Stanley Fish: Still Misunderstood, States the Obvious


As I’ve pointed out here and here, Stanley Fish’s recent column over at The New York Times has been generating a lot of spiteful and misguided comments. Here’s what Fish had to say in response:

Just two points in response to readers’ questions. I do read all the comments. And I do not use words like “objective” or “impartial” or “neutral” or “disinterested” to describe what I try to do in these columns. All I’m saying is that analyzing arguments is a different project than taking positions on ethical, moral or political issues. Neither is objective; both involve opinions; the opinions are, however, about different things, in one case about the best thing to do or think; in the other, about whether the case made for thinking or doing something hangs together. It would be quite possible for me, or anyone else, to fault the arguments made in behalf of a policy or agenda and still support it. I am insisting on the distinction, but no claim to objectivity is involved – Stanley Fish

Here’s Fish in the column making a similar claim:

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.

All of this talk about dis-interest, neutrality and objective judgments has gotten me thinking about the Frankfurt School and given my ongoing attempt to be more pretentious than resident OCD fancy boy Mikhail Emelianov, I marched over to my bookshelf and dug up Horkheimer’s famous essay “Traditional and Critical Theory.”

While a direct line may be drawn from some of the successors of German Idealism, the Left Hegelians, for instance, of the mid-nineteenth century (and its most famous “member” Karl Marx) to the Frankfurt School, for what it’s worth, I think it is important to keep in mind that the historical separation from Kant and Hegel is filled most significantly by Shopenhauer, Nietzsche, Dilthey, Bergson, Weber and Husserl. In many ways the concerns of the so-called Left Hegelians, for instance, the integration of philosophy and social inquiry through a recasting of Hegelian dialectics to a more immanent or material bent centered on praxis, which had been eclipsed by a more “scientific” approach (both Marxist and otherwise) up until WWI, can be tied to the Frankfurt School (although perhaps after the emigration the FS may be construed as being closer to a more “transcendent” critique, dialectical criticism is in fact a shaky tension between the two).

All in all, Horkheimer rejects (1) a purely historical approach to historical explanation a la Dilthey (Verstehende Geistwissenschaf)- a social science based on its own methods of understanding and re-experiencing-and (2) Lebensphilosophie (Bergson, Nietzsche). Horkheimer problematizes Dilthey’s methodological assumption that meaning can be intuitively grasped by the historian who re-experiences the subject matter in his own mind; the interior data cannot mirror the signifying structure of the past. Lebensphilosophie minimized the importance of the movement (material dimension) of the social/historical world be stressing subjectivity and inwardness as a way to liberate the individual from the hazards of modern society. Finally, by denouncing the deterioration of bourgeois rationalism into its formal/conceptual aspects (e.g. Nietzchean critique of Western morality, Bergson/Husserl use of “unmediated intuition” etc), the philosophers of life overstated their case and seemingly rejected “reason”.

The critical theory of the Frankfurt School –as I understand it–rests upon the integration of rational theory, aesthetic imagination and human praxis. At the core of any forward-looking social theory, esp. for Horkheimer (cf. Eclipse of Reason and Marcuse’s “Philosophy and Critical Theory” in Negations), lies rationality. This primacy of reason over understanding is rooted in both Kant and Hegel. Briefly, Verstand (understanding) for both Kant and Hegel is the faculty of the mind which structures the phenomenal world, which (for Marcuse and Horkheimer as well) became tied to our everyday common-sensical reasoning. On the other hand, Vernunft (reason) was the faculty that penetrated appearances (immediacy) and unearthed the underlying dialectical associations. So, dialectical materialism emerges as a position that involves a continual interplay between the subject and object (consciousness/being, particular/universal, etc). Mediation (Vermittlung) defers judgment and makes no claims to first principles (of ontology/philosophy), which outwardly rejects nominalism, realism, positivism (those “fetishizers of facts” who regarded Vernunft as nothing more than vapid metaphysics) etc. Interestingly we might also note the rejection of Hegelian identity theory, which later on, will be made clearer through Adorno’s insistence on “nonidentity, contingency and the atonal character of philosophy”. Cultural phenomena then, are to be mediated through the multi-faceted social totality and not as the reflection of class interests. <!–[endif]–>

