Stanley Eugene Fish
(born 1938) is a prominent American literary theorist
and legal scholar. He was born and raised in Providence, Rhode Island
. He is among the most important critics of the English poet John Milton
in the 20th century, and is often associated with postmodernism
, at times to his irritation as he describes himself as an anti-foundationalist
He is the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Humanities and a Professor of Law at Florida International University
, in Miami
, as well as Dean Emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago
, and the author of 10 books. Professor Fish has also taught at the University of California, Berkeley
, Johns Hopkins University
, and Duke University
Fish did his undergraduate work at the University of Pennsylvania
and earned his Ph.D. from Yale University
in 1962. He taught English at the University of California at Berkeley
and Johns Hopkins University
before becoming Arts and Sciences Professor of English and Professor of Law at Duke University
from 1986 to 1998. From 1999 to 2004 he was Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago
. He also held joint appointments in the Departments of Political Science and Criminal Justice, and was the chairman of the Religious Studies Committee
During his tenure there, he recruited professors well respected in the academic community and garnered a lot of attention for the College
After resigning as dean in a high level dispute with the state of Illinois over funding UIC
, Fish spent a year teaching in the Department of English. The Institute for the Humanities at UIC named a lecture series in his honor, which is still ongoing
In June of 2005, he accepted the position of Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Humanities and Law at Florida International University
, teaching in the FIU College of Law
Fish started his career as a medievalist. Despite this, his first book, published by Yale University Press in 1965, was on the Renaissance poet John Skelton
. Fish reveals in his partly biographical essay, "Milton, Thou Shouldst be Living at this Hour" (published in There's No Such Thing as Free Speech . . . And It's a Good Thing, Too
), that he came to Milton by accident. In 1963 — the same year that Fish started as an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley — the resident Miltonist, C.A. Patrides, received a grant. The chair of the department asked Fish to teach the Milton course, notwithstanding the fact that the young professor "had never — either as an undergraduate or in graduate school — taken a Milton course" (269). The eventual result of that course was Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost
(1967; rpt. 1997). Fish's 2001 book, How Milton Works
, reflects five decades' worth of his scholarship on Milton.
As a prominent and respected literary theorist, Fish is best known for his analysis of interpretive communities
— an offshoot of reader-response criticism
. Fish's work in this field examines how the interpretation of a text
is dependent upon each reader's own subjective experience in one or more communities, each of which is defined as a 'community' by a distinct epistemology. For Fish, a large part of what renders a reader’s subjective experience valuable — that is, why it may be considered “constrained” as opposed to an uncontrolled and idiosyncratic assertion of the self — comes from a concept native to the field of linguistics called linguistic competence
. In Fish’s source the term is explained as “the idea that it is possible to characterize a linguistic system that every speaker shares.” In the context of literary criticism, Fish uses this concept to argue that a reader’s approach to a text is not completely subjective, and that an internalized understanding of language shared by the native speakers of that given language makes possible the creation of normative boundaries for one’s experience with language.
Although Fish argues that the only possible meaning of a text is what the author intends, he claims that any actual attempt to access this is not possible. Any attempt to determine what exactly the author intended will result in nothing more than an interpretation based upon the interpretive community of the reader making the interpretation. Fish distinguishes the former as an epistemological point about what texts mean, whereas the latter is a sociological one about how claims about those meanings are produced.
Fish and university politics
As both a prominently public intellect and a hard man to pin down politically, Fish has spent considerable time in various public arenas vigorously debunking pieties of both the left
and the right
— sometimes in the same sentence.
In addition to his work in literary criticism, Fish has also written extensively on the politics of the university, having taken positions justifying campus speech codes and criticizing political statements by universities or faculty bodies on matters outside their professional areas of expertise.
Fish argued in January 2008 on his New York Times-syndicated blog that the humanities are of no instrumental value, but have only intrinsic worth. Fish explains, "To the question 'of what use are the humanities?', the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said diminishes the object of its supposed praise.
Fish has lectured across the country at many universities and colleges including Brown University, Harvard University, Columbia University, the University of Vermont, the University of Georgia, the University of Louisville, the University of Kentucky, and Bates College, recently.
Criticisms of his work
As a frequent contributor to the New York Times
and the Wall Street Journal
editorial page, as well as one of the most recognized academics in the United States, Fish has been the target of wide-ranging criticism.
Writing in Slate Magazine, Judith Shulevitz reported that not only does Fish openly proclaim himself "unprincipled" but also rejects wholesale the concepts of "fairness, impartiality, reasonableness." To Fish, "ideas have no consequences." For taking this stance, Shulevitz characterizes Fish as "not the unprincipled relativist he's accused of being. He's something worse. He's a fatalist.
