On Analytical Judgments: Stanley Fish Feels Misunderstood

In his most recent column in The New York Times, Stanley Fish talks about analytical judgments. It should certainly resonate for those of us that teach critical thinking courses. Fish writes:

Every once in a while I feel that it might be helpful to readers if I explained what it is I am trying to do in these columns. It is easier to state the negative: For the most part, it is not my purpose in this space to urge positions, or come down on one side or the other of a controversial question. Of course, I do those things occasionally and sometimes inadvertently, but more often than not I am analyzing arguments rather than making them; or, to be more precise, I am making arguments about arguments, especially ones I find incoherent or insufficiently examined.

When I find an argument incoherent, it is not because I find the argument on the other side persuasive; although that is the assumption made by those who lambaste me for being a conservative or a liberal, a hopeless fuddyduddy or a corrosive postmodernist, and address me in the confidence that they know on what end of the ideological or moral spectrum I am to be found.

But, in fact, a reader of a typical “Think Again” column will have no idea at all where I stand on the issues that catch my attention, because at least for the length of the column (as opposed to real life, which is much longer), I am agnostic on those issues and interested only in the way they are playing out in our present cultural moment. When, for example, I wrote three columns criticizing the atheist tracts written by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, I was motivated not by a belief in God — which I may or may not have, you’ll never know — but by what I took to be sloppy, schoolboy reasoning that was passing itself off as wisdom. I could have been an atheist myself, and I still would have found the so-called logic of these books weak and risible.

The difference between making arguments and analyzing them is not always recognized, and when it is missed, readers get outraged about things I never said. This is this case with two recent columns, one on identity politics, the other on the shape of a possible Obama-McCain contest in the general election. My point in the first column was that although identity politics was often a term of accusation — as in “that’s just identity politics” — at least one version of it could be considered rational. Someone who believes that the racial, ethnic, religious or gender identity of a candidate makes it more likely that he or she will support and work for certain favored policies is not performing a base or discriminatory act by voting for that candidate.

Fish continues the column by answering some objections from readers. Here’s one example towards the end of the column:

By saying that the war could be turned to McCain’s advantage were Obama his opponent, I was not expressing an opinion on the war. When Tim Bal lectures me, “Mr. Fish, you do not get it! The war in Iraq is an immoral and stupid war,” it is he who doesn’t get what I am trying to do. I have no view of the war in this column. I do have a view of the role the war will play in the strategies of the two parties. That view is certainly open to challenge, but it is not a challenge to it to say that the war was stupid or immoral or a “horrible blunder.”

It would be a challenge to contend, as a number of readers did, that the war will, in fact, be a Democratic plus because over two-thirds of the populace now believes that it was a mistake (a point that other posters countered by saying that the initial involvement was old, “stale news” and of interest only to the far left). Notice that a conversation between me and someone who said that would stop far short of deciding whether the war was actually a mistake and immoral; the focus would remain on the tactical landscape and not on questions of morality and justice.

That’s just what’s wrong with my column in the eyes of a poster identified (somewhat portentously) as Voices of the Fallen: “Stanley Fish treats the Iraq war a just another political game that people play . . . Are the 3,973 dead American men and women dead, 29,203 wounded . . . and tens of thousands of Iraqi dead ‘migrating to McCain’s side’?” In other words, how can you reduce such a serious matter to the status of an opportunity for political advantage and ignore the real harm, the real losses, the real tragedy?

The answer is that were I to address myself to those matters, I would be entering the realm of moral and political (as opposed to analytical) judgment. It is always a temptation to do that, and there is no dearth of people, not only in newspaper columns and T.V. shows but in bars, taxis, dining rooms and chat rooms, eager to do it too. But resisting that temptation is the project of the “Think Again” columns, and while I cannot promise always to hew to that discipline, it will not be for lack of trying.

Most interesting to me, however, were some of the rather hostile comments left by readers (0f the 250 odd comments there are also many nice comments, but I choose the negative comments because they are more fun). Here’s one:

So if I understand you: the column is not concerned with actual analysis of issues of current interest; it is, rather, a series of lectures on rhetoric?

I’m dropping the course.

And another two:

You are not an atheist. You are not a scientist. And you’ve not a clue on how to think logically.

Prof Fish- this is all sophistry – bravo for hundreds of readers calling you out for your tortured , oblique attempts to support Mrs Clinton in a less than transparent manner. If you wish Mrs Clinton to be the next President , than more power to you- but try to be more candid next time and you wont be caught trying to make such tendentious arguments

Here’s a rather lame appeal to “postmodernism”

I find it interesting in this Post-Barthesian world, that a scholar who has read (and perhaps taught) “The Death of the Author” would try to tell us what his columns “really mean.” Isn’t such interpretation a reader’s duty to perform? I hear the English Teacher inside Fish shouting, “If only they’d interpret Milton the RIGHT way, My Way!” Shouldn’t Professor Fish realize that what he thinks of his essays matters far less than what we think of them? Are we to discount the many readers who have identified his(covert?) support for Hillary Clinton because he says that’s not what he intended (though he refuses to say that he doesn’t support her)? His pieces are ineluctably shaped by the “moral stances” he so casually dismisses as not his domain, and when he attempts to tell his readers of what he intended to say, he should be somewhat embarrassed by his hubris.

Finally, another hostile one:

What has angered me most about your columns in the past has been the “sloppy, schoolboy reasoning” as much as the positions you seem to be hinting at. I often finish reading one and don’t know even know where to begin criticizing the convoluted logic you employ. Mostly I just dismiss you–but I do remember writing you at least once criticizing, among other things, your use of quotation marks around small, highly unquotable bits of speech and then making a point almost unrelated to the quotes. I remarked at the time that by using a quote within a large paragraph of your own creation you seemed to be wanting to lend some sort of authenticity to the conclusion which didn’t really exist. I can’t take the time now to remember all the other cases of what I believe to be tricky, unfair and frankly illogical writing that have driven me up the wall in the past, but I do want you to know that at least for one reader it is the shape and form of your arguments which I object to even more than any conclusions you seem to be hinting at.

I don’t have the time right now to get too much into this, but why all the suspicion about a column that simply wants to “anaylze arguments” that arise in the public sphere? The appeal to Barthes in the second to last comment kind of irked me. Interpretation is one thing and laying bare the structure of an argument is another, isn’t it? How can we interpret arguments if we don’t understand and identify the underlying logic at work? Have we become so cynical that we can’t grant that someone may actually be suspending one’s own ethical and political positions to investigate the inner logic of an argument or dispute? And why is it elitist to claim to be able to do so I wonder?

1 thought on “On Analytical Judgments: Stanley Fish Feels Misunderstood

  1. Pingback: Stanley Fish: Still Misunderstood, States the Obvious « Perverse Egalitarianism

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