulpit, to imbreed and cherish in a great people the seeds of virtue” he did not extend the poet’s pulpit functions to the salvation of souls. Paradise Lost does indeed educate its audience, but that audience is more universal, the poet’s methods are more specifically literary, and the poem’s spirit is more humane than Mr. Fish’s highly intelligent book suggests.

Earl Miner (review date October 1973)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4304

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 that attention to the reader is a critical necessity. What they share, they share as genuine concern, but almost by accident. Their students, who are urged to read the criticism by the other critics of the first generation, have much more in common, and it is they who may be said really to belong to a school. It is also those students whose work has been disappointing. The appearance of Stanley Fish’s big new book provides the occasion for these thoughts, and after considering the book in itself, I shall return to the matters I have just discussed.

Stanley Fish’s new book [Self-Consuming Artifacts] confirms his role in seventeenth-century studies. After a study of the greatest poem of the century (and the language) in Surprised by Sin, he now addresses himself to a number of writers, and particularly prose-writers. (George Herbert is the single poet.) The book is heroic in size, claim, and achievement, and is plainly generated throughout by enthusiasm for the literature discussed or, in the case of Religio Medici, by keen dislike. It begins with a “To the Reader” that I find particularly reminiscent of Browne’s preface so labeled for Vulgar Errors, which makes for a nice irony. The author goes on to introduce his thesis in “The Aesthetic of the Good Physician” (pp. 1–77). In this remarkable chapter he discusses Plato, Augustine, and Donne as practitioners of what he has perhaps belligerently termed a self-consuming style. That style is, he says, “dialectical,” “disturbing,” because by violating (“consuming”) its overt or first postulated presumptions it forces readers to rigorous “scrutiny of everything they believe in and live by.” To put it differently, by calling attention to the customary ways of thought which it announces but undermines, this style “consumes” the reader’s self-esteem. The author distinguishes this dialectical style from the “rhetorical” (represented by Browne late in the book), which confirms what it pretends to, bolstering our customary wisdom and self-esteem. The second chapter concerns Bacon (pp. 78–155), and gives a satisfying proof-text in the very well cited Baconian distinction between “present satisfaction and expectant inquiry.” Chapters follow on Herbert (pp. 156–223), The Pilgrim’s Progress (i.e., first part [pp. 224–64], Reason of Church-Government (to use Milton’s title rather than Fish’s [pp. 265–302]), “Democritus Junior to the Reader” from The Anatomy of Melancholy (pp. 303–52), Religio Medici (pp. 353–73), and the “plain style” (pp. 374–82). Some of these essays or chapters will be familiar from previous appearance in other guise, as will the outstandingly good appendix on “Affective Stylistics” (pp. 383–427).

It will do no harm to mention at this point that I am in general sympathy with Stanley Fish. (He and I have made some use of each other’s ideas.) And I think that the degree of sympathy others may have should be judged not from what he says about Plato, Augustine, or Browne, but from what he says in his Appendix. It seems to me clear that the handsomest chapters are those on Bacon, Bunyan, Milton, Burton, and “Affective Stylistics.” These do not carry proof so much as create a lively sense of conviction. The quickness of mind is wonderful, seeing far and seeing swiftly what others appear to labor over so painfully. Since I am about to take issue with Stanley Fish, I want to make it perfectly clear that this book is a distinguished achievement which is likely to alter ways of reading and teaching seventeenth-century literature, particularly prose, and alter them for the better. (As such things go, the book is also remarkably inexpensive and excellently made.)

The first chapter (until it considers Donne) made me distinctly uneasy. What connection does Plato writing Greek or Augustine writing Latin have with English prose styles in the seventeenth century? More than that, Augustine has several styles, including an almost Alexandrian style of great artifice. But Plato in particular has to be handled with care. The Helmhold-Rabinowitz translation used by Fish was not available to the Renaissance, and for that matter practically speaking the Greek was not either. The choice of the Phaedrus is particularly odd. That dialogue is notoriously difficult: “woran kaum mehr Zweifel herrschen,” as Schmalzriedt put it (Platon: Der Schriftsteller und die Wahrheit, p. 312). Fish’s reading of the Phaedrus happens to have a good deal going for it, because Plato certainly was concerned with the differences between inferior rhetoric and superior philosophy. Also, the three stages of the Phaedrus do move in ways that successively replace prior assumptions. But was that a Plato available to the Renaissance? Of course not. For practical purposes, Plato was known most accurately through Cicero (as Pierre Courcelle has shown), and most concisely from the Hortensius. But Plato was known most widely in Ficino’s translation, which is accompanied by “arguments” attached to each dialogue. Ficino tells us that this dialogue concerns not rhetoric and dialectic but Beauty (“Phaedrus: vel de Pulchro”). Ficino further distinguishes three species of Platonic dialogues: those confuting the sophists, those exhorting young men, and those teaching adults. (“Aut enim sophistas confutat, aut adolescentes adhortatur, aut docet adultos.”) Obviously Phaedrus must belong to the second category. Ficino further distinguishes (as do modern classicists) between the so-called maieutic dialogues in which Socrates or some other figure “delivers” truth like a midwife, and others like the Laws which are not truly dialogues at all but dissertations. Ficino goes on to attribute philosophic certainty to the latter “dialogues,” but to attribute to the maieutic ones, including the Phaedrus, merely the “verisimilia.”

Fish tells us, however, that “The point of the Phaedrus is usually taken to be the distinguishing of good rhetoric and writing from bad, and the basis for this reading is the text itself …” (p. 8). Because both the Renaissance and Fish (and I) read Plato in translation, “the text itself” means very little to me. Which text? And, more to the point, with which assumptions? I have said that I think Fish reads the Phaedrus well, better (I believe) than does Ficino. But when he says that before examining English writings “that exhibit many of the self-consuming characteristics of Platonic dialectic” he wishes to look at “one of the documents [viz., Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana] by which the philosophical and aesthetic concerns of the Phaedrus and the Gorgias were transmitted to the Christian world” (p. 21)—then, O Fish, you have got literary history wrong. You must get out your Courcelle and Ficino and go through a far more laborious (and really no less interesting) task to show how Plato entered Renaissance thought. But this is not the first occasion on which the Berkeley English department has denied Clio her tenure.

I want to take after my friend in this unseemly public way over another matter, because it raises significant questions about seventeenth-century prose. Stanley Fish does not like Browne. We all have our blind sides (I cannot read Hardy and do not enjoy Lancelot Andrewes). But if we are to write about authors we do not like, we ought to get them right. Stanley Fish appears to claim that what he says about Religio Medici applies to other works by Browne. In any event, he follows the critical line taken by James Winny and roundly berates Browne for drawing flattering attention to himself, for being “not self-consuming, but self-indulgent.” Several problems trouble this thesis, and I do not think that they belong to Browne. For one thing, Stanley Fish seems to consume himself. He starts by saying that “Religio Medici is the most consistent and overt [is that word an ironic signal?] elaboration of the [dialectical] vision whose literary effects we have been examining.” Twenty pages later, Browne is convicted a rhetorical felon. Another problem, which the opening pages of the book show should not have troubled this book, enters with the implicit assumption that a seventeenth-century author has only one style. That assumption holds only to the extent that the same author exhibits himself and no other self whenever he writes. But we know that, and Browne has at least two other styles. There is the inquiring style of Vulgar Errors and of the second chapter in particular of Hydriotaphia, which will produce as many as four asyntactic “sentences” in a row. And there is the affirmative, ceremonial style of the fifth chapter of Hydriotaphia. Both differ from the style of Religio Medici.

The style of “A Physician’s Religion” had to be special, given an aware author and the tradition that physicians were freethinkers. Browne ostentatiously and repeatedly gives his Nihil Obstat, his official Imprimatur, to Anglican Christianity. It is marvelously funny to follow his kindliness toward the Church by Law Established, or for that matter toward Papists and mankind generally. In this style of autobiographical hyperbole Browne contradicts himself (as does Montaigne) so often that one could understand a student feeling impatience, especially if he had not read the writings by Browne in very different styles. The crisis or climax of the hyperbolic style of course comes in the second part of Religio Medici. When Browne expresses the depth of his gratitude to God that, although he has so many terrible sins, he has not that sin which is mortal enemy to charity—pride—we have a peculiarly characteristic joke. Or again, Browne is awfully good on procreation. If only we had not this disgusting manner of copulation, the foolishest act a wise man ever does, and so on; if only we could procreate through conjunction like trees—who can doubt that Browne had learnt at Montpelier that a single male palm can fertilize hundreds of females? The religion of a physician was an impossible thing, according to contemporary commonplaces. Browne raises it above commonplace to a contradictory and mock-solemn hyperbolic autobiography. It is a pity that Stanley Fish is not amused.

It is also a pity that he abandons the principle of multiple styles that he acknowledges in “To the Reader.” It cannot be said often enough that a Renaissance writer possesses a plurality of styles and a recognition of decorums governing choice among them (even in parts of a single oration). Stanley Fish well says in “To the Reader” that “the experience of reading Areopagitica is not at all like the experience of reading The Reason of Church-Government.” What he does not also say is that the “self-consuming” style of the latter is an arrogant bore, whereas the “rhetorical” style of Areopagitica produces Milton’s finest achievement in prose. In such matters, I could wish that our author felt willing to rejoyce, like Dr. Johnson, in concurring with the common reader, or at least with the consensus lectorum, whose responses his “reader response” approach appears to be designed to consider. I simply cannot agree that the “dialectical” style is necessarily the best. It does provide us with the possibility (unexplored by Fish) of showing why the first part of The Pilgrim’s Progress is superior to the second, but it has no bearing whatsoever on The Compleat Angler or Clarendon’s History, to take two major and much esteemed prose works of the century. And this obsession with the virtues of the “dialectical” style does not help in the author’s attempt to describe “the plain style” in the Restoration, because from that area, too, Clio has been banned.

My doubts are done. Those are Dryden’s words, of course, on another matter, but it is worth saying that the theoretical presumptions and the methods of Stanley Fish would help us understand Dryden’s prose much better (as also his and Rochester’s poetry), and, looking farther ahead, the prose of Addison, Swift, Sterne, Arnold, and Eliot. The book is a major achievement, and I hope that my strictures entitle me to make that claim in stronger terms than the casual reviewer. Leaving the book to the reader with promise of profit and delight, I wish to consider the kind of success, and the reasons for success, of this book.

As Marvell said, “Much to the man is due.” Stanley Fish has a very good mind and holds himself to consistently high standards. His style of thinking crackles in his style of writing. I implied rather strongly that he does not overburden himself with scholarly knowledge or fetter himself with rules of historical evidence. But he characteristically travels with what he needs, and if he errs, it is on the light rather than the heavy side. Not all who travel with his gait carry very much at all in the way of the kind of burden mentioned, and in that we discover another reason for his superiority over some others who practice his method.

And what, really, is that method? By name and reputation, “reader response” seems to be an American version of literary phenomenology. Indeed, there are resemblances between the two, chiefly in the assumption that reading is no simple thing but rather a variable and sometimes unpredictable temporal sequence. And yet the French phenomenology has not really caught on here or in Germany. Those who think Stanley Fish an oddity ought to have a look at what the Germans have been up to. Few people have taken up E. D. Hirsch’s references to the late Günther Müller, but Müller’s “Erzählzeit und erzählte Zeit” (FestschriftKluckhohn undSchneider) got a version of “reader response” into lively existence as long ago as 1948. More recently, Wolfgang Iser has become known, particularly for his “Indeterminacy and the Reader’s Response in Prose Fiction” (in Aspects of Narrative, ed. J. Hillis Miller). Iser’s collection of essays, Der implizite Leser (1972) begins with an essay on The Pilgrim’s Progress which, like Stanley Fish’s, puts Bunyan into an entirely new aesthetic context, and this as well as the other essays should prove exciting when the book is translated. For that matter, it is difficult to explain why Lowry Nelson, Jr., has not made a far greater impression with his outstanding essay in the Wellek Festschrift, “The Fictive Reader and Literary Self-Reflexiveness.” That is so far superior to Georges Poulet’s essay in New Literary History a few years ago as to make official phenomenology seem solipsistic and embarrassingly self-regarding. I shall go a step farther and mention recent activity in the realm of literary historiography and its reverse, whatever the name for the reverse may be. That reverse is practiced brilliantly by the UCLA historian, Hayden White, who asks of history questions about the nature and function of imagery or about canons of narrative. Peter Hughes at Toronto approaches literature through a new kind of history, so making common cause with Hayden White and, by treating historical writing as literature and vice versa, greatly enlivening (and revising) critical presumptions.

My point is that Stanley Fish is far from being perverse, whatever one sometimes hears from those who react too quickly. I very much believe that he is one of the thinkers of a kind of thought whose time is now and tomorrow, and that students of literature outside the Renaissance—seventeenth-century purview should read him (along with Müller, Iser, Nelson, White, Hughes, and others not on the current best-seller or graduate-student-paper list). In reading Stanley Fish, one must take account of his capacity for growth or development, which is part of the excitement of following what he does. His Milton book argued that the reader is in Paradise Lost. His “Affective Stylistics” got that right by putting literature in the reader. He and many others are working hard to discover the significances of a cryptic remark made many years ago by Kenneth Burke, a remark which rankled in me for years until I finally agreed with it as far as it goes: the form of a work of art is the psychology of the reader. In that proposition alone the school of reader response would appear to have its credo, and yet as far as I know none of the practitioners has mentioned it.

For Stanley Fish there is a reason for his not mentioning it that has important consequences. In his explicit theory published to date, he is solely concerned with the reader. His younger imitators have followed his precept rather than his brilliant example, which is perhaps a danger attendant on the effort to found a critical school, or at least the effect made by so charismatic a teacher. Certainly there are a number of people who practice “reader response” criticism who do not come to the good end of Stanley Fish. When they expound about “the reader,” we are often tempted to ask, “Which one?” or to exclaim, “Not this one!” To take what I believe is a fictitious example, a study of Richard Braithwait’s prose and verse might well tell us that the reader is led to respond thus or so. In the case of the Puritan who hanged a cat on Monday for killing a mouse on Sunday, however, one may feel that, if he is a Puritan, Braithwait’s reader will respond very differently from another reader who is Anglican. It seems to me that such an objection is wholly valid, and that a definition of the reader in such terms is bound to come to no good end. Yet it seems evident that Stanley Fish avoids such disaster: because despite “reader response” as his label he is writing about something other than reader response alone.

For a critic presumably concerned with phenomenological or reader-response criticism, Stanley Fish quite remarkably avoids the first-person singular and reference to “the reader.” What he is attempting can be approached through Paul Alpers’ dictum: “Trust the text.” Since Alpers is no more a textual critic than is Fish, that adjuration requires rendering another way: “Trust the poet and yourself.” What Stanley Fish is most centrally concerned to show is indeed the experience of a literary work, but an experience founded on what I shall call the bond between the poet and the reader. Since Stanley Fish has yet to make this explicit, I shall have to present my own version of what this means, however briefly and sketchily.

The experience shared by the writer and the reader (and other readers) is clearly a complex thing. One of the important distinctions to make is this: each “experience” of Paradise Lost by a reader is another Paradise Lost; but each “performance” by the poet Milton is different: a Paradise Regained, a Samson Agonistes. And yet the way in which Milton brings to bear (what he does bring to bear) of himself on his world—his “mode” of creation as Paul Alpers and I call it—evokes thereby a controlled response from the reader as that reader brings to bear (what he does bring to bear) on his world in relation to the configured experience constituting a poem. The nature of such bringing to bear is partly expressive and conventional, as Gombrich showed so brilliantly in Art and Illusion. But in literature it is also cognitive, involving what we perceive and know as well as what can be expressed. Both the expressive and cognitive gain quick recognition from a reasonably well-educated reader: we recognize that we have come upon a lyric passage in an epic, for example, and it is plain that the poet and we adjust at once to and share that lyric moment amid heroic effort. A full account of literary experience requires, then, a writer as well as a reader (not to mention a good deal else). There are perfectly good and valid reasons for concerning oneself with just the writer or just the reader (or that other good deal else), whether in such extremes as writing a biography of George Chapman or an autobiography of looking into Chapman’s Homer.

The interesting thing to me is that when Stanley Fish diverges from his hitherto unspoken but essential axiom of what is shared by writer and reader, he does not dwell so much on the phenomenology of reader response as upon the writer’s personality, tactics, and achievements. I do not like his new main title, which is an indifferent matter. But it also misleads the reader. None of the works he mentions is self-consumed, any more than he is a self-consuming artificer. It is not such cannibals, such literary anthropophagi who do eat themselves that Fish is concerned with, but certain essential transactions shared by a writer and reader: Paradise Lost as Milton—the-reader’s Paradise Lost, in the particular sense I have described. I would add, however, that if we are going to take the poet into account, if we are going to control our own prejudices and tendencies to solipsism, then we shall have to offer sacrifices to Clio once again.

In his explicit theory, Stanley Fish has given us an “Affective Stylistics.” The affective hypothesis has never quite achieved respectability in modern Western criticism, and I think that a bit of historical and comparative perspective will do something to give it credit and to clarify what Stanley Fish is about. For centuries, affectivism has been no more than an awkward attachment to mimetic theory. For whatever the virtues of mimesis may be, it suffers from the glaring omission of the reader. When the Romantic theories more or less did away with the rhetorical-affective presumptions of Renaissance mimesis, they allowed for the reader even less. The Anglo-American New Criticism fought the affective hypothesis along with the “genetic.” Both were termed fallacies, as they can be in certain kinds of treatment, and it was made Very Clear that one’s proper business was to be a critic, not a poet or a reader. In those days only a few voices like Kenneth Burke’s cried in the New Critical wilderness.

If, however, we consider the classical poetics of China, Japan, and Korea, the case is altered. We discover in those traditions a number of literary viewpoints (James J. Y. Liu wrote me recently that he is doubling the Chinese views in his count to eight). But the principal systematic view is a reciprocal and complementary one of expressive and affective theory. These two sort together far better than does affectivism with mimesis, and in all three traditions we discover the strongest of assumptions about the reciprocity between poet and reader. This is no occasion for me to talk Japanese, but it should be clear that there is nothing inevitable about the ways of regarding literature that are familiar to us from our “histories of criticism.” It must also be granted that there is certainly attraction in a literary scheme that allows for the poet and the reader together. Nothing Stanley Fish has published to date explicitly assents to an expressive hypothesis, or to a bond between the poet and the reader. But his criticism has come more and more to employ a practice based on an either tacit or unconscious assumption of this kind. (I have reasons to think it tacit.) In the real nature of his practice, as opposed to his precepts, we find the reason why those who have followed his explicit theory have often proved so disappointing.

Stanley Fish discusses the style of Milton’s Reason of Church-Government approvingly, although he says it jumps up and down in one place. I assent to his analysis and reject his evaluation. The important thing about his own work is precisely that it does not jump up and down, but develops. In humanistic study there can be no substitute for quality of mind and for the capacity of that mind to grow. Stanley Fish has gone into linguistics and stylistics with an amazing capacity to return with treasure from those jungles. His readers, or those who have heard him speak, know that he feels no compulsion to shrink from making claims, by his titles and other gestures, for the novelty of his work. But he has the justification that his work is new. The growth of the critic’s mind is the cause of the growth of his readers’ minds. I know of few critics since Socrates who are so given to starting with misleading presumptions that nonetheless can help us find Ficino’s “verisimilia.” At his best, he shows us what we know to be true although our idols and false notions have prevented us from recognizing, or at least admitting, the truth. Our idols are never really smashed, but for his efforts to do so we must praise Stanley Fish. He has given a good thrashing to three of Bacon’s four idols and, by an altogether proper convention, three cheers is the most a reviewer allows a new book.

Robert W. Uphaus (review date Summer 1974)

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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 expectations. The second thesis asserts a fundamental opposition between two ways of looking at the world: through the rational understanding which emphasizes activities of distinguishing and discriminating, or through an emphasis on the antidiscursive and antirational, whose principal end is the experience of resolution and “all-embracing unity.” The third thesis is that a dialectical presentation, in subverting discursive or rational forms, necessarily “succeeds at its own expense” because it “becomes the vehicle of its own abandonment”; thus a dialectical presentation “is concerned less with the making of better poems than with the making of better persons.” From this last thesis, especially, Fish is led to his fourth thesis, one which represents a rather unique mode of affective literary criticism, and that is, “the proper object of analysis is not the work, but the reader.”

Given this epistemology of criticism (one might say), it becomes readily apparent that Fish is enmeshed in a paradoxical, if not self-contradictory, enterprise: of necessity he must employ a vocabulary based on the rational and discursive understanding in order to convey the inadequacy of the very analytical terms he employs. Hence Fish’s book is not simply about self-consuming artifacts; it is a self-consuming artifact, and this is why Fish insists that his readings are not transferable. Fish attempts to collapse, or at least render highly problematical, any distinctions we may entertain between the experience of reading texts and our subsequent attempts to account for the “form” of these texts through what passes for aesthetic contemplation. So in reading Fish’s book the reader undergoes the experience, not of critical analysis or aesthetic inquiry, but of “de-criticism” or “deaestheticizing.”

Here Fish’s Christian and Platonic assumptions manifest themselves most radically: conventional critical/aesthetic assumptions, so heavily dependent on reasoning and detached contemplation, are, he maintains, satisfied with and deceived by appearances. The psychological reason offered, or at any rate implied, for our ostensibly complacent acceptance of appearances is that most readers (as opposed to Fish’s “informed reader”) are basically content with (because hungry for?) “self-satisfying” texts which confirm our conventional expectations. On the other hand, those works which Fish prizes and praises are those which challenge and eventually subvert the reader’s confidence in the self-sufficiency of reason and the stability of the “phenomenal” world. These works are denominated “self-consuming” because they, at least metaphorically, devour the reader’s expectations as they devour themselves in order to throw us upward to the Platonic world of Forms, or upward into our dependency on God. Fish’s preferences are thus both humiliating and humbling: he sees reason and imagination as processes whose aesthetic validity is derived exclusively at the moment of the reader’s abandonment of them into a world of higher reality. In his discussion of Pilgrim’s Progress, for example, Fish argues that Bunyan uses the apparent narrative device of “progress” as really a device of initial entrapment and eventual abandonment. The narrative “progress” only appears to go “forward” because the reader desires a self-satisfying work; but in fact the narrative has no progress for it has, ultimately, no human author. Bunyan’s narrative consumes itself before the presence of God in a manner similar to many of the poems of George Herbert which Fish also examines. One might say that Bunyan and Herbert conclude their texts by virtue of literary devices, but their texts are completed by God.

The success of Fish’s argument, as distinguished from his experiences, hinges on his definition—mostly implied—of art. Fish cannot accept, by definition, modern conceptions of art, chiefly because writers like Herbert, Bunyan, and Milton, in his view, would not have subscribed to such notions of art. Art, as we use the term, presumes both consciousness and, at some point, intention to perform art; but, from Fish’s Platonic/Christian perspective, such consciousness and intention are founded on a “fallen” rational vocabulary—i.e., separation from, rather than resolution with, God or higher Form. To this extent Fish is consistent, though not necessarily persuasive, in presenting his approach and subject matter as being antiaesthetic. He is consistent because, historically, aesthetics as we use the term may be anachronistic when applied to writers who did not think of their work as art, and because, epistemologically, our sense of aesthetics presumes abilities and distinctions which Fish’s versions of Platonism and Christianity systematically deny. However, his book may not be the persuasive dismantling of aesthetics (or of the status of art objects) that he hopes it to be, simply because his method does not allow him to concede a common rational or formal ground on which to conduct an argument. Still, Fish poses a splendid challenge to aesthetics, even if, or perhaps because, in this book “the understanding is denied the satisfaction of its own operations” (p. 47).

Virginia R. Mollenkott (review date April 1979)

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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 people such as Tuve, Stein, Freer, and Vendler are ranged with a Herbert who is restless and unstable, whose poetry is full of vacillations and reinventions. Rather than contributing to one or the other of these polarities, Fish insists that the dialectic itself should be the object of interpretation. Accordingly, Fish dedicates The Living Temple to explaining how it is that a poet and his poetry can be restless and secure at the same time. Because this approach has the appearance of subsuming all other critical approaches into its own, Fish can expect irritation from many angles.

The mystery of The Temple is resolved, Fish argues, by perceiving that the poet performs the function of a catechist who, by well-ordered questions, leads the uncertain reader toward an otherwise elusive knowledge. Thus from one perspective, “the reader’s uneven career is foreseen and overseen by an omniscient poet-catechist; but from another (of which we get occasional glimpses) the poet himself is the pupil of a higher teacher who overlooks his fumblings with the same benevolent and supervisory intention.” According to the first perspective, the orderliness of Herbert’s poetry is explained by attributing to the poet the conscious aesthetic strategy of driving the reader toward a more profound religious understanding. But from the second perspective, the strategy is one for which the poet cannot finally claim responsibility. Because the dynamics of the relationship between the poet and God are “unavailable to rational analysis,” explanation dissolves into mystery.

Fish graphically depicts the tremendous paradox of the divine-human relationship which is Herbert’s subject-matter. “There are any number of formulas that will allow us to talk about Herbert’s poetry,” he concedes; “but each of them is a rewriting of the contradiction that exists at its heart, the contradiction between the injunction to do work—to catechize, to raise altars, to rear temples, to write poems—and the realization, everywhere insisted upon, that the work has already been done.” In other words, although the members of the Church Militant must strive to raise themselves into a holy building (a living temple), that building already stands in the perfect body of the Master-builder who is ultimately responsible for their strivings.

“God doth not need / Either man’s work or his own gifts”—and yet God does give the gifts, and, what’s more, expects them to be used in his service. Fish’s interpretation of “Love III” will, I think, illustrate his handling of this basic Christian paradox and simultaneously clarify what has been a source of confusion for some of Fish’s—and Herbert’s—readers. Fish sees “Love III” as in many ways a reprise of “Superliminare”: the communicant responds to an invitation but shrinks back because his self-examinations have left him near despair. When he questions his own merit, the question is simply set aside: “You shall be he.” Gradually the speaker is left with nothing to call his own (“Who made the eyes but I?”) and is driven toward unconditional surrender. When finally he sits and eats, his “silence has been forced … and gratitude is what he has been all along reluctant to give.”

At first glance, such a reading leaves Fish open to charges of failing to understand that in the service of Christ Herbert found perfect freedom. But Fish fully comprehends that fact. Although the speaker in “Love III” loses the contest in which he never had a chance, and with it “loses his independent will,” Fish recognizes that loss to be “the goal of the Christian life.” But as Fish sees it, in “Love III” Herbert “chooses to emphasize the price we pay for it, the price of knowing that it has been paid for by another.” Whereas other critics have tended to stress the “comfortable benevolence” of “Love III,” Fish stresses the high cost of discipleship: “What shrinks or has shrunk is the speaker’s self. He has been killed with kindness.”

Perhaps, had Fish described the shrinking of the ego-nature rather than of the selfhood of the speaker, his meaning might have been clearer. Fish admits that “in a way” Helen Vendler is right to see a shrinkage of the distance between God and the soul in “Love III.” After all, death to the ego-nature is simultaneously ingestion of the Christ-nature (“So I did sit and eat”). The process of “Love III” is the process described by St. Paul in Galatians 2:20: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (italics mine). Fish’s interpretation of “Love III” so powerfully depicts the pangs of the Old Nature that many readers may fail to notice Fish’s understated awareness that the dying to the localized ego is after all only a dying into a larger life. As he did in Self-Consuming Artifacts, Fish stresses the humiliating rather than the exalting implications of the poet’s absorption into the divine nature. The problem is one of emphasis only, certainly not of awareness.

Fish ends The Living Temple with a valuable discussion of hermeneutical principles, contending that “One can only read what one has already read.” We are first persuaded to a way of seeing, he explains, and only afterwards do we find evidence in accordance with that way of seeing. People whose preconceptions or ways of seeing differ from our own simply will not see our facts as facts. “This is not to oppose persuasion to demonstration,” Fish concludes, “but to assert that the second can occur only if the first has already occurred, and that if the first has in fact occurred the second has occurred already.”

There can be little doubt that the vast majority of people (indeed, all of us most of the time) read only what we have already read. But how shall we explain the fact (rare, but real) that sometimes people independently experience major modifications in their field of perception, facing up to evidence that jars against their former and current preconceptions and gradually submitting themselves to that evidence? Such persons are finally persuaded not by other people’s marshaled evidence, but by evidence they independently confront over a period of time, facts which cause cognitive dissonance in them yet which they are too honest to dismiss out of hand.

Furthermore, when Fish began to illustrate his assumptions about literature by describing The Temple as a strategy, and in order to undergird his reading of The Temple turned to a study of the Reformation catechism, he was able to find something in reality-out-there to corroborate the admittedly interested direction of his thinking. Presumably, he tried to be accurate about the context, tone, and spirit of what he quoted from the catechisms. If that is true, then proving or demonstrating is not quite as subjective as Fish seems to imply; here again there is paradox. Although “objective evidence” is of necessity subjectively perceived, yet for a careful scholar that evidence will provide a very genuine check-and-balance.

Stanley Fish is a critic who deals in some of literature’s Big Questions. Because of the vastness of the concerns he raises, inevitably he becomes embroiled in paradox; and sometimes he fails to juggle those paradoxical realities with an even hand. Nevertheless, he writes brilliantly in The Living Temple, and no one who cares about Herbert’s poetry can afford to circumvent this approach to it.

Gerald Graff (review date 14 February 1981)

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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 is not that the presence of poetic qualities compels a certain kind of attention but that the paying of a certain kind of attention results in the emergence of poetic qualities.” There are, in short, no “facts” either in texts or in the world which predetermine our interpretations; for what we conceive the facts to be will itself already have been determined by our interpretive apparatus. The line of argument can be traced back to Kant, but it has gained momentum in the last half-century, as many of the disciplines have reacted against the hubris of science’s claim to discover a bedrock of hard fact on which knowledge is founded. There is no such bedrock, it is argued, since facts are already “theory-laden.”

Before the reader gets to this central argument, however, he must work his way through a series of essays whose assumptions Fish now rejects. Giving this collection of essays shape and momentum are explanatory notes which tell us what of each essay Fish now repudiates and what he would salvage. Several of the essays contain readings of literary texts, at least a few of them brilliant, like the analysis of Coriolanus. But the main interest of these practical exercises lies in the theoretical issues they exemplify. “Literary theory” is enjoying a boom in literature departments at the moment, and anybody curious about the issues can learn much from Fish’s very readable exposition. Fish’s concern with “the authority of interpretive communities” will be of interest to teachers, especially those who have sometimes felt at a loss to explain to students (or to themselves) how it is one interpretation of a text can be shown to be better than another. Some readers will be put off by Fish’s delight in paradox, his seeming denial of the obvious. But they should ask themselves just how they can claim to know what any utterance means. Like many “obvious” matters, this one proves surprisingly perplexing the more you look into it. On the other hand, Fish’s attempt to resolve the perplexities by locating the source of authority in the reader has problems.

At the close of the 1960s, academic criticism rediscovered the reader. He had been banished from consideration by the New Criticism of the 1940s and 1950s, which heeded T. S. Eliot’s injunction to put “the poem itself” at the forefront of critical attention, not the poet or the reader. “Reader-response criticism,” as it has come to be called, has occasionally been marked by a strange sort of literary populism, which gives the reader the “right” to fabricate his own private meaning of a work, as if this were an extension of the citizen’s right to his opinion. But at its best, this criticism has brought a salutary reminder that literary (and other) texts take on reality only when experienced by actual readers. It has stimulated useful inquiries, which take up where psycholinguists began, into the mysteries of human understanding. And it has produced some interesting new ways of reading literary works.

In the early 1970s Stanley Fish stirred things up with one of these new ways, which he termed “affective stylistics.” Arguing against the fading New Critics that literary meaning had been conceived too narrowly as static “structure,” Fish proceeded to reconceive it, as an “event” in the unfolding experience of the reader as he moves through the work. When Fish applied his method to 17th-century authors such as Bunyan, Browne, Bacon, and Milton, their works came out looking startlingly different from the way they had looked under earlier kinds of criticism and scholarship. They were no longer continuous discourses ordered toward a unifying meaning, but resembled a series of exploding fireworks, each explosion overturning expectations previously built up in the reader. For example, take the following sentence from Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici: “That Judas perished by hanging himself, there is no certainty in Scripture. …” Fish contends that the first nine words lead the reader to expect an affirmation: there is no … doubt. When instead the reader encounters, “no … certainty,” his “point of reference becomes uncertain,” he is suspended in indeterminacy, “decertainized.” But Fish claims we are blind to this important effect as long as we continue to view the text as an object with a net “meaning.” When we view it as a process unfolding in the reader’s experience, static meaning is undone.

Fish’s thesis was intriguing, but critics pointed out that experimental evidence (which Fish didn’t claim to have) didn’t bear out his account of the reading process. Fish’s model “reader” was to all appearances a kind of moron, a person so improbably subject to being surprised by each turn of phrase in a text that he never learns to expect what is coming. Furthermore, if one looks up the context of the sentence by Browne adduced by Fish, one sees that it would render doubtful Fish’s interpretation of the sentence. Browne is saying at this point in Religio Medici that though on some topics Scripture is ambiguous, these ambiguities needn’t trouble us since they are not fundamental to faith. The uncertainty about how Judas died is a case in point. The “decertainizing” Fish finds would never take place if the sentence were read in context.

But no sooner had critics begun to point out such difficulties in Fish’s affective stylistics than Fish himself was having second thoughts about it, though for other reasons. What bothered Fish was not that his concept of reading had been primitive but that he had not freed himself from the idea that the reader is guided by a preexistent text. Under his method, texts became dynamic, explosive, destabilized, but the implication remained that these effects are there, present in the texts. As Fish now confesses, “the integrity of the text was as basic to [affective stylistics] as it was to the position of the New Critics.” “In order to argue for a common reading experience, I felt obliged to posit an object in relation to which readers’ activities could be declared uniform, and that object was the text. …” Embarrassed by this remnant of empiricism, according to which we can have common perceptions of the world because the world is “out there” independent of perceivers, Fish proceeded to get rid of the text. Surveying the criticism of Milton, he concluded that attempts to determine what part of that criticism was more or less correct rested on mere professorial superstition. There is no correct interpretation of a text, since what we call the “text”—in this case the text of Milton—is but the sum of all the various different and conflicting readings of Milton since Milton wrote. When a new interpretation gains favor among experts, this occurs not because of reasoned argument but because of the force or flamboyance of the revisionist critic. His affective criticism, Fish now declared, is a “superior fiction”; it “relieves me of the obligation to be right (a standard that simply drops out) and demands only that I be interesting. …”

If free verse, as Robert Frost is supposed to have said, is like playing tennis without a net, then “interpretations” unguided by the “obligation to be right” are like playing the game without lines as well. But once again, Fish’s critics had hardly begun to unlimber their arguments against this vulnerable position before Fish had deserted it for another—the one to which he remains committed for the moment. Citing his above-quoted declaration of independence from standards, Fish now states “I have long since repudiated this declaration along with the relativism it implies.” “Long since” is a bit confusing, for the now-repudiated statement was published in late 1976, but let that pass. From Fish’s present standpoint, what drops out is not a standard of right interpretation as such but

a standard of right that exists independently of community goals and assumptions. Within a community however, a standard of right (and wrong) can always be invoked because it will be invoked against the background of a prior understanding as to what counts as a fact, what is bearable as an argument, what will be recognized as a purpose, and so on.

Thus it is still true that texts are created by the reader, but this is now true in a way that no longer releases the reader from accountability to standards. Since “the reader” is conceived not as an isolated agent but as a member of an interpretive community whose conventions inform his ways of seeing the world, the reader’s whimsically fabricating “his own” text is not even a possibility. On the other hand—a big on the other hand—Fish argues that since interpretive communities are human institutions, they are subject to change and so therefore are the standards of correct interpretation. There is, then, always a correct interpretation of a text, but what that is may change from one time and place to another.