Likewise, among academics, Fish has endured vigorous criticism. R. V. Young writes,
Because his general understanding of human nature and of the human condition is false, Fish fails in the specific task of a university scholar, which requires that learning be placed in the service of truth. And this, finally, is the critical issue in the contemporary university of which Stanley Fish is a typical representative: sophistry renders truth itself equivocal and deprives scholarly learning of its reason for being. . . . His brash disdain of principle and his embrace of sophistry reveal the hollowness hidden at the heart of the current academic enterprise.
Terry Eagleton, generally considered Britain's most influential academic literary critic, excoriates Fish's "discreditable epistemology" as "sinister." According to Eagleton, "Like almost all diatribes against universalism, Fish's critique of universalism has its own rigid universals: the priority at all times and places of sectoral interests, the permanence of conflict, the a priori status of belief systems, the rhetorical character of truth, the fact that all apparent openness is secretly closure, and the like." Hence, it is inherently self-defeating. Of Fish's attempt to co-opt the critiques leveled against him, Eagleton responds, "The felicitous upshot is that nobody can ever criticise Fish, since if their criticisms are intelligible to him, they belong to his cultural game and are thus not really criticisms at all; and if they are not intelligible, they belong to some other set of conventions entirely and are therefore irrelevant.
In her essay "Sophistry about Conventions," philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that Stanley Fish's theoretical views are based on "extreme relativism and even radical subjectivism." Discounting his work as nothing more than sophistry, Nussbaum claims that Fish "relies on the regulative principle of non-contradiction in order to adjudicate between competing principles," thereby relying on normative standards of argumentation even as he argues against them. Offering an alternative, Nussbaum cites John Rawls's work in A Theory of Justice to highlight "an example of a rational argument; it can be said to yield, in a perfectly recognizable sense, ethical truth." Nussbaum appropriates Rawls's critique of the insufficiencies of Utilitarianism, showing that a rational person will consistently prefer a system of justice that acknowledges boundaries between separate persons rather than relying on the aggregation of the sum total of desires. "This," she claims, "is all together different from rhetorical manipulation.
Camille Paglia, author of Sexual Personae and public intellectual, denounced Fish as a "totalitarian Tinkerbell," charging him with hypocrisy for lecturing about multiculturalism from the perspective of a tenured professor at the homogenous and sheltered ivory tower of Duke.
David Hirsch, a prominent critic of post-structuralist influences on hermeneutics, censured Fish for "lapses in logical rigor" and "carelessness toward rhetorical precision." In an examination of Fish's arguments, Hirsch attempts to demonstrate that "not only was a restoration of New Critical methods unnecessary, but that Fish himself had not managed to rid himself of the shackles of New Critical theory." Hirsch compares Fish's work to Penelope's loom in the Odyssey, stating, "what one critic weaves by day, another unweaves by night." "Nor," he writes, "does this weaving and unweaving constitute a dialectic, since no forward movement takes place." Ultimately, Hirsche sees Fish as left to "wander in his own Elysian fields, hopelessly alienated from art, from truth, and from humanity.
Notes and references
“Interpretive Assumptions and Interpreted Texts: On a Poem by Stanley Fish,”
Essays in Literature, 11 (1984), 145-52.
Primary works by Stanley Fish
- John Skelton's Poetry. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1965.
- Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1967. ISBN 0-674-85747-X (10). ISBN 978-0-674-85747-6 (13).
- Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1972.
- "Interpreting the Variorum." Critical Inquiry (1976).
- "Why We Can't All Just Get Along." First Things (1996).
- The Living Temple: George Herbert and Catechizing. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1978.
- Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1980. ISBN 0-674-467264 (10). ISBN 978-067-4467262 (13).
- Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1989.
- Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U P, 1999.
- The Trouble with Principle. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999.
- How Milton Works. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2001.
Collections of works by Stanley Fish
- There's No Such Thing As Free Speech, and it's a Good Thing, Too. New York: Oxford UP, 1994.
- The title essay and an additional essay, "Jerry Falwell's Mother," focus on free speech issues. In the latter piece, Fish argues that, if one has some answer in mind to the question "what is free speech good for?" along the lines of "in the free and open clash of viewpoints the truth can more readily be known," then it makes no sense to defend deliberate malicious libel (such as that which was at issue in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Hustler Magazine v. Falwell) in the name of "free speech."
- The Stanley Fish Reader. Ed. H. Aram Veeser. London: Blackwell Publishers, 1999.
Secondary criticism about Stanley Fish
- Olson, Gary A. Justifying Belief: Stanley Fish and the Work of Rhetoric. Albany: SUNY P, 2002.
- Postmodern Sophistry: Stanley Fish and the Critical Enterprise. Ed. Gary Olson and Lynn Worsham. Albany, NY: SUNY P, 2004.
- Owen, J. Judd. Religion and the Demise of Liberal Rationalism. Chapters 6-8 and "Appendix: A Reply to Stanley Fish." University of Chicago Press, 2001.
- Perez-Firmat, Gustavo: “Interpretive Assumptions and Interpreted Texts: On a Poem by Stanley Fish,” Essays in Literature, 11 (1984), 145-52.