Catching Fish With A Petard

Leonard L. Antal
Independent Scholar

[In the following essay, Antal takes Stanley Fish to task because the latter's linguistic paradigms cannot demonstrate the validity of his meta-paradigms or meta-meta-paradigms. One is reminded that axiomatic systems cannot prove the validity of the axioms on which they are based, just as the verification principle of the positivists cannot demonstrate the validity of the verification principle. Neitzsche would approach the problem by denying the priority of language, relegating it to being just another of the configurations of the will to power, a configuration which, moreover, preserves error. Thus, post-structuralists who valorize language to such an extreme anthropomorphize the universe just as did Kant in the Anschauungen, two categories whcih Nietzsche and quantum mechanics reject.--editor (W.P.)]

The "free speech" debate, now decades old, has held center stage in academe for so long that it has become difficult to pinpoint how far back in time it was that tuition increases and cafeteria coffee were big campus issues. The "free speech" debaters of the '60s and '70s have since graduated to become today's tenured professors, government officials and activist spokespersons. Their choice of livelihoods, however, has not dampened their ardor for debate: issues over free speech surface wherever they do. The result: the "free speech debate" has itself gained prominence off campus. Terms like "politically correct" and "speech codes" have entered the lexicons of network news analysts, daily columnists and night show hosts. As the debate edges nearer the national limelight, its major players are increasingly at risk of becoming celebrities who previously aspired only to make their name as good soldiers in their chosen disciplines and professions.

One who is on the verge of becoming a public figure for his part in the debate is Stanley Fish, professor of English in the Department of Arts and Sciences at Duke University, and professor of law. A renowned Milton scholar, and owner of a Jaguar sports car, Fish is a founder of the "Reader Response Theory" of literary criticism, and lately has turned his thoughts to matters legal, writing bar review articles sufficiently substantive to warrant a professorship at Duke's law school. Most recently, he has authored There's No Such Thing As Free Speech--And It's a Good Thing Too, a wide-ranging package of essays that analyzes, among other issues, the true objectives of neoconservatives who invoke classical Liberalism to fortify present day injustices; how Liberalism, an 18th and 19th century ideology, is morally irrelevant and highly detrimental to today's culturally diverse communities; and how Rhetoric, not Reason, not only makes our legal system possible but is the one device that makes multi-culturalism manageable.

His book has been reviewed in USA Today, the Atlantic Monthly, NY Times Book Review, The Nation, The New Republic, and a host of other publications having a literate, proactive readership. Because Fish believes assumptions held over from Liberal ideology enable the few to enjoy privileges at others' expense, he is quoted avidly by minorities (women, gay and race activists) who oppose traditional echelons of power. Yet, one reviewer recommends Fish to conservative readers for his denouncements of extremist ideologues who would replace "obsolete" Liberal assumptions with equally invalid poststructuralist ones. Another, a professor of theology, considers Fish's attacks on Liberalism so cogent there can be no effective reply.

Cass R. Sunstein, a University of Chicago authority on constitutional law and the First Amendment, observes about Fish that "he is influential" although he has not founded any school of thought, "and what he thinks is thought in many other places, too." It is timely, then, at this moment when Fish's entrance upon the public domain as an intellectual headliner is imminent that we look at the ideas which underpin Fish and attract those many well-placed others who think along with him. Why do groups antipathetic to each other join ranks to endorse Fish? Is it with Fish's basic assumptions they agree or does it similarly appear to groups that oppose each other that in Fish's iconoclasm there is political capital to be reaped?

Fish takes aim at classical Liberalism, the ideology that parented Newtonian science and the industrial revolution, Expressed in the writings of Locke, Bentham and Mills, classical Liberalism is not to be confused with the agenda of left-leaning political organizations which developed historically between Republicans vs. Democrats, between "Liberals" vs. Conservatives. Classical Liberalism has been lately revived by neoconservatives who appeal to sanctities such as "the rights of the individual" or "common values" or "Reason and the Free Marketplace of Ideas" to argue against affirmative action and speech codes.