It seems the net has been put back up and the court-lines chalked back in, but it is hard to tell for sure. Fish implies that the “integrity of the text” has been restored, but only because we are always inside some interpretive institution that tells what the text is. This is not wholly reassuring, since it’s not clear how one knows which interpretive institution one belongs to, especially if there are a great many of them competing for one’s allegiance, as there are in a pluralistic culture. And Fish still seems to deny that it makes sense to talk about texts as objective entities, even though his own account seems to require that they be such entities. If interpretive strategies alone were sufficient to determine interpretations, one wonders why Fish’s students needed the stimulus of those names before they began interpreting. Couldn’t Fish, by his logic, have induced the same response in them by saying “that’s a poem” while pointing to the ceiling, or the window, or his elbow? Fish might reply that it’s possible to imagine a culture in which elbows in some situations count as poems. The question would remain, didn’t Fish have to point to something to trigger a poetry-interpreting response, and didn’t that something have to be there for us to account for the agreement of the respondents? Again, Fish could retort that “something there” is already an interpretation-laden description (he does in fact say that), and if several subjects agree in recognizing “it” this is only because they happen to belong to the same interpretive community. “Objective facts” exist for us only within interpretive communities.

Such a reply rescues Fish’s thesis, but only by conceding its utter triviality. Objective facts may exist only within institutions, but it’s hard to imagine anybody’s not belonging to the institution in which some data would be recognized on Fish’s board. Even a person who knew no English and had never seen anything like a classroom would perceive something on Fish’s blackboard, however little he might make of it, and that something would overlap with the students’ perceptions. I introduce this naive observer not to suggest there is a pure, transparent perception of the world that isn’t already interpretation-laden and institutional, but to suggest that there is a master-institution in which different interpretive institutions converge. Since the same sensations can be acknowledged within different interpretive institutions, they cannot be a function of any one of these institutions alone. Since we all belong to the same master-institution, it is true but trivial that objective facts are institutionally determined.

In short, the key question is not whether facts are institutional—that they are is a tautology—but whether there are institutions to which we cannot imagine ourselves not belonging. If seeing marks on a board is an “institution,” it differs from institutions like a classroom or a baseball game in that one cannot decide to drop out of it to join some alternative institution. The same is true of the larger institution of rational discourse, but Fish seems to want to get around this. He states for example that John Searle’s notion of “brute facts” is valid only as long as we adhere to the “fiction” of “intelligibility itself,” as if that were a mere matter of choice. But since there is no conceivable observation-point from which one could determine that “intelligibility itself” is a “fiction,” calling it that makes little sense. Saying that brute facts exist only within a convention of intelligibility is the same as saying brute facts exist, period.

By ignoring the overlap between conflicting interpretive institutions which secures a common world of fact. Fish gives the impression that interpretive standards are more changeable than they are. If there were no such overlap, we could never be said to disagree or change our minds about something, since disagreeing or changing our minds assumes we are talking about “the same” thing. In order to resist coming to terms with this “same thing,” Fish makes much of an incident involving a ballplayer who disconcerted sports writers by insisting his home runs were God’s doings, not his. Fish says the player “simply did not recognize the facts to which sports writers’ questions routinely refer.” But Fish’s own account of the incident makes clear the player did indeed recognize the same facts (that he’d hit two home runs); he simply interpreted their cause differently.

Fish’s last chapter all but concedes the triviality of his previous argument, though he continues to write with the air of a man creating a scandal. All that had seemed to be thrown overboard is hauled back up on deck and reinstated:

we have everything we always had. … We can convince others that they are wrong, argue that one interpretation is better than another, cite evidence in support of the interpretations we prefer; it is just that we do all those things within a set of institutional assumptions that can themselves become the objects of dispute.

Well, we can dispute lots of assumptions, but we can hardly dispute those on which the procedures of disputing depend. One who has tried is the philosopher Jacques Derrida (with whom Fish seems to identify), but Derrida has had to concoct a kind of language of Mars, repealing the law of non-contradiction in logic, in order to do so. Even Derrida has to make sense in the old ways if the wants to argue.

Why does any of this matter? One answer would be that it doesn’t, but as Fish reminds us, philosophers have wrestled with questions that don’t matter, or that didn’t seem to matter at the time in any practical way. But a better answer would be that disputes over whether texts can be interpreted reliably betray a more general uncertainty about whether we can transcend the ideological divisions of a politicized culture to agree that we inhabit a common world—if only so that we can engage in debate about that world and how to live in it. The dilemma of a culture so pluralized that it sees all reality as determined by the ideology of the observer is that it can’t argue with itself, since it won’t grant itself that measure of trans-ideological agreement necessary to make argument possible. The real question in such a culture is not how we can achieve a consensus but how we can disagree. The low quality of both our political and intellectual debate testifies to the difficulty we have answering that question.

Paul Strohm (review date Spring 1981)

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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 all of its consequences and implications” (p. 97). Those consequences and implications are manifold, and their rejection entails a wholesale revision of common conceptions of language, perception, subjectivity, understanding and argumentation which Fish deftly and successfully negotiates in these pages.

Fish argues that perception does not precede interpretation but only takes place through verbal and mental categories which are interpretive since they are conventional and contextual, grounded in the purposes, desires, values and interests of particular communities. To perceive objectively, he reasons, one would have to stand outside all contexts, to perceive from no point of view at all—an option unavailable to human beings. Fish is no solipsist, however. His point is not to deny the existence of the world, merely the existence of a neutral knowledge of it. He seeks to escape the subject/object trap by conceiving of (human) reality as the indissoluble conjunction of the world and conventional modes of organizing it. One produces facts rather than receiving them, but one usually produces them through assumptions so deeply held and so much a part of one’s situation that they seem to be attributes of reality. To some readers this must smack of the rankest subjectivism, and Fish confesses that he too feared that the abandonment of objective standards of knowledge would authorize interpretive anarchy until he realized that objectivity and subjectivity are two sides of the same coin, both embedded in an epistemology that separates subject and object. If objectivity presupposes perception unconstrained by situation and conventional mental categories, subjectivity presupposes interpretation likewise unconstrained, that is, interpretation which an individual freely and acontextually imposes at will. But an individual can no more choose an arbitrary interpretation than he can discover an absolute truth, for both he and the world are structured by the cognitive categories he learns and utilizes in his particular situation. The subject is not autonomous; he possess and is possessed by received notions which construct the world. The apparent stability of reality, which common sense insists is not illusory, proceeds not from an inherent configuration of the world but from the institutions which communities inaugurate and which constitute communities. Within the shared norms, values and interests of a community, individuals may dispute issues, propose arguments and reach conclusions which then may be subjected to verification procedures since they construct the world with, and they are constructed by, the same assumptions inherent in their situation. In other words, they may engage in meaningful debate because they share the same mechanisms for producing the facts under discussion and the same procedures for evaluating them. Thus a certain objectivity prevails within a community, but it is not universal or eternal; instead, it is contextual, and hence subject to change. And since individuals are always members of communities, they are never without standards of judgment. To paraphrase Fish, objectivity always exists, but it is not always the same one.

The consequences of this position for literary criticism are far-reaching. The text can no longer be considered an independent entity which authorizes certain interpretations, but must be seen as the product of an act of reading, as an entity constructed by institutional norms and cognitive categories. Arguments about the meaning of poems, then, are disputes not over interpretations of the verifiable facts of a poem (unless both parties have agreed to the same facts—that is, agreed to produce them in the same way), but over ways of making poems. The resolution of such arguments advances by persuasion rather than demonstration, by one party adopting the other’s perspective rather than both parties submitting to the arbitration of factual evidence. To convince another of one’s interpretation, one first identifies a common ground of assumptions shared with one’s adversary and then argues for the rationality of further assumptions with which one’s opponent differs in hopes that he will be persuaded to adopt them. Such a procedure is possible because one always shares some assumptions with members of one’s community (including assumptions as to what will count as a reasonable argument) and because all conventions, although subject to change, do not change at the same time. Since interpretive disputes are disputes about the perspectives for construing reality, and since group values and interests are inherent in any perspective, all critical arguments are political. Criticism thus surrenders its claims to disinterested objectivity, but it also regains its vitality as a formative social force.

Besides promoting this general theory of criticism, Fish also performs extensive and rigorous critiques of the assumptions of other theorists. He finds invalid, for instance, the stylisticians’ claim to generate interpretations of literary works from objective descriptions of the works’ formal features, not simply because the correlation they make between formal descriptions and interpretations is arbitrary, but also because the formal patterns which they “objectively” isolate are themselves products of interpretation which contain the conclusions that the analysis supposedly generates. Fish also claims that theorists who define literature as a deviation from ordinary language are misguided because they fail to see that literary language is not a stable entity but an open category which is filled by whatever features a particular community deems to be literary. By erecting an opposition between an objective, serious language and a non-serious, but value-laden literary language, they denigrate both the norm and its deviation, for ordinary language in this model is inhuman (because void of value) and literary language is trivial (because unserious). Only by admitting that all language is interested and purposive and that ordinary language is merely one special type of language can literary and non-literary language be restored their proper integrity. Speech-act theorists who seek a formal distinction between fictional and non-fictional discourse likewise err, for they do not recognize that such a distinction is contextual and hence unformalizable. They are similarly mistaken when they claim an objective, absolute difference between direct speech acts, in which sentences have a primary, literal meaning, and indirect speech acts, in which sentences have a secondary, figurative meaning, for the literal meaning of a direct speech act inheres not in the sentence itself, as the speech-act theorists claim, but in the context in which it is customarily delivered and apprehended.

These are but a few of the critical positions Fish dissects in this book, and no bare summary of his conclusions can do justice to the brilliance of his analyses. Rather than pursue further a synopsis of Fish’s critical battles, I would like to indicate two areas which he could possibly have explored more fully. Late in the book Fish raises the issue of “what the poststructuralists would term ‘the status of my own discourse’” (p. 368), admits that his theory proceeds by way of limited, contextual assumptions, and then dismisses the issue as trivial since the same is true of all other theories. But the questions at stake—the value of metacriticism and the possibility of self-knowledge—deserve a more complete response. If one can objectively determine the rules of baseball, can one similarly determine the rules which constitute social institutions of a less openly artificial nature? Can knowledge of an institution arise from within, or must it be grounded in another contextual frame? Is there a hierarchy of contexts which permits a metacritical stance or merely many competing perspectives which, when conjoined, illuminate one another? If one’s community interprets reality in such a way as to oppress other communities, how can one identify one’s oppressive assumptions and change them? Fish argues that a change in one’s views always comes from without, but cannot change also come from within? I also wish that Fish had indicated more fully his relationship to other theorists who express similar views. Would he find congenial the epistemological assumptions of Gregory Bateson’s and Anthony Wilden’s ecosystemic conception of mind? How would he appraise the semiotics of Umberto Eco, who defines the referent of any semiotic system as a cultural unit of signification, yet attempts a formal description of such systems? How would he evaluate the claims of deconstructionists to dismantle texts from within by exposing the complicity of meaning-enabling antitheses? Would he assent to a Kuhnian or a Foucaultian view of history?

Of course one cannot do everything in a single book; thus these questions should not be construed as complaints but as requests for answers in Fish’s future. Is There a Text in This Class? is a substantial achievement which deserves the serious consideration of all students of literature. Its arguments are cogent, forceful and engaging, its style is witty, personable and unpretentious, and its analyses are just, incisive and economical. Most important, the theory it advocates is provocative, comprehensive and, I believe, true.

Richard Wolfheim (review date 17 December 1981)

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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.

The book then has a definite intellectual unity, and it is something of a perversity that Fish chooses to present it as though it were principally the chronicle of his own formation. In the notes appended to each essay where the circumstances in which it was written are set out, and again in the introduction to the book where these circumstances are strung together into a sequence, Fish slips into addressing his readers as though they were his future biographers. He begins the introduction, “What interests me about many of the essays collected here is the fact that I could not write them today.” That may be so, but readers who aren’t already what this book would call workers in “the Fish industry” will be less gripped by this fact; they will prefer to think about the direction of the arguments and the overall character and quality of the theory and will find there quite enough to interest them.

“Literature in the Reader” begins as an animated attack upon the New Criticism. According to the New Critics the literary work was identical with the text, where this meant (roughly) the sequence of words as they might be found on the printed page. This being so, the task of the literary critic could only be to study what the words of the text, individually or in combination, were or said. Of necessity the New Critics became—the word is Fish’s—“formalists.” Fish’s claim is that this is a restrictive view of criticism and by adopting it the New Critics denied themselves an invaluable mode of access to the literary work: that which is provided by the actual experience of reading the text. What Fish would like to see criticism undertake is “an analysis of the developing responses of the reader to the words as they succeed one another on the page,” and he offers examples. By taking sometimes single sentences, sometimes whole passages, from Bunyan, Pater, Whitehead, Lancelot Andrewes, he tries to show how the minute endless fluctuations in the reader’s response, now from certainty to uncertainty, now from expectation to fulfillment or to disappointment, now from one belief to another belief and then back to the first, bring out aspects of the literary work that otherwise would go undetected.

Fish called his method “affective stylistics”—at once a reference to and a rejection of one of the central dogmas of the New Criticism, formulated in a well-known article by W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley.1 (According to Wimsatt any critical appeal that moves away from the text to the reader’s inner states inevitably involves an “affective fallacy.”) Fish gave affective stylistics a working definition by saying that the critic, in reading a literary work, instead of asking himself what a certain word or sentence or period “is about” should ask himself what it “does.” This Fish calls “the magic question.”

At times Fish makes the same point by saying that the critic should ignore “meaning,” but at other times—and then he anticipates his developed theory—he argues that his method reinterprets the notion of meaning by taking it “out of the utterance” and placing it “in the reader’s mind.” On this revised view what the work means is what the work does, and “meaning as an event” is not just a phrase, it is an italicized phrase, in the essay, and meaning as an event is the central concern of affective stylistics.

It is important to appreciate the comparative modesty of Fish’s position at this stage. In the first place, though he has introduced a new method, he has given us no reason to think that it is the only method or even that there are any methods with which it is actually incompatible—though sometimes he appears to assume this. Criticism might be pluralistic for all we have been told. Secondly, Fish has not attempted to argue from the character of this new critical method to any conclusion about the nature of the object that criticism considers. If certain remarks he makes appear to jeopardize the New Critics equation of literary work and text, this is because almost anything said in critical theory has this effect, which shows something about the New Critical thesis rather than about Fish’s method. Broken reed that it is, it shakes in any wind.

And thirdly, Fish is still as committed as any New Critic to the objectivity of criticism. In this early work he was correspondingly keen that the shift of attention from text to reader’s response should not put that objectivity at risk. To this end he laid down three conditions that a reader must satisfy if his responses to a text are to be taken seriously by critical analysis. The legitimized reader must be a competent speaker of the language in which the text was written, he must have (and Fish treats this for some reason as a separate condition) the appropriate semantic knowledge, and he must possess “literary competence.”

The last condition is obviously the crucial one, and the difficulty with it is to believe in it: it is, in other words, difficult to believe that there is a skill that both is appropriately general and can be made to fill this role. Suppose that I, an averagely educated person and averagely attentive reader, diverge in my responses to a particular text from a critic whom otherwise I admire—would it be reasonable nevertheless for me to defer to him and to do so solely because of something called his “literary competence”?

Fish himself provides us with a clear example of this problem. He is, let us say, a critic of seventeenth-century literature whom I in all ways respect. In “Literature in the Reader” he quotes a sentence from Sir Thomas Browne which runs, “That Judas perished by hanging himself, there is no certainty in Scripture.” He starts to describe his response. What this sentence “does” for him is that the first clause makes him believe that Browne believed that Judas hanged himself—the reader is invited to assume that the quoted proposition is being affirmed—with the result that he expects, indeed predicts, that the word “no” will be followed by the word “doubt,” with the consequence that the occurrence of “certainty” disorients him profoundly. “The strategy or action here is one of progressive decertainizing.” But at this point my response as a reader—as a reader of Fish, that is—is that, at any rate just this once, he is being wholly absurd. Nothing that I know about his expertise or reputation, above all no appeal to his “literary competence,” could possibly lead me to suppose that he was right in the way he responded to this sentence and that I was wrong. The appeal to literary competence carries no independent weight.

Fish’s concern with objectivity is, however, short-lived, the concern with literary competence as a device to sustain it recedes, and the modesty of his position already begins to fall away by the time we get to the last part of “Interpreting the Variorum,” an essay occasioned by the publication of the Milton Variorum. In this essay Fish takes two significant steps toward his elaborated theory.

First, he implicitly claims a methodological monopoly for reader-response analysis. He does this by the altogether intimidating tactic of maintaining the superiority of his method in a context where it might be thought at best weak and by and large inapplicable. He cites three well-known Milton sonnets—the sonnet on his blindness, the Lawrence sonnet, and the sonnet on the late massacre in Piedmont—each of which contains an interpretative crux over which the editors of the Variorum have evidently burned much midnight oil before proposing what they thought to be a plausible solution.

It might be expected that Fish would advance an opinion of his own on each of these knotty problems, but instead he simply denounces such “editorial practices.” He denounces them because of their consequences, which are that “the reader’s activities are at once ignored and devalued.” If commentators and textual scholars and such people would only let up, then the reader could feel himself at liberty to do what is expected of him: he could “experience” the problems that they meanwhile are trying to adjudicate out of existence.

Now we are not to suppose that these are special cases or that there are circumstances here that validate what, in the perspective of the text, might be called “ambiguities” or, in the reader’s perspective, the “restructuring of response.” No such circumstances are invoked to show that textual emendation is inappropriate here. The only relevant fact that Fish quotes is that critical opinion is fairly evenly balanced on either side of each crux. Accordingly the point that he is making must be very general. The response of the reader is always the preferred approach to a literary work and anything that ever depreciates it or rules out some reader’s response as “a mistake” is, and is just for that reason, to be deplored.

Secondly, reader response, or the phenomenon itself, now undergoes a revision. In his original essay, without saying as much, Fish had tended to think of the data upon which affective stylistics is concentrated as a train of experiences which the reading of a text sets off in a suitably informed reader. The reader will bring to his reading a mass of skill and information, but there is little in the train of experiences itself that could be thought to manifest activity. The reader is active only insofar as he attempts to associate certain experiences with others or to bring about what Fish calls “perceptual closures”: that is, every so often he will momentarily arrest the perceptual flow and try to draw some conclusion about the literary work to date.

At this point a new word presents itself in Fish’s characterization of the reader’s response—the word is “interpretation”—and with it the idea starts to gain strength that the reader is active in his response in some way not yet envisaged. Furthermore, he is active in a way that makes the demand of objectivity at once unattainable and superfluous. This does not entail—or so Fish is keen to assure us—that the reader’s response is totally arbitrary: there is some other standard it can meet which is just as good as the standard of objectivity. Here is obviously a crucial step in the final run-up to the theory, but it is not altogether easy to follow.

The essence of interpretation, common ground to all those who invoke the notion, is that there is a category or concept that the interpreter applies to the world. The category may appear in a judgment that the interpreter makes. Alternatively—and this would be characteristic of literary criticism—it may color or permeate the perception which gives rise to the judgment. Two examples which derive from Fish may make the point. A reader of Lycidas lines 13 to 14,

He must not float upon his wat’ry bier

may judge that the sense dramatically changes if the line ending after the word “bier” is deliberately read through. Or he may actually, in the course of reading the poem, experience the sense dramatically changing at the line-ending. Either way, the category of line-ending is employed. A reader of Samson Agonistes may judge that on a “typological construal” of Old Testament stories—i.e., one that associates the images in the Old Testament with those in the New Testament—Milton’s hero would be deemed to foreshadow Christ. Or he may read the poem according to this construal and experience Milton’s hero as typologically foreshadowing Christ. Again, either way, a category is employed, in this case that of typology.

Now the fact that interpretative judgment and interpretative perception depend upon categories has some obvious consequences. If a reader is unaware of a certain category, such as “line-ending,” he will be unable to make an interpretation that employs it. And if there had been no such category—whatever that means—the interpretation would have been altogether unavailable. But this by itself does nothing to upset either the objectivity of the interpretative judgment or the veridicality of the interpretative perception. Yet it is Fish’s view that it does. There is for him no fact of the matter behind an interpretation. Why?

At times Fish seems to be the victim of rather bad thinking. For instance, talking of the author’s intention he writes, “Interpretation creates intention and its formal realization by creating the conditions in which it becomes possible to pick them out.” But if we abstract the principle of this argument, do we not have to conclude that, by creating a telescope magnifying thirty-three diameters, Galileo created the hills and valleys of the moon?

We probably should forget such arguments, for it seems likely that Fish’s view derives not from the general conditions of interpretation but from some peculiarity, as he sees it, of critical or, even more narrowly, of literary critical interpretation. The crucial peculiarity here is that of an “interpretative strategy.” According to Fish, every interpretation that a reader proposes is proposed in conformity with some interpretative strategy to which he there and then subscribes, though he is free, at the next minute if he wishes, to abandon that strategy and adopt another. Interpretative strategies sort themselves into broad groupings—psychoanalytic, structuralist, New Critical—and readers or critics whose strategies come out of the same grouping form an “interpretative community.”

Insisting that individual interpretations are always made in the context of a strategy has the effect of showing how complex are their “truth-conditions,” or the circumstances that ensure their truth. An interpretation has to be responsible on the one hand to the local character of the literary work and on the other hand to a number of general truths about literature, language, and the mind; often enough, one kind of factor will have to be weighed against another. But surely this doesn’t make objective interpretation impossible. This we can see better when we recognize that in shifting from one interpretation to another we generally build on the first. Only in exceptional circumstances do we think of ourselves as substituting truth for error, rather than more for less comprehensive truth.

But in two places Fish makes a very serious blunder about interpretation—a blunder he does not recognize and therefore does not correct—and this probably explains why he denies objectivity to interpretation. In the essay entitled “Normal Circumstances and Other Special Cases” and again in “A Reply to John Reichert” he claims that a critic can never be forced to give up an interpretation by an appeal to evidence, so long as he sticks to the same interpretative strategy. The reason is that the strategy determines the evidence. A critic adopts a strategy, the strategy generates an interpretation, any evidence against the interpretation is ruled out by the strategy, and so the interpretation is safe-guarded—but the price is objectivity. So Fish argues: wrongly.

For if it is true that an interpretative strategy “determines” the evidence, it does so only in a sense much weaker than would make Fish’s case. Presumably—“presumably,” for after all the idea is Fish’s and I am only trying to understand it—what a strategy determines is the kind of evidence that a critic who subscribes to it may use. A strategy will tell him, for instance, that biographical information is inadmissible, or that mythic patterns are of significance, or that favored grammatical transformations are stylistically relevant, or that voice and person are crucial—but what it will not tell him, because it cannot, is what, within the broad limits of admissibility, is actually the case. No strategy can say, for instance, just how the image of the golden bowl figures in James’s novel and to what effect, or whether Milton really did prefer deletion to conjunction in his Lawrence poem, or what and where are the actual changes of voice in Lycidas. If this is so, then, given a strategy, there is still the open question whether the evidence does or doesn’t verify an interpretation. The issue of objectivity is by no means closed.

The false picture of how an interpretation nestles securely within a strategy is neatly illustrated in the lecture that gives the book its title. It starts with a story. A student at Johns Hopkins asks a professor at the first meeting of his course, “Is there a text in this class?” The professor says, “Yes, it’s the Norton Anthology of Literature.” He has misunderstood her question, for, as Fish goes on to explain, the student might have been asking whether there is a particular book that is prescribed reading for the class, or whether in this class people are expected to believe in “poems and things” or only in readers. She was actually asking the second, but the professor took her to be asking the first.

Now the two questions become distinguished once the context of utterance—that is, the language or idiolect—is specified, and for Fish the point of telling this story is that according to him it is in the very same way that the authority of an interpretation is placed beyond dispute once the context of practice—that is, the interpretative strategy—is specified. But that is precisely the wrong analogy. If we want a parallel to the relation of an interpretation to its interpretative strategy, we find it not in the way in which the meaning of a certain word—say, “text”—but in the way in which the truth of a certain sentence—say, “There is a text in this class”—stands to the language of which it is a part. In other words, language fixes the meaning of a word but leaves open the truth of a sentence.

By whatever means Fish arrives at the view that interpretations derive not from literary works but solely from interpretative strategies, and hence lack objectivity, it is now an easy step to reverse the natural view and claim that literary works derive solely from interpretations. Fish takes that step. “Interpretation is not the art of construing but the art of constructing. Interpreters do not decode poems, they make them.” To support this, Fish tells a rather hollow story in which a sophisticated professor persuades some gullible students—or perhaps some sophisticated students pretend to a gullible professor—to read the names of six contemporary critics written up on a blackboard and left over from an earlier class as if they were the text of a seventeenth-century devotional poem. The story is supposed to show just how much interpretation can do. By offering readings it can make a poem the poem that it is. Very impressive. But just by attending to it, it can make something into a poem.

By this point the original modesty has fallen away from Fish’s position: critical method is free to determine the object of criticism; interpretative communities have unrestricted rights over language and literature, and now the theory that found its germ in a bright idea is fully elaborated.

It would be difficult but also unprofitable to discuss how original Fish’s theory is or to what extent it reiterates the hermeneutic tradition of such thinkers as Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, and Jürgen Habermas. Fish’s inventive mind, his impetuosity in argument, his flair for practical criticism, and his consistent jauntiness of manner give an individual quality to his thinking, and they also account for much of its appeal and some of its interest.

However, some of the appeal and much of the interest of his thinking come from another aspect. That is the way in which he enshrines certain commitments which to varying degrees, in differing combinations, pattern themselves over so broad a range of contemporary thought—in art theory, in psychoanalysis, in metaphilosophy, as well as in literary criticism—as to give Is There a Text in This Class? the status of a symptom. For want of better words I shall call these commitments positivism, relativism, and institutionalism, though I know that some of the thinkers I have in mind, and not least Fish, would feel that I could scarcely have chosen worse. Positivism and relativism are powerful and insidious doctrines, and the desire not to be contaminated by them has protected no one from them. It has just made diagnosis too late.

The general scheme of such thinking goes like this. First, an evidential base is chosen which is miserly in the extreme but is held to be all that experience warrants (a marked canvas, a patient’s utterances, a pattern of argument). This is positivism. Then an elaborate superstructure is placed on this meager base, and the construction is justified by appeal to certain norms or principles. So we get relativism. And if these norms or principles are challenged as arbitrary, then an appeal is made to the professional institution which has thought them up and which is declared the ultimate umpire. Now we have institutionalism. These three stages are of different relative importance in different theories, but in Is There a Text in This Class? they all show up so vividly that the book is a florid symptom of the tendency I have been describing.

The positivism emerges with the identification of the literary critic’s data, or what he starts from, as a sequence of words, otherwise known as the text. Fish, as we have seen, diverges from the New Critics in refusing to identify the text with the literary work, and here he is clearly sound. There is such an obvious difference between the two—a literary work can be innovatory, full of hidden presences, ephemeral, cautious, cautionary, all of which qualities a text presumably can’t have—that Fish is clearly right to reject their identity. But he does think that the sole evidence for the literary work or the only causally independent material available to the critic is the text, and this view also encounters enormous difficulties, of two sorts.

In the first place, if the text is to fill this role it will have to be thought of as a sequence of words plus much more that is true of these words: semantic interpretation, history of composition, philology, metrical analysis, and so on. But, secondly, even when all this is included, the critic who wishes to grasp the literary work will still need further information which could not possibly be thought of as textual, and this will be evidence that can be specified neither in advance nor in a systematic way. We might think of it as just that information which Fish himself tried to avoid enumerating by depositing it without inventory in the head of his “informed reader.”

Fish will plead that the charge of positivism, even in this restricted sense, is unfair—for doesn’t he, particularly in the second half of the book, insist that for him the text is not a datum or something “free-standing” but is also the product of interpretation? Certainly he says this. But I am doubtful that we should take him literally: for three reasons.

In the first place, the history of literary criticism, which is the history of successive interpretations, and which in Fish’s theory becomes the natural heir to the history of literature, requires for its coherent telling that there should be objects whose identity persists under different interpretations. Otherwise we should have no way of grouping together those interpretations whose differences peculiarly interest us because—as we should put it, in our unreformed way—they are interpretations of the same work. In a literary journal an interpretation of a Keats sonnet is followed by an interpretation of a Campion lyric which is succeeded by another interpretation of the same Keats sonnet. What do the first and the third interpretations have in common? Of course this object doesn’t have to be the text, but, if it isn’t, Fish has to tell us what he thinks it is.

Secondly, it is easy enough to explain away Fish’s insistence that interpretation creates the text without having to believe that he believes anything so unlikely. We may simply suppose that, well after he had rejected the New Critical equation of literary work and text, he remained for much of the time in its grip, so that he continues to use the word “text” to mean “literary work.” There is a lot of evidence in the book to support this explanation.

Thirdly, the only argument of Fish’s that expressly aims to show that the text—the text as opposed to the literary work—is created by interpretation is so unconvincing that it is hard to believe that he takes the issue seriously. He writes, “[T]he answer to the question ‘why do different texts give rise to different sequences of interpretive acts?’ is that they don’t have to, an answer which implies strongly that ‘they don’t exist.” I have a clock above the fireplace; and sometimes I look at it as a way of telling the time sometimes as a piece of art nouveau furniture, sometimes as a reminder of where I used to live. We have already seen that. Fish would argue from this to the fact that none of my perceptions of the clock is veridical. That is arguable, though implausible. Now Fish asks us to conclude from these very same facts of perception that the clock itself doesn’t exist.

The place of relativism in Fish’s theory I have already considered. The oddity is that, having induced relativism in criticism by arguing so heatedly that there is no fact of the matter behind critical interpretations and that they are made true solely by interpretative strategies, Fish then goes to some lengths to deny the charge of relativism. He has three arguments.

The first and most general argument is that no one can be a relativist because no one can stand back the required distance from his assumptions to see what they do for him: to see, that is, that he is interested only in securing beliefs that are true relative to them. But this is to confuse the practical relativist, whose beliefs are true only relative to certain assumptions, and the philosophical relativist, who recognizes that his beliefs are true only relative to certain assumptions. Philosophical relativism may be impossible to believe—though I doubt this—but what we are concerned with is the practical relativist, who would be no less of a relativist for not being able to see that this is what he is.

Secondly, Fish argues that for relativism to be a meaningful doctrine about criticism there would have to be the possibility in principle of a criticism that wasn’t relativist and that was independent of norms: but, in his view there isn’t; so, he argues, relativism is not so much a theory about criticism as an unrealizable fear or a pointless lament. Some years ago positivist-minded philosophers tried to spirit out of existence uncomfortable metaphysical doctrines by arguments of this kind. They would ask, What would it be like, according to the idealist, for the world to be material? What would count for the skeptic as good evidence?—and they took the silence of their adversaries for an admission of defeat. Neither idealism nor skepticism, they concluded, is a real philosophical option. But there is, as far as I can see, no reason why the metaphysician should have such per impossible answers.

Thirdly, Fish contends that critical norms are never personal or idiosyncratic; they are social. But this at most would establish that certain kinds of relativism do not arise within literary criticism—or that critical interpretation is always relative to a community.

This takes us to the third and most interesting commitment—institutionalism—by which I have in mind the way in which interpretative strategies, and hence interpretations themselves, get authorized by interpretative communities. These have the right, and the duty, to propose what they please. Fish elects understatement: “Perhaps the greatest gain that falls to us under a persuasion model is a greatly enhanced sense of the importance of our activities.” Three sentences later, and the enhanced sense of importance gradually reflates the prose. “The practice of literary criticism is not something one must apologize for: it is absolutely essential not only to the maintenance of, but to the very production of, the objects of its attention.” By which, of course, Fish means not that critics subsidize the writers they study, but that they are them, since it is they who write such texts as there are in their classes.

To connect such views with the envy of creativity is inviting but to be resisted: it would be what psychoanalysts call a “premature interpretation.” For it is important to see at just what point the role of the critic becomes so vastly inflated. It does not come about because of the enormous significance assigned to interpretation. (Indeed here I am sure that Fish is right.) It comes about at a subtler point and because (as we have seen) of an error about interpretation, which involves thinking of it as relativistic—and this error might be without motivation. It might be a plain mistake: though, as it turns out, in his favor.

Once he has denied objectivity to interpretation Fish then looks around for a source that will nonetheless legitimize interpretation; and what is significant in his theory is how he identifies the class which he aggrandizes. It does not consist of aesthetes, independent thinkers, amateurs des livres, poets’ poets, but it is the unified class of the faculties of university English departments, with special privileges to the more ambitious and the more assertive. Fish’s arbiter of critical truth is characteristically someone with students to teach, colleagues to convince, a hearing to gain for himself, and who, if he does well in all this, will be, in Fish’s words, “a candidate for the profession’s highest honors.”

In advocating the claims of interpretative communities Fish proposes himself as the spokesman, or a spokesman, for a new irredentism. Traditionally American universities, unlike their British counterparts, have adopted—in Mark Pattison’s distinction—the “professorial” rather than the “tutorial” ideal of the university. As in the great German universities of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, emphasis was laid upon the scholar or scientist of originality who lectured out of his own interests, his own research, to a body of largely self-selected students and who did not have to concern himself particularly with the training of young minds to a fairly uniform and socially beneficial standard. Rising to the very top of such a system would be the great charismatic teachers who dazzled their audiences with the strength of their curiosity, the profundity of their learning, and a well-developed eloquence.

During the late Sixties much of this system was dismantled. Students no longer wanted to be spellbound. They called it, and much else, “mystification,” and so we may think of a theory such as Fish’s as, among other things, an attempt to re-mystify the institutions of learning. The old charismatic teacher gained his authority by his felt excellence within or (more likely) up against the boundaries of his subject. His successor, however, seeks his by gerrymandering these boundaries or by defining the subject as what he does—even while he waits, nervously, excitedly perhaps, for a rival to come along and redefine it as what he does.

In a recent number of a literary journal Stanley Fish was identified as the co-author of a forthcoming book called Professionalism in Literary Studies. Ambiguity is catching. Will he be concerned with the perfection of skill or the grooming for a career? Or should we conclude that the proofreader whose responses to this text have been so affective has struck again, and that Fish chose as his future title one under which the present book could more informatively have appeared: Professorialism in Literary Studies?


  1. “The Affective Fallacy,” in The Verbal, Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry, by W. K. Wimsatt, Jr. (University Press of Kentucky, 1967).

Anthony C. Yu (review date August 1982)

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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 articulation of a thesis than a series of provocative and engaging explorations, in which Fish argues with himself and his critics.

Why Fish has taken this long to reach his conclusion may be due to the difficulty he had to face in his attempt to dislodge his own evolving theory from New Critical assumptions. In his earlier publications, including the highly acclaimed Surprised by Sin (1967) and Self-Consuming Artifacts (1972), Fish has already sought to substitute the structure of the reader’s experience for the formal structures of the text as “the privileged container of meaning.” His efforts, however, are only partially successful because the text for him at the time still assumes a normative and regulatory role in shaping the reader’s response. Even as he reconceives literary meaning as primarily an “event” unfolding in the reader’s experience, Fish’s desire to claim “universality and objectivity” for his method, as he says, compels him to uphold unwittingly the most cherished principles of New Criticism: the integrity of the text and the aim at “objective” interpretation. To move beyond these troublesome concerns something more radical is needed.

First, literature itself will have to be redefined. Whereas traditional poetics (New Critical or otherwise) have sought to distinguish literature from other human activities on linguistic or ontological grounds, Fish now argues (with John Ellis and others) that “literature is a function of a communal decision as to what will count as literature” (p. 10). While it is still a category, literature “is an open category, not definable by fictionality, or by a disregard of propositional truth, or by a predominance of tropes and figures, but simply by what we decide to put into it” (p. 11). A play or poem is there not because some autonomous individual wills it into existence by the act of composition, but simply because something is recognized as such.

Second, the stubborn fear of subjectivity in criticism must be exorcised. Since such a fear arises directly from the belief that literary meaning is structured in the text, hence critical interpretation may bring either illumination or distortion, this belief must be removed once and for all. For Fish, there are no objective “facts” or “patterns” resident in the literary artifact that require explanation or elucidation. The text, in fact, has no semantic autonomy, no independent existence as a meaningful utterance apart from its perception and reception. Formal characteristics, linguistic and structural, which provide estimable evidence for an objectivist theory of interpretation, are, in Fish’s view, actually products of interpretation. The text, therefore, cannot function as limit or guide in interpretation, because what we choose to hear and see in the text are inescapably “perceptual habits” of a particular reading community. All linguistic constituents (“verbs, nouns, cleft sentences, transformations, deep and surface structures, senses, rhemes, tagmemes—now you see them, now you don’t” [p. 167]) and all formal units are merely descriptive tools, necessary fictions.

