Stanley Fish Is Misunderstood, Still


In my critical thinking class yesterday we discussed Stanley Fish’s recent “Think Again” column in which he has the “audacity” to tell the reader what it is he’s doing in the column, e.g making analytic judgments about the logic of disputes and arguments. So today I had another look at the comments found these two particularly strange, especially in their vitriol:

Thanks for the clarification, Prof. Fish. As many before me have pointed out to you, argument divorced from ethics, morality & politics is mere sophistry. Perhaps armed with this information you and the NYT will want to rethink your column.

stanley, finally you objectively deconstruct your own deconstruction. Now it is time to give this French baloney a rest. you made a good living tossing this drivel out to your students and fellow academics. thank you for your totally unintended self-condemnation.

What the hell are these people talking about? Or how about this:

I think the words “self delusional” fit here somewhere. If you were one of my students, I would suggest you keep it short, keep it clear, say what you mean & mean what you say.If so many of readers can’t understand what you’re trying to say, maybe they’re not to blame.

Huh? Isn’t that what Fish is doing?

Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (with which Fish is no doubt familiar) seems rather appropriate herewittgenstein.jpg:

“Language (or thought) is something unique”– this proves to be a superstition (not a mistake!), itself produced by grammatical illusions. And now the impressiveness retreats to these illusions, to the problems.

The problems arising through a misinterpretation of the forms of our language have the character of depth. They are deep disquietudes; their roots are as deep in us as the forms of our language and their significance is as great as the importance of our language. — Let us ask ourselves: why do we feel a grammatical joke to be deep? (And that is what the depth of philosophy is.)

Philosophy’s job is to undo superstitious responses to the pathos of our lives, it releases us from the fatal traps set for us, not by the mistakes and inventions of philosophers or rhetoricians, but by our language. In this sense, there is a rather therapeutic aspect to Wittgenstein’s work:

My method throughout is to point out mistakes in language. I am going to use the word “philosophy” for the activity of pointing out such mistakes. Why do I wish to call our present activity philosophy, when we also call Plato’s activity philosophy? Perhaps because of a certain analogy between them, or perhaps because of the continuous development of the subject. Or the new activity may take the place of the old because it removes mental discomforts the old was supposed to (Lectures).

Renaissance sycophant Betrand Russell’s introduction to the Tractatus emphasizes this as well:

The object of [Wittgenstein’s] philosophy is the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a theory but an activity. A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. The result of philosophy is not a number of ‘philosophical propositions’ but to make propositions clear. Philosophy should make clear and delimit sharply the thoughts which otherwise are, as it were, opaque and blurred.

I take Fish’s column to be doing just this, that is, releasing us from all the moralizing, politicizing traps set for us in public discourse.

6 thoughts on “Stanley Fish Is Misunderstood, Still

  1. I was thinking of using Wittgenstein’s PI in my Intro class either this summer or in the Fall – do you think it’s a bad idea? I mean I think it would be more accessible to students in terms of the kinds of issues and the language of it – I mean those who will read the text might benefit from it, and those who won’t, I really stopped caring about what they think since they choose to just sit there staring without any effort to understand – where is “language is something unique” from in PI?

  2. Sorry, those quotes are from PI, sections 110 and 111.

    I don’t know, Wittgenstein for an introductory class? Feasible I suppose since I taught Monadology for the first time in an introductory course this summer spring. I’d organize the course more thematically around PI then, with the same types of issues from the history of philosophy (if you believe that Wittgenstein actually read any philosophy…ha ha). Monadology actually worked out well, but only b/c we spent a lot of time on the Rationalists, esp., Descartes for several weeks prior. Although, one student did ask me with a straight face what a nonad has to do with God. Ack.

  3. I do think students would react to Wittgenstein’s style in a way that would promote a kind of common sense philosophical discussion – he is dealing with complex issues, but I’m just thinking that making them read Descartes or Kant is not really that much different.

  4. I’ve thought about using Wittgenstein’s Investigations in an intro class too, but ultimately decided against it because there are, it seems to me, far too many background, or ambient concerns, which need to be brought out into the open before one can really sink into the text. Don’t you think?

    Despite appearing to be rhetorically straightforward, Wittgenstein’s argumentative structure is a tad on the complicated side (it’s a polyphonic text, after all, which doesn’t always draw out conclusions according to the models of ‘critical thinking’; indeed, he sometimes seems to stop short of drawing conclusions altogether), and the intertwining threads of an argument do not “logically” follow one another. With Kant and Descartes, by contrast, at least a given line of thought is mercilessly continued to its end (and there are pointers forward and backward in the texts), before other concerns are introduced.

    So at least for ease of teaching, it would seem that Kant et alia are more straightforward (and they offer a common ground for students — they’re all explicitly alienated from the text, which allows you to ‘unproblematically’ introduce concepts, and create a common starting point). Maybe I’m just pessimistic, but I suspect that one would spend the majority of the semester trying to explain the various voices Wittgenstein uses in the first half of the book, and clarifying the how his thought experiments ‘work,’ rather than really motivating a commonsense philosophical discussion.

    Does this sound about right, or has my distance from teaching over the last little bit made me more pessimistic than I should be?

  5. Yes, I would tend to agree with Alexei, there is much baggage with Wittgenstein that frankly, is difficult to account for in an intro class.

    In an introductory course we often have to choose a line of thought to trace through the history of philosophy, I tend to hone in on epistemological questions and/or questions about the nature of reality starting with Plato continuing on through some of the Rationalists to a representative or two of Empiricism, then to a consideration of Kant and/or Hegel finishing with Nietzsche/Sartre, or something like that.

    More methodological questions come up of course, whether we look at Plato’s Euthyphro or Kant, but Wittgenstein seems to be a tricky case to use in an introductory course. In fact, a while back I taught a multi-level course on 20th century philosophy, reading some tough stuff, some Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Derrida (to name a few) and the students all said that the hardest text to wrap their minds around was Wittgenstein’s Blue and Brown Books. For what it’s worth…

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

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