Putting aside the social injustice perpetrated in its name, Fish rails against classical Liberalism itself as morally bankrupt and bereft of value. There was a time centuries ago, Fish concedes, when Liberalism did embrace a relevant moral imperative for all whose heretical perspectives placed them at odds with the theological and feudal conventions of 17th century Europe. The ascendance of Science in the 18th and 19th centuries, however, rearranged the political order of the entire globe, in the wake of which Liberalism, the ideology nurtured by Science, became increasingly removed from the 17th century matrix that had given it inception and moral relevance.

Thus, Fish maintains, Liberalism's moral relevance declined through the 18th and 19th centuries as it subjugated whole populations, cultures, and continents to a white European male value system. On the other hand, Liberalism's strategic relevance heightened as interests profiting most from the expanding political order found in Science and in Liberalism a vocabulary by which to maintain power and position. Thus, Fish explains, the history of nonwhite, non-European, non-male populations incorporated in democracies structured on Liberalism is one of exclusion from political and economic processes. The discontent and social upheaval of the 20th century are bred by the numerous excuses Science furnished Liberalism to justify social injustice.

In short, Liberalism, once a valid implement of social engineering, is unworkable and undemocratic when invoked outside the community of white male Europeans. In place of Liberalism Fish proffers alternative tools more adaptive to difference, an irreducible condition to which all are rendered by ideas and values internalized under context/specific circumstances that individualize us. These tools are Rhetoric, the Social Sciences and Perspectivism.

An early promoter in the free speech debate of the phrase "politically correct," Fish believes all forms of conduct, speech included, emanate from the values and ideas that comprise difference. However, because values and ideas come from circumstantial experience, they cannot be shared; because they cannot be shared, they can never be universal or held in common. As there are no universals, no absolutes, no truths to which all ascribe, we are all left to differ one from another in our views about right and wrong, good and evil and so forth.

Because of difference, Fish argues we are enmeshed in politics inescapably. Difference invests in each of us a partisan perspective potentially confrontational toward all other viewpoints. As every act is an extension of one's perspective, all conduct is subject to the perspective and judgment of others, incurring diverse and conflicting moral interpretation. To negotiate our way amongst such diversity and judgmentalism we must avail ourselves of Rhetoric rather than Reason. Citing how Rhetoric succeeds in managing opposing views in a legal forum, Fish argues that in multi-cultural societies Rhetoric is the only medium which can build consensus out of difference, moral standards out of judgmental diversity, and communities out of ethnic enclaves. Reason, on the other hand, like Liberalism, is unworkable in multi-cultural contexts because it denies the implication of difference and assumes (wrongly, according to Fish) that values and ideas are universal and truth an absolute.

Fish disparages Reason and indicts Liberalism for reasons political and epistemological. Reason, also known as Scientific Rationalism, is faulted because it posits objective reality as independent of the observer, and assumes that a community of imperfect observers can arrive at a more nearly perfect understanding of reality through pooled observations. Assumptions that an objective reality reveals itself to the observer insidiously underlie policy decisions to teach "common values" in schools, to marginalize and discredit what will not mainstream, to treat as equal (i.e., neutrally) what is unalike and disproportionate. In Fish's eyes, far from "a more nearly perfect understanding" of reality, Reason hammers at ethnic and cultural differences to sculpt an unrealistic image of humanity.

What place, then, does scientific rationalism and its promise of a more nearly perfect understanding of reality have in the arena of political debate? Is Science to be received as the neutral, disinterested oracle it is cracked up to be. Put differently, can science escape perspectivity, or does Fish view it as likewise political, intractably partisan, no more or no less "objective" than a gossip column?