Because the text is radically indeterminate and because literary interpretation is in effect the conferral of status and meaning to a text by readers, all utterances may be transformed by the interpretive community into literature. An ancient like Aristotle may want to distinguish scientific or medical treatises written in verse from poetry on philosophical grounds, but for the “contemporary reader” postulated by Fish, this sort of distinction is misguided and ultimately irrelevant. If a person decides that a random catalog of proper names (“Jacobs/Rosenbaum/Levin/Thorne/Hayes/Ohman” [p. 323]) is a poem, it will be a poem, and meanings, appropriate or not, will be created for those names by the observer with vested interests. This was, in fact, what happened in 1971 when a group of students was told by Fish that these names on the blackboard represented “a religious poem of the kind they had been studying” (p. 323). Immediately, the students began to find elaborate allegorical significance in the catalog (“Jacob was explicated as a reference to Jacob’s ladder … [Rosenbaum was] an obvious reference to the Virgin Mary who was often characterized as a rose without thorns” [p. 324], and so on).

Given such a line of argument, does it mean that criticism is finally no more than a kind of sophisticated but solipsistic babble? To the extent that Fish believes that his theory “relieves [him] of the obligation to be right (a standard that simply drops out) and demands only that [he] be interesting” (p. 180), it would appear that such is his tacit admission. Nonetheless, Fish clings tenaciously to the belief that criticism is an art of persuasion (cf. chap. 16), and that communication is still possible—if not between text and reader, at least between reader and reader. Perhaps the inherent contradictions of his position are nowhere more apparent than in the following anecdote, which he uses to establish the dependence of literary understanding not on “the rules and fixed meanings of a language system” but on the “understood practices and assumptions” of various institutions.

On the first day of the new semester a colleague at Johns Hopkins University was approached by a student who, as it turned out, had just taken a course from me. She put to him what I think you would agree is a perfectly straightforward question: “Is there a text in this class?” Responding with a confidence so perfect that he was unaware of it (although in telling the story, he refers to this moment as “walking into the trap”), my colleague said, “Yes: it’s the Norton Anthology of Literature,” whereupon the trap (set not by the student but by the infinite capacity of language for being appropriated) was sprung: “No, no,” she said, “I mean [sic] in this class do we believe in poems and things, or is it just us?”

[p. 305]

The point of this story, as Fish correctly perceives, is not whether there is one literal meaning for the word “text” or many meanings, but that the word can take on different meanings when it is used in different contexts. Fish cannot be gainsaid when he asserts that “my colleague was not hesitating between two (or more) possible meanings of the utterance; rather, he immediately apprehended what seemed to be an inescapable meaning, given his prestructured understanding of the situation, and then he immediately apprehended another inescapable meaning when that understanding was altered” (p. 306). Where he strays in his reasoning is in his explanation of how his colleague’s understanding of the situation became altered. Nowhere in his discussion of this incident—and, indeed, throughout the book itself—does Fish allow any role for authorial intention as a determinant of meaning. Such recalcitrance, of course, is understandable and consistent, for if intentionality were permitted in his theory, the entire edifice of reader-criticism would collapse. Since the burden of ascertaining what the utterance—“Is there a text in this class?”—means rests solely on the auditor, Fish must resort to elaborate and tortuous descriptions to account for how his colleague is led to imagine different sets of circumstances in which “text” is used in ways other than when the hearer first heard and received the word.

What the story actually illustrates, however, is that the author of the utterance can specify what she means (“No, no, I mean…”) and that such specification does function as a corrective of misunderstanding. Fish attempts to show that her words are not decisive for altering her auditor’s apprehension, since only someone with privileged knowledge of his own literary theory can fully savor all the implications inherent in the second use of “text” and thus appreciate the “joke.” What Fish seems to fail to realize is that such knowledge can be acquired and transmitted accurately, or there would be no point in telling the anecdote in the first place. By the same reasoning, one can also imagine a third party possessed of this knowledge and present in the classroom saying to Fish’s colleague, “No, no, what she means … etc.” This last kind of activity, one might well argue, takes place in literary criticism all the time.

That a critic of Fish’s charm, wit, and acumen (there are many pages of brilliant analysis of Coriolanus and Milton) should devote so much time and effort to defending such a lopsided thesis is regrettable. After more than three decades of sustained exposure to Heidegger, Bultmann, and Gadamer (not to mention Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud), no student of literature and criticism today would be so naive as to think that one can approach a text wholly without presuppositions, “when consciousness is innocent of any and all categories of thought” (pp. 319–20). On the other hand, to affirm with Fish that the reader’s consciousness is wholly governed by cultural and institutional constraints but not those imposed by the text is equally naive.

John Ellis (review date 27 July 1989)

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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 Comes Naturally is quite different. There is, first of all, more variety of theme: in addition to the now familiar reader-oriented view of literary interpretation, there are essays on various aspects of theory of language (speech-act theory, irony, rhetoric), on legal theory (interpretation in the law, the concept of force), and on the literary profession and professionalism. But the more basic change lies in the disappearance of the loner struggling with a problem of theory within his own field. A quick sampling of the positions he takes in these essays shows the difference clearly enough. In theory of language, Fish argues that all discourse is rhetorical and words do not constrain meaning, and that to think otherwise is to subscribe to an illusory objectivist account of meaning; in legal theory, interpretation of the law by a judge is no less an exercise of power than is the behaviour of the violent criminal who uses brute force; in legal rulings the bottom line remains the ascendancy of one person or set of interests over another; in science, all knowledge is also rhetorical; in social theory, principles are really preferences, and vice versa; in literary interpretation, the critic makes the text refer to whatever is relevant to his purpose; in the academic profession, ‘blind’ evaluation of scholarly papers submitted to journals is just as biased as evaluation with full knowledge of the author’s identity, because all readings are biased.

Now these are all currently well-known positions, and the basis of their appearing together in one volume is just as clear: Fish the erstwhile loner in theory seems now to have committed himself to an identifiable group with a particular orientation. How one should refer to this group, and who should be included, would be matters of dispute between those sympathetic to it and those who are more sceptical. Fish himself gives us lists and characterisations at several points in his book. On page 345 his generic term is anti-foundationalists’, while on page 225 he refers to those who have joined in the attack on foundations as ‘the intellectual left’. The lists include deconstructionists, Marxists, the Critical Legal Studies movement, Foucault, Kuhnian philosophy of science and reader-oriented critics of literature. Feminists are, surprisingly, not much in evidence.

The positions taken by Fish in most of these essays are therefore fairly predictable given this new identification, but before going on to look at the efficacy of his presentation and advocacy I should note the few ways in which he departs from this orthodoxy. First, the notion of theory itself is a highly valued one among his fellows in this group: for them, theory is the means whereby we come to see through claims to objectivity, or to indispensable foundations, or to principles which are neutral rather than embodiments of particular interests. Fish disagrees, arguing that theory has no consequences. He thinks that seeking an ‘overarching theory’ is really foundationalism again, and in his preface he tells us that, given the historical and social determinations which are always in place, what you do ‘will issue from you as naturally as breathing’. (Hence the title of the book.) Fish also dissents from the anti-professionalism of the intellectual left, since he thinks that to complain of the corruption of professional hierarchies is to postulate a situation where intrinsic values operate rather than the interests of particular individuals and groups. He thinks there are no such situations—this is for him foundationalism again, and foundationalism is a characteristic of those on the intellectual right; left-wing intellectuals (Fish’s kind of left-wing intellectual) become right-wing intellectuals in disguise when they do this. For the same reason, Fish complains at other points in the book that a belief in the superiority of the socialist system can blind a Marxist (in this case Eagleton) to the pervasive rhetoricity of everything. That belief is foundationalism again, and so presumably Eagleton has to be placed among right-wing intellectuals too.

What are we to make of all this? It is easy to see that Fish’s arguments on various topics tend to have a common structure, and to embody the same kind of moves. Take the argument about force and law. He begins by looking at the opposed notions of brute force and the rule of law. He attempts to break down the distinction, arguing that the policeman no less than the gunman uses force, and that even the judge, in interpreting the law, is forcing the legal text into the shape he wants it to have. The end-result is the disappearance of the distinction: ‘the force of law is always and already indistinguishable from the forces it would oppose. Or to put the matter another way: there is always a gun at your head,’ and ‘the bottom line remains the ascendancy of one person—or one set of interests aggressively pursued—over another, and the dream of general rules “judicially applied” remains just that a dream.

This is all too reminiscent of the standard schoolboy cynic argument: I choose to lounge on the beach; Mother Theresa chooses to care for the poor in India; we both do what makes us feel good, and both do what we want to do; so what’s the difference? Arguments like this have long been used by adolescents to ward off burdensome distinctions like that between responsible and irresponsible behaviour, or between selfishness and helpfulness, but most parents, whether or not they were competent logicians, have been able to recognise a reductive, self-serving argument when they saw it. The logical mistake in arguments of this kind lies in the fact that breaking down a particular conceptual distinction between A and B is not the same thing as showing that there are no differences between them. The most common case is one in which a sharp difference in kind is replaced with a continuum of differences of degree which does virtually the same kind of conceptual work that was done by the original distinction. If what makes Mother Theresa feel good is helping others, while what makes the schoolboy cynic feel good is not having to mow the lawn, that difference is enough to allow us to begin to rebuild some kind of notion of responsibility. But here we see Fish’s central logical weakness: he seems to have no grasp of what he has and has not done when he has broken down a particular distinction. He speaks as if he had abolished differences, not just the particular distinction. Even if we grant the thesis that the rapist, the bank robber, the judge, the legislator and the soldier on Tiananmen Square are all exercising force or power, it does not follow that the force of law is simply indistinguishable from the force it opposes, still less that all we ever have is ‘principled force—and it is my argument that there is no other kind,’ or that ‘force is just another name for what follows naturally from conviction.’ Do we really want to concede that the rapist is using principled force, or that the bank robber acts from conviction just as the legislator does when he votes to mandate safety standards which will save lives? Even the schoolboy cynic, relentless sophist and reductionist though he is, would not push his argument that far. What Fish ignores as he throws the conceptual baby out with the bathwater is that even if we decide to see force as the basis of everything, there would still be many differences to be noted in the kind of force used, in the circumstances of its use, in the legitimacy which can be claimed for it, and in the derivation of that claimed legitimacy—all of which would effectively put back in place much of what Fish thinks he has gotten rid of in breaking down the distinction between law and force.

Much the same holds for his other arguments. The attempt to reduce principles to preferences is more schoolboy cynic argumentation, but even if we were to allow the abolition of this useful practical distinction we should have to put back much of its content by making distinctions among preferences according to their scope, generality and legitimacy. The realisation that all evaluations of articles for publication in professional journals are biased—including those that are ‘blind’—should not prevent us from seeing that biases are of different kinds, that merit is one factor operating among others which include those biases, and that blind submission goes some way to removing one of the most important kinds of bias.

Throughout, he complains that those he opposes are beguiled by a belief in ‘absolutes’, but it seems to me far more true to say that it is his own argument that is beguiled by them. Again and again he argues, in effect, that if readings are not completely free of bias, they are just biased; that if principles are not completely devoid of personal considerations, they are not really principles; that if the law is not totally objective and neutral, it is no different from other kinds of force; that if words do not have an absolutely clear reference they do not constrain meaning at all; that if science does not offer final truth, it is just rhetorical. To be sure, he knows enough about the danger of being seen as one who jumps from one extreme to another to position himself rhetorically as one who steers a path between objectivism and subjectivism: but the argument he consistently uses to back up this rhetorical posture is an appeal to a particular historical and cultural context. This is essentially the appeal to cultural and historical relativism which has been the standard counter to normative thought since Herder first advanced it in the 18th century, and Fish tends to wave it as if it were a magic wand to solve the problems that have arisen in his argument. Whatever its intrinsic merit as a position, it is neither the new move that Fish takes it to be, nor is it well suited to the purpose for which he wishes to use it here: it cannot mediate between the two opposed poles of thought in these instances, for it is essentially one of them.

Fish’s argument that theory has no practical consequences may be thought to bring to the fore all the least attractive features of his style of argument. This is on its face a startling thesis: to say that all one has to do is to ignore theory and do whatever comes naturally seems at the outset to be unable to deal with two important facts of experience—that most of us find that reflecting on what we are doing is helpful, and that what comes naturally to many people can seem foolish or even horrendous to others. Can we really value reflection so little? Some classic statements on the relation of theory to practice come to mind. Goethe said that ‘with every attentive look at the world we are already theorising,’ and that the most important thing was to understand that ‘everything that is factual is already theory.’ Kant gave us an equally memorable aphorism: ‘thoughts without content are empty; perceptions without concepts are blind.’ Were they both wrong? Is practice separate from theory after all? Take some examples from this century in humanistic scholarship: when the New Critics argued that the author’s intention was not available or desirable as a standard for interpreting and evaluating literary texts, those critics who accepted their theory began to write a different kind of criticism; and when Chomsky published Syntactic Structures, practice in linguistics also changed dramatically. How does Fish deal with such powerful arguments and evidence?

The short answer is that be tries to make what he has asserted true by definition: whenever he is face to face with theory having consequences, he simply argues that the theory is not really theory, and that the consequences are not really consequences either. The matter of consequences is handled very simply: those which flowed from Chomsky’s appearance are said to be merely political consequences. One group within the profession acquired ascendancy over another. But to make this strained argument Fish has to ignore the fact that one of these groups is identifiable as a group only by the fact that it did a different kind of linguistics—the kind that showed the influence of Chomsky’s theory. The demonstration that theory is not really theory is more complex, and here Fish is inconsistent. Sometimes he says that theory must be separable from practice or it would reduce to practice, and not be theory at all. But at other times he says that theory in the sense that he requires cannot exist: ‘there can be no such thing as theory and something that does not exist cannot have consequences.’ This is Fish at his worst, and it shows how he acquired his reputation for stubborn defence of a position no matter how hopeless it becomes. The basic problem here is addiction to schoolboy cynic logic again: either altruism is wholly separable from gratification or there is no such thing as altruism; either readings are wholly unbiased or there is just bias; either theory is absolutely distinct from practice or there is no such thing as theory. All of which adds up to the assumption that if a distinction is not completely and absolutely exclusive it cannot be made at all. But since many if not most distinctions are between two opposed poles of a continuum, Fish’s argument is doomed.

Fish makes this argument about the status of theory the leading issue in his book, but it seems to me a side-issue. More fundamental is his rehearsing the series of familiar arguments in theory of language, literature and the law which announce his new alignment with a particular group. He thinks of this group as the ‘intellectual left’, but that seems to me untenable. Fish’s attempt to redefine the ‘left’ as that part of the spectrum of thought which has no definite social beliefs to advocate is one of his most specious attempts at redefinition: the one thing that the right and left have in common is that both have social beliefs, and a definition of the left which has to exclude socialists and Marxists is just silly. Still, the group that Fish now aligns himself with certainly does exist. It is a group which has arisen over the last fifteen years and could be called the new theory elite, or perhaps the theory jet-set. It has identifiable characteristics. It talks a great deal about theory. It appears to believe that recent theory is of an especially sophisticated kind, and that most significant events in the development of theory are recent. And its interest in theory is less a devotion to theoretical inquiry per se than it is a commitment to certain very specific ideas, which is why one recognises Fish’s alignment so quickly.

Within this narrowly-focused discussion it might seem that really important work in philosophy of science begins with Thomas Kuhn, that serious questioning of both the positivist theory of language and the general notion of truth begins with Derrida, that jurisprudence begins with Critical Legal Studies, that truly profound thought on intention and interpretation in criticism is also of recent vintage, and even that historical and cultural relativism is a bright new idea. But none of this is so, and the lack of any realistic context or historical awareness of the development of these issues must inevitably result in distortion and crudities.

Kuhn’s basic ideas in the philosophy of science go back to C. S. Peirce and through him to Goethe; within this context it is not at all remarkable, as Fish seems to think it is, to see Kuhn restate the idea that in scientific inquiry the key to validity is not verification but the assent of the scientific community. And Peirce’s point, echoed by Kuhn, is not that science is rhetorical, as Fish and others would have it, but that it is always hypothetical and provisional. In theory of language, the available alternatives are not limited to those considered by Fish and those he follows—that is, either a positivist theory of meaning or the rejection of any constraints on meaning; many other alternatives to positivism have long been available, and one of them—the later Wittgenstein—cannot be assimilated to the ‘no constraints’ school, as Fish thinks. In jurisprudence, Fish’s reduction of law to various kinds of force ignores long-standing arguments that the basis of a legal system is found not in compulsion, but in order. In literary criticism, the celebrated essay by Wimsatt and Beardsley on the Intentional Fallacy goes far deeper into the many issues that arise in intentionalism than Fish’s single-issue discussion is able to do. And finally, a look at the historical record of historical and cultural relativism would show that it has been used just as much by the right as by the left; its first use by Herder was in the context of the rise of German nationalism, scarcely a left-wing force, and in China it is one of the arguments now being used to ward off generalised ideas of democracy by an appeal to the unique character and circumstances of China.

Finally, however, there is an even deeper problem. It is that theoretical analysis tends to be an individual activity; particular people set out to crack particular theoretical problems by thinking hard about them. This is solitary, probing, difficult work, and one never quite knows where it will lead. It is quite inconsistent with fashionable orthodoxy. Indeed, it seems to me that a theory jet-set can only arise when the pursuit of theory has degenerated into the group celebration of a temporary and local consensus, and that consensus is likely to be—as this one is—a fairly primitive one from a theoretician’s standpoint. Which brings me back to the difference between Is There a Text in This Class? and Doing What Comes Naturally, and Fish’s progress from one to the other. Though its logic was also vulnerable, the first had the aura of an individual’s serious attempt to grapple with a theoretical issue—it felt like a theoretical inquiry. The sense that Fish has joined a club gives this second volume an altogether different feel. Strangely enough, Fish’s title, borrowed from Annie Get Your Gun, invokes a completely different group—the shrewd but unpretentious country-folk who know what is what even though ‘they ain’t got no learnin’. That now famous ‘uncle out in Texas’ who ‘couldn’t write his name’ still knew a city slicker when he saw one, and when ‘he signed his checks with X’s’ the bank knew exactly what those X’s meant.

Peter Kivy (essay date Winter 1989)

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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 model of persuasion, however, our activities are directly constitutive of these objects, and the terms in which they can be described, and of the standards by which they can be evaluated.1

Now the persuasion model has what appear to be deeply troubling, even paradoxical consequences, as various critics of Fish have pointed out, and as Fish himself quite candidly admits. ‘Not only is such a view disturbing but it seems counterintuitive given the very real sense we all have, both as critics and teachers, of advancing toward a clearer sight of our object.’ For if we believe that we, as interpreters, construct the text rather than find it out, ‘if we really believe that a text has no determinate meaning, then how can we presume to judge our students’ approximations of it, and, for that matter, how can we presume to teach them anything at all?’2

But it is Fish’s view that these troubles are apparent only. Embracing his conception of criticism, ‘We have everything that we always had … texts, standards, norms, criteria of judgment, critical histories, and so on. We can convince others that they are wrong, argue that one interpretation is better than another, cite evidence in support of the interpretations we prefer’.3 How can this be?

The answer is that, on Fish’s view (although he does not say it in so many words), the evidence that is constituted by how critics behave, and by how we might, in various gedanken experiments, imagine them to go on behaving, is just as consistent with the persuasion model of criticism as it is with the demonstration model. This requires some spelling out.

On the demonstration model, texts possess meanings and critics try to discover them. If a critic thinks he knows what the meaning of a text is, he will, quite naturally, try to convince others. He will do so by adducing arguments, as he made his discovery, or, perhaps, verified it, by marshalling evidence. If he has thought about methodological matters at all, and is not just ‘doin’ what comes naturally’, then he believes that the procedures he follows are those suited to gaining his end, which is discovery of meaning; and he will insist that others abide by them as well, if they share the enterprise. Doubtless he will also believe, if he has thought about it, that these procedures are inviolable, although he may or may not have opinions about what their epistemic grounds are.

Now Fish does not believe any of this. On his view, the critic is not discovering meaning in the text but constructing meaning on the text, or, in effect, constructing the text. But he does so under the institutional constraints of the accepted procedures. ‘No longer is the critic the humble servant of texts whose glories exist independently of anything he might do; it is what he does, within the constraints embedded in the literary institution, that brings texts into being and makes them available for analysis and appreciation.’4 But these procedural constraints are not, as the demonstration model would have it, inviolable rules of reason: ‘all arguments are made within assumptions and presuppositions that are themselves subject to challenge and change’.5 Nevertheless, because the critic works within this system, he or she behaves, critically, just as if the demonstration model were true. That is to say, what reveals itself to the meta-critic, from above, to be a system of institutional constraints on text construction, to a degree ephemeral and subject to change, is seen from below to be the inescapable, inviolable method for finding out the truth of meaning in the text; and, by consequence, what reveals itself from above to be construction presents itself from below as discovery.

Thus far the representation seems plausible: but only so long as Fish refrains from making reference to his own critical behaviour, or that of a critic who has been convinced of Fish’s view. It is easy, perhaps, to imagine that there would be no difference in critical behaviour between a possible world in which the demonstration model was correct, and critics believed it, and a possible world in which the persuasion model was correct, but critics believed the demonstration model was. What is difficult to imagine is how behaviour would be invariant with the belief that the persuasion model is correct as opposed to the belief that the demonstration model is. ‘How’, Fish himself asks, ‘can someone who believes that the force and persuasiveness of an interpretation depends on institutional circumstances (rather than any normative standard of correctness), and that those circumstances are continually changing, argue with conviction for the interpretation he happens to hold at the present time?’ Here is his reply:

The answer is that the general or metacritical belief (to which I am trying to persuade you in these lectures) does not in any way affect the belief or set of beliefs (about the nature of literature, the proper mode of critical inquiry, the forms of literary evidence, and so on) which yields the interpretation that now seems to you (or me) to be inescapable and obvious. I may, in some sense, know that my present reading of Paradise Lost follows from assumptions that I did not always hold and may not hold in a year or so, but that ‘knowledge’ does not prevent me from knowing that my present reading of Paradise Lost is the correct one. This is because the reservation with which I might offer my reading amounts to no more than saying ‘of course I may someday change my mind’, but the fact that my mind may someday be other than it now is does not alter the fact that it is what it now is; no more than the qualifying ‘as far as I know’ with which someone might preface an assertion means that he doesn’t know what he knows—he may someday know something different, and when he does, that something will then be as far as he knows and he will know it no less firmly than what he knows today.6

The passage bristles with epistemological difficulties. Of this Fish cannot be totally unaware; for both ‘know’ and ‘knowledge’ are introduced with some diffidence. The critic is said to know only ‘in some sense’. (What sense?) And ‘knowledge’ is introduced in quotation marks to indicate, I presume, a nonstandard sense of the term. (Again: What sense?) Perhaps in response to these difficulties, Fish moves, a bit later on, from knowledge to belief, in what I take to be another attempt to express the same thought: ‘If one believes what one believes, then one believes what one believes is true, and conversely, one believes that what one doesn’t believe is not true, even if that is something one believed a moment ago’.7

I shall take belief rather than knowledge, therefore, to be the operative concept in both of these passages. And I shall introduce, for purposes of discussion, two critics whom I will call, not very imaginatively, Critic (1) and Critic (2), the former a believer in the demonstration model, the latter a believer in the persuasion one; by which I mean, Critic (1) believes that the demonstration model correctly characterizes the critical process, while Critic (2) believes that the persuasion model does. In other words, Critic (1) believes that meanings are discovered in texts, true or correct interpretations being such discoveries; and Critic (2) believes that an interpretation is true or correct in that it conforms to one of the currently accepted ‘ways of producing the text’, which are neither ‘monolithic’ nor ‘stable’, but always subject to change.8

Now on Fish’s view, critical behaviour is invariant under the belief that the persuasion model is true or that the demonstration model is. Two questions seem in order. The first is: would critical behaviour be invariant? The second: should it be? That is to say, we want to know not only whether people would go on doing what they are now doing if they became convinced that the demonstration model is incorrect, the persuasion model correct. We want also to know whether they would be rationally justified in their behaviour. I shall argue that it is highly unlikely a critic would behave in the same way if he or she were persuaded to Fish’s view, as under the assumption of the demonstration model; and, further, that if one were to behave in a way appropriate to the demonstration model while believing the persuasion to be the correct one, he or she would either be behaving irrationally, or in bad faith.

Imagine, now, the critic returning to the cave, after conversion from the demonstration to the persuasion model. If his new critical beliefs have any real content at all, and are not just a re-description of the demonstration model, it seems to me to be very unlikely that his critical activities should fail to at least begin to conform with the new belief system. It would certainly not be my expectation that someone who previously believed that criticism was discovery, and now believes that it is creation, should display the same pattern of critical behaviour as before. How might it be expected to change? My contention is that it would be bound to become more liberal, more changeful, less stable, because, of course, although one would not cease to have critical beliefs—i.e., that work W means M—the content of those beliefs would be radically different under the assumption of the persuasion model, as opposed to the demonstration model, and, hence, the process of one’s belief formation markedly different as well. What would be rational behaviour under one assumption would be irrational under the other; and vice versa; and although there is never expected to be a complete conformity, rationally speaking, between belief and action, there is no reason to believe there would be no conformity here at all. And even if there were none, I take it that it is Fish’s wish, and we have every right to demand it of him, to convince us not only that critical behaviour will remain the same on the assumption of the persuasion model, but that it would be rational for the critic to go on as before; and if the former seems to me to be unlikely, the latter seems patently false.

Imagine now that Critic (2) believes the following: ‘Mills of Satan’ is an illusion to the churches of Blake’s day. What is the content of his belief? It is that (among other things), as the rules and procedures of the institution of literary criticism are now constituted, this is a possible construction one can make of Blake’s phrase: there is a critical mechanism in place for producing it, and no rule forbidding it. He also believes that these rules and procedures change; and that in he future there may not be a critical mechanism in place for generating this construction, or there may be a rule making it inappropriate. And he believes, quite literally, that these rules and procedures are for the purpose of constructing texts, not discovering meanings in them. They are, in other words, not analogues to the rules and procedures that the analytic chemist, for example, adheres to for the purpose of finding out what is in an unknown substance. Rather, they are analogous to the rules of sixteenth-century counterpoint that forbid certain ways of constructing musical pieces, and countenance others.

This analogy suggests a rather important disanalogy between what would constitute rational (or irrational) behaviour for Critic (2), and what for Critic (1). Suppose that Critic (1) believes, with Critic (2), that ‘Mills of Satan’ alludes to churches. Imagine now it is proposed to both that the phrase refers to the factories of the Industrial Revolution. And imagine, further, that both prefer that interpretation over the one they now hold; that is to say, they would rather it be true than the other (although it is somewhat questionable whether Critic (2) is entitled to the concept of ‘truth’ here). Never mind why they prefer it: perhaps because it is more interesting, makes for a better poem, or makes their poetic hero more prophetic. The point I want to make, and develop, is that preference—‘mere’ preference—can never be a relevant consideration for Critic (1): indeed, his model of criticism, the demonstration model, has built into it a positive proscription against it. (‘Don’t let your desires cloud your disinterested quest for the truth, or you will follow the path of Lysenko, and others of his ilk.’) Whereas to suggest that preferring an interpretation cannot figure, perhaps even decisively, in Critic (2)’s interpretative decision would be like suggesting that preferring a certain musical structure over another cannot figure in a composer’s choice of that structure for his latest composition. And the force of saying to the critic, ‘This interpretation breaks a rule’, or ‘There is no approved procedure for generating that interpretation’ would be about as great, if the persuasion model were assumed, as the force of saying to Beethoven that he had violated the accepted rules of counterpoint in the Credo of the Missa Solemnis, or of saying to Schoenberg that there were no harmonic procedures, currently accepted, for generating the harmonic structure of the Kammersymphonie. For once one sees, as the persuasionist has, that the ‘rules’ and ‘procedures’ of criticism are not the universal rules and procedures for finding out the truth of some matter or other, but the changeable rules and procedures for making things—and imaginative, non-practical things at that, without such constraints as the physical world places on the makers of bombs and bridges—one will hardly take the rules and procedures as presently constituted, as overriding constraints on what one can or cannot make of a text, anymore than a Beethoven or a Schoenberg would the rules and procedures of musical composition. The critic, in being persuaded to the persuasion model, has joined the ranks of the creators, and is to the rules, if he wishes, as Walther to Beckmesser.

Nor can it be claimed that I force upon Fish an analogy completely alien to his views; for the analogy fairly jumps from his text. Here is what Fish says; I quoted it at greater length at the outset. In the persuasion model, ‘our activities are directly constitutive of these objects, and the terms in which they can be described, and of the standards by which they can be evaluated’.9 In even stronger language, ‘No longer is the critic the humble servant of texts whose glories exist independently of anything he might do…’; for he, in fact, ‘brings texts into being…’. And although Fish attempts to soften this blow somewhat by adding that the critic, in creating texts, works ‘within the constraints embedded in the literary institution’,10 it is clear that that cannot be wholly true, since he has also insisted, as we have just seen, that the activities of critics are directly constitutive of the terms in which texts can be described and the standards by which they can be evaluated—which I take it can only mean that the activities of critics are, in other words, directly constitutive of the critical constraints, just mentioned, that are embedded in the literary institution. But if that is the case, then it is difficult to see how it could be true that the critics always work, or would feel obliged always to work ‘within the constraints embedded in the literary institution’. Since it is their activity that makes those constraints, if they always worked within them, the constraints would never change, which is exactly contrary to what Fish is saying. It is by obeying the constraints, one presumes, that critics keep them in place; and it is by disobeying them, one must also presume, that they are dislodged and replaced by new ones, just as by disobeying the rules of counterpoint and harmony that are given them, composers constitute new ones by their compositional practice. Once the critic comes to believe that the rules and procedures of critics are constituted, both in the breach, as well as in the observance, by his or her critical behaviour, then I can see no reason why mere preference for an interpretation cannot be decisive in motivating the critic to break accepted rules and circumvent accepted practices in order to construct it. It sometimes was enough for Beethoven and Schoenberg.

Now Fish’s stratagem, as I take it, for palliating what must strike some readers as this excessive critical freedom, fully countenanced by his theory, is to explain it away as nothing more than the freedom that is allowed to anyone who states that he or she ‘merely believes’ (as opposed to ‘knows’ or ‘is certain’) that something is the case. Two things about ‘merely believing’ are relevant to what Fish is claiming in this regard. First, when one states one’s belief, one is implicitly allowing that one might be mistaken; that one might, in light of (unknown) future evidence, alter one’s belief. And, second, even though one makes that proviso by stating one ‘merely believes’ something, this does not alter the fact that one does now believe it, and, more important still for present purposes, one cannot cease to believe it as a freely willed mental action. What one believes, one believes, and cannot do otherwise, even though one knows that one might, in the future, not believe that thing. I am certain, now, that some of my present beliefs are false; but I cannot tell you which ones because, of course, if I knew, they would not be my beliefs. If I am convinced by whatever evidence I have, I cannot will not to believe what I am convinced of (as Spinoza long ago argued against Descartes).11

It is this dual concept of belief that Fish wishes to apply to the persuasion model. He wants to argue that the critic who is convinced of the persuasion model and who acknowledges, therefore, that his interpretation of a given work may change with the change in the rules and procedures of the literary institution, is saying no more nor less than the person who says: ‘This is what I believe; but, of course, it is merely my belief, and I may be wrong: my belief may change, in the light of new evidence, or in the discrediting of old’.

But the analogy will not do; for in taking up the position that he has, the follower of the persuasion model has given up any right to the non-volitional character of his critical ‘beliefs’; for they are not beliefs about what is in the world at all: indeed, they are not ‘beliefs’ at all but ‘creations’; and what one creates is, unlike what one believes, subject to the will (within, of course, the limits of human capability). The ‘freedom of belief’ explanation (if I may so call it) would only function successfully in cases in which the critic is convinced of the demonstration model. Convinced of the persuasion model, however, the critic no longer believes that he is discovering something in the world—i.e., in the text—but believes that he is constructing something in the world—i.e., the text. His critical ‘statements’ cease to be, for him, statements of belief, and become creations of texts or meanings. And whereas beliefs about texts are not subject to the will, the construction of texts is.

Now, of course, how Critic (2) constructs texts is itself governed by beliefs; and these beliefs he cannot wilfully change. Critic (2) holds beliefs about (among other things) what the rules and procedures embedded in the literary institution are. These beliefs may be true or false, and are, like any other beliefs, subject to change, but not volitionally. However, one very strange consequence of the persuasion model is that even if Critic (2)’s beliefs are false (and why might they not be?), it would not matter a jot or a tittle, since if he believes that x, y, and z are the reigning rules and procedures, whether they are or not, they can enable him to generate his construction. And, as we have seen, even if there are no rules in place for generating the construction he wants, or even if there are, and he doesn’t believe it, he can generate the construction he wants, in any case, since, like the artist or composer, he is a creator, and like any creator, may rebel against what rules and constraints he does not acquiesce in. Indeed, that is at least part of the mechanism, on Fish’s account, by which changes in the rules and procedures of literary criticism are effected.

What must be abundantly clear, at this point, is that ‘business as usual’ cannot possibly be the result of the critical community’s giving up the demonstration model for the persuasion one. The only way to reach the conclusion that it would be, is by a kind of double-think, whereby one fudges the distinction between the critic who does, and the critic who does not believe that the persuasion model is true, and, in so doing, makes illicit use of epistemic characteristics of concepts such as ‘belief’, ‘knowledge’, and ‘truth’, that, as a convert to persuasion, one is no longer entitled to. For the picture each model—demonstration or persuasion—paints of the critical world is vastly different; and a person who went from the former to the latter view would have beliefs so altered as to alter his or her behaviour radically, or, failing that, be open to the charge of bad faith or irrationality.

It is, of course, an empirical question as to whether the whole critical community, or a significant part of it might, in a mass epidemic of bad faith or irrationality, go on behaving as if meanings were discovered in texts, all the while believing they were constructed on them, with all that implies (as I have tried to show) for critical practice. My own empirical intuitions, for what they are worth, are against the hypothesis that critical behaviour would remain unchanged in a wholesale conversion of the critical community from the demonstration model to the persuasion one. It seems to me utterly incredible. Indeed, just as there is evidence that the increase in belief in psychological determinism changes our attitudes and behaviour towards criminal and immoral acts, I perceive some evidence that critical practice has altered in ways to be expected in light of the growing influence of Fish’s view, and views like it, in the critical community.

But it now remains merely to end, as I began, with the caveat that I am interested in consequences, here, and not in truth. That is to say, none of the conclusions I have drawn in this essay is meant as counting against Fish’s persuasion model of critical discourse. If what I have claimed to be the implications of his view do indeed follow from it, and are found to be unpalatable implications, that no more constitutes a counter-argument than would the well-known claim that atheism leads to immorality be an argument against it and for the existence of God. If, however, those implications suggest not only the unpalatable but the unintelligible—if, that is to say, critical practice, thought, and discourse turned out, were Fish’s view correct, to be impossible for us to square with our ‘way of life’ in some deep sense of ‘impossible’—then, indeed, the persuasion model would be in trouble. But that must be the subject for another occasion.12


  1. Stanley Fish, ‘Demonstration vs. Persuasion: Two Models of Critical Activity’, Is There a Text in This Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard U.P., 1980), p. 367.

  2. Ibid., pp. 358–359.

  3. Ibid., p. 367.

  4. Ibid., p. 368.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Ibid., pp. 359–360.

  7. Ibid., p. 361.

  8. ‘What Makes an Interpretation Acceptable?’, Is There a Text in This Class?, pp. 342–343.

  9. See Reference 1 above.

  10. See Reference 4 above.

  11. And see Fish, ‘Demonstration vs. Persuasion’ (p. 363): ‘she can’t will a belief in the Aspects model any more than she can will a disbelief in the arguments that persuaded her that it was unworkable’.

  12. I am grateful to my colleague, Laurent Stern, for reading an earlier version of this paper, and for saving me from a number of errors.

Frank Donoghue (review date December 1989)

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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.

