Another Fillet Of Fish

Once again — yesterday in the New York Times — the ubuiquitous Stanley Fish attempts to instruct us, this time in the niceties of academic freedom. He emphasizes the obvious and rather pedestrian distinction between analyzing and advocating.

It is perfectly possible to teach a viewpoint without embracing it and urging it. But the moment a professor does embrace and urge it, academic study has ceased and been replaced by partisan advocacy. And that is a moment no college administration should allow to occur.

Alas, the smart and insightful Ann Althouse has made the mistake many others have made of taking Fish seriously, and replying to him at length.

He’s not worth it. Why spend time on the arguments of someone who has announced in advance that he doens’t necessarily believe his own arguments and will say whatever is necessary to win his (temporary) point? No, I don’t exaggerate, as I demonstrated here by presenting a couple of typical quotes from him:

• The passion I display when debunking the normative claims of neutral principle ideologues is unrelated to the passion I might display when arguing for affirmative action or minority-enhancing redistricting. To be sure, there might be a contingent relation in a given instance if the outcome I dislike was brought about in part by neutral-principle rhetoric; I might then attack the rhetoric as part of my attack on what it was used to do. But I might turn around tomorrow and use the same rhetoric in the service of a cause I believed in. Nor would there be anything inconsistent or hypocritical about such behavior. The grounding consideration in both instances . . . would be my convictions and commitments; the means used to advance them would be secondary, and it would be no part of my morality to be consistent in my handling of those means. Fish, The Trouble With Principle (Harvard, 1999), p. 8

• “Free Speech” is just the name we give to verbal behavior that serves the substantive agendas we wish to advance…. Free speech, in short, is not an independent value but a political prize, and if that prize has been captured by a politics opposed to yours, it can no longer be invoked in ways that further your purposes, for it is now an obstacle to those purposes…. [S]o long as so-called free speech principles have been fashioned by your enemy . . . , contest their relevance to the issue at hand; but if you manage to refashion them in line with your purposes, urge them with a vengeance. Fish, There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech…and it’s a good thing, too (Oxford, 1994), pp. 102, 114.

And Fish purporting to defend academic freedom is even more ridiculous, as I argued here:

Whatever Fish’s purpose, this principled argument that academic freedom requires academics to refrain from injecting themselves, and hence their institutions, into public controversies that do not involve the academic mission of teaching and research is powerful. The problem is not with Fish’s argument; it is with Fish. What are we to make of this argument, coming as it does from the same person who argued … that academic freedom is bunk?

Academic freedom is a bad idea, a dubious principle that:

• Confuses eccentricity with genius and elevates pettiness, boorishness, and irresponsibility to the status of virtue.

• Evacuates morality by making all assertions equivalent and, because equivalent, inconsequential.

• Empties history of its meaning, so that actions proceeding from entirely different motives and agendas become indistinguishable as instances of individual preference and free choice.

• Promotes a regime of relativism by refusing to make judgments, on the reasoning that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

Of course, in typical Fishian fashion Fish then added:

These are deliberately provocative statements, but before elaborating and defending them I want to complicate them by saying that I am in favor of academic freedom and would do anything in my power to protect it.


In the end, as usual, arguments are evaluated not on the basis of their intrinsic merit but rather on the basis of what is good for … Fish.

I am an academic professional and, like any member of any profession, I want the norms governing my labors to be devised by me and people like me, not by outsiders. I want, that is, to be free of interference, and if the mantra of academic freedom will help to keep my would-be wardens at bay, I’m all for it, not as a morality but as a guild practice; and I am for it even as I set myself the task of debunking the argument it offers to the public.

As I argued here, “Fish may be disingenuous, but at least he’s honest about it.”

Somehow Fish continues to be given platforms to argue (meretriciously, I believe) for one thing or another. I discuss another example here:

[Here] Fish discusses some recent efforts by House Republicans to contain college costs and to crack the liberal monopoly on many campuses by promoting more intellectual and political diversity. Fish claims these efforts amount to an assault on the “autonomy and professional integrity” of “the academic community.” And, although it’s hard to hold on to a Fish argument, one suspects that he disapproves of these efforts since he calls them “slipshod, superficial, meretricious, and worthless,” as well as “dishonest” and “a mixture of nonsense and paranoia.”

That last characterization is interesting, inasmuch as it implies that Fish believes in something like a correspondence theory of truth, i.e., that there is some objective reality against which to measure interpretations…. [JSR– Something he vigorously denies elsewhere.]

In the current article Fish complains that those meanie Republicans in Congress are trying to displace liberals in academia not because of a belief in openness or diversity but simply to replace them with conservatives. He complains, for example, that they have been unduly influenced by the wishes of the Traditional Values Coalition. “To be sure,” he states,

the coalition is entitled to its beliefs. What it is not entitled to is the tailoring of publicly financed scientific research to conform with those beliefs.

But wait a minute. Fish has spent his career arguing that there are no “rights” here. Everything is political. If the Traditional Values Coalition, or any other organization, can persuade Congress to do its bidding, who’s to say they are not “entitled” to throw Fish and friends back in the Big Muddy and install whomever they want in positions of authority, to spend taxpayer money however taxpayers (as determined by elected representatives in Congress) want? Certainly Fish has no legs to stand on to make an objection.

But since Fish-y arguments make no pretense to principle or consistency, they do not purport to stand on anything other than Fish’s current interests. To criticize Fish for being inconsistent or hypocritical is like criticizing Bill Clinton for being disingenuous: both criticisms make about as much sense as criticizing a skunk for smelling bad. The real criticism should instead be directed to editors who give him a platform for his self-aggrandizement, or rather, who give him a platform on editorial pages rather than in the style section, where post-modernist arguments like his belong.


For the reaction of some UW professors (including one agronomist who “was reached on his cell phone while he was in a field pollinating corn”), look here.

Say What? (2)

  1. K July 25, 2006 at 12:52 am | | Reply

    ‘academic freedom is bunk?’

    No it isn’t. it is just fine for academics to practice. But the public or elected officals have no obligation whatever to agree with them. And no one should feel guilt about it.

    That is the crux of the matter. A faculty member is free to tolerate anything whatever from a collegue.

    Academics mistakenly believe this binds others.

    Fish sums it up: “I’m all for it, not as a morality but as a guild practice”. He supports it because it gives him a power.

  2. Richard Nieporent July 25, 2006 at 8:46 am | | Reply

    It is obvious that Fish does not have a little mind!

    the coalition is entitled to its beliefs. What it is not entitled to is the tailoring of publicly financed scientific research to conform with those beliefs

    Speaking about hypocrisy, how can Fish claim to give deference to science when he and his ilk state that there is no objective truth? The problem with deconstructionism is that it eviscerates all logical arguments. If you believe in deconstructionism then all knowledge is meaningless. It therefore follows that the University is a waste of money because all we are doing is paying these people to bloviate. Fish’s real argument is that the Left is in charge of academia and being a Leftist he like it that way. He may be cynical, but he is no fool!

Say What?