When superiority is claimed for scientific objectivity over another discipline's discourse, Fish is seized with an apoplectic displeasure. This is evident in his discussion (Chap. 13, There's No Such Thing as Free Speech--And It's a Good Thing Too) of Richard Posner, a legal pragmatist. Posner identifies "three flavors" of objectivity: (1) objectivity as corresponds to an external reality; (2) the scientific sense of objectivity as a procedure that is replicable independently of the differences between the people who execute the procedure, and (3), objectivity in the sense of merely reasonable, or conversation accompanied by persuasive though not necessarily convincing explanation. Focusing on replicable and conversational objectivity, Fish intertwines snippets from Posner with his own thoughts:

In a word, conversational objectivity is a political achievement, and therefore..."[t]he only way to make [the law] more objective"--the only way to kick legal objectivity up a notch from the conversational to the replicable--"is to make the courts and the legislatures more homogeneous, culturally and politically" (32).

In short, the only difference between scientific and conversational objectivity is a difference between a community in which assumptions are widely shared and firmly in place, and a community in which assumptions differ and agreement must be repeatedly negotiated.... (Ibid., 200-201)

Notice how slick is the sabotage Fish performs on Posner's definition of scientific objectivity. To lump as political these two "flavors" of objectivity, replicable and conversational, flourishes a contemptuous strawberry at why Posner saw fit to distinguish one from the other in the first place. Construing homogeneity in a legal community as an instance of scientific (replicable) objectivity is sleight of hand here, exchanging Posner's sense of consensus achieved despite the heterogeneous assumptions of the community for his own sense of agreement achieved because of homogeneous assumptions. As if in denial, Fish sweeps under the rug what Posner brings to light, that there does exist a kind of objectivity which negotiates nothing, which compels unconditional acceptance by reducing issues to terms beyond dispute under the rational (one is tempted to say "scientific") import of experimental replicability.

Instead, Fish completely ignores Posner's point: Fish substitutes his own quantitative brand of replicability, the winning over of minds to a degree so numerous or widespread that homogeneity happens, for the qualitative replicability so significant to Posner, the capacity of experimental results that replicate successfully outside the experiment to force contending viewpoints to surrender cherished assumptions and accept conclusions potentially inimical to every side.

Indeed, qualitative replicability menaces cardinal assumptions of postmodernists who premise social constructivism on relativist values. It clearly raises the short hairs on Fish's neck, who, as founder of "Reader Response Theory," understandably bristles at the suggestion concepts can be validated by criteria existing independently of the person conceptualizing. Moreover, it obviates both rhetoricians (Fish, for one) and the pluralism that gives Fish his audience, a point Fish surely has not overlooked.

What we have here is Sociology, and the sentiment that all knowledge is in the eye of the beholder, at war with Science, and the assumption that an external replicable reality is invested with properties and attributes not of the beholder's making. This state of affairs is brought on by what Fish calls a "change in the intellectual configuration of scholarly inquiry" (Ibid., 56). The change, also called "an interpretive turn," is the reversal of a traditional relationship between vocabularies and their objects. The common sense and usual assumption is "that objects are prior and therefore at once constrain and judge the descriptions made of them."

But in recent years language has been promoted to a constitutive role and declared by theorists of various stripes (poststructuralists, postmodernists, feminists, Bakhtinians, New Historicists, Lacanians, among others) to bring facts into being rather than simply report on them. No longer is it taken for granted that poems come first and interpretations of them second, or that historical events come first and historical accounts of those events come second, or that molecules and quarks come first and scientists' models of molecules and quarks come second; in discipline after discipline the reverse argument has been powerfully made, the argument that the vocabulary a practitioner finds ready to hand, the vocabulary that precedes his or her entrance into the practice and constitutes its prism-limits, and by limiting shapes what can be seen....