The premise of Doing What Comes Naturally is that theory, both literary and legal, “comes in two forms: foundationalism and anti-foundationalism,” the second of which might not properly be called theory at all (342). Foundationalism, which Fish associates with the intellectual right, is “any attempt to ground inquiry and communication in something more firm and stable than mere belief or unexamined practice. The foundationalist strategy is first to identify that ground and then to so order our activities that they become anchored to it and are thereby rendered objective and principled” (342). Anti-foundationalism “teaches that questions of fact, truth, correctness, validity, and clarity can neither be posed nor answered in reference to some extracontextual, ahistorical, nonsituational reality, or rule, or law, or value” (344). Fish aligns anti-foundationalism with the intellectual left, since to think of “the world and its facts as not given but made” is to allow the possibility that they may be remade in accordance with the “left-wing goals of reform and revolution” (350). Both positions are most forcefully explicated and historicized in the previously unpublished “Rhetoric,” as “serious man” (foundationalist) and “rhetorical man” (anti-foundationalist). The essay is a tour de force, perhaps the best piece in the collection.

Fish identifies himself as a “card-carrying anti-foundationalist” (347), and states that his conclusion is “finally that we live in a rhetorical world” (25). In doing so he carries forward the attack on essentialism articulated in Is There a Text in This Class? (1980). Wayne Booth reappears as a target, and Fish finds the same foundationalist tendencies in the thinking of legal theorists Richard Posner and Ronald Dworkin that he had once found in the literary theory of M. H. Abrams and John Reichart. But the emphases of his intellectual project have changed in several important ways over the last decade. In Is There a Text, as Ellen Rooney has observed, Fish presented a version of post-structuralism that could be reconciled with the traditional pluralist discourse of American literary studies. Doing What Comes Naturally is also in part concerned with making deconstruction compatible with an American audience: Fish presents Derrida’s “Signature, Event, Context” as “not a critique but a tribute” (67) to J. L. Austin, and the book is dedicated in part to Baltimore, Maryland.

But Fish turns his attention in the most recent essays in the book to what he describes alternately as “anti-foundationalist theory hope” or “the critical self-consciousness fallacy” (466). For theorists on both the left and right, Fish observes, learning “the lesson that we are always and already interpretively situated … becomes a way of escaping [that lesson’s] implications” (437), escaping them by purporting to assume a position that transcends particular situations. The right-wing version of this fallacy aims for an unrealizable neutrality, to be achieved by recognizing one’s biases and (inexplicably) setting them aside. The left-wing version, by contrast, is “a component of a frankly political program … rigorously and relentlessly negative, intent always on exposing or unmasking those arrangements of power that present themselves in reason’s garb” (442). Fish examines this second version in discussion of the Frankfurt School and the work of Roberto Unger (a pioneer of the Critical Legal Studies Movement), demonstrating that adherents of this program repeatedly slip into the fallacy of believing that their critique can eventually arrive at a positive end, whether it be Horkheimer’s “rational determination of goals (444),” Habermas’s “Universal Pragmatics” or “ideal speech situation,” (450, 451), or Unger’s “internal development” (419). In so doing, they fall back on an erroneous understanding of truth as asituational and absolute. Fish eloquently maintains that the failure of critical self-consciousness does not preclude the possibility of change, which, he says, “is already achieved by the ordinary and everyday efforts by which, in innumerable situations, large and small, each of us attempts to alter the beliefs of another” (464). Indeed, this is the book’s central message, that the hopes for and fears about theory are made irrelevant in the face of countless instances of persuasion in which we cannot but participate.

Moreover, Fish’s exploration of the notion of “constraint” and of the constraints that organize interpretation is more specific, sophisticated, and straightforwardly politicized than the relatively abstract notion of “interpretive communities” described in Is There a Text. If, as Peter Hohendahl complained, that concept could not explain “what conditions the authority of the interpreter” or “who grants the interpreter his authority” (New German Critique 28 [1983]: 118–9), Doing What Comes Naturally provides more than adequate answers in the form of several essays that address the workings of professional literary studies. The cumulative effect of pieces on the editorial policy of blind submission, the nature of change in Paradise Lost criticism from 1942–1979, and the phenomenon of literary anti-professionalism, is to bring to life the notion of interpretive communities by showing them in action.

A couple of omissions leave me wishing for a fuller picture of Fish’s project. First, although Doing What Comes Naturally conveniently reprints some nineteen of Fish’s essays, it does not give the dates of initial publication. Since, as I have suggested, Fish’s interests have shifted since 1980, this information would have helped document that change. More substantively, it would have been interesting to see Fish locate himself more specifically in relation to the philosophical traditions in which the book operates, and engage other treatments of the concept of practice, its general subject. Although he works extensively with Austin and Rorty, other key figures such as Quine and Putnam are only mentioned (345), as are the preeminent sociologists of practice, Pierre Bourdieu and Michel de Certeau (177). Two of the previously unpublished essays, however, “Critical Self-Consciousness” and “Rhetoric,” as well as an essay on psychoanalysis and rhetoric are promising signs that Fish is indeed integrating his work more thoroughly into broader kinds of discourses. But it is to Fish’s credit, I think, that most readers of this 600-page book will very likely still be eager for more.

Fred Siegel (essay date Spring 1990)

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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 Republican, smiles. “I think it’s terrific.” The job of the law, he says, is simply to re-create its own authority by presenting masterful performances.

An earnest graduate student, mystified at having seen Fish demolish all certainty only to leave everything exactly as he found it, asks if Fish’s “academic leftism” isn’t at odds with “real world” leftism. The student tries to make it clear that he’s hip enough to understand that the word “real” has to be surrounded by the inverted commas of incredulity. “Don’t you want to raise the consciousness of the audience?” the student concludes plaintively. “No,” thunders Fish, plainly pleased to see that a sucker has taken the bait. “I want them,” says Fish, who has repeatedly demonstrated the disconnection between academic and “real world” politics, “to do what I tell them to do.”

The audience is awed, uncertain what to make of Fish’s perverse charm. Professor Fish has just won another round for pure rhetoric in the ancient yet ongoing war between philosophy and sophistry. Later I explain to the student that for Fish, as for other academics these days, there can be no appeal to common principles, no appeal to truth, since truth for Fish is simply “a successfully enacted rhetoric.”

Confused, indignant, the student, who appears to realize he’s been had by Fish, snaps back. “Do you mean the people of Eastern Europe have been just fighting for a different rhetoric? We may not always know what the truth is,” he says, echoing Vaclav Havel, “but we needn’t be entrapped in lies.” “Listen, kid,” a gruff older prof grunts at the student, “you got to understand that for this guy there is no real world; it’s rhetoric all the way down.”

As the lecture ends, I walk over to Fish and point out that his argument crumbles at the touch. Rhetoric, I suggest, has far less to do with how cases are decided with than which judges are sitting when. I point out that California law took a 180 degree turn to the right after the recent judicial elections there replaced liberals with conservatives. “Huh,” he responds, clearly unperturbed. “Tell you the truth,” he says, “I’m not much concerned with that sort of thing. I guess you might say I’m a maniacal localist.” “What’s that mean?” I ask. “Well,” he says, “I want to be able to walk into any first-rate faculty anywhere and dominate it, shape it to my will. I’m fascinated by my own will. …”

And then he strides out, admirers in tow, a sophist turned academic Napoleon, who has conquered academia, or a part of it, by folding the outside world into the alphabet.

Robert Stecker (essay date Summer 1990)

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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 relative importance of the writer’s and the interpreter’s point of view. Do acceptable interpretations of a work recover the writer’s intention? Does the standard of acceptability vary with interpreters point of view?

In a series of essays written between 1970 and 1985, Stanley Fish developed a comprehensive theory of interpretation which answers all these questions. According to Fish, interpretations are correct or incorrect but only relative to a set of interpretive assumptions. Fish is mainly concerned with the question: What makes an interpretation correct? This suggests he regards this as the most important standard of acceptability. However, nothing Fish says strictly commits him to this. Fish certainly believes that there are many acceptable interpretations of a text since he believes that there are many sets of assumptions from which it can be interpreted. Finally, in theory at least, the interpreter’s point of view is very important. Not only is an interpretation true only relative to an interpreter’s assumptions, but it is those assumptions which, according to Fish, create the object of, and evidence for, an interpretation.

Fish’s work has attracted much criticism but this has not produced any resolution of the issues separating Fish and his critics. There are two reasons for this. First, criticism has been direct. It has attempted to directly refute Fish’s key theses. This is very difficult to do conclusively. Second, Fish and his critics tend to disagree about the meaning and consequences of his theses.

My own objectives are more modest, therefore more promising. First, I approach Fish’s theory with a bit more sympathy than most of his critics. I will claim that his theory is based on a genuine insight. Second, I will argue that all of Fish’s controversial theses have one sense in which they are relatively innocuous and another in which they are quite radical. It is Fish’s equivocation between these senses that explains the confusion over the meaning and consequences of these theses. Third, instead of attacking the genuinely radical theses directly, I argue that they do not follow from their premises. It is much easier to establish that A does not follow from B than that A is false. However given the highly controversial nature of these theses, it is almost as damaging to establish the former.


Fish’s literary theory rests on an insight which is important to understand and, at least sometimes, to act on. One of the clearest statements is expressed in a sentence half quoted from J. L. Austin: “‘What we have to study is not the sentence’ in its pure unattached form but the issuing of an utterance in a situation by a human being.”1

If a sentence in its “pure unattached form” is regarded not as a concatenation of marks but as a set of marks associated by linguistic rules with a finite set of distinct, “objective” meanings, then Fish believes there is no such things as the sentence in its pure unattached form.

This claim, if true, could provide the foundation for Fish’s insight. The claim that there is no such thing as the sentence in its pure unattached form implies that we cannot study the sentence in its pure unattached form. This makes plausible the claim that what we have to study are utterances (though it’s possible to think of other alternatives).

However, Fish does not start with a denial of the existence of sentences (or sentence meanings). Typically, the argument starts with the fact that utterance meaning varies from situation to situation and concludes that there is no such thing as “objective,” context independent sentence meaning.

Thus, in “Is There a Text in This Class,” Fish argues from the fact that utterances of the title question have different meanings in different situations to the conclusion that the question has no literal meaning other than the obvious meaning an utterance of the question has in a given situation. In the essay, “Normal Circumstances … and Other Special Cases,” Fish goes through the same argument for a series of expression: “private members only,” “this stuff is light enough to carry,” “Let’s go to the movies tonight,” and “I have to eat popcorn, tonight.”

The argument is invalid. Even if the premise is granted, the conclusion can be consistently denied. There are philosophers of language who would agree with everything Fish says about utterance meaning but who would claim that there are sentences or sentence meanings in the same sense that Fish denies there are. They can do this because they believe that utterance meaning is a function of sentence meaning plus various pragmatic considerations.

Can the distinction between semantic (sentence meaning) and pragmatic considerations be maintained? It is far from certain that it can. However, there are reasons for thinking the distinction plausible. Thus it seems possible to distinguish cases where utterance meaning varies for semantic reasons from cases where it varies for pragmatic reasons. Consider the sentence “The air is crisp.” E. D. Hirsch put forward this sentence as possessing a clear “valid meaning” accessible to all speakers of English: a “rough meteorological description predicting a certain quality in the local atmosphere” (p. 309). However, this is not the only meaning this sentence can have. Contrary to Fish, one does not have to be in, or imagine, a new context to realize this. One can predict it simply by looking up dictionary entries for “air” and “crisp,” which will tell you that “air” can refer to a piece of music which can also be crisp or crisply played. The dictionary entries suggest that the sentence itself has different meanings (is ambiguous), not merely that different utterances of the sentence will have different meanings.

On the other hand, the fact that an utterance of “I have to eat popcorn tonight” can “mean” “Sorry, I have to work” cannot be predicted from nor explained by the semantics of the sentence alone. No knowledge of the meanings of the words of the sentence and its syntax will enable one to predict this meaning (unlike the musical meaning of “The air is crisp”). Nor will the fact that an utterance of this sentence means “Sorry, I have to work,” imply that the sentence is ambiguous. The explanation and prediction of the meaning of the utterance can only be accomplished by introducing the pragmatics of the situation in which the sentence is uttered: the fact that the speaker is a taster in a popcorn factory and someone has just asked him if he wants to go to the movies.

Fish never acknowledges the existence of such considerations. But he does make remarks that suggest how he might reply to them. Fish claims it makes no sense to talk about ambiguity (as I did with “The air is crisp”) unless there is a “kind of language to which ambiguous language could be opposed” (p. 281). Fish denies that there is. However, it is not true that there has to be unambiguous sentences for it to make sense to speak of ambiguous ones. To say a sentence is ambiguous is to say it has more than one meaning. It is certainly conceivable that all sentences have this property. Also, Fish has never demonstrated that all sentences of English are ambiguous. By his own principles, he could not do so since, by his principles, he could only show that different utterances of a sentence have different meanings. That claim is compatible with the existence of unambiguous sentences, and a distinction between the semantic and the pragmatic.

Secondly, Fish might say that the semantic/pragmatic distinction leads to a distortion of the facts. On my account, it is plausible to say that one arrives at the utterance meaning of “I have to eat popcorn tonight” by inference. From the semantics of the sentence combined with facts or beliefs about the speaker one infers the utterance meaning. But Fish would say the meaning is immediately seen. No inference is involved. However, Fish is making this claim simply on the basis of phenomenology of the recognition of meaning. The hearer may not be aware of making an inference, but there is reason to think that there are many inferences we make that we are not aware of. Phenomenological considerations are bad reasons for denying inferences.

Fish’s insight is compatible with the existence of sentence meaning. Though Fish emphasizes the conventional nature of interpretation, he ignores the existence of linguistic conventions that cut across special situations and institutions (e.g., that “popcorn” can and commonly does refer to popcorn, that “text” can and commonly does refer to pieces of writing).2 Until Fish acknowledges the considerations in favor of such conventions, he will be unable to give a very strong argument against them.


Fish writes: “The shared basis of agreement sought by Abrams and others is never not already found although it is not always the same one” (p. 318). This passage can be read in at least two ways one of which suggests a “debilitating relativism,” the other does not.

There is nothing debilitating about the view that utterances of the same sentences in different situations have different meanings. In a way this is a relativistic view being the view that utterance meaning depends on various pragmatic considerations as well as sentence meaning (if there is such a thing). But this relativism is not the type anyone fears. It is compatible, for example, with there being a uniquely correct interpretation for each utterance. It is compatible with denying that there are many, sometimes incompatible, equally legitimate interpretation of an utterance that result from different, equally legitimate interpretive assumptions about the situation. It is compatible with claiming that the situation determines a single correct set of interpretive assumptions.

The other interpretation of Fish’s remark is that, for utterances, there is no single, stable basis of agreement that determines their meaning. Their meaning is relative to interpretive assumptions, the correctness of which cannot be adjudicated. This is the sort of relativism that Abrams and others fear.

In many places, Fish argues for a position that corresponds to the first, more innocuous interpretation of his remark. The student who utters “is there a text in this class” was asking a quite definite question. The teacher she addressed it to at first misunderstood its meaning, and then understood it. When Mr. Newlin raises his hand in Fish’s classroom, his gesture means that he wants to ask a question, not that he wants to go to the bathroom or that he is pointing to the sky, though in other situations the same gesture might have those meanings. Fish acknowledges, indeed exaggerates the determinateness of utterance meaning. “Listeners always know what speech act is being performed … because in any set of circumstances the illocutionary force a sentence may have will already have been determined” (p. 292. See also pp. 277 and 307).

It is surprising, therefore, that he adopts a position that corresponds to the second, less innocuous interpretation of his remark. He adopts the relativism that Abrams and others fear. Fish tries to defuse this relativism by arguing that it is a theoretical position that has no practical consequences and that it is severely constrained by the authority of interpretive communities. I return to these arguments later. For the time being, I am concerned with how Fish moves from his insight to theoretical relativism.3

In the essay “Is There a Text in This Class,” the move is made not as the result of an argument but by a subtle shift in the reference of the word “situation.” Consider the following: “the possibility of a context, or institution specific norm surely rules out the possibility of a norm whose validity is recognized by everyone no matter what his situation” (p. 319). Fish originally supported such a non-context specific norm (though the mention of context, institution, or situation in the statement of the norm may seem paradoxical), namely, that the meaning of an utterance is a function of the situation (context, institution) in which it is made. Anyone, whatever their situation, can try to follow this norm. What Fish is now suggesting is not that one interprets an utterance within its situation rather than in its pure unattached form, but that whenever one interprets one is doing so from one’s own situation. True or false, this is a completely new thought.

Fish makes a similar shift when he talks about interpretive assumptions. Sometimes Fish talks as if the interpretive assumptions are imposed by the institution or situation within which the utterance is delivered as if it were an objective feature of the overall context of utterance. It is not simply an assumption we impose on Mr. Newlin’s hand raising that it signifies the intention to ask a question. It is a convention of classroom conduct in institutions of higher learning (and that is how Fish describes it).

On the other hand, whenever Fish talks about interpretive assumptions in connection with literature, he shifts from claiming that the assumptions come from the situation of utterance (the writer’s situation) to claiming that the assumptions come from the critic’s situation.

Has Fish simply made a mistake, conflating two quite different views without being aware of doing so? The evidence of “Is There a Text in This Class” suggests that he is prone to such a conflation. However, since the shift is most commonly made in connection with literary interpretation, it is worth asking whether there is a difference between Mr. Newlin’s classmates interpreting his gesture and a critic interpreting a literary work.

One difference is that Mr. Newlin and his classmates are part of the same situation so it might be thought that the interpretive situation and the situation of utterance are identical. On the other hand, the situation of poets writing their poems is typically not the same as the critic interpreting the poem. When the situation of utterance and the situation of reception split apart, perhaps interpreters have no choice but to use interpretive assumptions from their situation. The literary critic is always such an interpreter. However, there is no single set of assumptions that constrain all critics at a given time. Furthermore, sets of assumptions change with time. Hence, the truth of relativism.

Fish never explicitly distinguishes between interpretive situations in this way. At best, such a distinction is implicit in his practice (as a theorist rather than a critic). One explanation of the difference might be a view about the accessibility of intention. When Mr. Newlin raises his hand to seek permission to speak, his intention to do this is a product of the same institutional conventions that produce the interpretive assumptions of his classmates. It is easy to imagine a situation where this ceases to be the case. Mr. Newlin might be an extraordinarily precocious eleven year old university freshman who raised his hand to seek permission to go the bathroom. The interpretation of this situation would differ from the original one in two ways. First, Mr. Newlin’s intention would no longer be transparent. His classmates would probably mistake his intention. This, however, does not mean that his intention is not accessible. Mr. Newlin could clear up matters quite easily. Second, even after Mr. Newlin’s intention was known, there could be a controversy about what Mr. Newlin’s hand raising meant. One side would maintain that the hand raising still had the conventional meaning of requesting permission to speak. This position would distinguish utterer’s meaning from utterance meaning and would claim that Mr. Newlin was requesting permission to speak even though he did not intend to. The other side would claim that Mr. Newlin’s hand raising meant that he wanted to go to the bathroom. This position would claim that Mr. Newlin’s intention determines the meaning of his gesture. Hence it determines what he does.

When we turn to the interpretation of such things as literature or law, not only are there subcommunities endorsing different interpretive assumptions (such as the ones just mentioned for interpreting Mr. Newlin’s gesture), but Fish appears to believe that intentions themselves are not accessible. Thus, about the legal reasoning in Riggs vs. Palmer, Fish comments:

This would seem to suggest that one need only recover the maker’s intention to arrive at the correct literal reading; but the documents … that would give us that intention are no more available to a literal reading (are no more uninterpreted) than the literal reading it would yield. However one specifies what is in the statute—whether by some theory of strict constructionism or by some construction of the original intention—that specification will have the same status as the specification of what is in Samson Agonistes or of what PRIVATE MEMBERS ONLY means. It can always be made, but as the situation and the purposes which inform them change, it will have to be made again.

(p. 281)

The passage seems to give an argument for the inaccessibility of intention. However it conflates two quite different points without arguing for either. The first point has to do with the accessibility of intention. Fish points out that evidence for the intention of the maker of a law (or of a literary work) will come in the form of further pieces of writing which will also need interpretation. Beginning with “however,” the passage shifts to the second point. The principles by which one interprets a law (or a literary work) will vary with the situation and purpose of the interpreter.

Fish is right about part of the second point. People can interpret with different purposes. One person might be interested in the conventional meaning of the eleven year old Mr. Newlin’s gesture; another with Mr. Newlin’s meaning (intention). But in referring to the interpreter’s situation, Fish makes the shift from the utterer’s situation that we have been trying to justify. The justification might be thought to be found in the first point. But the first point does not show that the intentions of legislators or writers are inaccessible. That the evidence is also in need of interpretation does not show that the evidence never clearly supports a particular hypothesis. The correct interpretation may be obvious. When the eleven year old Mr. Newlin explains, “in raising my hand, I intended to request permission to go to the bathroom, not permission to speak,” his words need interpretation just as much as the original gesture. Furthermore, they could be interpreted in many ways. Nevertheless, they could also make utterly obvious what Mr. Newlin meant by his gesture. So could evidence about legislators and writers.


What ultimately justifies the relativistic move from utterers situation to interpreters situation is a view Fish holds about evidence. According to Fish, evidence “is always a function of what it is evidence for and is never independently available” (p. 272). Fish believes this shows that interpretation-independent facts are never available. Hence, for Fish, the shift from the utterer’s situation (never accessible in itself) to the interpreter’s situation is necessary.

There is a relatively innocuous sense in which there are no interpretation-independent facts, namely, that the discovery of any fact requires interpretation of data. But Fish means to claim something more radical. He claims that facts are created by interpretations. Similarly, the claim that evidence is a function of interpretation has a more and a less radical reading. The less radical reading is that the interpretation dictates the kind of thing that will count as evidence for it. For example, an interpretation that claims to recover an author’s intention requires evidence of intention. Fish sometimes speaks as if this is his view: “interpretation determines what will count as evidence for it” (p. 272, emphasis added) But Fish’s argument relies on the more radical reading, namely, that interpretations create their own evidence. This is brought out by Fish’s claim that evidence for an interpretation is not available independently of an interpretation.

I think I know why Fish is tempted to make this more radical claim. Consider the occurrence of the word “forest” in Blake’s “The Tyger.” Rival incompatible interpretations cite the occurrence of this word as evidence for each interpretation. How can the same word, the same bit of evidence, be evidence for incompatible readings? Fish’s answer is that the evidence only appears to be the same. The way we perceive the word, the content we assign to it, is a function of the interpretation. Thus, Kathleen Raine interprets the poem as inspired by cabalistic writing. Interpreted that way, “forest” takes on a symbolic significance of a fallen world. E. D. Hirsch interprets the poem as celebrating the “holiness of tygerness.” Now “forest” will be perceived in an entirely different way. To Hirsch, it suggests “tall; straight forms.” Similarly according to Fish, if one hypothesizes a typological reading of Milton’s Samson Agonistes, the absence of explicit reference to Christ is evidence of implicit, typological reference. “Once [a typological] characterization of Milton’s intention has been specified, the text will immediately assume the shape Madsen proceeds to describe” (p. 233).

It is possible that Fish’s account of evidence describes some attempts by critics to justify their interpretations. Such attempts are unsound. No doubt, once one is aware of an interpretation of a text, it is often easy to read it in terms of that interpretation. But that is not evidence in favor of the interpretation. In the case of Samson Agonistes, we can read the work according to Madsen’s interpretation because the absence of explicit reference to Christ is compatible with a typological interpretation. However, this absence of reference to Christ is not positive evidence for the interpretation either before or after the interpretation has been given. Evidence for Madsen’s interpretation would give us positive reason to believe that Madsen’s characterization of Milton’s intention is the true one. Such evidence is not a function of what it is evidence for, and, if it is available at all, it is available independently of the interpretation.

The same is true of the debate between Raine and Hirsch. The fact that one can find a significance in individual words that accords with an interpretation shows at best that the occurrence of the word is compatible with the interpretation. Since both Raine and Hirsch aim at recovering Blake’s intention, evidence for these interpretations would have to show that the significance an interpretation gives to the words of the poem is the significance Blake intended. The fragment of Hirsch’s argument that Fish reports fails to do this. Raines makes two evidential claims which, if true, do support her interpretation: that “The Tyger” is inspired by certain cabalistic writings; that Blake always uses “forest” to refer to a fallen world. These are the right sort of claims to support her interpretation. If true, they would go a long way toward establishing Blake’s intention. They can be debated independently of any commitment to, or even knowledge of, Raines’s interpretation of “The Tyger.”

In the face of similar criticism by John Reichert, Fish replies that “standards of right and wrong, [of what counts as evidence], do not exist apart from assumptions but follow from them” (p. 296). It is important to see that this is a retreat from Fish’s more to Fish’s less radical claim about evidence. This is not the claim that interpretations create their own evidence. It is not the claim that evidence is unavailable independently of an interpretation. It is simply the claim, which I would accept without reservation, that looking for evidence for an interpretation is risky. Not only might the evidence not turn up, or go against the interpretation, but, in searching for evidence, one will make assumptions about when one has it or what constitutes it. Some of these assumptions may be questionable or even false. However one’s assumptions may be true! This is a possibility that Fish does nothing to rule out though he does not take it seriously because he is overly impressed with the fact that one never knows whether all one’s assumptions are true. But this lack of knowledge is simply part of the riskiness of the enterprise.4


I will finally consider Fish’s attempt to take the sting out of relativism. This attempt is based on two claims: A. that it is a theoretical position that has no practical consequences; B. that relativism is severely constrained by the authority of interpretive communities.

A. According to Fish’s theory critical activity constitutes its objects (p. 355). (This claim, which can only be based on his claim that we have no interpretation-independent access to the objects of interpretation, does not, in fact, follow from it. But this is one move of Fish’s that I will not dwell on.) A consequence of this is that an interpretation cannot be more or less adequate to an independently existing work. There is no such thing as progress in criticism if progress is defined as the production of increasingly accurate interpretations of a given work (p. 366).

An interpretation can be more or less adequate to the assumptions or rules on which it is based. Furthermore, these assumptions can be criticized in the light of other assumptions (p. 360). However, since such criticisms have their own set of underlying assumptions, such critiques do not bring about progress, only change (p. 361).

This is Fish’s theory, his relativism. Why does Fish think this theory has no consequences for critical practice? In particular, why doesn’t this theory have the consequence that we ought to become skeptical of the truth of our interpretations because the best interpretations arising from one set of assumptions are no better justified than incompatible interpretations arising from other assumptions?

In Is There a Text in This Class, Fish gave a very simple answer to this question: since we must believe something, it is impossible to sufficiently distance ourselves from our beliefs to become skeptical of them (pp. 360–361). Since we often draw conclusions from beliefs, propositions held to be true, our drawing of conclusions will feel like progress.

In a later essay, “Consequences,” Fish gives a more complicated answer.5 It isn’t just that we forget theory whenever we engage in practice (though Fish continues to maintain this).6 Fish now claims that his antifoundational theory does not have any skeptical consequences. It is simply a theory about how we acquire beliefs. We acquire them against a background of beliefs and assumptions. The claim that beliefs so acquired are unjustified, or arbitrary, or are not knowledge is not a part of antifoundationalism.

Neither of these answers are satisfactory. The first is unsatisfactory because it does not imply the conclusion Fish needs. It may be true that we always must believe something but we can still be skeptical about our interpretations. Anyone who believes Fish’s theory, and unlike Fish, believes that it has skeptical consequences, can stop believing his interpretations and still believe something (Fish’s theory).

Fish assumes that when one engages in a “practical” activity like criticism, it is one’s theoretical beliefs that will be given up in favor of beliefs one acquires in the course of immersing oneself in actual practice. However, this is an unjustified assumption. Some will do this; some won’t.7

Fish’s more complicated response is also unsatisfactory. It is unsatisfactory because it is disingenuous. Certainly, Fish says something about how we acquire beliefs. However, as Fish admits at the end of “Consequences,” what he says severely limits the sort of justification of which interpretations are capable. The question is: should these limitations, if we accept them, make us skeptical of our interpretations? Yes, they should. Suppose I believe that Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost as a result of correctly applying the assumptions of my critical community. Suppose another critic (whether or not she is my contemporary does not matter) believes that Satan is not the hero of Paradise Lost as a result of correctly applying the assumptions of her critical community. On Fish’s view, each belief is as well justified as an interpretive belief can be. Now suppose I add this theoretical belief to my stock of beliefs. I now believe: 1. Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost; 2. My belief that Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost is a consequence of a set of assumptions that are ultimately no better justified than another set of assumptions that imply that Satan is not the hero of Paradise Lost. If I believe 2, then, I am bound to admit that I am no better justified in believing 1 than someone else is in believing that Satan is not the hero of Paradise Lost on the basis of no more, but no less, arbitrary assumptions. Furthermore, I cannot become more justified in believing 1 than I already am. If this isn’t a good reason to suspend my belief in 1, it is hard to know what is.8

Even if I am wrong that Fish’s theory implies skepticism, it still has consequences. After denying this for twenty pages in “Consequences,” Fish finally admits this. Someone who accepts his theory, Fish says, would likely stop looking for certain kinds of justification. This is precisely the sort of guidance of practice by theory that Fish tried to deny.

B. Fish likes to point out that his theory does not have the consequence of extreme subjectivism. It is not the individual critic who invents standards that are no better or worse than the next critic’s. There are shared standards, common strategies of reading. These are provided by sets of institutional assumptions (p. 367).

There are two reasons why I would not find the existence of institutional assumptions comforting, were I to accept Fish’s theory.

First, I worry that my assumptions are arbitrary: not justified or justifiable, nor, better justified than the assumptions of critics I disagree with. I find no comfort in the fact that my arbitrary assumptions come from an institution rather than from myself.

Second, while Fish never doubts that we (critics of like mind) do share the same institutional assumptions, his theory should make him doubt it. Even if we grant that there is an institution issuing assumptions about how to interpret texts, we have no more direct access to these assumptions than to poems or utterance meanings. Individuals approach this institution with their own idiosyncrasies and views, with prior sets of assumptions transmitted by other institutions and practices. To grasp the assumptions of the institution of criticism, they interpret them in light of the beliefs, assumptions, and special interests one already has. It is quite likely that these are different for each person. Each person’s interpretation of the assumptions of criticism are likely to be different.

Fish has not escaped extreme subjectivism after all.


To the charge that his theory implies a skeptical view about the justification of interpretation, Fish sometimes replies: the charge presupposes foundationalism, i.e., the view that justification requires appeal to a common foundation against which all beliefs can be tested. It is only foundationalists who think the theory leads to skepticism.

I have tried to avoid making foundationalist assumptions. Instead, I draw skeptical conclusions from Fish’s theory on the basis of the argument of section 4.

So far, what Fish, has given us are attacks on foundationalism (essentialism, realism) combined with antifoundational theories that leave me wondering what is so cognitively respectable about justification relative to a set of assumptions (conceived the way Fish conceives it). If that is all we can get, why shouldn’t we be skeptics? Perhaps an explanation why we shouldn’t be can be given, but it has yet to be provided.


  1. Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? (Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 231. References within the text are to this book.

  2. This is James Carney’s chief criticism of Fish in “Literary Relativism,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 21 (1987), p. 13.

  3. Gerald Graff notes Fish’s tendency to shift between claiming that meaning is determinate in context and claiming that it is relative to interpretive assumptions in “Interpretation of Tlon: a Response to Stanley Fish,” New Literary History 17 (1985), pp. 113–114.

  4. For further criticism of Fish’s views about evidence, see Annette Barnes, On Interpretation (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988), pp. 86–95.

  5. Stanley Fish, “Consequences,” Critical Inquiry 11 (1985): 433–458.

  6. Ibid., p. 450.

  7. In “Consequences,” Fish sharply distinguishes between beliefs and theories. Beliefs have consequences, theories don’t. But beliefs can be theoretical—being about assumptions underlying certain practices, about the relation of evidence to interpretation—about, in short, the stuff of Fish’s theory. If Fish likes, we can talk in the following way: we can say that beliefs, including theoretical beliefs, have consequences, but theories, when unincorporated into systems of belief, don’t. That reduces the issue to less than a quibble.

  8. Peter Kivy makes a different though related criticism of Fish’s claim that his theory has no practical consequences in “Fish’s Consequences,” British Journal of Aesthetics 29 (1989): 57–64. A difference between Kivy and me is that he regards Fish’s theory as giving a noncognitive model of interpretation, while I try to preserve what I take to be Fish’s intention to give a cognitive model. However, I agree with Kivy that there is much reason to think that Fish cannot give such a model consistently.

Robert Hauptman (review date Autumn 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 724

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 verbiage, long-winded but vacuous disquisitions, and pilpul of the worst kind. The masters are Derrida, Lacan, and their ilk, and Fish succumbs to their agenda too frequently. Still, buried in all these overblown words there do of course reside ideas: no one will ever fear Wolfgang Iser, for his theory is so open-ended that contradictions are welcomed and readers can supply the missing links. This appears acceptable, but Fish speciously objects: “What I have been saying is that there is no subjectivist element of reading because the observer is never individual in the sense of unique or private, but is always the product of the categories of understanding that are his by virtue of his membership in a community of interpretation.”

The most successful pieces here deal with neither theory nor criticism nor rhetoric but rather with professionalism, perhaps because Fish does not get too tangled up in theoretical permutations or linguistic obfuscation, although tangential remarks abound. In arguing against blind submissions, Fish insists “that there is no such thing as intrinsic merit,” and thus it is futile to attempt to ignore the sex, rank, affiliation, status, achievement, and reputation of the author. Indeed, he maintains that it is precisely these biographical characteristics that allow one to make a fair decision: “There will always be those whose words are meritorious” because of their position. He exemplifies this by citing Northrop Frye hypothetically attacking archetypal criticism or Fredson Bowers discussing textual editing. These are convincing examples, but of a most limited and eccentric nature. They hardly prove his case. Fish is correct, however, in insisting that bias is inherent in all activity and that objectivity is an impossible ideal. Despite these positive points, Fish fails to convince, and blind submissions remain preferable to the alternative.

In “Profession Despise Thyself” Fish successfully counters Walter Jackson Bate and his journalistic progeny, all of whom complain about the excessive specialization (trivialization) of current literary practice—the interest, for example, in gay, Chicano, black, and feminist writings—but as Fish notes, this precisely indicates a healthy discipline: there exists “an army of active researchers, exploring new territories, sharing their discoveries and projects with one another, meeting regularly to explain, debate, and proselytize.” In “Anti-Professionalism” he posits an incisive distinction between self-serving professional behavior and what is normally taken to be true or valuable.

Of the many other essays, one discusses varying views of books 11 and 12 of Paradise Lost. Others cover the demise or irrelevance of theory in the realms of criticism or pedagogy. Two are devoted to Posner’s and Dworkin’s studies of the law. Then there is a lengthy, excursus-studded disquisition on critical self-consciousness. Toulmin, Fiss, Hirsch, Marcuse, Horkheimer, and many others turn up, but the upshot of all this is that critical self-consciousness is, as Polanyi implied long ago, impossible. One’s situation, training, history, ideology, and culture are constant influences, and being conscious of them makes little difference; objective observation or judgment is always tainted. This indeed is the useful message of all the essays in Doing What Comes Naturally. If only Fish could have gotten it across rather more concisely!

Alastair Fowler (review date October 1990)

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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 (1972); then to the corrective but implausible scholarship of The Living Temple (1978); then to Is There a Text in This Class? (1980), setting out the authority of the interpretive community needed to regulate (yet also to legitimate) post-structuralism. Increasingly, Fish has been involved in extending Theory to the law. And now, undeceived as ever, he has assumed a Belshazzar role, and interpreted the signs on the wall: seeing that the jig is up for Theory, he has revised his recent theoretical work, self-distancing but also publishing it, in Doing What Comes Naturally. This only apparently miscellaneous volume consists of groups of essays on the interpreting community, on legal and liberal interpretation, on professionalism, on rhetoric, on academic liberalism, and against the wicked foundationalism of E. D. Hirsch. Also on the limitations of Theory: ‘Theory’s day is dying; the hour is late, and the only thing left for a theorist to do is to say so, which is what I have been saying here, and, I think, not a moment too soon.’ This note is struck often enough to make Doing What Comes Naturally seem a slightly uneasy book, despite its ostensible confidence and complacency. Fish no longer likes the way things are going.

