Is anything left of Stan Fish?

Brian Leiter (law professor at Chicago who we’ve had occasion to mention on Foucaultblog before) launches a critique of Stanley Fish, the reformed enfant terrible of 1980s philosophy. Fish, you may recall, was at Duke during the height of the culture wars, but is now at Florida Atlantic International University in Miami and a columnist for the New York Times.

“Philosophically incompetant” and “sophomoric prattle” accuses Leiter. Fish has written two columns discussing religion in the USA (the first focused on Terry Eagleton’s new book) which are attracting a lot of attention (the first column has over 700 comments attached to it!).

In his latest piece, Fish examines the case offered by some of his commenters for the separation of religion and science, or between “faith and reason.” Drop the assumptions and blinkers, he quotes them as saying, and you will come to the world as it is in itself (the way of science). Such an ability to come to the world is especially enhanced by the fact that it is clear to all what counts as evidence (and what doesn’t count).

In contesting this possibility, Fish reaches for Foucault’s famous piece “What is an author”:

suppose, you think (in the manner of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault) that the idea of the individual author is a myth that emerges alongside the valorization of property and property rights so central to Enlightenment thought? Suppose you believe that the so-called author is not the source of the words to which he signs his name, but is instead merely a site transversed by meanings neither he nor any other so-called “individual” originates? (“Writing,” says Barthes, “is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin.”)

In fact iirc Foucault argued that the notion of authorship varied historically and thought that today we place too much weight on assessing a piece by the status of the author rather than the quality of the content. this lead Foucault to whimsically wish that he could be faceless or “masked.” The price of fame no doubt (Jacko probably feels the same way.)

By the way, Foucault’s notion has been empirically supported from studies of authorial affiliation in journal submissions. In the experiment, the same article was submitted to multiple journals with varying authorial affiliations, say Harvard and FAU, with the more prestigious affiliation getting further through the peer-review process.

Putting this observation about Foucault’s article aside, what Fish is doing is pointing out that perhaps the grounds for assessing evidence are not in fact clear to all. Fish:

Evidence, understood as something that can be pointed to, is never an independent feature of the world. Rather, evidence comes into view (or doesn’t) in the light of assumptions – there are authors or there aren’t — that produce the field of inquiry in the context of which (and only in the context of which) something can appear as evidence.

So far so familiar. Terry Eagleton says something similar in Literary Theory regarding what counts as data (ie we can only know what counts in light of theory).

Indeed the idea of freeing oneself from all “chains” and just being in the world “raw” as it were, certainly flies in the face of the Heidegger tradition which finds its way into Foucault. This is the famous “always already” –we are always already in the world. we have to make some assumptions–take it on faith.

Fish is then able to deny a split between science and reason:

Religious thought may be vulnerable on any number of fronts, but it is not vulnerable to the criticism that in contrast to scientific or empirical thought, it rests on mere faith.

But then we get to a more problematic argument: for Fish this all means that religion too is coinstantly critiquing what we know (fear of backsliding, crisis of faith etc.). But isn’t it rather that faith has a pre-desired goal (call it unproblematic belief in…) whereas critique qua critique never rests and continues to critique?


5 Responses

  1. “critique qua critique never rests and continues to critique?”

    But critique quo critique rests on the presumption or assertion that critique itself is valuable and warranted, no?

    • Is it too easy to say: seemingly not, since you’re questioning it? More seriously, there may be different levels of critique, or perhaps a spiral of critique.

  2. FAU (Florida Atlantic University) is in Boca Raton, Florida.

    FIU (Florida International University) is located in Miami.

  3. “But isn’t it rather that faith has a pre-desired goal (call it unproblematic belief in…) whereas critique qua critique never rests and continues to critique?”

    One has to be careful to not universalize religion as a practice— “religion” itself speaks only to a desire for/process of “spirituality,” if that’s even possible to say. There is an excellent argument that religion in the mythological sense springs from the same source as the empirical sciences, in the sense that it often seeks to explain the world in pre/post/non-rational terms.

    Religion varies widely not only at the cultural/sub-cultural level, but (in some cases more widely) at the levels of locality (communities of faith, families, individuals). For example, it is easy to mistake the creeds of Christianity as totalizing within the faith, but this is an error in judgment that gives a misleading picture of the vast diversity of beliefs, intentions, desires, goals and assumptions of individual adherents.

  4. Hi,
    I am writing an essay on the author-function, and I was wondering if you have the names of the studies of authorial affiliation, you mention.
    Kind regards,

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