In Horkheimer’s 1937 programmatic essay “Traditional and Critical Theory” we don’t find an analysis of competing theories but find rather a contrast between differing conceptions of theory. Horkheimer characterizes traditional theory as striving to formulate comprehensive and internally congruous principles that describe the world (i.e. the deductive nature of Cartesianism, empirical social/natural sciences, Husserlian phenomenology etc.). The end of traditional theory is “pure” knowledge or technological mastery of the world, which is to be obtained by disinterested observation by “scientists.” Critical theory challenges this by analyzing the modes of its production, social roles, the interests served and the historical process. So, from Horkheimer’s article we can discern some characteristics of critical theory (1) the refusal to separate and then give superiority to knowledge over action. (2) The impossibility of disinterested scientific research – the researcher is not autonomous and as such is subjected to the heteronomy of social categories. Yet, while the intellectual’s “bird’s eye view” is a theoretical fallacy, the intellectual is not entirely grounded in culture either. Not to be pushed to either of the extremes, it is the researcher’s responsibility to reveal the negative forces that hint at a different existence. Traditional theory serves the status quo by maintaining the binary of facts and values-critical theory has as its goal social change. (3) Follows from (2), knowledge (facts) and concern (values) are inseparable. And (4) follows from (1), critical theory rejects the ideal of verification. That is, its analysis takes into account the social totality from its particulars, their narrative is not closed. Like Hegel, the unmediated is abstract while the concrete is heterogeneous. This coheres with the Institute’s interdisciplinary methodology which attempts to take into account of the relevant concepts, methods, definitions etc. that may shed light upon the totality. Finally, verification is going to be tied to the goal of social change, hence, historical testing or “correct praxis” constitutes the (attempt of the) unity of theory/action. The tenability of Horkheimer’s critical theory, that is, one reason that (perhaps) critical theory is not merely an “intellectual game” is because it rests upon a pivot of self-reflexivity, which is not completely unmoored from its Idealist/Humanist conception of history and its spirited faith in reason.

At any rate, by the time of Dialectic of Enlightenment, it seems clear that H/A are not trying to (1) collect a bunch of knowledge from differing disciplines, add them up and supplement them with some sort of philosophical commentary. Second, H/A are not endeavoring to construct a sweeping narrative of historical progress or deterioration. Now, this might have occurred had H/A not placed self-reflexivity as their pivot. So, concepts that are deployed without any self-reflexivity attempt to speak ‘literally’ when it grants results, that is, experience is classified not interpreted. This also plays into the whole presentation of the text, e.g. style, rejection of monolithic structure etc. Consider Adorno’s comment on Schoenberg’s music from Prisms, “It requires the listener spontaneously to compose its inner movement and demands of him not mere contemplation but praxis.”

I have to stop now, but the attacks on Fish’s “project” in his column–to evaluate the inner logic of arguments–are so fascinating to me because they seem to reveal the inability to sever emotion from evaluation, or taking a position from evaluating a position, and finally, the logical distinction between validity and soundness, an always controversial moment in the logic classroom. I don’t think I ever read Fish claiming to put forth a disinterested and autonomous position, but he isn’t on the other end either, at best, he’s one or two large steps away from what Horkheimer sees as the proper role of the intellectual/researcher. To claim either end of the spectrum, as some of the comments as well as my students tended to do when I used this example in class, is completely disingenuous.

4 thoughts on “Stanley Fish: Still Misunderstood, States the Obvious

  1. You’ve cleverly manipulated my emotions so that now I feel bad. Well done. As you once said in a comment here you are a special type of pretentious, a pretentiousness beyond the limits of pretension. Really, something to strive for, I take back the fancy boy part, kind of.

  2. I agree, but you know, pretension can start with the little things! How about pronouncing Spielberg like this: Shhhpeeeeelberg? Or what about utilizing the delightful Spanish bubbly cava as an affectation? As in, “oh no, as a rule I will only drink cava.” Or even pretending not to understand people when they mispronounce Lacan, Foucault or Blanchot, especially when these names are pronounced with an American accent! See how easy it is! Put it together and as that chef Emmeril says, BAM! Instant pretension!

    I will do my best to think of more and chronicle them religiously. (Is that pretentious?)

  3. i got one! i got one! well, technically it is not pretentious because it is a correct pronounciation, but instead of saying Deleuuuze, we should say Deleoooz (like Ray Brassier in that video you posted a while back) – and, of course, KierkegOr…

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