How is a reviewer to fix a book so protean? It would be beside the point of this honestly self-deconstructing collection to notice inconsistencies, as when he describes structuralism as so dead that ‘for most teachers of English the word now has something of a period flavour’, yet continues to indulge structuralist vices like ascribing meaning to texts rather than people. For it is a virtue, in Fish’s critical code, to keep moving on briskly to the rhetorical posture called for next. Besides, the consistent pragmatist can only say certain things at certain times. What matters, in the hurly-burly of debate, is not achieving monumental consistency, but ‘situatedness’, or simply winning, so as to steer ‘the profession’ into change. There is much in this. Yet Fish’s rhetorical victories have won him fewer friends than he deserves, even in the deconstructive camp; as the Dutch say, ‘too sharp makes jagged’. Some regard him as a critical Vicar of Bray. But when you consider his undeniable triumphs, and have overcome the qualms the method of their achievement arouses, you have to concede an impressive consistency.

There is no doubt, for one, of his sustained power to see through, eventually, the theoretical errors of almost every recent school of criticism. He succeeds, for example, in demolishing, justly and moderately, any theoretical pretensions reader-response criticism may be thought to have had (and which he himself presumably thought it might have, when he wrote Self-Consuming Artifacts). He shows himself, in fact, a much better logician than Wolfgang Iser. Yet throughout his effortless punishing of Iser’s theoretical pretension, Fish nonetheless generously concedes the real virtues of his victim’s appreciation of literature. (Professional civility is after all a strength in polemic; and concessive qualification makes a case more persuasive.) Fish easily shows that Iser’s theory ‘falls apart because the distinction on which it finally depends—the distinction between the determinate and the indeterminate—will not hold’. Contrary to the assumption that the structures of texts constrain readers’ activities, Fish rightly argues that readers construct everything, the ‘fixities’ as much as the alleged ‘gaps’. All is a matter of interpretative strategy and construction: ‘mediated access to the world is the only access we ever have’, so that real-life objects have to be constructed no less than fictional objects. Iser’s scepticism, in short, has not been doubtful enough. (In this, Iser is supposed to be like Sir Thomas Browne—not so decisive an instance of defective science as Fish appears to suppose.)

Fish perhaps felt it worth while demolishing Iser’s theory because its generous sensitivity might make it dangerously attractive to U.S. critical pluralists. They, as successors to the old liberals, must steer a middle way between holding that literary texts have one correct reading only, and holding that they have as many legitimate readings as critics. Iser offered pluralistic accord on too easy terms, as it were. That accord, in Fish’s view, should not be reached without searching debate, to be continued as long as the profession lasts.

The kind of debate that leads to critical results (although of course provisional ones only) is exemplified by a forties’ and fifties’ Milton controversy, which Fish treats at great length as a paradigmatic instance. Finding a starting point in C. S. Lewis’s notorious ‘condemnation of the concluding books of Paradise Lost as an “untransmuted lump of futurity”’, he traces in seemingly exhaustive minuteness the changes that the dominant theoretical model gradually underwent, and the allegedly consequential changes in the professional agenda of the interpretative community, whereby, after a long progression of cumulative persuasions, Lewis’s judgement was effectively reversed. At each stage, communal assumptions limited the arguments critics could set out persuasively, or even formulate at all. Thus, Lewis’s view (as Waddington’s 1972 critique partly recognized) was determined by his deficient comprehension of structure, and by a ‘formalist perspective’, which led him to deny the category of ‘poem’ to writing with an overtly didactic intention. And Rajan wore similar blinkers, ‘although he would like to dissent from Lewis’s verdict’. Fish (who wears no blinkers he knows of) can penetratingly demonstrate the successive sets of assumptions that followed: New Critical stipulation that ‘everything written by a poet is or should be equally poetic’ (giving rise to the project of demonstrating every rift to be loaded with rich ore); modernist ‘spatialization’ of the literary work by Northrop Frye and others (connected with Cassirer’s Edenic devaluation of narrative); and reintroduction of spatialized religious material in the form of myth or typology, with consequent rehabilitation of the prophetic section of Paradise Lost.

The coherence and lucidity of this critical history are beyond praise: any obstinate formalists who remain, or would-be neotraditionalists, have a positive duty to reconsider their positions in the light of these probing characterizations. Fish’s account could be called magisterial, if history of criticism were solely a matter of attributing alterations of individual views to shifts in the dominant theoretical model—if, that is to say, theory were privileged. To say that he relativizes critical truths, or reduces them to professional politics, should not raise crude spectres or thoughts of Gary Taylor; for Fish’s version of deconstructive scepticism is magnanimous in its courtesy and subtle in its disclosures. Nevertheless this minihistory remains less than satisfactory, because of its idealizing selectivity.

By this I do not mean merely that it is teleological, or whiggish (Americans have scarcely any other historiography), but that it leaves out unfinal causes that save the appearances more simply. It leaves out, for example, the decline of classical education, and almost leaves out the general lowering of educational standards (mentioned only as an afterthought) that made the New Criticism pedagogically seductive. Yet this deterioration in critics’ education hampered judgements about comparative literary quality, and made it easier to regard all the books of Paradise Lost as equally good. Fish’s selectivity seems to be determined by a constricting myth of adversarial conflicts, in which the cleverest rhetorician is fantasized as winning and deciding which ideas are ‘viable’. And behind this myth lies another, even cloudier, of binary confrontation between the liberal forces of change—Derrida, Rorty and Fish, in white hats—and the evil powers of reaction, ‘foundationalism’ and ‘essentialism’, led by E. D. Hirsch. (By foundationalism, Fish appears to mean any position less relativistic than his own.) It need hardly be said (and Fish would be the first to agree) that a quite different history could be written of the same events, in which, for example, scholarly discovery, rational demonstration, and aesthetic discernment might play larger parts, and controversy have less simple a political basis.

In this other history, C. S. Lewis’s ‘mistake’ about the prophetic books of Paradise Lost would not be attributed to his formalism but (in my view more plausibly) to the classical bias of his education and his consequent assumption that epic at its best should be more or less Virgilian. His mistake (if it was one) consisted in an inadequate identification of genre. Subsequently, critical appreciation of the disputed books seems to have improved not so much because of new professional agendas as because of improved understanding of Milton’s Du Bartasian, biblical epic form. Again, to say that Lewis wished to exclude religious and political issues cannot be altogether just. After all, it was precisely because he thought Milton comparatively deficient in devotional intensity—a religious valuation—that Lewis judged Paradise Lost to be ‘in some very important senses … not a religious poem’. Yet he would not have supposed (as Fish appears to do) that theoretical and political ideas are always more relevant than aesthetic ones. On the other hand, whereas Lewis had no objection to bringing in ‘religious materials’ to explain Paradise Lost, this was not all that a religious purpose involved for him. Being ‘serious’ (as Fish might call it) about religion, Lewis was not quite a ‘pluralist’ critic of the supposedly standard U.S. type taken for granted in Doing What Comes Naturally. And certainly Lewis was unlike the ‘many Jewish academics’ for whom, it postulates, ‘Christianity was an object of study like any other, and consequently … they were not about to be made uneasy, as Samuel Johnson was, by the mingling of poetic fictions with “the most awful and sacred truths”’. But if the attitude of those influential refugees is correctly described by Fish in these terms, it may be thought to fall a good deal short of a full suspension of disbelief in the Christianity by whose criteria Milton requires to be judged.

Fish concludes his historical paradigm with a sketched self-deconstruction, in which he admits that spatialization and even pluralism itself might be seen as part ‘of the effort of a mid-twentieth-century hegemonic culture to domesticate the differences that give the lie to its claims of unity’. Yet he confesses (and ably defends) his internalism against the cultural materialism of Gary Saul Morson. What if education and many other factors have been left out? Is Fish’s history not complex and complete enough within its own parameters? Morson might reply that within its own parameters a history of literature from the viewpoint of redhaired critics could similarly claim completeness, without serving the needs of the interpretative community. And I should wish to add that good history does not result from arbitrary (or interested) selection of data. While Fish’s candid concessions and confessions of interestedness are disarmingly honest, they leave his history no less loaded. It is no accident, for example, that it stops before structuralism and deconstruction really got going, so that (like mannerism in Vasari’s history) these are left occupying a privileged position of immunity from the strictures earlier theories are subjected to.

Not that in general Fish fails altogether to show detachment from deconstructive orthodoxy. He is quick to see the dangers of automatic scepticism, and far too intelligent to have anything to do with unregulated interpretation. But the trouble with his elastic version of deconstruction is that one never knows (and perhaps is not meant to) how extreme a scepticism it amounts to. Presumably that too must vary with rhetorical situatedness. Sometimes Fish’s deconstruction apparently entails no more than the sensible view that human communication is a frail, uncertain affair beset with risks of misprision, so that uptake depends on interpretative assumptions. Few good theorists would disagree with this: in principle, surely, communication is subject to interpretation. (There is of course another, matching half-truth, less to Fish’s liking: namely, that continuous traditions of interpretation, together with multiple confirmatory experiences, extratextual as well as textual, in principle can always render meanings and literary qualities determinate.)

At other times, however, Fish ventures further into metaphysics: as when he claims that ‘when all is said and done Derrida and Austin are very much alike’. (The resemblance seems largely to depend on their common rhetorical capacity to provoke impatience.) And Fish’s own rhetoric can be doctrinaire enough to lead him to find ‘less than compelling’ Ronald Dworkin’s argument that ‘I could not possibly hold that position you attribute to me because I repeatedly say I do not’. In his widely influential prosecutions of woolly legal theorizing, Fish easily exposes confusions of thought, without ever being quite so interesting or thought-provoking as in his best literary essays. Despite his long interest in the law, he naturally cannot claim to draw on any great depth of legal experience or wisdom.

The legal essays intermittently betray a fatal exaggeration, when belief in himself seems to override Fish’s pragmatism, and furor criticus overwhelms the usual balance of his rational scepticism. This sometimes occurs elsewhere in Fish’s work too—as also, indeed, in the philosophy of Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty. It is a lingering inheritance, apparently, from earlier, metaphysical scepticism. Thus, in their eagerness to emphasize that many truths, facts, laws, and rules are negotiable and relative, they tend often to do less than justice to the concomitant consideration that in practice the negotiation is by no means continual, and at any specific time may be inappropriate. The rule of the road, for example, is not subject to interpretation by drivers, but has simply to be followed. Similarly with orthographic and phonemic rules, and certain rules of grammar and rhetoric, which have remained unchanged over long periods of history. There are times at which one can say quite determinately, for example, that two words rhyme. And in interpretation, too, many features, meanings, and qualities cannot reasonably be regarded as up for grabs. In controversy with Ronald Dworkin, Fish says that in Christopher Ricks’s Milton’s Grand Style ‘passage after passage of Paradise Lost was read in a way that turned the verse into just the flexible instrument everyone had always known that it wasn’t’. But Ricks’s book (excellent as it is) did not turn Milton’s verse into a flexible instrument. That flexibility was there already, and recognized as such, if not by ‘everyone’, at least by very many critics, from Richardson to Bridges and beyond. It was T. S. Eliot (who had not the best ear for such features) who got it wrong, and his academic apes who constitute Fish’s ‘everyone’. My point is this. If some post-poststructuralist critics were now to deny the subtle flexibility of Milton’s verse, would that not be unreasonable, even unprofessional? Would that not be to argue themselves tin-eared?

To put this another way, Fish is inclined to take the critical (sc. theoretical) profession too seriously, in that he magnifies the fashions of the ‘interpretative community’ (by which he seems effectively to mean the U.S. academy), until they come to assume a disproportionately ontological status. In the real world, parameters of interpretation do not change with nearly so much volatility as he supposes. I am by no means opposed to internalist histories of literature and criticism per se. But Fish’s internalism seems to me rather narrowly selective in its concentration on the theoretic weather that (he would have us believe) decides all. It may be replied that he has foreseen this objection, and in admirably self-deconstructive mood has advanced also the opposite truth, that no one can write adequate criticism by applying a theoretic method—hence the title ‘Doing What Comes Naturally’. But ‘naturally’ turns out to mean artfully: the interested business of adopting rhetorical positions and winning (or losing) power. The critic practises a literary Realpolitik, and thus participates in a sort of cultural Darwinism. This comes out particularly clearly in Fish’s subtle deconstruction of the hermeneutic claims of Jürgen Habermas and Hans-Georg Gadamer, where he discounts any possibility of disinterested thought. Yet elsewhere he concedes that ‘acting impartially’ is a possible activity (while insisting on its conditioned, non-neutral vision). How is this last concession to be squared with his approval of Rorty’s characterizing of interpretation as an operation in which the critic ‘simply beats the text into a shape which will serve his own purpose’? And what about the critic whose purpose is to act impartially and to stop beating the text?

These are all interesting and challenging essays; yet most lack a compelling simplicity of effect. By the highest standard, even by the standard of Fish’s own best work, they must be said to fall short. His judiciousness in choosing what and how much to pull down is considerable, but sometimes insufficient to avoid giving an impression of clever performance. Throughout, Fish’s gadfly style (I had almost written ‘method’) is to make the worse appear the better reasons in such a way that other, better reasons appear worse still. A favourite logical ploy is to set up false oppositions or ‘differences’. We may be asked to choose between identifying ‘intention with meaning’ and regarding meaning as ‘embedded in text’. Or (as in a skirmish with Richard Ohmann in ‘Anti-professionalism’) we may get the alternatives ‘atemporal value’ and ‘the all too temporal pressures of bureaucracies, committees … etc.’ In one of the boldest of these excluded-middle contestations, Fish uses a distinction of Rorty’s, between ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ concepts of truth, as a springboard to leap to the astonishing flourish ‘It is the difference between serious and rhetorical man. It is the difference that remains’. Oh come on, Professor Fish! Seriously, now, surely some other differences remain?

Roger Shiner (review date Fall 1991)

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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 read this book.

For those who have not been careful students of literary ichthyology for the past decade, the book will come as a surprise. For relatively little of it is actually canon-busting literary theory of the kind which brought Fish to eminence in the modern academy. The closest to the old paradigm is perhaps chapter twelve, an analytical survey of 37 years of Milton scholarship, charting the changes of tide in exemplification of Fish’s well-known thesis about criticism and interpretive communities. Chapter nine deconstructs the distinction between literal meaning and irony. Chapter twenty discusses Milton, Aristotle, Lentricchia, Nietzsche, Eagleton, and Scholes on Rhetoric, which is only to be expected, but also the economist Donald McCloskey (a maverick among economists because of his analysis of the centrality of rhetoric to the supposedly hard science of economics), Austin, Searle and Chomsky, Kuhn, Richard Rorty and the radical legal historian Robert Gordon. Chapter twenty-two on rhetoric and psychoanalysis also covers not wholly unexpected ground.

But that’s it—barely a quarter of the book. So what is the rest about? A very great deal of it consists of the whole, and distinguished, corpus (at least, everything known to me) of Fish’s contributions to the so-called Law and Literature movement, and the balance is a few essays that display ichthys politikos, the shrewd and sensitive observer of academic politics in a broad sense. Since I believe (speaking as one who has spent most of the last decade working in legal philosophy rather than aesthetics) that the Law and Literature essays constitute a really significant body of work, and since my speculation is that this work is relatively and undeservedly unknown among aestheticians, I shall concentrate in the remainder of this essay on that work, and its political companions.

As a movement in legal theory, and in legal education, the Law and Literature movement is roughly a decade-and-a-half old. The movement operates on two levels—first, to argue at the level of theory that something important, definitively important even, about the nature of law as an enterprise is brought out by comparing the making and interpreting of laws with the making and interpreting of literary texts; second, to argue at the level of pedagogical practice within legal education that something important about the law is taught by the study of literature. Fish’s published work focuses on the first of these issues. He is really the only literary theorist of stature (with the possible exception of David Hoy, whose work is more narrowly focused and limited) who has unreservedly contributed to what should be an interdisciplinary enterprise. The others are all legal academics. One can’t help being slightly cynical about this; likely, more kudos in the legal academy accrues to a lawyer showing off their knowledge of literature (the Renaissance-person ideal) than in the literary academy accrues to a literary type who knows law. In my view Fish’s work stands head-and-shoulders above virtually anyone else’s in its insight and subtlety; his only rival is the legal academic Robin West (whose essays on jurisprudence and gender [University of Chicago Law Review, paper 55 [1988]: 1–72] and on jurisprudence as narrative [New York University Law Review, paper 60 [1985]: 145–211] may be profitably consulted as an entry-point into her work). Fish’s legal colleagues clearly agree, since he has now remarkably a joint appointment with the Duke University Law School.

The thought that “law is like literature,” and therefore that theory may profitably compare the two, is not at all counterintuitive. Both depend heavily on the activity of interpreting texts, and, particularly and even essentially in law, canonical texts. In both, but especially the law, authoritative interpretation is institutionalized. Both are ongoing enterprises of interpretation; judges have behind them a history and a weight of previous interpretation in the same way as an interpreter of the classical literary canon. The dispute in legal theory between legal positivism which regards the concept of law as a formal notion and natural law theory which includes a moral dimension to the criterion for law is not at all unlike the dispute between Formalism in literary criticism and a Leavisite or Tolstoyan requirement that literature be uplifting to be good. Legal philosophers, and for that matter practicing judges, wrestle with the boundaries of linguistic sense as much as do critics of poetry and experimental literature.

The affinity in fact runs deeper still. It is a pretty plausible prephilosophical intuition about artistic criticism that the critic seems to be both constrained and free; it is too much to claim that the propositions of criticism simply and straightforwardly have truth-values by a correspondence relation to what is “in the text,” and too much to claim that the critic may say anything they like and still count as interpreting the text in question. Likewise, the judge faced with institutional history—a series of past decisions and legislative enactments—seems always to have some discretionary room not to follow slavishly that history, while not being free to disregard that history entirely and give any decision they feel like giving. In my view, the major task for legal philosophy is to give a proper account of this tension, whether that involves providing a resolution of it or not. (In fact, in Norm and Nature: The Movements of Legal Thought [Clarendon Law Series, forthcoming Spring 1992] I argue my own view, which is that the proper account leaves the tension in place. See Francis Sparshott, The Theory of the Arts [Princeton University Press, 1982] for a comparable account of the theory of art, a book from which I have learnt a great deal.)

It is in this theoretical context—the context of attempting to reconcile these conflicting prephilosophical views about law—that Fish has contributed uniquely and distinctively to legal theory. Three of the chapters in Doing What Comes Naturally, chapters four, five and sixteen, track an ongoing dispute between Fish and one star of contemporary legal theory, Ronald Dworkin of Oxford and New York University. Chapter six runs the same line in an equally notorious exchange with the distinguished Owen Fiss of Yale Law School, and chapter twenty-one a similar line in an undeservedly less well known discussion of H. L. A. Hart, whom Dworkin succeeded at Oxford. It is worthwhile sketching the issues here and Fish’s stance on them, to bring out why his work is valuable.

In the 1960s the dominant orthodoxy in legal philosophy was Hart’s version of legal positivism, which argued that only the institutional constraints on adjudication were legally binding; a given judge might at his or her discretion regard the constraints of morality as binding, but that would be a free choice by that given judge. In a celebrated paper (University of Chicago Law Review 35 [1967]: 14–47), Dworkin argued against this orthodoxy that some requirements of morality were as such binding on courts, whether or not such principles had a legal source of the kind beloved by positivists. This was a strikingly strong position, and a paradoxical one: how could a nonlegal principle be binding on a legal official? Dworkin not unwisely modified the striking view to the weaker claim that even a legal principle had to have some backing from institutional history before it could be binding on a judge, but maintained still that the binding force of a legal principle was not reducible to its backing from institutional history. He then spent a decade and a half developing this “middle view” which sought to find a place in legal theory both for the claims of institutional history and the claims of background political morality. The work saw its culmination in Law’s Empire (Harvard University Press, 1986) and the theory of Law as Integrity, a vision of law as an enterprise in which the two competing kinds of claim were properly integrated and reconciled.

Fish criticized Dworkin both at stages along the way and for the idea of Law as Integrity itself. The idea of Law as Integrity is open to a variety of criticisms (see Denise Re’aume, University of Toronto Law Journal 39 [1989], for the most thorough critique I know). Fish presented two lines of criticism, both unique to him, and both damaging. He argued first (and perhaps it had to take a literary critic to produce this argument; no legal philosopher ever did—they were too bemused by the rhetoric) that Dworkin’s presentation of his “middle way” does not proceed by the straightforward description of a theoretical possibility. Rather, it is an ersatz construction out of the key metaphors of legal positivism and natural law theory, its author unashamedly drawing on each as the local constraints on a particular piece of argument required (see pp. 560–562, a giant endnote to chapter four). He argued second (and this line is urged against Fiss and Hart as well as Dworkin) that there is an incoherence in the picture presented of legal interpretation as a balance between two kinds of claim, the claims of a clear text nonetheless subject to the claims of back ground principle. The incoherence is this. Dworkin and Co. want to insist that there is an area of clarity in a text, because they fear a judicial regime of rampant discretionary interpretation. They want to insist on an area of discretionary flexibility because they fear the rigidity of “mechanical jurisprudence.” But, Fish argued, one can have clarity in a text at all only at the cost of attributing to texts a fixity which makes it impossible for them also to be flexible, and one can license discretionary interpretation of a text at all only at the cost of attributing to texts a flexibility which makes it impossible for them also to be fixedly clear. A text can’t be something which has both the fixity which protects against the abuses of flexibility and the flexibility which protects against the abuses of fixity.

Thus stated, Fish’s argument is polemical and negative, even if very useful polemic. And in fact a lot of the book is polemic of this kind. The radical movement of recent legal theory, Critical Legal Studies, takes its lumps (cf. pp. 226–230, 392–435), on the ground that their “deconstructionist” denial of the very idea of a legal object is rooted in their being frustrated worshippers of legal objectivity. (This is not a wholly new thought. It is well-made by Hart in his 1977 essay “The Nightmare and the Noble Dream,” reprinted in his Essays in Jurisprudence and Philosophy [Oxford University Press, 1983], which compares Dworkin with the earlier generation of legal radicals, the instrumentalists in the U.S. in the 1930s and 1940s.) Fish’s contributions to the heated MLA debates over blind reviewing and “professionalism” (chapters eight, ten and eleven) are analogously polemical towards both those who are exclusively committed to the old canon and those who are exclusively committed to the new canon of postmodernism. Fish’s repudiation of parochialism and narrow-mindedness in all its forms is refreshing and salutary.

But is there any beef? Is there a positive theory here also? The answer to this is less clear. Consider the exotically titled essay “Dennis Martinez and the Uses of Theory” (chapter seventeen). Dennis Martinez is an enthusiastic if not stellar major league baseball pitcher. Fish begins his essay by recounting a journalist’s interview with Martinez in which he was asked the content of an exchange between himself and his manager before a crucial game. The content as reported by Martinez was predictably platitudinous (“He said, ‘Throw strikes and keep 'em off the bases,’ and I said ‘OK’”), but then Martinez added, “What else could I say? What else could he say?” Fish presents this comment as going to the heart of the use of theory. Theory can only consist of either mistakes, which have to be shown to be mistakes (hence the prevalence of polemic), or unhelpful platitudes. What counts is what happens on the mound. Cut the theoretical cackle and get on with the job. Live and work in an interpretive community; don’t get hung up on whether there are such things. There are: and nothing else.

This anti-theoretical perspective also explains Fish’s otherwise arcane title Doing What Comes Naturally. He remarks in the “Martinez” paper: “To think within a practice is to have one’s very perception and sense of possible and appropriate action issue “naturally”—without further reflection—from one’s position as a deeply situated agent. Someone who looks with practice-informed eyes sees a field already organized in terms of perspicuous obligations, self-evidently authorized procedures, and obviously relevant pieces of evidence” (pp. 386–387; second emphasis added). Fish’s program is best seen as a kind of naturalistic reduction. We are very familiar with certain contemporary naturalistic and reductionist programmes—those in cognitive science and so-called “neurophilosophy.” Such programs assume that theorizing about knowledge or about the mind above the level of simply a scientific theory about the actual workings of human cognition or mentality is illegitimate. Fish’s program is structurally isomorphic, with the substantive change of substituting for explanation at the level of “hard” science of neurophysiology explanation at the level of “soft” social science of descriptive accounts of the workings of social institutions. For Fish, the only way one can meaningfully stand outside literary criticism or legal decision-making is to describe social-scientifically the workings of the institutions. Such descriptions may in principle, and in practice standardly do, consist of accounts of the politics of such institutions. One cannot adopt, Fish thinks, a theoretical stance which assesses the status of those institutions: “It is hard to imagine why agents genuinely committed to a practice would hand over responsibility for judging it to some other practice, especially to a practice that takes place almost exclusively in college classrooms” (“Martinez,” p. 398).

Is this a positive theory of the “job” of literary criticism or legal decision-making or not? Wittgenstein said that philosophy leaves everything as it is, and that the task is to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle. But he also said that philosophical problems have the character of depth; the pictures that hold us captive lie in language, and that we cannot get outside them for language seems to repeat them inexorably to us. This thought itself is deep, for it suggests that philosophizing, and philosophical moves of a certain sort, are inevitable. One cannot cut the theoretical cackle and get on with the job, not once one has begun to feel the pull of theory. It is a major task to reconcile all this with the limitations of theory, limitations which Fish so unerringly exposes.

One can usefully compare Fish with a book already mentioned, Sparshott’s The Theory of the Arts. There are two passages (pp. 348, 394) where Fish is discussing the self-stultifying nature of a certain kind of search for theoretical purity which seeks to be situated outside situatedness, or to escape consciousness to be self-conscious. The argument here parallels very much what Sparshott has to say about what he calls “the Purist Line” (chapter fourteen of The Theory of the Arts). The thought is, crudely, that the purer the artwork, the less it is the kind of object that can serve as an object of aesthetic contemplation. Conceptual art represents as close as one can coherently get to the vanishing point of ultimate purity. But Sparshott does not merely throw polemic at the Purist Line. He makes two further moves. He represents the Purist Line as something to which theory of art is pushed once it starts reacting to formalism and taking seriously the role of the artist in the production of artworks. He also claims that art cannot be understood except as the focal point of different and irreconcilable lines of theory. The book makes a very convincing case for these claims. So Sparshott takes theory seriously in a way in which Fish does not. Polemic has no place (well, almost no place) in Sparshott’s argument; it constitutes Fish’s. Sparshott calls for the reinterpretation of theory, Fish for its abolition. Fish’s cure for the self-stultifying nature of theory is, Don’t do theory! Sparshott’s is, We can’t but do theory, so we might as well be clear about what it is to do theory even if, to do that, we have to do theory. I have no doubt which is the richer view.

Fish’s arguments show clearly that one accepts unquestioningly at one’s peril the seriousness of theory as an enterprise. But the best explanation he can provide for why we take theory seriously is cultural—it’s part of the conventions of our interpretive community to take theory seriously. That is in the end a shallow answer. Sparshott’s book takes theory seriously, and is a great book. Fish’s book is a fascinating book, a challenging book, a very good book. But not a great book.

Michael Neth (review date Autumn 1991)

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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 force.” In either case, objective truth and unchanging meaning are illusions produced and nurtured within the minds of those individual readers—or, in his later work, within those interpretive communities—that fail to understand how completely they exist in a determinate, limited world created in part by their own presuppositions and in part by the accidents of time, place, and circumstance.

Throughout his career, Fish’s position has derived from his conviction that reality itself (insofar as we can speak of it at all) is relative and “contextual,” and hence that even the greatest creations of literature must be dealt with primarily as verbal constructs. To consider them expressions of the human spirit in its best and highest moments is for Fish an approach that identifies its practitioner as a “foundationalist,” or one who subscribes to outmoded, or irrelevant, or insufficiently self-examined notions of rationality, objectivity, and truth. Fish has been a consistent and often brilliant exponent of the skeptical and relativist strands in Western philosophical discourse. His work is informed throughout by the famous sentiment attributed to the Sophist, Protagoras, which he approvingly quotes in his new book: “Man is the measure of all things, of the things that are that they are, and of the things that are not that they are not.”

In Doing What Comes Naturally, Fish elaborates the breadth and depth of his relativism by extending his discussion to disciplines he has not previously addressed. The volume comprises a series of twenty-two essays, most of them published in a variety of journals over the last decade but a few written expressly for this volume. Among the topics Fish treats are various species of literary theory (most notably deconstruction and the principles of the so-called Frankfurt School), composition theory, Chomskian linguistics, speech-act theory, Freudian psychoanalysis, and the attitudes of literary critics toward their profession. Fish, who has a dual appointment as professor of law and literature at Duke University, also devotes several pages to analyzing the critical legal studies movement, a post-1960s “group of left-leaning lawyers and law professors who have discovered … that rather than being grounded in natural and logical necessity, the legal process always reflects the interests and concerns of some political or economic agenda.” It is thus an understatement to describe this as an ambitious book. Doing What Comes Naturally is an omnibus critique of some of the most pervasive and influential literary, legal, and psychological dogmas of this century, with special emphasis on those that have flourished in the last several decades. Fish performs his task with admirable cogency: his style is clear, sometimes even eloquent, and his logic is impeccable and unrelenting.

Yet for all this, the book is not without some marked flaws. Fish acknowledges the first of these himself, after a fashion, in his preface, proclaiming that “every essay in this book is the same; no matter what its putative topic each chapter finally 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.” This is a self-aggrandizing way of saying that what Fish has done in these essays is to approach his various target doctrines—and the thinkers whose work most prominently embodies them—with two basic presuppositions. First, all claims that privilege a given theoretical argument in relation to the theories it opposes derive from its author’s failure to realize fully that any assertion is shaped by historical and social circumstances, and that it is simply impossible to conceive (let alone put into practice) a theory existing above and beyond the web of socio-historical exigencies. Second, all intellectual interpretation and conflict is for Fish finally reducible to “the long quarrel between philosophy and rhetoric, between the external [sic] and the temporal, between God’s view and point of view.” On one side of this ancient dichotomy are, again, the “foundationalists” or “essentialists,” those who subscribe to some sort of absolute truth-value (most commonly God or Reason) as the ultimate court of appeal in the dialogue between conflicting ideas. On the other side are the “anti-foundationalists.” Describing himself as a “card-carrying” member of this fraternity, Fish explains:

Anti-foundationalism teaches that questions of fact, truth, correctness, validity, and clarity can neither be posed nor answered in reference to some extra-contextual, ahistorical, nonsituational reality, or rule, or law, or value; rather, anti-foundationalism asserts, all of these matters are intelligible and debatable only within the precincts of the contexts or situations or paradigms or communities that give them their local and changeable shape.

Fish traces the genealogy of anti-foundationalism back to the Greek Sophists and offers a long list of modern adherents, including such figures as Richard Rorty and W. V. Quine in professional philosophy, Clifford Geertz in anthropology, Hayden White in the philosophy of history, Thomas Kuhn in the history of science, Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Jacques Derrida in hermeneutics, and Jonathan Culler and the British Marxist critic Terry Eagleton among literary theorists.

Fish administers his two overarching precepts in almost programmatic fashion to the utterances of his subjects until—as usually happens with reflexively applied intellectual paradigms—he discovers what he had set out to find. Thus, both such traditional humanistic critics as Walter Jackson Bate and E. D. Hirsch, Jr., along with such philosophers as Stephen Toulmin on the one hand and “oppositional critics” and leftist theoreticians of one stripe or another such as Derrida, Eagleton, and the various members of the “Frankfurt School” (Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse) on the other hand—all come under fire for not comprehending the intrinsic inescapability of social, political, and historical determinants. Adorno and company set out with a heightened critical self-awareness superior to traditionalist views, in Fish’s account, but in the end they appeal just as confidently—and just as mistakenly—as the traditionalists to the formal standards of objective reason. Hence, Fish argues, the Left’s “critical project” falls prey to the selfsame rationalist fallacy bedeviling thinkers on the Right.

Fish emphasizes that philosophers and literary theorists from opposite ends of the political spectrum are not alone in indulging this myopia: equally guilty are Noam Chomsky (in his futile attempt to construct a transcultural “competence model” of language reflecting “the timeless and contextless workings of an abiding formalism”); those who construct theories designed to teach effective writing in college and university composition classes (in encouraging students to do the impossible, to rise above their particular social situation and “identify in nonevaluative ways their own beliefs”); and the devotees of critical legal studies (in their vain efforts to emancipate the social order from the “historical contingencies” that, in their view, elevate some and oppress others). And so on, with a repetitiveness and formulaic predictability that soon cause the book to assume the aura of one large self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is not that Fish is wrong in most of his assertions, or that theoretical thinkers, especially of the Left, do not need to be shown their shortcomings (one thinks especially of some of the so-called new historicists in literary studies who seem constitutionally incapable of grasping the incoherence of their premises). Instead the chief problem with Fish’s book is the reader’s awareness that any one of the more substantial essays, such as “Consequences” or “Rhetoric,” could by itself convey its author’s underlying thesis. A lengthy appendix would be sufficient to point out the applications in sundry disciplines.

Just as every essay in Doing What Comes Naturally epitomizes the same point, one must remark that there is no great originality in the point itself. In fairness, Fish does not claim novelty as one of his book’s virtues: as I have noted, he aligns himself with the Sophists (in their struggle against Socrates) and insists on his kinship to the rhetoricians in their battle with the philosophers. But the sheer length and scope of this work, coupled with Fish’s assumption of an almost god-like perspective above and beyond the “intestine broils” of politically and culturally opposed critics, from which vantage point he presumes to reveal the errors of inadequate self-reflection being committed on all sides, suggest that Fish has pretensions to a kind of interpretive primacy. At the very least, one unmistakable implication of this book is that no one has yet gauged the issues at stake as clearly as does Stanley Fish.

But in fact any number of very important antitheses other than those invoked by Fish are equally germane to his enterprise. Even the casual student of the history of philosophy will be reminded when reading Fish of the bifurcation between Plato’s ideas and Aristotle’s forms, between realist universals and nominalist particulars in scholastic philosophy, between Kant’s noumenon and phenomenon. (Man’s inability to comment on the transcendent is not an insight held uniquely by Stanley Fish.) And when, in his argument that theory is wholly inconsequential, Fish stresses the gulf between “rational activity” and “empirical activity” and the former’s explanatory role in comprehending the latter, he is surely harking back to Aristotle’s distinction between theory and practice. Even Fish’s proposition that “many of the issues in interpretive theory can be reduced to a few basic questions in the philosophy of language,” which he initially proffers as “one of the theses of this book,” is as unremarkable as it is unexceptionable in light of such twentieth-century epistemological developments as logical positivism and, of course, deconstruction. Fish is certainly aware of all these precedents to his undertaking, but he is strangely silent concerning them (except the last), perhaps because, were he to take them into account, it would become even clearer than it already is that his contribution in Doing What Comes Naturally is limited to his clarification of how a number of age-old dualities manifest themselves in different trappings in the thought of many prominent and influential modern intellectuals. It has, in short, all been said before—and often more interestingly.

Finally, if one considers Fish’s words in the context of his actions, it might appear that Doing What Comes Naturally accomplishes its mission with a disturbing degree of disingenuousness. In fact, Fish’s life and his work might be seen to dramatize the very distance between universal and relative viewpoints that his book addresses. In the fall of 1990, Fish wrote an open letter to the Duke University campus newspaper in his capacity as chairman of the English department. The letter contained a warning to the university about the establishment of a campus chapter of the National Association of Scholars (N.A.S.), a group of traditionally minded college and university faculty formed two years ago with the avowed aim of reestablishing “objectivity on decisions about curriculum, promotion and academic discourse.” In his letter, Fish accused the organization of being “racist, sexist, and homophobic.” In a subsequent letter to Duke’s provost, he ventured the argument that this group’s “illiberal” attitudes toward recent developments in scholarship rendered its members unfit to serve on academic committees charged with deciding individual cases of promotion and tenure.