Merely to state this view is to see the problems it presents to "traditional" thinking: notions of objectivity accuracy, verisimilitude no longer provide the comfort and guidance they once did, for they are now not absolute judgments, but judgments relative to differing and competing vocabularies or paradigms; and a whole host of distinctions--between fact and value, norm and deviation, reason and rhetoric, center and periphery, truth and politics--become, if not tenable, at least disputable in any of their proffered forms. (Ibid., 56-57)

This passage, a rendering of perspectivism, nicely exemplifies what for some intellectuals is the "What came first, the chicken or the egg?" crisis, spawned entirely by the "interpretive turn" to which Fish refers. The operative paradigm of this emergent intellectual configuration is epistemological. One's perspective incubates in the medium of vocabulary and is individualized by context/specific experience. By implication, what one conceives when a term is employed in referring to an object is a feature of the vocabulary used to refer to it, and since vocabularies are what individuals experience and acquire under specific historical circumstances, the conceptions themselves incorporate much connotative and implied meaning, attached or associated circumstantially but differing in aggregate individual to individual. Were it possible to simultaneously imagize on two neighboring monitors a model of what two persons mentally conceive when the word "chair" is spoken, not only could we expect to see two different "objects" on the screens but it would be impossible to meaningfully distinguish the vocabulary (the utterance of the word "chair") from the experience of a "chair" and the need to have a word to make spoken reference to that experience.

Just as it blurs the demarcation between a word and its object, perspectivism undoes "Cause and Effect," that most fundamental of science's analytic tools, by attacking the common sense delineation between an observer and what is observed, between an action and what is being acted upon. "Cause" becomes inseparable from consequence, never to be disjoined for discrete examination. According to the above passage, to distinguish "cause" from "effect" is to validate (a "political" gesture) mental processes assigned the task of making intelligible the chaos of data that besets the observer's senses. The vocabulary of science sculptures what the scientist sees when he goes about the business of being a scientist. His observations will be interpreted in accord with what he has been taught and he will "see" what he has been taught to see.

By spotlighting the thought processes of the scientist, Fish politicizes Science. Its objectivity is no more "objective" than any other discipline's and its preeminence in the hierarchy of disciplines is unwarranted. Fish campaigns to unseat Science, reason and Objectivity from their traditional place at the head of the table. A concise strategy emerges: demote the hard sciences into democratic alignment with every other discipline, discredit Reason, trash Objectivity and let the interpretive arts, the social sciences and Rhetoric assume the vacancy at the head of the table, and, O yes, let's gut Liberalism of its moral content while we're at it, since it's there. With deconstructionist saber in hand, Fish races jaguar-like through the course hacking at the kneecaps of precepts wearing the colors of the established, but superseded, intellectual configuration of Science, Objectivity, and Reason.

The intellectual configuration so captivating to Fish, however, sports something of a catch-22. Modern theory has identified paradigms as the device in our mental processing that gives recognition to what would otherwise appear to our senses as indecipherable gibberish. Thus, the theory goes, as a paradigm "shifts" what previously had appeared valid and relevant undergoes redefinition, reformulation.

But herein lies the rub: supporting the paradigm of cognition is a second, deeper paradigm, a meta-paradigm, a paradigm about paradigms, about what paradigms are, i.e., figments of vocabulary so that no paradigm is comprehensible except as it is accessed through its vocabularization; and supporting that second is a third, deeper yet meta-meta-paradigm, a summation of the epistemology itself, that the vocabularization of experience, being context/specific, yields diversity among paradigms.

To the extent all three paradigms are uncontested, they operate as truth. But here we find Fish on the horns of a dilemma: the paradigms themselves, premised as they are on so willowy a commodity as vocabulary, float on a contradiction. It is the same contradiction implied in the passage cited above: that in all their proffered forms, statements intended as truth are disputable. Is the statement itself--that all statements of truth are disputable--true or disputable?

Note that in Fish's scheme what are immune from dispute are the paradigm (the sine qua non of cognition), the meta-paradigm of vocabulary (the sine qua non of paradigms), and the meta-meta-paradigm of knowledge (perspectivity of all vocabularies). Indeed, these paradigms go unchallenged because of their affinity with the intellectual configuration favored by Fish and because they constitute the footing from which Fish stakes off his ethical position. In fact, despite claims and arguments insufferably numerous to show that the truth of every proposition is disputable, Fish dares not contest the truth of these paradigms without risk to the superstructure of rhetoric posited so elegantly on them.

