The Indefensible Stanley Fish

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Dec. 27 1999 12:28 PM

The Indefensible Stanley Fish

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[B]ecause the equality of right and ability breeds "equality of hope in the attaining of our Ends," and because each man's ends are naturally to be preferred to his rival's, the two will inevitably "become enemies," and in the absence of a neutral arbiter "they will endeavor to destroy or subdue one another."

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And there Fish more or less stops. (Well, actually, he goes on to argue in a similar fashion against the logical plausibility of free speech, academic freedom, and blind justice.) Maddeningly, he leads us to the center of the Hobbesian maze, then refuses to extricate us. If life is a war of all against all, what guarantee do we have that adhoccery will work, no matter how inspired? None, of course--at which point Fish generally cackles and says that since he's a pragmatist, he believes that his ideas about the world are just that, ideas without consequences. There is, he says, "no straight line from these propositions to the solution of any real-life problem; they are of no help and do no work except the non-directing work of telling you that you are on your own."

In other words, Fish isn't the unprincipled relativist he's accused of being. He's something worse. He's a fatalist. But then, so were the pre-Socratics, several Roman philosophers, and Machiavelli. Culturebox certainly can't tell you whether Fish is right or wrong. On the other hand, Fish never claimed to be right. In fact, he once quipped that, now that objectivity is dead, it is no longer necessary to be right. You just have to be interesting. Which he is.