Now there is nothing inconsistent in Fish’s action per se; given his view that such notions as “objectivity” are chimeras created in the minds of people whose beliefs are necessarily constrained by their socio-historical situation, and given his clear preference (good Sophist that he strives to be) for the particular, the relative, and even the subversive over the universal and absolute, Fish’s opposition to the N.A.S. is understandable and (like so much of his book) predictable. But what troubles is his choice of the terms of attack. The charges of “racism, sexism, and homophobia” have by now taken on the status of clichés; they are jingoistic formulations often employed by those who have closed their minds to the possibility of discourse—precisely the thing that Fish claims to be promoting in tracing the sources of various doctrines in Doing What Comes Naturally. Can Fish be genuinely impervious to the likelihood that well-intentioned, thoughtful people might conceivably draw conclusions different from his own in this dispute? By resorting to such hackneyed phrases instead of attempting to engage N.A.S. members in argument, Fish demonstrates that, for all his brilliance, it is he—not they—who has precluded further debate, and he who has appealed to a false absolute. This is a decidedly un-Sophistical strategy. For if Protagoras said that “man is the measure of all things,” he is also known to have provided his pupils with opposing arguments in order to teach them that, in W. K. C. Guthrie’s words, “there are contrary arguments on every subject.” Protagoras’s open-mindedness in this practice, so foreign to Plato’s own Weltanschauung, may be responsible in part for the profound respect that Plato accords Socrates’ most formidable rival. It is a lesson Stanley Fish appears to have missed.

Hans Bertens (review date January 1992)

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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 pieces, but the brisk pace at which they move and their provocative character make up for everything.

Fish is a committed anti-formalist, anti-foundationalist, and anti-essentialist, terms which are practically interchangeable in the way he uses them. Rejecting the notion that formalistic approaches to language might yield meaning, that meaning is, in other words, a property of language, he argues that ‘once you start down the anti-formalist road, there is no place to stop’. Since formalism cannot lead to meaning, meaning can never be ‘literal’ or ‘natural’. Meaning can only be the product of interpretive acts, even if we theoretically allow an author’s (or speaker’s) intention to govern meaning: intentions, too, must be interpreted. Human communication—in fact, any kind of understanding—is bound up with ‘the necessity of interpretive work’ and ‘the unavoidability of perspective’. As a consequence, literary works and legal texts are the products as well as the objects of our interpretive activities. However, in Fish’s view such a state of affairs will not lead to the total subjectivism and anarchy that one might easily envisage. After all, interpretations are subject to constraints: ‘There is no subjectivist element of reading because the observer is never individual in the sense of unique or private, but is always the product of the categories of understanding that are his by virtue of his membership in a community of interpretation. It follows, then, that what experience in turn produces is not open or free, but determinate, constrained by the possibilities that are built into a conventional system of intelligibility.’ There is simply no escape from such constraints. Fish repeatedly (and not without a certain avuncular glee) emphasizes the fact that even an awareness of such constraints cannot bring the freedom that might lead to anarchy. The realization that one is part of a ‘system of intelligibility’, an ‘interpretive community’, does not change one’s views, and will at best temporarily temper one’s propensity to assign universal validity to those views. It is, as Fish notes, ‘a condition of human life always to be operating as an extension of beliefs and assumptions that are historically contingent, and yet to be holding those beliefs and assumptions with an absoluteness that is the necessary consequence of the absoluteness with which they hold—inform, shape, constitute—us’. (Needless to say, his own absolutist category, as he readily admits, is that of the rational.)

Building upon this militantly anti-essentialist position, Fish treks through literary theory and the philosophy of law, leaving in his wake what amounts to intellectual scorched earth. Ronald Dworkin and Wayne Booth (both of whom make several appearances) are taken to task for believing that texts are at some level ‘available in uninterpreted shape’, Dworkin’s Law as Interpretation is the product of ‘a general failure to understand the nature of interpretation’ and Booth’s study of irony is shown to rest on his assumption that literal (and thus unvarying) meaning is simply there for the reader to discover. The ‘disciplining rules’ with which Owen Fiss would want to put constraints upon interpretation are shown to be texts that themselves stand in need of interpretation. Wolfgang Iser’s The Implied Reader and The Act of Reading present a theory that is ‘finally nothing more than a loosely constructed network of pasted-together contradictions’. Both the academic right (the foundationalists who still believe in essences) and the academic left (the anti-foundationalists) are firmly castigated. The right irrationally clings to the conviction that the self is a free agent to whom language and the world (can) reveal their meaning. Its ahistorical essentialism leads to such confused notions as ‘intrinsic merit’—upon which the policy of blind submission is based—which is, in fact, a historical and thus extrinsic, political category. The left mistakenly assumes that clearing the air of essences paves the way for a truly new beginning. Richard Ohmann, Frank Lentricchia, Fredric Jameson, Terry Eagleton, and others stand accused of falling for the same myth of the free self, forgetting, even while they subscribe to anti-foundationalist arguments, that they, too, are already historically situated, that the subject is ‘always and already tethered to the contextual setting that constitutes him and enables his “rational” acts’. Not afraid of healthy controversy, Stanley Fish offers us his ‘general rule that a left-wing anti-professional is always a right-wing intellectual in disguise’.

Doing What Comes Naturally is an irreverent, important book that addresses highly interesting issues with force and clarity.

Cass R. Sunstein (review date 6 December 1993)

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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, and we should try to figure out what is wrong with it. Fish’s latest book is a fine occasion for such a clarification. A prominent member of the department of English at Duke, Fish has written a distinguished book on John Milton; and he is an influential literary theorist who has helped to establish the “reader response” school of literary criticism and has also argued that the meaning of a literary text is a function of the views of the “interpretive community.” Recently, declaring himself a “pragmatist,” Fish has become interested in law, where he is having a significant impact. He now teaches at Duke Law School and publishes in prominent law journals. His latest book consists of eighteen heterogeneous essays [There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech and It’s a Good Thing, Too], a long introduction and an appendix in the form of an interview entitled “Fish Tales: A Conversation with ‘The Contemporary Sophist.’”

Fish likes to say that “partisan politics,” or some form of “political correctness,” lies behind every assertion—from the right, from the left, from everywhere in between. Fish especially likes to say that there is no privileged place to stand. This claim, found on many pages of his book, is now prominent in many fields, including literature, anthropology, history and increasingly law; the ranks of all these fields are now swelled by the enemies of objectivity. I do not believe that this is a helpful or even an adequate claim. The idea that there is no privileged place to stand could mean that all of us make assumptions, have commitments and live in the world—in which case it is quite trivial, and hardly worth worrying over. Or the idea could mean that all views are equally valid and that we can never decide among them on the basis of good reasons—in which case it is deeply wrong.

And yet this denial of a privileged point of view is becoming popular, and so it is important to see what it is about. Fish has founded no school of thought—he is very much a special case—but he is influential, and what he thinks is thought in many other places, too. The first half of his book is mostly an attack on conservative critics of the university, whom Fish charges with treating traditional education as if it were nonpartisan or handed down from God. The second half is directed mostly against liberals and radicals; Fish does not identify himself with the campus left, whose politics he does not share, and whose belief in liberation he likes to ridicule. Many of the essays in the first half come from Fish’s spirited debates with Dinesh D’Souza, author of Illiberal Education, a widely read book that arraigned modern universities for sacrificing educational standards to the causes of affirmative action and political correctness. In these essays, Fish stakes out his own position, which is anti-anti-political correctness.

There are two parts to Fish’s argument. The first is empirical. Fish says that the phenomenon of political correctness is, just as a matter of fact, overstated. On his view, well-financed right-wing groups have tried to “generalize a few tired incidents into an assertion of a wholesale crisis,” feeding “the public’s appetite for crisis with the help of a cadre of well-placed and largely ignorant journalists.” But Fish doesn’t just rely on facts. The second part of his argument, which is quite interesting and, I think, in some ways correct, is that the entire debate has been misdescribed. The contest is not between the advocates of merit or excellence and their left-wing adversaries, but between “two forms of political correctness.” Before now, Fish says, there was also a political orthodoxy on the campus. It was just a different one: education was dominated by middle-class and upper-middle-class white males. Fish claims that it is ahistorical, or worse, to treat the new developments as imposing politics onto neutral territory. Instead we have a new set of political positions competing with the old.

According to Fish, complaints about “political correctness” have obscured this large point. Indeed, he thinks that there is no way of escaping “political correctness”—that everyone is in the grip of a certain set of convictions, many of them unanalyzed, and that to any particular person, those convictions will seem so self-evident that they will not even appear to be convictions. In his view, political correctness is literally inescapable, ubiquitous. It is not a characteristic of campus leftists alone.

In the title essay, Fish links his claim about the ubiquity of political correctness with an attack on the usual understandings of free speech. He says that freedom of speech does not exist, since social and even governmental intrusions on speech are inevitable (not good—inevitable). In some lamentably abstract jargon (of which most of the book is free): “all affirmations of freedom of expression” are “dependent for their force on an exception that literally carves out the space in which expression can then emerge.” Thus “the freedom has never been general and has always been understood against the background of an originary exclusion that gives it meaning.”

I am not entirely sure what this means, but I think that Fish is mostly emphasizing something simple and not really controversial: that the scope of the free speech principle is determined by exceptions to that principle. Some limits on speech are nearly inevitable—for example, banning “Fire!” in a crowded theater; protecting private homes against people who want to yell in your bedroom; preventing perjury, conspiracy, attempted bribery, false advertising. So the question is not whether we will limit speech—the absolutist’s false question—but when we will do so.

Fish adds that any marketplace of ideas will inevitably be managed by government. By this he appears to mean something simple, too: government determines the contours of the market by establishing, say, property rights and the law relating to tort and contract. Any random person can’t get on NBC or write for The New York Times, and one reason is that government protects the property rights of both of these institutions, and any efforts to get access will be found to be unlawful acts of trespass. The playing field itself is a political construct. Fish says, too, that speech is not “free” in the sense that what people want to say is a product of social and ideological forces. Fish does not spend much time on this point, but he appears to mean that speakers are influenced, whether or not they are aware of it, by many social pressures, which form the background against which self-consciousness occurs.

Even though none of this is surprising, Fish thinks that a lot is at stake. If we are not free speech absolutists—and despite appearances, who really is?—the distinction between protected speech and unprotected speech will always show, in Fish’s view, that a “political line” has been drawn. In a nutshell (and a mouthful):

Abstract concepts like free speech do not have any “natural” content but are filled with whatever content and direction one can manage to put into them. … Free speech in short is not an independent value but a political prize, and if that prize has been captured by a politics opposed to yours, it can no longer be invoked in ways that further your purposes, for it is now an obstacle to those purposes. … We have never had any normative guidance for marking off protected from unprotected speech. … In short, the name of the game has always been politics.

What about seeking principles to govern the system of free expression? Any line-drawing effort will rest “on disputable definitions and stipulations of value.” The exercise “will always be a political and contestable action and therefore inseparable from the biases and blindnesses inherent in politics.” With this point we get to the heart of what Fish considers to be his most important claims (and now we are dealing with some widely held views in academic circles). No view about free speech will be based on external and transcendent standards. No one is really an absolutist; this means that we are all partisans pushing political agendas. These claims help define parts of Fish’s own creed, which he labels “pragmatism.”

Unlike Fish, many people believe that a recognition of contingency—of the absence of extrahuman or transcendental standards—is liberating. It helps us see that we are often imprisoned by our own categories, and that we might do something other than what we do; it thus helps us embark on the project of figuring out what to do, by reference to our interests and our needs. This conviction can be found among many liberals and progressives, and many pragmatists, including two great founders of pragmatism, John Dewey and William James. But Fish has no patience with all this. There is nothing liberating about his form of pragmatism. We are still stuck in all we have: our beliefs. Fish therefore insists that pragmatism leads absolutely nowhere. He is weirdly proud of this. “Hearkening to me will lead to nothing. Hearkening to me is supposed to lead to nothing:”

Thus Fish is sharply critical of Richard Rorty, Richard Posner and Ronald Dworkin—the first two self-styled pragmatists, the third sometimes said to fall in that category—on the ground that all three make recommendations for what society and law should actually do. Dworkin in particular says that judges are often reflective and critical, at least in the sense that they look for a theory behind a precedent or a legal text, and seek to decide hard cases by helping to develop that theory, or by deciding on the point of that precedent or text. Fish has no sympathy for this account. He thinks that people just do what they do, and that no theory behind a practice really is necessary to the practice, or helps to generate it. Nor is Fish at all enthusiastic about Posner’s apparently innocuous (and pragmatic) suggestion that an inquiry into facts and consequences, illuminated by economics, can help with social and legal problems. “All I have to recommend is the game, which, since it doesn’t need my recommendations, will proceed on its way undeterred and unimproved by anything I have to say.”

Fish is especially scornful of “liberalism,” which he takes to embody the search for neutrality among competing agendas, the belief that reason can resolve everything and the insistence that conviction, belief and passion are “very close to fascism.” It’s well worth noting that this is a distinctly peculiar description of liberalism. All or almost all the great liberals—Madison, Mill, Dewey, Constant—thought nothing of the sort. Nor does the description fit such contemporary liberals as John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Susan Okin, T. M. Scanlon and Joseph Raz. In an essay on the law of contract, Fish contends that “legal reasoning is circular, question-begging and endlessly manipulable,” but he thinks that these are not criticisms of legal reasoning. In Fish’s view, the very legitimacy of legal practice depends on disguising (“effacing”) these facts. Legitimacy requires an appearance of logical compulsion when manipulation is really at work. But for Fish, nothing is at all wrong with this “amazing trick.” Where he finds circularity and manipulation, he issues no call to reform.

What might account for all this? I speculate that the animating impulse of Fish’s work (like much other writing in this vein) is democratic. He wants to say that philosophers and theorists are nothing special, that they are just like the rest of us. His debunking impulse is intended to be antiaristocratic: he opposes what he sees as the aristocratic view that some people can stand above our practices and evaluate them. But does Fish’s own position make sense? Is it a sensible way to be democratic? Or—the old pragmatic test—is his position useful?

I think that it is not. Loudly proclaiming the pragmatic heritage, Fish (most ironically) offers little that is useful to real human beings. Yet the original pragmatists, in whose mantle Fish wraps himself, were devoted to doing just that. They sought to avoid large abstractions in favor of examining what could be put to human use. To this end John Dewey, probably their most distinguished member, sharply challenged existing intellectual and social conventions and constantly insisted on the enterprise of reasserting liberalism’s human possibilities. But Fish’s pragmatism consists largely of abstractions, says little about human possibilities and ridicules liberalism. It comes across as mostly tired and even as self-righteous in the sense that it insists that we are stuck in our current understandings—our conventions—and that we cannot get a critical purchase on them.

The difference is important, for Fish is not alone here. Pragmatism is enjoying a huge rebirth in the academy, partly under the influence of Rorty; but in its new incarnation pragmatism has sometimes become a set of unhelpfully broad claims, geared not to solving human problems but to making them seem far away, even trivial. (I do not include all current pragmatists here; for all their differences, the philosopher Hilary Putnam and Posner—for example—are keeping faith with much of the pragmatic project.)

Let’s pause for a moment with pragmatism’s original concerns. All of the original pragmatists—Dewey, James, Charles Peirce—emphasized the human origins of human claims. Our views, they believed, are inevitably a product of our own interpretive filters; we do not have unmediated access to the world. In making this claim, the pragmatists criticized what is sometimes called “foundationalism” or “metaphysical realism.” But the pragmatists did not think that we should give up on ideas like truth. For James, when an idea or belief is said to be true, we should always ask “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? … What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?” The pragmatists thought that we should not see truth in a disembodied way; we should think of truth not as a “stagnant property inherent in” an idea (James’s words), but as something that is made true by experiences and events. In short, we need to figure out what is useful to human beings, and what matters for them.

On this view, pragmatism does not mean that the idea of truth is a fraud, that objectivity is a false ideal or that it is unimportant to be rigorous about truth. It does not lead to the play of perspectives or to simple conventionalism. It hardly spells the end of philosophy. On the contrary, the human role in creating truth and meaning meant more philosophical work, not less philosophical work. The pragmatists offered a rallying cry for more rigor, more and better philosophy and more clarity, in the interest of exploring what difference our claims might make in our lives. Their insistence on the living relationship between truth and experience was not a cynical or sophistic enterprise.

Fish’s version of pragmatism is nothing like this; it is as if Dewey and James have been put through a bizarre distorting mirror. Since Fish usually (and vulgarly) sees “political prizes” everywhere, he generally provides no one with a reason to accept any position, including Fish’s own. (“Hearkening to me will lead to nothing. Hearkening to me is supposed to lead to nothing.”) Furthermore, he recommends “the game” but is largely reluctant to play it; he says everything is political positioning, and then usually refuses to take political positions. This is an oddly distanced and self-insulating view, quite foreign to the pragmatic heritage.

Think for a moment about Fish’s own claims. Does he believe that they are actually true? In what sense? Fish’s own words strongly suggest that he thinks his own claims are true, not in the sense that they can be defended from an external or transcendental standpoint but in the sense that they are based on good reasons, of the sort that sensible people use when evaluating argument about facts and values. In making factual claims, Fish seems to want readers to adhere to conventional standards—showing with actual numbers, for example, that Shakespeare is still very widely read on the campus, hardly taking a back seat to African American writers. And in arguing about issues of value, he tries to appeal to the reader’s own convictions, showing how past exclusionary practices are relevant to assessing current educational reforms.

Nor is it all clear that metaphysical realism or foundationalism has really been routed. (Fish just asserts that the issue is closed, without engaging the complex issues involved.) But let us suppose that we really must be pragmatists, understanding pragmatism to mean very simply that there are no wholly extrahuman grounds for our beliefs, and that our beliefs are justified to the extent that they serve our own human purposes. Then all the work must begin. This was obvious to James and Dewey; it is also a starting point for Rawls’s version of liberalism. Of course people often disagree about things that they care about, and of course it would be most surprising if partisan struggle did not affect ultimate outcomes. But what makes Fish’s book (and much related current work) so puzzling is that it does not try to describe how people might deal with urgent questions, such as what a good system of free speech would look like. It rests instead on pretty uninteresting and abstract claims about the inevitability of exceptions and the likelihood of bias.

Turn now to the matter of free speech. In insisting that free speech is not an absolute, and in pointing to the inevitability of both social and governmental constraints, Fish is entirely right, What he says here is a useful corrective to many current claims. Free speech absolutism is at best a theology—indeed, a theology in which no one really believes. Often regulation of speech is perfectly acceptable; consider again the laws governing perjury, attempted bribery, false commercial speech, unlicensed medical and legal advice, criminal solicitation, access of speakers to private property and much more.

But the failure of free speech absolutism does not mean that there is no such thing, as free speech. (Speed limit laws exist even though ambulance drivers and police officers can go as fast as they need to go; there is a law against murder even though you can kill in self-defense; the fact that you can’t make a contract to sell heroin doesn’t eliminate freedom of contract, and so on.) Instead we need to develop principles by which we may run a good system of free expression. The whole question, a central one in contemporary democracies, is how to proceed when some distinctions are inevitable.

About this question, Fish has little to say. Still, we can start by insisting that in the American legal order, decisions are supposed to be made on the basis of reasons, not on the basis of authority or “nature.” A system of free speech allows competing views to be brought forward. It permits people who disagree to offer reasons for their views. Reasons should be met with reasons. The goal of all this is a kind of deliberative democracy, in which political accountability and majority rule are combined with an obligation to allow judgments to emerge through public discussion. Ideals of this kind are fully compatible with the pragmatic conception of truth. I don’t mean to say that Fish disparages public discussion or process or reason-giving: he doesn’t really take a stand on them. But because Fish sees pragmatism as a kind of crude perspectivism, he is unable to discuss its basic ideals.

If we inspect those ideas we will probably conclude that the current system of free expression has many problems. Some people think that new restrictions on campaign expenditures would violate the First Amendment, but our present approach to expenditures on campaigns cannot be easily justified; disparities in wealth should not translate, as they now do, into disparities in political influence. Nor is it clear that the current system of broadcasting regulation is anything to celebrate. Advertisers influence the content of programming, especially since they dislike controversial or depressing shows. The result is to deter risk-taking discussion, or even serious discussion of important topics. In any case, the economic market often creates an accelerating “race to the bottom,” reducing quality, limiting programming about public issues and substituting sound bites and sensationalism for attention to what really matters.

“In these circumstances,” a different system of regulation might actually improve the speech market. We might consider greater public financing of elections, and at least some version of the fairness doctrine for broadcasters, requiring or encouraging licensees to attend to public issues and to ensure a diversity of views. Thus we should have campaign finance laws if they reduce the distorting effects of wealth on elections, and efforts to encourage political discussion on the airwaves should be entirely acceptable. At the very least, we need much more democratic talk and experimentation on these subjects.

All this suggests that we might understand the principle of free speech at least partly through the lens of democracy. If we do this, we will not be thrilled with a system of laissez-faire for speech; sometimes laissez-faire will not serve democratic goals. And from this simple point we are also on the way to coming to terms with the issue of hate speech, which occupies much of Fish’s book. We should probably draw a distinction between speech codes that intrude on the exchange of ideas and speech codes that are limited to the regulation of simple epithets. The latter are far less objectionable than the former. Fish, once more, discusses none of these details. He briefly supports restrictions on “hate speech,” which he does not define, and he says that he can “offer reasons” for his view. Then he offers no reasons.

So much for law. The problem of political correctness raises broad issues about how to think about the ideal of “neutrality” on the campus and elsewhere. Fish puts his finger on something infuriating about the current discussion, which is that it is simply not true that most universities are overrun by radical leftists, or that the traditional curriculum is neutral. Until recently, for example, history departments largely ignored women and constitutional law courses said little about slavery.

Fish is right to complain about the partisan aims behind many of the attacks on “political correctness,” which are most selective in their complaints about slanted teaching. There is no similarly derisive term to describe what happens when a law professor disparages the concept of “fairness,” when a historian ridicules feminism, when an economist treats distributional issues as trivial or silly. To be sure, the words “political correctness” aptly describe some deplorable classrooms in which literature is assessed only on political grounds and left-wing platitudes can be challenged at the student’s risk; but those words could also be applied, say, to many economics departments, where a student risks ridicule if she challenges the assumptions of neoclassical economics. Consider even the “she” in the foregoing sentence. Is it political? Is it correct?

But people like Fish are not in a good position to sort out these issues. Those who see partisan views everywhere are unlikely to be able to explain which challenges to traditional education have merit and which do not. Teachers have to figure out what and how to teach. Fish claims that every view about education rests on substantive assumptions or on “politics.” If he means that everyone has convictions, and that any judgment about education must have substance behind it, then no one could object. But we have to know what that substance might be. And there is all the difference in the world between authoritarian education and liberal education, even if liberal education is not value-free.

The real question involves the appropriate content of liberal education at the university level, and about this matter claims about contingency and the biases of the past provide little help. Those who want to defend educational reform cannot rest content with a demonstration that defenders of tradition can be biased, too. They should come up with their own conception of a good education. They should defend that conception on the basis of reasons, which must include an account of the purpose of education. I think that the liberal tradition is well equipped to provide such a defense and such an account; and surely it is in a better position to do so than those who emphasize the unsurprising point that all claims are situated. If we are to revive the spirit of James and Dewey, both of them liberals, it should hardly be in a mood of perspectivism or conventionalism, but on the basis of their commitment to rigor and clarity, and their insistence on the relationship between intellectual life and the rest of life.

George Scialabba (review date 31 January 1994)

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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 relevant by all rational, disinterested persons. This is only fair; it is, in fact, the definition of fairness. Past unfairness cannot justify present unfairness; two wrongs do not make a right. Ergo, away with affirmative action, racial redistricting, hate-speech codes, rainbow curriculums, diversity requirements, administration-subsidized campus separatism and all other violations of formal equality.

The left rejoins: Beings who are always and necessarily partial, local, temporal, embodied and purposive—that is, human beings—cannot attain universality, disinterestedness or “pure” rationality. Principles and definitions are empty until interpreted, and every interpretation rests on a chain or network of assumptions and stipulations, which cannot all simultaneously be examined. Criteria and values do not come from nowhere (or from God or the nature of things), but from their proponents’ histories and interests. Since the latter must differ, so must the former, fundamentally and irreducibly. Ergo, to invoke objectivity, formal equality and other purportedly nonpartisan, noncontroversial principles is bad faith, an effort to place one’s perspective or goal above criticism.

This rejoinder—“antifoundationalism” in twenty-five words—is true and important. But to explain why would be to review Stanley Fish’s last book rather than his new one. Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies (1989) comprehensively maps the consequences of antifoundationalism, which only sounds like an arcane project until one reflects that antifoundationalism is another name for philosophical modernity. Along with Rorty’s Consequences of Pragmatism (1982), Doing What Comes Naturally is the best available guide to where we are now, to our current understanding of (in my favorite definition of philosophy) “how things, in the largest sense of the term, hang together, in the largest sense of the term.” Where we are now is where we’ve always been—still in base camp, civilizationally speaking—but with the metaphysical mists dissolving. We’ve just about got rid of God, reason, freedom, dignity and even, pace Nietzsche, grammar; nearly dispensed with the illusion of salvation by theory (or antitheory); and at last acknowledged the primacy (not quite the right word, since it implies a distinction—between theory and practice—that Fish deconstructs) of the practical. And having repeatedly and epistemologically demonstrated that progress requires getting down to cases, Rorty and Fish have lately begun getting down to cases—i.e., getting political.

For Rorty this has meant eloquent, wistful essays in the quarterlies on feminism, human rights, the responsibilities of intellectuals and the hollowness of liberal hope. For Fish, who is about as wistful as the twelve-cylinder engine of his infamous Jaguar, it has meant barnstorming the country in campus debates with Dinesh D’Souza and browbeating William F. Buckley Jr. on Firing Line.There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech collects the D’Souza debates and assorted essays, reviews and addresses. Though more topical and less focused than Doing What Comes Naturally, it displays the same dazzling facility—Fish’s stock in trade—for making apparently solid and fundamental distinctions melt into air: direct versus indirect evidence (in contract law), original intent versus nonoriginalism (in constitutional law), determinate versus indeterminate, neutral versus partisan, principled versus self-interested, logical versus rhetorical, persuasion versus force, autonomy versus authority, individual versus community. The book’s title and much of its contemporary salience derive from yet another, and perhaps the politically weightiest, of these deconstructive gambits: speech versus action.

What is freedom of speech for? To have no answer at all to this question is, in a democratic society, to have nothing to say for ourselves. On the other hand, any answer undermines First Amendment absolutism. The standard answers in liberal political theory and First Amendment jurisprudence are, as Fish writes: “(1) the emergence of truth as the product of public discussion, (2) the self-fulfillment of individuals, who are best served if they have access to as many views and arguments as possible, and (3) the maintenance and furtherance of democratic process, of the serious business of self-government by an informed population.” Whatever one thinks of these reasons (I think they’re perfectly adequate, and so, it appears, does Fish), they all presuppose—as will any other imaginable reason—that speech has consequences and that we protect and encourage speech not for its own sake (whatever that might mean), regardless of the consequences (again, an empty and incoherent notion), but for the sake of those consequences. In ethics and politics, we are all consequentialists rather than absolutists, whether we know it or not.

To put this argument another way: What is free speech supposed to be free from? Political and legal restrictions, presumably. But commercial fraud, libel, perjury, declaiming in a stranger’s living room and shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater are all uncontroversially restricted forms of speech, whose boundaries are nevertheless sometimes contested. Those contests are resolved—and hence the boundaries of “free” speech are determined—legally and politically: not once and for all, through metaphysical discovery, but contingently and revisably, through democratic deliberation. And so, if free speech is conceived (as it is in much contemporary liberal and conservative rhetoric) as a pristine and protected region, founded on and defined by abstract, immutable rights, then there’s no such thing as free speech.

Why is that a good thing, too? What’s good is not contingency; contingency is just the way things are. What’s good, at least potentially, is the recognition that ahistorical abstractions like free speech (reason, equality, merit, tolerance, etc.) are, as currently deployed by neoconservatives, a swindle. “When such words and phrases are invoked,” Fish charges, “it is almost always as part of an effort to deprive moral and legal problems of their histories so that merely formal calculations can then be performed on phenomena that have been flattened out and no longer have their real-world shape.” This (which is, by the way, exactly the form and function of capitalist economic theory as well) is how efforts to correct for the limitations and vulnerabilities bequeathed by a history of disadvantage come to be stigmatized as discrimination, a reaction that is analogous to maiming or poisoning a rival and then inviting him to compete with you on equal terms, or to degrading and insulting someone from birth and then being surprised that she is easily intimidated or offended. That is plainly bad faith; and that, Fish demonstrates, is what the standard, “principled” arguments against affirmative action, hate-speech codes, etc., amount to.

There are, however, nonstandard, pragmatist arguments against affirmative action, hate-speech codes, etc., and one wishes Fish had spared a little time from pulverizing Lynne Cheney, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Dinesh D’Souza to ponder them. “I am persuaded,” he concludes, judiciously enough, “that at the present moment … the risk of not attending to hate speech is greater than the risk that by regulating it we will deprive ourselves of valuable voices and insights or slide down the slippery slope toward tyranny.” By all means, let us attend to hate speech, but we cannot very well do that if we suppress it. Hate speech is invaluable; it is the best indicator we have of hate. And like any other pathology, hate should not merely be officially and symbolically disapproved of but rather understood and addressed—I would even say alleviated. Hate does not come from nowhere. It comes from aggrieved, resentful people who deserve, as citizens, to have their grievances and resentments considered, even if they cannot articulate them properly. The racism of economically secure whites does not issue in hate speech but in tax revolts. Hate speech is (I suspect; I have no data) more often than not the last refuge of the beleaguered.

Similarly, it is unworthy (and uncharacteristically obtuse) of Fish to equate opposition to affirmative action with bigotry and crass selfishness. He remarks offhandedly, apropos the Miss Saigon episode, that “in the 1990s being sensitive to the sensibilities of Asians and blacks is a higher priority than being sensitive to the sensibilities of whites, who have been, and continue to be, doing quite well in the theater and everywhere else.” Actually, many of them haven’t been. Moreover, whites who are doing quite well are (again, I’m speculating) less often hostile to affirmative action than are working-class ethnics and nonblack minorities whose livelihoods, neighborhoods and moral identities are anything but secure.

There is another relevant argument, not exactly against affirmative action but aslant it. The purpose of affirmative action is to change the current distribution of jobs and educational credentials, since that is what determines the distribution of status, leisure, medical care, retirement security and most other social and individual goods. But why should the former determine the latter? There is an intrinsic connection between medical, managerial or any other kind of skill and the supreme pleasure one may feel practicing that skill and being esteemed by fellow practitioners. But there is no intrinsic connection between practicing any kind of skill and driving a Jaguar, flying first class, owning a summer home, having state-of-the-art consumer electronics or sending one’s children to private schools. Now let’s face it: Affirmative action is about spreading around Jaguars and private schools rather than spreading around the satisfactions of removing brain tumors or explicating Milton. The latter are not for everyone; and besides, usually only those with a reasonable chance of attaining them even want them. Why not, then, distribute sports cars and summer homes at random, by lot, so that cardiology, poetry and investment banking will be practiced only by those attracted to and capable of their peculiar pleasures?

This ought to be Stanley Fish’s program, too. A few months ago in the London Review of Books there appeared an extraordinary essay, “Why Literary Criticism Is Like Virtue,” in which Fish expounded, fervently and convincingly, the joys of explicating Milton. The writer of that essay would obviously have become an inspired interpreter and inspiring teacher of Paradise Lost even if condemned to drive a Volvo or a tricycle. Which suggests, to me at least, yet another distributive scheme: Why not pay the hardest, dullest, meanest jobs the most, letting the gaudy baubles serve as consolation prizes for those who are incapable of moral or intellectual jouissance?

Behind these admittedly flippant questions lurk some dauntingly grave and complex ones, which Fish is exceptionally well qualified to elucidate. In There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, he exuberantly trounces New Criterionism (and occasionally deals Nationism a box on the ear). This is amusing, and it needed to be done—once. Let’s hope he will now apply his cherubic wit and diabolical dialectical prowess to another “great Argument” (Paradise Lost I, 24): not merely deconstructing but completing and reconciling the fragmentary, conflicting political intuitions of his earnest and confused fellow citizens.

Daniel J. Silver (review date February 1994)

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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 moribund of the dead white males who make up the received literary “canon” under attack by the multiculturalists. Moreover, unlike those guilt-ridden academics who try to atone for their assumed complicity in the oppression of minorities, women, and gays by adding a sop or two to the reading list, Fish says he will shamelessly go on reading and teaching Milton and his ilk as if nothing had happened.

So what does animate Fish’s support for the anti-patriarchal, anti-rationalist, anti-Western liberationists? Fish claims that his defense stems not from any advocacy of the diversity agenda as such but from his disgust at its critics. He trots out the usual suspects, such as Lynne Cheney (the former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities) and William J. Bennett (the former Secretary of Education). These he characterizes as right-wing ideologues, whose commitment to “universal” human values is only a cover for a particularist agenda—the well-financed special pleading for a specific class, simply acting out of its own partisan sense of the world.

But it soon becomes clear that, for Fish, the debate over the curriculum is just a special instance of a larger crisis—a crisis of liberalism—which he here undertakes to cure. If there is any connecting thematic thread in this collection, it is Fish’s unrelenting attack on certain ideals of classical liberalism: individuality, autonomy, respect for the neutrality of legal institutions, objectivity, and the like. Fish sees these ideals as self-serving obfuscations, posited by those who refuse to face the essentially political nature of all assertions of value.

In the world according to Fish, all of us live with blinders on. We cannot see beyond our narrow perspectives, a tragicomic limitation brought into relief precisely when we try to appeal to a transcendental viewpoint. We are, moreover, deeply and inescapably constrained by the institutions—“interpretive communities,” in Fish’s jargon—in which we live and work. These institutional constraints dictate the terms of our thought and speech. When, for instance, we make claims about how life should be lived, we are merely reflecting a viewpoint which comes out of some groping sense of where we are amid the local conditions that shape us. Our aspirations reflect only that piece of the horizon that is visible from our bailiwick.

This idea of perspectivism, as it is often called, is flatly asserted by Fish as a demonstrable philosophical fact. From within its framework, it is not a giant leap to the notion that, as there is no such thing as neutrality, and no disinterested appeal to objectivity—objectivity now being construed as the name we give to an irredeemably partisan view to which we try to attach universal appeal by fiat—there is also no such thing as free speech. Our speech is “always already” enslaved to convention and institutional positioning.

In Fish’s view, it is a sign of neurosis that liberals—and for these purposes he might just as well have included many conservatives and neoconservatives as well—will not face up to the partisan and political nature of everything they say. Would it not be better, he asks, for us to abandon neutrality as an a-priori categorical principle and just stipulate that some speech is better than others? True, he concedes, we would then revert to naked conflict over which speech to ban and which to protect. But how bracing and honest that kind of reckoning would be, in contrast to the pretense of neutrality we now insist on maintaining even as we sneak in all kinds of de-facto censorship.

Fish likes to position his views as if they were the culmination of an American tradition of pragmatism, taking their place in the line of William James, John Dewey, and, more recently, Richard Rorty. But there is little of the meliorist and essentially optimistic spirit of American pragmatism in Fish’s work. What he shares with pragmatism is a deep suspicion of metaphysical abstractions, and a belief that we can do real work in this world by attending to local particulars of social practice rather than relying on theoretical justifications or foundations. The odd dividing line—so definitive as to make one wonder why Fish bothers to invoke pragmatism at all—is that traditional pragmatists regard the challenge of dealing with quotidian particulars as liberating, while for Fish contingency is merely fate.

Fish emphasizes that we are bound by the operative terms of our “interpretive communities” and cannot escape them. And as a corollary, he therefore insists, as if it were a doctrinal mantra, that there is no sense in criticizing the intrinsic terminology and concerns of a profession from the outside. Although he abjures the liberal “fetish” of promoting the autonomy of the individual, he endorses the autonomy of professions, which are special cases of his “interpretive communities.”

This is where Fish does find his liberation—in transforming the recognition of constraint into a sense of contentment at being deeply situated in one’s professional activity; the value to be drawn from the irreducible particularity of our worldly existence is that of just “playing the game”—not a sense of wider or higher purpose, or any commitment to the content of the exercise, but simply the peace that comes with understanding that one is, willy-nilly, part of the game.

This notion of happy gamesmanship may seem like a strangely empty conclusion, but at least (to return to where we began) it has the merit of helping to explain how Fish comes to defend curriculum reform—i.e., changes in his own professional setting—while remaining skeptical of the agenda of the multiculturalists. To be sure, in doing so Fish betrays something of the faux-centrism, the phony balancing of Left and Right, that Carol Iannone has dissected in “PC with a Human Face” (Commentary, August 1993): campus radicals come off in Fish’s rather limp critique as naive flower children, while their critics are stigmatized as repressive interventionists. It is an offensive and clearly biased picture—and yet there is reason to believe that Fish is sincere in disavowing the ideas of the leftists, if not their attacks on tradition.