But more is at stake than Fish's work as an essayist and thinker. The motive for letting the trio of paradigms go unchallenged is the general proposition Fish leaves us: that the Social Sciences, vocabularies and rhetoric have already assumed the seat at the head of the table once occupied by Science, Objectivity, and reason. So, when it comes to these paradigms, the deconstructionist's saber is sunk deep in its scabbard.

By positing his own paradigms as truth, Fish validates a distinction between a paradigm and the phenomenological data it organizes, an unwitting counterpoint to his call to abandon traditional, common sense assumptions about vocabularies and their objects. Moreover, if it be absolutely true that paradigms make data intelligible, that paradigms shift, that the shift is anticipated, even induced, by vocabularies, and that vocabularies are discrete transactional phenomena without a stable or fixed sense, then it follows that every paradigm, those gestalt-like organizers of raw sensory input, and the meta-paradigm that gives a paradigm its epistemological function, and the summatory meta-meta-paradigm, that all knowledge is perspectivized by vocabularies, are themselves disputable, and never absolutely true.

Not only would paradigms form and reform under the accumulated vagaries of vocabularies, but even the deeper paradigms, themselves totally encompassed within the connotative reach of vocabularies, as the theory goes, must themselves reformulate. If the process of knowing, as given by Fish, is as mutable as its logic implies then the "truth" of the intellectual configuration which gives ordinance to Fish's words is, as we speak, inching its way on a slippery slope to irrelevance, certain to be repudiated by a shift toward some future regnant intellectual configuration. Something so fated for demolition as Fish's paradigm of shifting intellectual configurations is dubious cause for cashiering Liberalism and traditional notions of Objectivity, Reason, and Science.

And just why does Fish imagine the "intellectual turn" is a fait accompli? The "interpretive turn" (such as it is) is not validated because many well-placed others happen to agree with Fish's moral tantrums; rather validation comes only because the many well-placed others who think as he does have borrowed and likewise politicized 20th century physics' vision of physical reality and the role of the observer. It is a vision based on Relativity, Quantum Mechanics and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. These employ replicable objectivity to give "perspective" a good name, explaining how reality is a perception contingent upon the observer's position in time. Particle physics has defined the limits of observation so that only an approximation, not an absolute value, is possible when measuring either the speed or location of an electron. Why? Because the scientist's act itself of measuring distorts the field occupied by the electron measured; thus, calculation of the electron's absolute position or speed is impossible. Physics' paradigm of the observer effecting what is seen is the sentiment precisely echoing in Fish's repudiation of Objectivity and Reason. Does anyone imagine for a niggling nanosecond that Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg had been brought to their understanding of reality due to "a change in the intellectual configuration of scholarly inquiry," a change toward "an interpretive turn"? Hardly!

Stepping back to survey the tapestry of Fish's thought, I am struck by the spectacle of one who denies his indebtedness to science while he pockets its paradigms and dishonestly packages shoddy imitations of them as profundities from his own discipline.

Do those who revel in Fish's iconoclasm share his enmity toward science? Are they prepared to repudiate Objectivity? Or embrace his conviction that there has been "an interpretive turn" or "a change in the intellectual configuration of scholarly inquiry"? This is unlikely. The common sense approach of Newtonian science is so deeply bred, so globally embraced, all nations and cultures adapt to it readily. Science, not interpretive arts, is perceived as the fountainhead of a nation's well-being. Third world countries send natives off to engineering schools, expecting their return will uplift local economies.

Fish's sense that the "interpretive turn" has put science in its place gets bravos from academics whose egos have been too long pinched by the scientific community and too long second-placed by a culture that rates technology and information gathering as higher callings than the social sciences or the interpretive arts.

A society that prefers some aspects of its culture over others begets the perception among its prodigal sons and its minorities of being unjust. The schools of disenchanted souls who flock to Fish's banner have a rueful champion who identifies with them from the inner sanctum of his discipline. This is someone, however, whose thoughts and efforts are unworthy of their allegiance.

Contents | Home