Stanley Fish Defends Himself, Yet Again: Part 2


Once again, while perusing the NY Times op-ed pages this morning I came across Stanley Fish’s column. Surprise of all surprises, he’s defending himself and clarifying his stance on politics and the classroom…Again! Responding to objections of how he defined the political– some readers wanted to define politics in a more partisan way, others suggested teaching is political already, and still others suggested that the choice of texts and course offerings are political–Fish notes the pluralism or different forms of the definitions of the political here:

These points are part of the “everything is political” argument, which, as I have said before, is both true and trivial. It is true because in any form of social activity there are always alternative courses of action — different ways of doing things — and those differences will, more often than not, reflect opposing ideas of what is important and valuable. Even something so small as giving more time to Wallace Stevens than to Robert Frost in a semester could be described as political. One could say, then, that on the most general level the decisions that go into making up a syllabus and the decisions that lead you to vote for one candidate rather than another are equally political. But the Tip O’Neill mantra — all politics is local — should remind us that the content of the general category “political” will vary with the local context of performance. One performs politically in the academy by making curricular and other choices in relation to a (contestable) vision of what is best for the discipline and the students. One performs politically in the partisan landscape by making ballot-box and funding choices in relation to a vision of what it is best for the country as an economic and military player on the world stage. The questions “should we have a course in Third World Literature?” and “should we have a single-payer health plan?” are both political, but saying so doesn’t help us to understand or deal with the challenges in either context; the stakes are different, the strategies are different, the permissible forms of activity are different (attack ads are O.K. in one venue and unheard of in the other). Dissolving these differences in the solvent of a highly abstract notion of the political may be satisfying on the level of theory, but on the level of practice it is the differences, momentarily obscured by a fancy argument, that will always count. Continue reading

Stanley Fish Defends Himself, Yet Again


Why is it every time I peruse the NY Times op-ed pages Stanely Fish is defending himself? This time he’s been associated with the Sokal hoax, accused of not separating teaching and political advocacy, and is forced to clear up his objection to the Chair of Conservative Thought at CU-Boulder. One of the things I found amusing was the idea that teachers give students lousy grades when the students write papers that oppose our political views. Isn’t this the same as a student claiming that I don’t like him and that’s the only reason he earned a “D”? True story. In my logic and critical thinking course I do a little unit on evolution/ID and always receive a bunch of wildly reactionary papers about evolution, but I look for the structure of the argument when I’m grading it, of course. I would assume most who teach are able to compartmentalize just fine. Anyway, here’s Fish:

Teachers come to their task burdened by religious and political commitments, moral philosophies and world views, and they can’t simply unburden themselves when they walk into the classroom. “It is a fallacy to think that the ‘academic’ world is or can be isolated from the political world.” But isolation from the political world is not required. All that is required is the quite ordinary ability to distinguish between contexts and the decorums appropriate to them. When you enter an institutional setting — an office, a corporate boardroom, a cruise ship, a square dance, an athletic event — the concerns to which you are responsive belong to the setting, and you comport yourself accordingly. Rather then asking, “What do my political and religious views tell me to do?”, you ask, “What do the protocols of this particular endeavor or occasion tell me to do?” The setting of the classroom is no different, even though the materials you encounter are often fraught with moral and political questions to which you would give very definite answers were you confronted by them in your life outside the academy. As long as you are in the classroom, and as long as you recognize the classroom as a place with its own constituitive demands, those questions will be seen as items in an intellectual landscape and not as challenges to which you directly and personally respond. Of course, somewhere behind what you are doing will be the larger commitments and world views that make you what you are, but for the duration of your professional performance, those commitments will be on the back burner, exerting some influence to be sure (I am not insisting on purity), but not enough to blur the distinction, basic to the very rationale for higher education, between what you would do were you in the ballot box and what you are pledged to do by virtue of the contract you have signed and the salary you are paid. Continue reading

Show Me The Money: Stanley Fish vs. University of Colorado.


Here’s a new blog entry from freshly-from-New-Zealand Stanley Fish. The most interesting part of the blog, however, is the comments. Let’s start from the blog entry itself – Fish ridicules the decision by the University of Colorado (Boulder) to propose to establish a Chair in Conservative Thought and Policy – a deserved ridicule, I think. But Stanley Fish is again misunderstood and most comments don’t seem to engage the blog post at all – they should have some sort of “stupid filter” there or good old fashioned moderation: 

I’ve just returned from New Zealand and find that in my absence the University of Colorado – the same one that earlier this year appointed as its president a Republican fund-raiser with a B.A. in mining and no academic experience – has gifted me again, this time with the announcement of plans to raise money for a Chair in Conservative Thought and Policy.

Why? The answer is apparently given in the first sentence of a story that appeared in the May 13th edition of the Rocky Mountain News: “The University of Colorado is considering a $9 million program to bring high-profile conservatives to teach on the left-leaning Boulder campus.”

Embedded in this sentence is the following chain of reasoning: The University of Colorado, Boulder, is left-leaning and therefore it is appropriate to spend university funds (technically state funds) in an effort to redress a political imbalance. The rest is here

The comment though are priceless – my favorite line of argument: Because university professors are poor, they “turn liberal” while in graduate school or trying to survive being a junior instructor. Continue reading

Stanley Fish Uncovers Old Wounds.


Stanley Fish’s recent post in New York Times discusses the book on the influence of “French theory” in America, but finally – according to the comment section – does nothing but bring back to life an old (and very much dead) debate about the “value” of deconstruction. So every single proponent and opponent of “French theory” crawls out of their cubicles to leave a nasty comment – it’s pretty entertaining!

Stanley Fish writes:

It was in sometime in the ’80s when I heard someone on the radio talking about Clint Eastwood’s 1980 movie “Bronco Billy.” It is, he said, a “nice little film in which Eastwood deconstructs his ‘Dirty Harry’ image.”

That was probably not the first time the verb “deconstruct” was used casually to describe a piece of pop culture, but it was the first time I had encountered it, and I remember thinking that the age of theory was surely over now that one of its key terms had been appropriated, domesticated and commodified. It had also been used with some precision. What the radio critic meant was that the flinty masculine realism of the “Dirty Harry” movies — it’s a hard world and it takes a hard man to deal with its evils — is affectionately parodied in the story of a former New Jersey shoe salesman who dresses and talks like a tough cowboy, but is the good-hearted proprietor of a traveling Wild West show aimed at little children. It’s all an act , a confected fable, but so is Dirty Harry; so is everything. If deconstruction was something that an American male icon performed, there was no reason to fear it; truth, reason and the American way were safe. Continue reading

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). Continue reading

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? Continue reading

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. Continue reading