What underlies Fish’s indulgence of the radical agenda is something actually more disturbing than fellow-traveling sentimentality. Attacking defenders of the traditional canon, he invokes the terms of pragmatism and asks: “[W]hat is to be gained or lost in our everyday lives as students and teachers by either welcoming or rejecting various new emphases and methodologies urged on us by various constituencies?” And he answers as follows:

If we harken to those who speak in the name of diversity (and I say again that I myself resist the invocation of diversity as a principle, as a new theology), the result will be more subject matter, more avenues of research, more attention to neglected and marginalized areas of our society, more opportunities to cross cultural, ethnic, and gender lines, more work, in short, for academics. If, on the other hand, we harken to those who would hold back the tide and defend the beachhead won 35 or 50 years ago, the result will be more rules, more exclusionary mechanisms, more hoops to jump through, more invidious distinctions, more opportunities to be demeaning and be demeaned, more bureaucracy, more control. I know what I like. In the words of the old song, how about you?

If we put aside the defensive glibness at the end, this virtual enshrinement of cynicism as a principle is strikingly candid. The particulars of social practice celebrated by the pragmatists are reduced by Fish to so many enlargements of playing chances. To draw on one of his own favorite analogies, it is as if he were a baseball fan recommending adoption of the designated-hitter rule: tradition be damned, the new rule offers more chances to bat, more chances to score runs, less tedium, less thought, and more action.

Would that the question of whether there is anything of our cultural legacy worth defending partook of similarly innocent choices, choices without real consequences. What Fish has labored to produce in his critique of liberalism is actually a parody of liberalism: one in which the principles of neutrality and tolerance are taken to extremes and then married to an unfettered entrepreneurialism. It is a philosophy freed of anxiety about values and choices, or choices among values; a philosophy made safe for yuppies.


  1. Reviewed by Joseph Adelson in the June 1991 Commentary.

Wilson Quarterly (review date Spring 1994)

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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 place under false pretenses. Conservative critics of campus radicalism have disguised their own partisan ends by appealing to “neutral” standards of high-mindedness, tolerance, and “common ground.” They have exaggerated the spread of the multicultural curriculum and misstated their reasons for opposing it. And they have disingenuously opposed the “politicization of the humanities” while themselves occupying positions of considerable power and prestige.

Fish casts similar aspersions upon the academic Left. While he agrees with New Historicists and other practitioners of advanced literary criticism who declare that everything is “historical” or “political,” he denounces their efforts to judge the worthiness of critical enterprises by the degree to which they are historical or political. To those critics who assume that the study of a poem’s political implications is more properly “historical” than the study of its aesthetic principles, Fish replies that aesthetics is itself a historical tradition, and one that weighed heavily on poets in the past. These scholars’ political aspirations, in short, are both self-contradictory and naive: “Those who conflate and confuse literary and political work end up doing neither well.”

Although Fish’s targets are scattered, his work clings to a central notion: that human beings cannot get any kind of critical distance from their activities. Instead, they are simply consigned to continue along in them as best they can. “Focus cannot be expanded,” he argues, “it can only be adjusted.” Therefore, Fish loathes any abstract concept—“fairness,” “merit,” “neutrality”—that promises to free us from our perspectives and guide us toward transcendent truth or open-minded flexibility. It is always, in his view, a false promise.

As a conscientious gadfly, Fish deflates other people’s ideals with impressive panache. But he has hardly disposed of those ideals for good. Fish barely pauses to consider, for instance, the possible hazards of speech codes and other restrictions on free speech. It’s easy to suspect that his cautious support of such policies is based less on a conviction that they are sound than on his irritation with their opponents.

Although Fish advises all thinkers to forsake “theory” and dwell in the “local,” it is plain that he is most comfortable operating on a theoretical level. He is more aroused by the fact that all our perspectives are partial than he is by the content of any particular perspective. Like his fellow pragmatist Richard Rorty, who gestures toward the end of philosophy and the beginning of an age of free-floating conversation without ever quite getting around to joining that conversation himself, Fish apparently would prefer to travel busily across several disciplines than find a local habitation of his own. This champion of the situated self proudly keeps himself afloat.

Kenneth E. Andersen (review date Summer 1994)

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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.

Professor Fish forcefully argues that a conception of free speech as absolute is untenable. In his view, terms such as “free speech” function as a code. What is acceptable is defined by power (political) relationships. The objective world of reason is similarly defined by “everything that goes without saying … assumptions so deeply in place that challenges to them are literally unimaginable.” (p. 131). A believer in the absolute literal accuracy of the Bible and the evolutionist cannot come to agreement on creation because each starts with a view that makes the other position incoherent. A grounding of free speech cannot be found in any absolute, unshakable basis shared by all. Fish holds that the First Amendment freedoms must be balanced with other amendments and take into consideration the relevant history. Courts and individuals should ask what is the effect of the speech, whether we want that effect, and whether more is to be gained or lost by curtailing speech in this instance. One balances long term and short term impacts knowing a slippery slope has lots of things to grab onto. Settings matter: universities provide a much higher threshold before regulating speech than the workplace or military unit.

Fish subscribes to the view that “reason” or any other such term operates only within a particular world view. We construct our world and different people construct different worlds. When world views clash, the tensions are to be worked out politically, with consideration of the history, recognition of the power relationships, and, I presume, potentially shared commitments at some level. Is power the final determinant when rhetoric (persuasion) fails?

The author raises numerous interesting questions but the resolution offered is unclear. His analysis, often trenchant and compelling, does not offer adequate means of resolving the dilemmas delineated, in my view.

This collection of essays merits the close reading that the more useful sections demand. Readers will rest less easy, pushed to reflect on a number of significant, disturbing questions. His analysis of typically unstated assumptions about free speech commands attention and the professoriat should engage the other issues as well.

Scott Malcolmson (review date 9 June 1994)

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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 democrat, he assures us that he is equally critical of Left and Right; as Stanley Fish, he is even more vehemently anti-liberal. Each of these clubs of which he is not a member commits the same error by locating a principle outside time or history, and using it to judge present reality. Fish sees such reliance on principles as a mistaken, inherently misleading and disingenuous use of epistemology. For the Right, the current principle is an empirical epistemology of the good society, a mélange of ideas, aphorisms, statuary, and photo opportunities all tucked away in a shoebox labelled Western Civilisation. For the contemporary American Left, the principle appears as a theory of multicultural tolerance and shared instruction that presumes a vantage point from which one can determine how well or badly one is tolerating. The liberal’s principle is transparent Reason. Fish argues that belief in any of these three vantage points is illogical and ahistorical. For him, the two amount to the same thing. A ‘principle’ implies a point of view outside oneself—an impossibility. Logically, one can never be apart from oneself; a community can never be apart from itself; history can never get outside itself.

Fish makes these arguments with great style and a protean egotism that will be charming or irritating according to taste. He’s a deconstructionist imp, a jester who lampoons the king for using his power and, when the king falls, lampoons him for missing it. Hey, king! Why the long face? It’s all just history, and there’s damn little you or I can do about that.

Such, anyway, appears to be the thrust of this collection of essays and one interview [There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech and It’s a Good Thing, Too]. Fish applies his arguments to free speech, current literary debates and legal theory, with excursions into affirmative action and the political-correctness tempest of the last few years. As rhetorical logic, it serves him amazingly well. His manner is that of a playfully aggressive philosophy professor demonstrating to each of his freshmen that the beliefs they have brought to class are without foundation. His attack on the anti-PC crowd could hardly be bettered. He’s certainly right to show that absolute free speech is an impossibility, that a sinister uniformity lurks within multiculturalist tolerance, that the law is profoundly fungible despite assertions to the contrary, that affirmative action is not ‘reverse racism’ on any decent definition of racism. A dose of Fish always helps to clear the arteries.

His initial, modest fame in the US came from his work as a Miltonist and specifically from his 1968 book Surprised by Sin. He later reached a fresh plateau with arguments for ‘reader-response’ criticism and ideas about ‘interpretive communities’. But Fish’s true celebrity—or, what amounts to the same thing, his regular appearance on television—came in the political-correctness years, which are not yet past but are nearing, one desperately hopes, their coughing demise. This period, starting around 1989, has featured a rare breaching of the big-media walls by humanities scholars. Fish gaily took on the well-placed few who maintained that squads of Puritan Red Guards in multicultural feminist clothing were polluting the previously pristine academic pond. After sharpening his TV pitch, Fish went on the road for four debates with Dinesh D’Souza, a young Dartmouth man and author of the anti-PC tract Illiberal Education. Fish’s talks from that trip are collected here. During this vigorous period, Fish wasn’t shy about, for instance, attributing to the US Secretary of Education, among others, ‘the classically fissured shape of paranoid thought, in which absolute power and absolute vulnerability are simultaneously declared’. Many of us were deeply grateful to him. Although chair of the Duke University English Department, he dressed well and had an urbane cockiness that made us proud as he strode out to fight the good fight. We are all, he declared, politically correct, in that each of us is enmeshed in politics and would rather they be correct than not.

Fish did not, however, say that his politics were more correct than anyone else’s, as that would have violated his principle of having no principles. As to whether Fish has politics, that remains hard to determine—odd, in a book so dedicated to the political. In its course, he takes two strong positions. The first is against ‘bigots’. The second concerns ‘hate speech’—violent language directed at representatives of historically oppressed groups—which some seek to regulate. ‘I am persuaded.’ Fish writes, ‘that at the present moment, right now, the risk of not attending to hate speech is greater than the risk that by regulating it we will deprive ourselves of valuable voices or slide down the slippery slope toward tyranny. This is a judgment for which I can offer reasons but no guarantees.’ Fish not only refrains from offering principles or theories as rules for regulating ‘hate speech’—we would expect that—he doesn’t give conjunctural reasons, either. I think he might contend that reasons can’t exist apart from the politics they justify (or ‘justify’), and so in a sense they need not be stated. In a sense, there are no reasons.

By reducing principles to phenomena of ‘politics’ or ‘history’—he often uses the terms interchangeably to mean something like ‘life in society’—Fish seeks to destroy the pretensions of those who want to change society with reference to historical theories or ideals. Logically, such people must be hypocrites, or at best, believers in divine revelation. And logically, Fish cannot condemn them, because to do so would be to assume that he alone can stand aside and say: ‘Your politics are disingenuous.’ After all, how would he know?

Hearkening to me, from my point of view, is supposed to lead to nothing. As I say in Doing What Comes Naturally in answer to the question ‘What is the point?’, the point is that there is no point, no yield of a positive programmatic kind to be carried away from these analyses. Nevertheless, that point (that there is no point) is the point because it’s the promise of such a yield—either in the form of some finally successful identification of a foundational set of standards or some program by which we can move away from standards to ever-expanding liberation … it’s the unavailability of such a yield that is my point, and therefore it would be contradictory for me to have a point beyond that point. People go absolutely bonkers when they hear that, but that’s the way it is.

In fact, however, Fish does condemn others, on two grounds: that theorists left, right and liberal don’t get the point that there is no point and all their stubbornly epistemological worldviews are actually historical, contingent, political; that the beauty of politics—non-epistemological politics, what he might call ‘politics properly understood’—consists in its granting to everyone, including Fish, the capacity for making judgments without foundations. The question is: without foundations, from where do you make judgments? Fish’s usual answer is a strong historical determinism. ‘Politics,’ he writes, ‘can neither be avoided nor positively embraced; these impossible alternatives are superficially different ways of grasping the political, of holding it in one’s hand, whereas properly understood, the political—the inescapability of partisan, angled seeing—is what always and already grasps us.’ History also ‘grasps’ us. We can’t grasp it. The same holds for speech:

Absent some already-in-place and (for the time being) unquestioned ideological vision, the act of speaking would make no sense, because it would not be resonating against any background understanding of the possible courses of physical or verbal actions and their possible consequences. Nor is that background accessible to the speaker it constrains; it is not an object of his or her critical self-consciousness; rather, it constitutes the field in which consciousness occurs, and therefore the productions of consciousness, and specifically speech, will always be political (that is, angled) in ways the speaker cannot know.

One might well wonder why we would talk at all. Can we not imagine silence?

It’s unclear to me how, in Fish’s world, things change. He commonly argues that change just happens to people (other people?). We cannot know the consequences of our actions, certainly not when we’re guided by theories—an impossibility anyway, for him. Down the line, those unforeseen consequences become historical change. Critical self-consciousness is logically impossible and therefore will make no difference.

Isn’t it possible, however, that critical self-consciousness could function politically? Isn’t it rather obvious that it does, and that civilisation, reason, tolerance and God do too? I think Fish would agree, then say it’s beside the point (so to speak). He would be wrong. It is, strictly speaking, beside his point—that we have no way of knowing if the All-Seeing One exists. Surely that point has been well established already; in any event, I imagine his real point is that people other than himself believe there is a point, a Day of Judgment, an epistemology, and they’re wrong because they don’t grasp the thoroughgoing nature of contingency. Yet, as he amply shows, epistemology is very much with us. If everything ‘with us’ is ‘political’ or ‘historical’, then epistemology is political. And—again, on the evidence of Fish’s book—epistemology has uses, it works, it is pragmatic. Indeed, given its useful presence, and adopting a strong Fishian historical determinism, one may wonder whether epistemology is among the things grasping us and making politics imaginable. Of course, in a strong determinist world I will never know the answer to this question. I may not even be able to ask it. I wonder how I can find out.

Fish addresses the question of how theory (or principles or an epistemology) works by demonstrating that although Ted Williams did write a book called The Science of Batting the great ballplayer did not actually use theory or principles in his batting. Rather, he stayed alert. Therefore, ‘insofar as one is ever critically reflective, one is critically reflective within the routines of a practice. One’s critical reflectiveness is in fact a function of, its shape is a function of, the routineness of the practice.’ The qualification of ‘shape’ may give some room for manoeuvre, but the space available still seems cramped. And indeed in Fish’s work discourses come in many sizes, overlap, some have more power than others. People move amongst them, invoking principles. Even history, at times, shows an unnerving portability. On page 87 we find that ‘ideas are only intelligible within the particular circumstances that give rise to them.’ Four pages before, however, in comparing current books on ethnicity and civilisation to their interwar counterparts, he writes: ‘It is not simply that the books written today bear some similarities to the books that warned earlier generations of the ethnic menace; they are the same books.’ Evidently two histories or politics, separated by time, with no shared personnel, can be identical. Perhaps history can grasp us the same way twice, potentially countless times. Or, as seems more likely, perhaps Fish believes he really can grasp history. I cannot say from what theoretical position or vantage point he’s grasping it. But I’m glad to see he’s trying. Such efforts, while rarely crucial, are never entirely beside the point.

Scott Evans (review date Spring 1995)

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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 Richard Rorty and Richard Posner, and the school of literary analysis called New Historicism. Fish also includes two addresses, one reflective, the other satirical, relating to his career and profession, and a revealing interview in which he resists repeated attempts of the interviewer to implicate him in a number of recent theoretical trends.

Fish’s unique perspective is evident throughout these essays. That perspective derives from a background combining profound study of Milton with legal scholarship and devotion to critical theory. This variety of loyalties gives Fish’s polemics an interesting unpredictability. A severe critic of the cultural conservatism represented by William Bennett and Lynne Cheney, Fish is also a gadfly to the academic left, delighting to point out the theoretical inconsistencies of various manifestations of the postmodern sensibility. The three essays discussed below represent the diversity of the collection.

In the essay, Fish deconstructs the concept of free speech, arguing that it is a cultural abstraction that serves as a stalking horse in public discourse to hide political agendas behind an appearance of principle. His thesis is that “‘Free speech’ is just the name we give to verbal behavior that serves the substantive agendas we wish to advance” and is therefore “not an independent value but a political prize” (p. 102). Fish argues that a society’s concept of the kinds of speech that it permits derives from the speech that it restricts: “All affirmations of freedom of expression are … dependent for their force on an exception that literally carves out the space in which expression can then emerge. I do not mean that expression (saying something) is a realm whose integrity is sometimes compromised by certain restrictions but that restriction, in the form of an underlying articulation of the world that necessarily (if silently) negates alternatively possible articulations, is constitutive of expression” (p. 103). “Free speech,” then, is a phantom, because the very cultural background conditions that make linguistic meaning possible at all constrain public language, permitting some and excluding some. “Speech, in short,” Fish concludes, “is never a value in and of itself but is always produced within the precincts of some assumed conception of the good to which it must yield in the event of conflict” (p. 104).

The practical point of the argument is to encourage the proponents of university speech codes, the controversy over which provides the occasional context for the article. Fish advises, “So long as so-called free-speech principles have been fashioned by your enemy … contest their relevance to the issue at hand; but if you manage to refashion them in line with your purposes, urge them with a vengeance” (p. 114). Since the boundaries of permitted speech are political, they may be modified by political action.

Fish is obviously correct that decisions about free and prohibited speech are culturally and politically conditioned. Neither are we surprised to read that speech neither is nor should be protected unconditionally as, at least, laws against libel, slander, and espionage attest. However, many will find Fish’s argument unconvincing in its complete identification of free speech with politics and disturbing in its encouragement of restrictive speech codes. The argument depicts public debate as a conflict of parties acting under the constraints of more or less hidden agendas (we can never even fully know our own, he says), a view that seems to preclude the possibility that opposed parties might share some common ground such as, at least, a concern for the public interest. However, we may both affirm the importance of the cultural and historical context of discourse and at the same time note the inclusion within that context of principles of respect for rational argument, for factual evidence, for toleration of a diversity of views and for those who hold them—indeed, for the western tradition of civil discourse and free inquiry (or for what remains of it). Fish not only defines the context of public debate as unavoidably cultural and political, but insists on the ineluctable narrow partisanship and self-interest of the contenders. This view thus privileges brute persuasion and compulsion over reasoned debate and factual evidence and ultimately equates discourse and force. That equation legitimizes tendentious political power plays, numerous examples of which have recently been documented in, for example, Richard Bernstein’s Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America’s Future.

In “There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech,” Fish implicitly criticizes those on the political right who hold what he calls “free speech absolutism,” but in “Liberalism Doesn’t Exist” he turns the same argument of radical redefinition against the moderate left. He argues that liberalism, deriving from Enlightenment rationalism, is underlain by “a faith (a word deliberately chosen) in reason as a faculty that operates independently of any particular world view” (p. 134). However, he says, liberalism’s faith in reason as a universal ground of discourse is a world view, which itself works to shape the debate carried on within its influence. Thus, since “persons embedded within different discursive systems will not be able to hear the other’s reasons as reasons, but only as errors or even delusions” (p. 136), then those such as fundamentalist Christians who privilege faith over reason and thus deny liberalism’s fundamental premise will be marginalized within the liberal ideological context that defines itself as allowing equal consideration to all truth claims. Considering itself distinctive in allowing fair competition of ideas, liberalism actually embodies an ideology centered around the primacy of reason, an exclusive ideology whose ascendancy in the west was itself a political victory. Liberalism’s claim to be distinct from all ideological programs, therefore, is false, and since that claim to distinction constitutes the essential definition of liberalism, then liberalism does not exist.

In arguing that the terms “free speech” and “liberalism” have no referents, Fish exemplifies the nominalist tendency of postmodernism, a tendency now called antifoundationalism. Presuming that structures of belief and language that oppose the “essential to the accidental” are mistaken because “the essential is a rhetorical category whose shape varies with the contingencies of history and circumstances” (p. vii), Fish often employs a strategy that attempts either to loosen or to deny the relationship of word and referent. While Fish’s philosophy of language is much too sophisticated to be fairly summarized here, we may note that to the reader who does not share that philosophy, his arguments can appear more subversive than substantive in their rejection of accepted terms. Fish’s rhetorical construction of his own playing field (a favorite metaphor) sometimes leaves us wondering whether he takes sufficient account of the connection of terms with their established cultural and contextual meanings, the importance of which Fish himself repeatedly asserts. Does not the context of modern social discourse, for example, provide ample enough precedent for the usage and meaning of the term “free speech” to render extremely suspect its radical redefinition and dismissal?

If in some essays Fish’s perspective is philosophically radical, in others, notably his criticisms of the Critical Legal Studies position, he appears relatively conservative. CLS scholars view legal doctrine as the manifestation of political and social forces masquerading as normative principles. Since the “concepts of doctrine can be manipulated at will and in any direction one pleases,” judicial decisions are “ad hoc” and “empty”; they are also “insidious,” because “these wholly ad hoc determinations are presented to us as if they had been produced by an abstract and godly machine” (p. 168). In the essay “The Law Wishes to Have a Formal Existence,” Fish discusses these charges. He agrees that the law is indeed the social construction that CLS scholars allege, but he responds that to call the origins of the law in social and political rhetoric illegitimate is to abolish law, since discourse of any sort, including that of the CLS theorists themselves, has no other source. To say otherwise is to imply the “possibility of a general discourse that takes account of everything and excludes nothing” (p. 177), a possibility that the theory of the CLS scholars denies even though their social agenda demands it. Law must be “practiced in its own terms [i.e. in contrast to terms of theoretical critique and justification] for it is only by deploying its own terms confidently and without metacritical reservation that it can be practiced at all” (p. 177).

Fish’s critique of Critical Legal Studies theory typifies his criticism of theorists of the academic left, who, he says, tend to confuse theory and practice. On the one hand they claim to abandon essentialist notions of truth and transcendent normativity and to theorize that all meaning is socially constructed, but on the other hand they adopt their own theoretical perspective as a transcendently-based platform, which they presume to be elevated above and beyond the historical and political context that their theory designates as the matrix of meaning. Fish’s assertion of this theoretical anomaly ironically suggests an inconsistency of his own, however. Like other postmodernists, Fish seems to want both to make truth claims and also to profess a theoretical contextualism defining all meaning as a rhetorical construction relative to the social context within which it is expressed. It is difficult to see how he can do both without contradiction, or without implying the cynicism that has been associated with contextualism by philosopher Susan Haack, a cynicism inherent in assertions of truth claims made from within a theoretical perspective that invalidates them. Fish’s high standards of scholarship and his concern for accuracy are apparent in these essays, as when he scolds a New Historicist for neglecting historical research and attention to evidence, yet his own theoretical position militates constantly against his implicit claim to be right.

The five essays responding to Dinesh D’Souza in particular and neoconservative criticisms of academia on general are ingenious and amusingly anecdotal. However, the familiar nature of the arguments (e.g., the historic wrongs of racism justify affirmative action) and the occasional sharpness of tone lower their quality in comparison with the high level of argumentation and the philosophical depth that generally characterize the rest of the collection. Their portrayal of Fish in action before a live audience is interesting, though, as is Fish’s introductory disclosure that he and D’Souza are actually good friends.

These essays should by turns stimulate and provoke a reader of any political persuasion, and all will appreciate Fish’s perspicuous and engaging writing style (modelled, he tells us, after that of C. S. Lewis). Those who are interested in postmodernist and antifoundationalist thinking, in the political correctness debate, and in critical theory and its relation to law and to the university curriculum should find the book especially worthwhile reading.

Terry Eagleton (review date 24 November 1995)

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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 several conflicting discursive spheres simultaneously. Or at least, if all this can come about, then it must be an abnormal state of affairs, a mere prelude to an intellectual practice shaking down and stabilizing, even if the condition of literary criticism over the past few decades strongly intimates that such a state can, in fact, be chronic and routine. Fish has a horror of categorical ambiguity, and like many a conservative believes that the only alternative to unequivocal rules is chaos, the only antithesis to tight definition an “anything goes”. This academicist fantasy is a long way from the indeterminate mess of everyday life, even though Fish likes to present himself as a street-wise pragmatist who could intone the names of the Boston Red Sox in his sleep and has more than a dash of sentimental populism about him. He also likes to present himself as a bit of an intellectual boot boy, which, in fact, flows logically from his theory; Fish is a modern-day sophist, for whom our forms of life must be validated by rhetoric rather than reason, which is to say by the smoothest tongue or the loudest voice. Since Fish hardly has the former, he has to make do with the latter. His theory belongs to a remorselessly transparent world where there are few blurred patches or enigmas, where everything is luminous and instantly legible, where we all know without thinking how to read a line of poetry, identify a dingo, or make a political judgment. It is a clean-cut, cleft-chinned world replete with certainty and robust positivity, with no time for namby-pamby liberals or sceptics, the locker-room or business corporation at the level of the intellect.

The other reason why you cannot criticize Fish is that he does not believe in critique. To subject one’s own way of life to a thoroughgoing critique would for him involve splitting yourself in two, as the bit of you that is “embedded” in a local life-form is scrutinized by another bit of you that has floated mysteriously free of all such situatedness. He imagines that critical self-reflection must mean sublime disinterestedness, and so reinforces a certain philosophical fantasy in the very act of rejecting it. He does not see that part of what it means to be humanly “embedded” is precisely to have some capacity to reflect critically upon one’s own condition—that such critical self-reflection is not some kind of fantastic alternative to our creatureliness, but a constitutive part of that specific mode of insertion into a world which we call human. It belongs to the way the human animal belongs to its world, as opposed to, say, badgers or beehive hair-dos, that it is continually capable of going beyond the given by critically distancing it, making something of what makes it, and “history” and “language” are both words for this dynamic. Fish sees himself as a historicist; but by history he really means, in a certain American vein, the practices of the present, and history as change, for him as for the structuralists he occasionally resembles, is just the turbulent interim between one state of absolute certainty and the next.

Theory, then, is the death of self-criticism, a way of unmasking its hubris. There cannot be any full-blooded critique, because to be intelligible it must be couched in the language of the present, and so must be collusive with it. It is unlikely, however, that the CIA will ease up on its surveillance of Noam Chomsky just because he occasionally uses language that Dan Quayle can understand, and most improbable that Fish objects to such political views only because they appear radical but cannot really be so. The truth is that, by and large, Fish does not like left-wing views at all, but cannot attack them politically since his strong cultural relativism gives him no place to stand from which to do so. Instead, he must try to cut the epistemological ground from beneath his opponents, which then allows him at once to salvage his relativism and conceal the political nature of his own position.

It is some such manoeuvre which informs his latest book, Professional Correctness, which began life as the Oxford Clarendon Lectures of 1994, argues for a tightly bounded, highly traditional notion of literary criticism—roughly, as the way we determine what a text means—as against contemporary forms of political criticism. If criticism is to mean anything, it must be a specialist pursuit which fulfils a specific function; and like any other such project—law, for example—its procedures of validation must be internal to itself. To upbraid it as some kind of blinkered professionalism would be like rebuking a tiger for savaging its prey. The conventions which govern the critical institution, like the conventions which govern the proposition that snow is white, are for Fish culturally arbitrary; but they have a coercive force at any particular time, and to transgress them is simply not to do criticism at all. Political approaches like the new historicism, or fashionable attempts to become interdisciplinary, are less a deepening of literary criticism than a displacement of it. Critics, at least for the present, cannot significantly influence the wider political world, and those who appear to do so are doing politics rather than criticism. Fearful that this case may land him in the camp of the reactionaries, Fish adds a nervous introductory note which insists, more or less, that some of his best friends are politically minded critics and he shouldn’t be taken as doing these approaches down; but the disclaimer is comically askew to his general case. It is, however, a symptomatic moment; for the fact is that the book is indeed a plea for old-style New Critical textual autonomy, but one couched in the terms of the very theory such “close readers” find most unpalatable. As such, Professional Correctness repeats its author’s customary manoeuvre of deploying sophisticated theory for anti-theoretical ends, wheeling up avant-garde notions to defend the status quo.

“Repeats”, indeed, is the word, for Fish has landed himself with a theory which is inherently incapable of development. His case, here as elsewhere, is the conventionalist, convenient one that all activity is rule-bound and we just can’t help doing what we spontaneously find ourselves doing. How we come to hold our governing beliefs, on what grounds we come to change them, and what kind of world they are beliefs about, are as much mysteries for such strong conventionalism as crop circles are for those who lack a sense of humour. The case is so much a Theory of Everything that it makes no difference to anything in particular, a consequence that delights Fish’s socially conformist heart; but it also means that, since it cannot be significantly challenged or enriched by any of its specific applications, he is doomed to write the same book over and over again. Professional Correctness pursues its thesis in crisp, juridical style through a rich range of examples, all the way from Milton to feminism, legal debate to philosophical reflection; but one cannot be surprised by anything Fish says, just as, on his own theory of interpretation, we have always already recognized the apparently outlandish, and the truly outlandish we would not be able to identify at all.

Fish’s way of proceeding, however, is deeply disingenuous—indeed, given the tension between his epistemological relativism and academic conservativism, unavoidably so. He harnesses a “radical” epistemology to a conservative politics, and thus reaps the twin benefits of knocking around in glamorously avant-garde company while insisting that such theory makes not a whit of difference to one’s bank balance or lust for power. But the nice relativist theorist, and the nasty dogmatic one, are in fact continually at loggerheads within the same body. In Professional Correctness, the laid-back relativist acknowledges that there is no essence to literary criticism, which has meant a great many different things in different places, while the other bit of Fish legislates Humpty-Dumptywise that literary criticism means just what he chooses it to mean. (Fish “reconciles” his dogmatism and conventionalism, as I’ve said, by arguing that our historically contingent conventions are absolute for us, a move which permits him all the force of universal truth, while fashionably dismissing the idea.) When he recalls his own conventionalist creed that what matters is just what people happen to do around the place (what if roasting babies is what they do?), Fish has to concede that political criticism isn’t better or worse than the close reading he himself favours, just different. But if the relativist Fish believes this, the closet conservative still bristles; he doesn’t hold with this kind of stuff at all, and tells us roundly that it isn’t literary criticism, having just informed us that literary criticism has no essence or unity whatsoever. Political critics are quite free to pursue the kind of literary criticism they prefer, so Fish generously concedes, as long as they bear in mind that it isn’t literary criticism at all, and thus neither does them academic credit nor challenges his own case.

Fish is quite right to insist that literary or cultural criticism isn’t going to change the world, and caustically deflates the pretensions of those who hope to see criticism in the van of radical change. It is indeed improbable, as he suggests, that you will be made Secretary of Education for having written a great book on the novel—though, come to think of it, the Irish Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht got his job partly because he is a reputable poet and critic. It is odd that Fish does not notice that this salutary demotion of culture is just what we modest materialists have been up to for quite a while, as against the immodest ambitions of idealism; but it is gratifying to welcome him, in this respect at least, to the historical materialist fold he is out to demolish. Even so, his idea of what counts as criticism becoming political is parochial and naive. He seems to think, in touchingly conventional American fashion, that it comes down to such things as critics lobbying, counselling politicians and having “friends in high places”. He thus passes over such celebrated couplings of culture and politics as Futurism, Constructivism, the Left Front in Art, the Weimar avant-garde or the cultural activity of the ANC, perhaps because these are neither American nor popular in high places.

The relativist Fish occasionally remembers that he is talking in typically provincial fashion about the United States—indeed, talking, though he wouldn’t put it this way himself, about the parlous situation of American intellectuals bleakly marooned in an extravagantly philistine, money-obsessed society—and concedes that Abroad may do things a little differently. But this generosity is quickly retracted by Fish the conservative; even though political criticism may be all right for, say, Israel, it still isn’t literary criticism. Fish holds this view partly because he has a crudely caricatural view of what political criticism actually is. It comes down for him to using literary works to campaign, propagandize, score political points, which hardly captures the force and intricacy of such writing from Lukács to Said. He seems to imagine that political criticism is reading books plus a conscious, specific political intent, just as psychoanalytic criticism might be reading books plus probing into someone’s unconscious. This is a curiously voluntarist view of the matter for such a full-blooded determinist, out of kilter with his more general notions of belief, intention and the rest. In any case, he fails to see that political criticism is not something opposed to literary criticism but a particular species of it, not something different from literary criticism but a different kind of literary criticism. He does not see either that all literary criticism is a specific kind of literary criticism, that there is no Platonic Form of literary criticism to be contrasted with its political, semiotic, philological and other varieties. And he does not recognize that political criticism may—must—be read as closely as the style of analysis he himself prefers.

Whatever the conventionalist’s pose of being grandly receptive to equally valid ways of doing things, the partisan conservative keeps peeping inconveniently through, dressing up in flashy theoretical attire a stout old-fashioned nostalgia for the days when reading was reading, and continually exposing his own relativist suspension of judgment as spurious. When the cannily relativist fit is upon him, Fish will concede that there is nothing inherently wrong with political criticism (there is nothing inherently wrong with anything), but it has no place for specific, determinate practices, and so robs the literary profession of an assured identity.

That political criticism lacks specific practices is not only palpably false, but leaves open the question of how Fish grounds his own belief that “a strong sense of a discipline and profession” is automatically a good. He believes this, broadly speaking, because he is himself a successful member of a self-consciously professional branch of the modern critical industry, but he presents it as a universal truth. What is so indubitably precious about a strong identity? It is a question which those who have had the misfortune to run into a few celebrated literary critics may well feel like raising. Fish’s obsession with professionalism seems quaintly insular over here in England, where we critics tend to see ourselves more like the Home Guard than the Grenadiers.

“The academy—love it or leave it” is Fish’s self-proclaimed slogan, enforcing an implausibly metaphysical opposition between inside and outside. It is unlikely that Fish would either continue to love his piece of academia, or meekly leave it, were it to demand that he taught Freshman Composition for twenty-five hours a week. But it is something deeper that he has in mind. Whatever our critical conflicts, we all have to play by the same rules. A relentless monism is utterly essential to Fish’s case, just as it is to his (empirically false) view that literary criticism must perform one task only. But in what precise sense are Jean-François Lyotard and Christopher Ricks playing the same game? Is it really true, as Fish rather desperately maintains, that at least all the critical contenders agree that their discipline has “immanent intelligibility”? Fish admits that you can, of course, change the rules, since for a conventionalist like himself the rules are utterly arbitrary; but the conservative side of his head will allow only that our given categories may occasionally stretch to absorb new methods. But the point about rules, as Wittgenstein recognized and great artists might confirm, is that there are ways of following them which end up transforming them that it is not just a choice between being inexorably coerced by them on the one hand, or being in a state of permanent anarchy on the other. If one part of Fish takes up the cudgels against radical criticism, another part of him rejects the very possibility of it, since if such work is to count as criticism in the first place it must play by the given rules. This is akin to arguing that the execution of Charles I was not really oppositional, because it had to proceed according to the conventions governing the practice of decapitation.

Having thrown out the liberal humanist case for studying literature (it makes you a better person) along with the radical case (it aids your political emancipation), Fish leaves himself with the hedonist’s justification that he likes the way he feels when he does literary criticism. I like the way I feel when I cut up live hamsters, but I don’t count it as a justification. Perhaps, in the end, the concealed subtext of this strenuous assertion that criticism is one thing and politics is another is the fact that Stanley Fish is at once an Establishment literary critic and a much reviled apologist for political correctness. If he can perceive little fruitful connection between these two activities of his, then it is doubtless his prerogative to say so; it is just a little immodest to universalize the case, not least for one so virulently opposed to universals.

Valentine Cunningham (review date 8 December 1995)

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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 meanings out.

Fish appeals to his audience to recognise a professional job. The whole academy will follow the tricks, because it knows the rules of an old game. This is what a professional critic does, because this is what reading is—grappling with words as words, texts as texts, generic stuff as generic stuff—with none of your neo-historicist, cultural materialist, political musings. They’re distractions from professional business, argues Fish.

So the offered reading is a smart, even smarty-pants, meta-reading, a demonstration: proper reading is like this. It respects the boxed-in nature of the text. It looks beyond the text to the world at its peril. There’s also a tongue-in-cheek purpose afoot—another of his little ways. He is daring you to say of his exemplary manoeuvres, “Must we watch you doing this again?” Fish likes to tease his opponents, to mute their retaliations by getting them in first. But that’s what I do say. Yet once more? Not again?

For Fish’s position, put with all the old gusto and belligerence, is—yet once more—the old quietist, academicist, American New Criticism writ large. Poems are about themselves. Poetry is a quarantined activity—simply “out of this world”. Doing literary criticism is just reading. It’s like virtue—its own reward. Fish’s current targets, the new historicists and cultural materialists, are—like the old Marxists—utterly deluded in imagining their politically alert interpretations can have any worldly effect. Their politics are merely faculty business.

Nobody—Fish alleges—but poets and critics cares what poets do. Governments could not give a toss for what critics say. Critics talk only to each other. They’re in a club whose members have written their own rules, just like all the other clubs—the political, economic, legal clubs. Literary criticism is a profession whose business is to go about its business, and leave politics to the political professionals.

Like any profession, this one knows what its professionalism consists of—what, as Fish puts it in his usual robust way, “we do around here”. Its “intelligibility” is “immanent” only to the members. So it says Hands Off to outsiders: other professions, not to mention uncouth journalists and government flunkeys. (Fish is mindful of recent attacks on US literary departments in the political-correctness wars.) The flipside of this closed shop is that the critical profession will disclaim any business with any other closed shop. Let professional etiquette reign.

So for political correctness and its attendant anxieties, Fish would substitute professional correctness. Of course, he admits, the profession of criticism could change its rules—could focus on history, politics and contexts—but that would be suicidal. For then literary criticism would disappear into mere politics, cultural studies and such.

Fish is proud of proceeding in such circular arguments. He’s adamant—though on no grounds but assertion—that you can’t do close reading and history or politics at once. You can’t serve two masters, the textual and contextual.

This quite takes the breath away. Where do you start to get a handle on this narrow, provincial, unhistorical, ill-informed mishmash of mere assertion? Only a very ignorant, historically naive and isolationist argument would limit critical activity—as Fish proudly does—to what goes on in certain US universities and would talk of the utter isolation of literature and literary interpretation.

Where has he been? Of course, a few “alterities” do seep in on reluctant second thoughts. And what mighty ones they are! Havel, Rushdie, Edward Said, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China, Israel. What, you keep thinking as you read, about South Africa, South America, Nigeria, Pakistan, Ireland, and so on? “Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?” You bet it did. Yeats was wrong to doubt it. But all such counterfactuals Fish brushes aside.

Fish has always been a kind of professorial dictator. He once conned a class into believing a list of linguists’ names he had written on the board was a metaphysical poem, by dint of the professor’s fiat. Yet once more he equates what we do around here with what I do around here, so you may not do that around here—whatever you’d prefer to do by way of contextual placings and ideological exposings. When this critic encounters other practices or other views than his own he just blusters about category errors and nullity. If—like 18th-century critics, for instance—you go in for things not strictly textual, you’re reducing literary interpretation, he says, to nothing. It’s Stanley Fish and his dictates—or nothing.

The analysis keeps being forceful but crass. It is very crass to limit the political effect of criticism to whether a congressional candidate was ever defeated by a reading of Emma, or a reading of King Lear contributed to a war effort. Politics is a wide game, and almost any undergraduate could produce a long list of political results flowing from, or greatily assisted by, writings and their readings.

Does one really need to mention Swift’s The Drapier’s Letters, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or The Water Babies, or One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, or the creation of the state of Israel out of readings of the Bible? But Fish isn’t listening. He is utterly set in his ways. These lectures were the most intellectually sullying I have ever sat through. Their bewildering motormouth silliness was, I felt—and is, I feel now—morally disgusting, an insult to every politically engaged interpreter and a barbarous slight on every writer who has ever suffered at the hands of some inhumane regime. “There is no moral dimension in my position at all,” Fish boasts. Quite so. Yet once more.

Rick Perlstein (review date 18 December 1995)

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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 organizations then arriving there by the truckload. He loved the work. He knew about the Mellon Foundation’s findings, loudly trumpeted, that by the nineties a wave of faculty retirements in the humanities would yield a rash of job openings far greater than the number of qualified Ph.D.s to fill them, and he thought he might go on to graduate school to credential himself as a “professional” historian. And so, with a handsome fellowship in hand, he packed his family off to Cornell.

That was seven years ago. Michael is now finishing up his Ph.D., and he is making the rounds of professional conferences like this one to shore up his c.v. for a job market that he knows is worse than cutthroat. “I’m dying to teach,” he tells me. “I feel like I haven’t done useful work in the world for ten years now, but I have no idea if there will be any academic jobs out there for me. I wonder if I’ve just wasted my time.”

We are, it would seem, some ways from literary critic Stanley Fish and his new book, Professional Correctness. Fish made his name in the sixties and seventies by developing, through his readings of Milton and other seventeenth-century poets, an audacious home-grown post-structuralism that held that it was the reader’s response to a literary text, more than the words on the page “themselves,” that created the literary text. This breathtakingly counter-intuitive conclusion, and his unnervingly lucid and charismatic selling of it, made him an academic superstar.

It was a logical theory for a student of John Milton to come to. Much of Milton’s poetry is a bewildering web of biblical and classical allusion, full of winks at the conventions of pastoral verse and impassioned asides on political donnybrooks then brewing in England. Without footnotes to guide you through, Milton is not transcendently great poetry, but can be rather something of a muddle. From studying two centuries’ worth of Miltonic tour-guiding, Stanley Fish concluded: There is no such thing as Milton’s poetry as such; there are only various readings of Milton, which can only be products of past readings of Milton. And as goes Paradise Lost, so does all literature: A critical reader of any piece of writing does not so much read between the lines as within the lines drawn by her training, her professional investments in this or that school, her positioning within society. So it is with the writer, who can only write through the projection of his place within the traditions that formed him, and within the various “interpretive communities” he imagines will read him.

In one sense, Fish was recapitulating a maxim of William Morris: There is no art without resistance in the materials. But Fish extended this idea to theorizing about all human activity. “Human beings construct the roadway on which they are traveling,” he has written, “even to the extent of ‘demonstrating’ in the course of building it that it was there all the while.” To be a person means “to be limited by what a specific coordinate of space and time permits us to see until we move on to another coordinate with its equally (if differently) limited permission.”

From that antinomian foundation—he would call it an “anti-foundation”—Fish became a champion of liberal political causes, a model intellectual citizen, even going so far as to mount a barnstorming debating tour with Dinesh D’Souza. At campuses across the country, D’Souza would decry the trampling of academic and cultural standards under a malign left despotism. Fish, with patient brilliance, would gleefully deconstruct the notion of “standards” in the first place: We make standards as we go along, though not according to conditions of our own invention, and so it is worth trying to re-jigger them to create a more just society.

Meanwhile, Fish’s English department peers had come around to his social constructivist vision of meaning almost unanimously. Only they did it largely through their readings of Continental theory; and from Barthes, Foucault and Derrida, many professor in the eighties borrowed a Continental vocation of the intellectual as subversive. If we can only suss out the constitutive instabilities of bourgeois hierarchy, we can work to undo that hierarchy. Fish found this argument perverse, a kind of semiotic bootstrapism: To prove that a structure assumed to be natural is in fact contingent is to do no more than that; it doesn’t do any work toward undoing that structure, which was, after all, always already contingent even if we didn’t realize it to be such. All structures can be changed, but the analyst who proves this will have no special power to do so. Powerful people change institutions, not literary critics.

That a true believer in, for example, affirmative action, and a habitual Op-Ed page contributor to boot, could so steadfastly argue such a contradiction—professional conservatism, social progressivism—left many scratching their heads. But to Fish there was no contradiction; it was his critics from the left, arguing that literary intellectuals should devote their energies to discursive warfare against the powers that be, who were the hypocrites. For Fish didn’t find his colleagues’ political zeal altruistic; he located in it instead a deep-seated bad faith, an abiding shame at being “just” academics, an ideology of antiprofessionalism so entrenched that it had become, in fact, a kind of professional currency in itself, where literary scholars secured their foothold in the critics’ guild according to the extravagance by which they proclaimed their extraliterary ambitions.

So Fish, an inveterate contrarian, embraced “professionalism” outright. The moment a literary critic places an editorial in favor of affirmative action, Fish would argue, he ceases being a literary critic and becomes an editorial writer, an honorable enough role in itself. When he steps back into his departmental warren to do literary criticism, editorializing is moot, because he can speak only to issues perspicuous to a literary critical audience (no matter how much these issues pretend to signify beyond the world of literary criticism). “Literary critics do not traffic in wisdom,” he writes in Professional Correctness, which is mostly a summa of a decade's argument for critical professionalism, “but in metrics, narrative structures, double, triple, and quadruple meanings, recondite allusions, unity in the midst of apparent fragmentation, fragmentation despite surface unity, reversals, convergences, mirror images, hidden arguments, climaxes, denouements, stylistic registers, personae.”

To traffic otherwise, and call it “literary criticism,” is windmill-tilting. “It is a requirement for the respectability of an enterprise,” he writes, “that it be, or at least be able to present itself as, distinctive. By ‘distinctive’ I mean nothing more or less than ‘must be itself and not some other thing.’” If English professors train their intellectual energies more on political economy than plot structure, he hints ominously, there may someday no longer be a need for English professors, because people will have forgotten what English professors are for. “An enterprise that can make good on [the] claim [of distinctiveness],” he continues, “will in an important way be autonomous, not autonomous in the sense of having no affiliations with or debts to other enterprises … but autonomous in the sense of having primary responsibility for doing a job the society wants done.”

Of course, as many professors see it, doing analyses with an eye toward setting society politically aright is their primary professional responsibility, their way of doing a job the society wants done (even if it doesn’t know it wants it done). Fish’s attack on the way these professors often seem to appoint themselves the unacknowledged bricklayers of the world, “constructing” new realities as they will, should do much to chasten them. Many do need to be taken down a peg. But Fish, in a chapter called “Why Literary Criticism Is Like Virtue,” makes a quite more astonishing defense of the critical vocation than any New Historicist would. Here, he preens through a close reading of a line of Milton and then concludes, “For me the reward and pleasure of literary interpretation lie in being able to perform analyses like this. … I do it because I like the way I feel when I’m doing it. … That’s the way it is for me. I can’t stay away from the stuff. It’s what I do; and that, finally, is the only justification I can offer for its practice.” Like virtue, the academic study of literature is its own reward.

It is a pleasingly Aristotelian notion—that the proper end of man is to take up an honorable practice, and practice it honorably. But if Fish’s defense of his vocation for how swell it makes him feel is anything, it is hardly “professionally correct.” Why? The key word here is that favorite of Fish’s, “autonomy.” Fish has a hunch that the system of university scholarship is the most impressive machine for intellectual autonomy yet devised. And he’s right. He’s also right that this autonomy is worth fighting for. (Humanities scholarship, for all of the slings and arrows it endures, is one of the most impressive institutions America has.) But threats to the autonomy of scholars have far more to do with current American political change than with the supposed intellectual perfidy of the various academic guilds people like my friend Michael petition in vain for entrance. Intellectual autonomy, as the critic Louis Menand has been arguing recently with devastating force, is a heavily subsidized activity. That subsidy is now under serious threat.

A healthy profession needs a steady stream of aspiring professionals. But things now are very, very different from those palmy days when Fish, as a young Berkeley professor, was working his way so productively through Milton. In the most tragic possible reversal of the Mellon Foundation’s eighties prediction—the one that lured my friend Michael and many others into graduate school—these days, according to one estimate, “hiring lines [in English] come in a ratio of one replacement position for every four or five positions lost to retirement, illness, or death.” The straits are similarly dire for aspiring professional historians; Michael tells me the jobs he applies for receive up to 400 applicants (things are so bad that this lifetime pacifist is even considering—gulp!—supplicating for a job at a military college).

Some statistics: In the 1993–94 school year, 1,082 Ph.D.s in English were awarded. For that same period, 1,054 job openings were announced by the Modern Language Association. Only 632 of these, though, were tenure track; the rest were for adjunct and temporary appointments. This job deficit is compounded each year, because those 632 tenure-track positions are vied for not only by new Ph.D.s but by all the previous years’ Ph.D.s currently underemployed. Up to 15 percent of those Ph.D.s work not even in visiting or adjunct positions but in intellectual piecework: payment by the course, often at less than $2,000 per.

And we have not yet considered the Luddites who’ve set to crippling intellectual autonomy by wrecking the professional machinery that makes that professor’s privileged position possible—tenure, peer review, sabbaticals; indeed the very social contract itself, born of the cold war, that promised professors a steadily increasing flow of money, and the freedom to spend it as they wished, in exchange for initiating the next generation into the meritocracy.

Readers will be aware of the sustained attack university humanities bore during the late eighties and early nineties at the hands of critics like Allan Bloom, Dinesh D’Souza and Roger Kimball. What readers might not be aware of is that now, in 1995, these critiques have reached the folks who cut the checks that pay the professors who are to aspire to Fish’s professional correctness. On the federal level, there exists a movement to revoke the tax exemption of certain classes of colleges and universities. In the states, legislatures mutter loudly about abolishing tenure in the universities they run. At the grass roots, a new organization, the National Alumni Forum, is urging its troops to withhold checks from alma mater until she bends her intellectual agenda to terms more favorable to the class of aught nine. Finally, Lynne Cheney, in her new book, urges trustees to abolish peer review, and wrest responsibility for the hiring and firing of new faculty from the faculties and arrogate it to themselves.

In this new, chastened climate, professors will find themselves more and more with a novel injunction, and one they are not particularly prepared to answer: Explain why what you do is valuable. Fish’s present attempt is slight, almost embarrassing: Literary criticism is valuable because it partakes of a noble tradition. He writes:

A conventional activity … lives and dies by the zeal with which we ask its questions and care about the answers. … If no one any longer asks ‘What is the structure of this poem?’ or ‘What is the intention of the author and has it been realized?’ or ‘In what tradition does the poet enroll himself and with what consequences for that tradition?’, something will have passed from the earth and we shall read the words of what was once literary criticism as if they were the remnants of a lost language spoken by alien beings.

Fish’s fears are woefully misplaced. “The university’s external enemies are real,” Louis Menand wrote recently, “and they have attained a position of power over us unknown since the 1950s. These enemies could care less about distinguishing classic liberals and neo-Victorians from critical pedagogues. They loathe the very idea of public subsidy for independent thought, and they would happily put us all out in the cold if they could.”

Stanley Fish has written a very stylish, muscular little book arguing that the enemies of literary study are the New Historicism and cultural studies, and that more professionalism just might save the sinking ship. He might note that employees of the Interstate Commerce Commission may well have been able to boast impeccable professionalism, but little good it did them when their agency fell to the budget ax this year. If Stanley Fish looks out the window, he might find that he is practicing theater in a crowded fire.

Steven Connor (review date April 1997)

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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 disinterested truth from ideology or political interests (in order, for example, to protect the canon of Great Books from the imagined anarchy of the multiculturalist curriculum), arguing that all truths are partial, perspectival, and therefore political. The savage indignation of these essays makes Fish hard to recognize as the svelte sophist that he is made out to be by some critics of the left. Fish is also cheerfully disdainful of arguments founded on the principle of free speech, as they are deployed by left and right alike. Free speech cannot exist for the same reason that liberalism cannot exist; that it will always be the expression and vehicle of particular values and interests, as will the carving out for whatever ostensibly disinterested purpose of any definition of free speech.

The second part of this generously filled volume includes three wide-ranging essays on legal theory, along with essays on multidisciplinarity, on New Historicism, and on Milton studies. There is also an essay that widens out from a discussion of the alleged preference of North American academics for ugly but safe cars to an attack on the institutionalized masochism of academic culture. Fish’s titles are, as ever, good fun: this last is called ‘The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos’, though I think I like even better the title that Fish offers in an aside: ‘An Academic Is Being Beaten’. The final item is the text of a longish interview, in which Fish pokes in the embers of old and current feuds and restates a number of his convictions.

Fish’s introductory essay suggests that the pieces in the second part of the book are concerned with considering the consequences of the principles argued for in the first, but it is really the purpose of all the essays in the book to argue that there are no necessary consequences of any theory, just as there are no politics in particular that follow automatically from the recognition, itself strongly urged by Fish, that everything is political. If Fish declines to acknowledge any principle or theory underlying or emerging from his attacks on principles and theories, it is above all because this would be flagrantly self-contradictory: ‘The point is that there is no point, no yield of a positive programmatic kind to be carried away from these analyses […] it would be contradictory for me to have a point beyond that point’ (p. 307), he carefully protests. Fish demands this coherence of others as well as himself, and most of the arguments he offers depend upon the rooting out of unrecognized or unacknowledged self-contradiction in his adversaries. However, it is not all that easy for Fish to remain consistent on these matters, since this requires him precisely to embrace inconsistency. ‘Give me a break’, he teasingly implores at one point, ‘I am not in the business of organizing my successive actions so that they all are available to a coherent philosophical account’ (p. 299). I cannot imagine how Fish is ever going to be able to make up his mind about whether to be consistently inconsistent or inconsistently consistent on these questions. In the indefinite meantime, though, the unflagging energy of his assault on theory and its claims to coherence is an indication of how much, for him, the question of whether theory matters, matters.

Steven Connor (review date January 1998)

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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 theorist Ernest J. Weinrib. Academic work is one thing, in short, and politics is another. If one ever were to succeed in leaping or leaking across the discursive divide between literary criticism and politics, then one would not have transformed literary studies but simply stopped doing them in favour of something else entirely. You can only get out of one kind of immanent intelligibility by getting into another; and every ‘inter-’ is in fact an ‘intra-’.

For all their versatility and dash, Fish’s arguments seem both to bank on and to be betrayed by an extraordinarily zipped-up account of change. In one sense, the principle of change is vital: we can register the force of the conditions obtaining within particular disciplines and within the academy as a whole primarily by looking to times and places where such conditions are not operative. But, although he insists on the fact of historical changeability, Fish seems to have no satisfactory way of accounting for the passage from one set of assumptions to another. Instead, he offers a view of disciplinary history as a kind of catastrophic automatism, in which one is softly and suddenly transported from one wholly determining set of disciplinary assumptions to another, with no memory of or way of establishing continuity with one’s previous life. In the land of the always-already, there are no links, transitions, or half-way houses, not yet any shifts of conceptual level or slow stirrings of self-consciousness. Fish is at his wry, sinuous best in puncturing the grandiose wholehoggery of certain versions of the interdisciplinary imperative, but his sternly allergic response to the mixed, the partial, and the imperfect in intellectual and professional life, and his insistence on being able to see all the way round the condition of never being able to see round one’s determining conditions, give his arguments curiously autistic entirety.

Harvey C. Mansfield (review date 7 February 2000)

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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 manufacturing theories of toleration or freedom of religion that they claim are neutral among all sects. But in fact, Fish shows, religious believers cannot accept them without abandoning or trivializing their beliefs. So while pretending to be tolerant or “inclusive,” as liberals like to say these days, these theories are actually intolerant and exclusive. And this is so not only because they are weak—Fish makes easy sport of them—but more generally because no principle can succeed in checking the partisan agenda or “naked preference” that inspired it. It’s impossible to be principled or consistent. Being consistent requires you to abstract from what is good for you at the moment, but you cannot do that. Most everybody believes in consistency, Fish admits, but nobody practices it.

This is my first experience with Stanley Fish. Years ago when I first heard of him, I asked who he was. The answer came that Stanley Fish would not have cared for that question. One was supposed to know who he was without asking. I have since learned that he is indeed a big name I should have known—a man of parts with a steep upward trajectory. He began his career as a professor of English, and a Milton scholar. This was not grand enough for him, however, and aided by the laxity of our age and especially of our universities, he became a chairman, a law professor, and a mover and shaker both at supercool Duke University and in his profession. The latest is that he has been made a dean at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

A sign of his prominence is that he relies on himself and doesn’t seem to need to drop names like Foucault and Derrida, authors of deconstructionist theories that resemble his argument. Perhaps in ignoring his fellow postmoderns Fish is being consistent with his attack on those who propagate theories: He is consistent with his attack on consistency. Or perhaps he wants to be free to be inconsistent, so as to be consistent with his own theory—or is it a non-theory? Fish is a cleverish fellow, and he invites cleverishness in return. But let us look more soberly at the danger he represents.

It is not that Fish is a fiend of some kind. He is, one the contrary, a nice guy whom easy success has left naïve about the world—at bottom, a typical American academic. When he speaks of living by your “naked preference,” he refers to liberal professors and their foolish causes; not to tyrants who mean evil. When he takes his stand with Machiavelli (as he does), he pays no attention to Machiavelli’s recommendation of fraud and cruelty for those who want to live by naked truth. When Fish says, “I historicize reason,” he does not mean, “I twist it to mean what I want.” Although he exposes liberal toleration as a cover for coercion and exclusion, he himself has no program for repression and extermination.

Rather than being a powerful tyrant masquerading as a dean, Fish, one could almost conclude, has no politics at all. In the grossest contradiction in his book, [Professional Correctness] he claims on the one hand that nothing follows from accepting his argument, and asserts on the other that the same argument releases his desire to win from the constraint of seeming to be neutral. What is the “freedom to win” that Fish discovers—not one of FDR’s Four Freedoms!—but a political consequence of his argument? One would want to know how the freedom to win is made compatible with government by consent of the governed, but that little matter is not raised. It is enough that Fish does not want to become a tyrant; we should be happy with that. So, anticipating our gratitude, he feels free to despise our constitutional limits on tyranny. He happens to be “situated” as a dean, and what office could be further from tyranny than that one? Incidentally, when Fish likes the way things are, he calls it a “situation”; when he doesn’t, he calls it the “status quo.”

Now, what does it mean when Stanley Fish says we are all “situated”? It means that human beings are always, and only, in a context of contingent and changing circumstances. We have no capacity to rise above or abstract from that context; we can only replace one context with another one. We cannot be objective or rational or universal; we use our reason only to advance our own interests and to fool or befuddle others. Hence we are always politically situated, having friends who help us and enemies who are in the way. Nobody is disinterested or neutral. No occupation or way of thinking is nonpolitical. Everything is “politics all the way down.”

Here Fish shows himself to be as naïve morally and philosophically as he is politically. Just as his naughtiness falls pathetically short of tyranny, so does his skepticism fail to sustain its doubt of abstraction. He bravely denies that anything is good or right beyond the given moment when you feel it so, but then he turns submissive and cravenly swallows terms and concepts he should object to. When he criticizes liberal principles, he says they lack substance or content. But “substance” and “content” are metaphysical abstractions to which he, as a deconstructionist, is not entitled. If what we want changes from moment to moment, then there is no enduring self—which means no self-interest, no preferences, only momentary whims. Fish likes to confront presumptuous liberal principles with “reality,” but what is reality? How did that get an exemption from politics all the way down?

In truth, Fish lives on a basis of simulacra—copies of which there is no original. Let’s dismiss abstractions as unreal, he says, and then let’s pretend they exist anyway in our cozy “interpretive community.” For after denying the possibility of a common good, Fish posits—declares on his own—the possibility of a community if only its members will say there’s a common good.

Such a community of professors and graduate students will no doubt have to be supplemented with sales clerks, garbage men, construction workers, and others, each group with its own exquisite mechanism for interpreting, at any moment, the ordinary goods of life. After arguing that principles are really nothing but rhetoric, Fish concludes that reality too yields to rhetoric. He is confident that any community can survive as long as it continues to agree. Should any difficulty arise, just call out the most significant interpreters to dispel it. It is not as if any necessity could arise—a war, a disaster, or merely a lack of food on the table—that would not yield to rhetoric or interpretation.

In reading this book, I worried constantly as to whether it had any hidden depths. Was Stanley Fish perhaps lying? Was there a message or a lesson underneath the surface? But I concluded that the book is all surface, all the way down. It’s true that Fish has an overdrive to his argument, a postmodern self-awareness into which he sometimes shifts when he wants to be clever. He will anticipate that you will turn his argument against him, and he will help you do it in the belief that if he refutes himself, it doesn’t count as a refutation. Fish is stuck in a context, he says, but somehow, despite all his talk of being embedded and situated, he thinks he is on top of the world.

There is a certain amount of fun in watching Fish go after pretentious liberal theorists. It’s easy to join in the laugh as he exposes their clumsy tricks. He shows how theorists of “democratic discourse” contrive in their utopian schemes to lay down conditions of entry into political debate so that nobody who seriously disagrees with them can even begin talking. Very tolerant! But this objection to liberalism’s formal principles is nothing new and not decisive.

Conservatives, in particular, should not stand by in amusement as people like Fish attack liberal principles. Conservatives have a stake in liberalism in the generic sense; certainly American conservatives cannot ignore the liberalism of the Declaration of Independence. And besides, Fish and his like have it in for all principles, including conservative ones.

Originally, in the 17th century, liberalism did not promote neutrality for its own sake. It tried to teach us to think neutrally and abstractly for the sake of a certain, definite good. It wanted us to put peace ahead of glory and salvation, thus to substitute a lower, more solid good for a rarer, more contentious goal. Later liberalism, in Kant and Mill, sought to ennoble the mere attainment of peace by demanding that self-interest in the material sense be replaced by moral self-development.

Here are two issues raised by liberalism, very relevant today, that all of us need to think about. They are far from being meaningless disputes, such as Fish associates with liberalism. They are matters of choice; they are not settled for us by our situation. They are matters of principle, to be taken up responsibly and not to be decided merely for a single set of circumstances. It’s true that it’s easier to show that we need principles than that we have them—which is my sole concession to Dean Fish. But it’s also true that the need must be admitted, and the search to satisfy it begun over and over again. There’s something human about our dissatisfaction with being situated.

Raymond Tallis (review date 25 February 2000)

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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 limitations or inconsequentiality of theory. In a famous essay (“Consequences”) he asserted that theory cannot, ultimately, “put our calculations and determinations on a firmer footing than can be provided by mere belief or unjustified practice”. It cannot guide or reform practice from above, nor exert a critical function; theory takes us nowhere. As Fish puts it: “There is no way of testing our beliefs against something that is not also a belief.”

J. L. Austin once said of another seemingly disturbing doctrine, “There’s the bit where you say it and the bit where you take it back.” Likewise with anti-foundationalism. It may seem to be radically subversive—and this has fuelled Fish’s rise to megastardom; or blindingly obvious and quite undisturbing—and this has underpinned his defence against those who have pointed out the contradictions in his position. He is, in short, a tenured Professor of Having and Eating.

It is a banal truth that justification of belief and practice must come to an end somewhere; the fact that the world makes sense at all is senseless; values cannot be proved by argument and often contradict each other; and beliefs must ultimately rest upon faith. The fact that beliefs are embedded in a nexus of other beliefs does not, however, put all belief beyond the reach of reason. And the interdependence of faith and reason does not mean that reasonableness and dogma are indistinguishable. It is equally undisturbing to reflect that not everything can be derived from first principles alone and the grounds for our actions cannot be made utterly transparent. This may be confused with the more radically subversive notion that all theory is groundless, and hence useless, and the even more radically subversive idea that, since beliefs can be tested only against other beliefs, all beliefs are equally justified—or unjustified.

Fish has thrived on these confusions, seeming at times to attack the ordinary notion of empirical truth. He has famously argued that truths are relative to “interpretive communities”, who assess them according to their persuasiveness. Persuasiveness has more to do with the power of rhetoric and power tout court than with “material objectivity” or the essential nature of things. This has excited many postmodernists, because it seems to suggest that my belief, say, that pneumonia is due to streptococcus and should be treated with antibiotics and your belief that it is due to spirit possession and should be treated by exorcism are of equal validity. This seems to hack at the very roots of despised rationality.

Fish’s apparent relativism was triggered, somewhat ludicrously, by his trivial observation as a literary critic that there was no agreed way of adjudicating between readings of a text. From this he concluded that interpreters create meanings without guidance from the preexistent text. Getting texts “right” is a matter of negotiation within an “interpretive community”. (The non-comatose will spot the non sequiturs.) As an observation about criticism, this may capture some truth, particularly since literature is often read by critics with as enfeebled a grasp of the rules of empirical inquiry as some of Fish’s colleagues. But Fish’s assumption that this is relevant to the big, wide, serious world of adult life beyond the classroom is more contestable.

There are many reasons for not taking seriously Fish’s relativism, even in relation to literary criticism. First, there are real constraints on the interpretation of texts. A reading of Paradise Lost as a treatise on winged flight or a source book for Latvian cooking can be dismissed as erroneous. Such constraints—and in practice they are quite tight—imply that the text regulates at least in part the meaning negotiated by interpretive communities.

Secondly, Fish himself doesn’t take his own views seriously. In Surprised by Sin, he advanced a particular reading of Milton’s intentions and methods in Paradise Lost: Milton’s aim was to “intangle” readers in the Devil’s point of view and then, by means of authorial rebuke, surprise and shock them with the sin into which they had fallen. He argued that this interpretation was superior to those on offer from other critics by referring to—surprise, surprise—the text of Paradise Lost.

Two Fishes, it seems, dwell within one breast: a sceptical Fish who denies the usefulness of theory and the objectivity of fact; and a believing Fish who advances theories and supports them with objective facts. Which is the authentic Fish and which the cod Fish is anyone’s guess, but they need each other. The sceptical Fish is, of course, wrong about both empirical truths and theories. Most empirical truths are not negotiable in the way that Fish asserts. Textbooks of engineering, for example, are full of assertions that are not up for renegotiation by interpretive communities. That the sun is more than six inches from the earth and Beethoven is dead are non-relative truths, though one can imagine people denying them. And there are numerous theories guiding the uncovering and application of facts. A massive infrastructure of theory underpins the making of safe bridges, and this is not woven out of a thousand rules of thumb invoked or invented ad hoc. The notion that theory cannot guide or reform practice, nor exert a critical function, flies in the face of everything that has been achieved in science and science-based technology.

Fish’s anti-foundational view that theory makes no difference in the world of practice is clearly as wrong as his subversion of truth to the power-brokering of interpretive communities. The world is not a Modern Language Association Convention.

If pressed, Fish would agree with this (“there’s the bit where you say it and the bit where you take it back”); all he opposes are sets of principles that purport to be “for all time”; in particular, the notion of inviolate principles being invoked in certain areas of human affairs—notably the law, literary criticism, ethics, social thinking etc. This principled opposition to the applicability of principles is all that is left of Fish’s Gadfly Project once he has finished taking back or denying the vulnerable bits.

The principles that especially trouble him in The Trouble with Principle are those “neutral” principles (“colour-blind, gender-blind, race-blind, ideology-blind, sexual-orientation-blind”) typically favoured by liberal theorists, such as “fairness, impartiality, mutual respect, and reasonableness”. They cannot be defined, he argues, “in ways not hostage to any partisan agenda”.

In truth, “there are no neutral principles, only so-called principles that are already informed by the substantive content to which they are rhetorically opposed”. Supposedly neutral principles, once applied, become enmired in historically complex situations which compromise their neutrality. Outside of such situations, they are empty. “To get content, they must go to the very realm of messy partisan disputes about goods of which they claim to be independent.”

That is why liberal principles sooner or later run into contradictions. The principle of free speech finds itself having to allow air time to illiberal hate speech. Contrary to what most liberals believe, there is no principled way of demarcating acceptable free speech from unacceptable hate speech so that the principle could be modified without being betrayed: “to those who produce hate speech it is not hateful; but needful.” “Hate speech is the pejorative designation by one party of the way of thinking or talking central to the beliefs and agendas of another party.” Are not fatwas justified (to those who issue them), when blasphemy and immorality are sweeping entire peoples to eternal damnation? Nor is the appeal to rationality much help: “Hate speech and rationality cannot be generally opposed. Hate speech is always at once someone’s rationality and someone else’s abomination.” It looks as if one cannot modify the principle of free speech to produce the desired result without jettisoning it. Worse, the intrinsic emptiness of the liberal principles makes them ripe for expropriation by the nakedly self-interested. For example, the right to equal treatment for all (majorities as well as minorities) may be invoked by anti-liberal rednecks wanting to block anything that looks like affirmative action designed to help the disadvantaged. (The Right, as Fish says, are very adept at hijacking the magic words: the Devil may quote the scriptures for his own purposes.)

These familiar contradictions at the heart of bien-pensant liberalism are brilliantly explored in an essay contrasting “boutique multiculturalism” with “strong multiculturalism”. A boutique multiculturalist superficially accepts the legitimacy of the traditions of cultures other than his own, but he cannot and does not (whatever he tells himself and others) take seriously their core values. He does not notice this, because he sees those core values as merely “overlays on a substratum of essential humanity” central to which is the status of being a rational agent like himself. This fails to take account of profoundly irrational beliefs which may be intolerant—in particular of his own multiculturalist liberal values. The zealot, far from reciprocating his respect, may be appalled by his very tolerance and evenhandedness, which betrays indifference to fundamental issues and values. Since one cannot sincerely embrace views utterly at odds with one’s own, strong multiculturalism will always turn out to be “a somewhat deeper instance of the shallow category of boutique multiculturalism”. Multiculturalism as a principle of infinite hospitality to the varieties of human values will invariably end in a sentimental finessing of real disagreements and real conflicts. Disagreement is intractable because every Church (including the Church of secular liberalism) is orthodox and sees all others as infidel or irrational.

There are many dishonest or self-deceptive ways for liberalism to deal with intolerance. Such efforts “to accommodate or tame illiberal forces fail, either by underestimating and trivializing what they oppose or by mirroring it”. The intolerant may be excluded, but the exclusionary gesture will be redescribed in such a way that “it appears not to have been performed by anyone but to follow from the nature of things” or “to have been dictated by universal principles”. Religious toleration, for example, “is a device for placing religious issues off the public agenda so that civil business might proceed undisturbed by what had turned out to be intractable oppositions”. By bitter irony, tolerance, or respect, or fairness or even-handedness may belittle religion as a merely “private” matter or, if it enters public debate (about the law or education), as a potentially regressive and anti-social force. Thomas Nagel’s hope that liberalism might “provide the devout with reasons for tolerance” is most kindly seen as the pious hope of the impious. And the wider project of liberal theory “of finding an Archimedian point” (in its neutral, timeless principles) “to the side of or above or below sectarian interest” is a sham.

Fish exposes what he believes to be the ultimate liberal goal of reducing politics to “low-level debates about the particular realization of agreed-upon ends” and its dream of a well-ordered society “as one exempt from politics”. The truth is, politics cannot be suppressed without suppressing debate and making the current losers or the disaffected invisible. The dirty partisan battles will never be superseded by the activity of “some agentless mechanism like the marketplace of ideas or universal reason”. Ultimately, liberalism’s “attempts to come to terms with illiberal energies—especially, but not exclusively, religious ones—will always fail because it cannot succeed without enacting the illiberalism it opposes”. Walter Lippman’s famous assertion that “Reason and free inquiry can be … tolerant only of those opinions which submit to the test of reason and free inquiry” is both a liberal credo and an involuntary self-exposé of the contradictions in liberalism.

These dilemmas at the heart of liberalism have often been remarked on and agonized over. Fish’s distinctive contribution is to draw support from them for his principled hostility to principle. This is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Granted, principles alone are insufficient; but they are necessary.

Without principles, we would have no maps by which to steer. In my own profession of medicine, principles that are excellent in themselves may collide with one another; for example, the twin commitments to saving life and to reducing suffering may conflict, as when a life may be saved only at the cost of protracting suffering. But it would be dangerous and wrong if this persuaded us to set aside these guiding principles. And, closer to Fish’s preoccupations, the famous principles of medical ethics often run into difficulties. If we have a comatose patient, we cannot respect the principle of autonomy when we embark upon treatment, but we can invoke the principle of beneficence, of acting in the patient’s best interest, so far as we can determine it. Sometimes, one principle has to give way to another principle, and although this is true and although we cannot even construct a hierarchy determining which principle should override which other principle, this does not mean that the principles such as that of autonomy should be forgotten and we should routinely ignore, rather than routinely take account of, patients’ wishes.

Theories and principles are regulative frameworks. If we wish to ban the right to free speech of a group inciting racial violence, this should take place in full awareness of the potential dangers such a ban carries for the future; without the explicit principle, this awareness, and indeed a whole dimension of social self-consciousness, will be missing. Principles cannot dictate all decisions in individual cases (though they will be useful guides in the majority of cases) and may occasionally run into contradictions; but without them we are dangerously mapless.

If Fish had not been so eager to shock with what remains of his anti-foundationalist agenda, his beautifully written and genuinely provocative book would not have left matters at the point at which the really serious questions begin. He might, for example, have spent more time in the less glamorous business of trying to define the pragmatist “adhoccery” he advocates as an alternative to action based solely on exclusive appeal to transcendent principle. Almost certainly, such adhoccery will be informed by principles, even if it is not driven mechanistically by them. But such non-radical inquiry is not the stuff of which megastar reputations are made.


Principal Works


Further Reading