Home / General / Law Professor with Unearned Platform Cranky that Historians Have Opinions. News at 11.

Law Professor with Unearned Platform Cranky that Historians Have Opinions. News at 11.



Does anyone read Stanley Fish and think, “Wow, I can really see why he has a column at the Times. This is brilliant work”?

Today, Fish is outraged that historians are expressing concerns about Donald Trump. I guess this is a breach of decorum as crushing to the nation’s standards as Ruth Bader Ginsburg also expressing concerns about Donald Trump. What will the nation do?

PROFESSORS are at it again, demonstrating in public how little they understand the responsibilities and limits of their profession.

On Monday a group calling itself Historians Against Trump published an “Open Letter to the American People.” The purpose of the letter, the historians tell us, is to warn against “Donald J. Trump’s candidacy and the exceptional challenges it poses to civil society.” They suggest that they are uniquely qualified to issue this warning because they “have a professional obligation as historians to share an understanding of the past upon which a better future may be built.”

Or in other words: We’re historians and you’re not, and “historians understand the impact these phenomena have upon society’s most vulnerable.” Therefore we can’t keep silent, for “the lessons of history compel us to speak out against Trump.”

Professors are at it again, taking to newspaper columns to complain about other professors they don’t agree with. A truly responsible professor would write concern trolling columns in the nation’s paper of record!

But there’s very little acknowledgment of limitations and subjectivity in what follows, only a rehearsal of the now standard criticisms of Mr. Trump, offered not as political opinions, which they surely are, but as indisputable, impartially arrived at truths: “Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is a campaign of violence: violence against individuals and groups; against memory and accountability, against historical analysis and fact.” How’s that for cool, temperate and disinterested analysis?

Like my cool temperate analysis of other scholars…

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that this view of Mr. Trump is incorrect; nor am I saying that it is on target: only that it is a view, like anyone else’s. By dressing up their obviously partisan views as “the lessons of history,” the signatories to the letter present themselves as the impersonal transmitters of a truth that just happens to flow through them. In fact they are merely people with history degrees, which means that they have read certain books, taken and taught certain courses and written scholarly essays, often on topics of interest only to other practitioners in the field.

As opposed to someone who merely has an English degree, having read certain books, taken and taught certain courses and written scholarly essays on topics that provide just the right amount of conventional wisdom to get a permanent Times sinecure! And Fish is always highly concerned with academics stepping outside their area of expertise, which is why he didn’t decide to defend Kim Davis or anything like that.

I would have no problem with individuals, who also happened to be historians, disseminating their political conclusions in an op-ed or letter to the editor; but I do have a problem when a bunch of individuals claim for themselves a corporate identity and more than imply that they speak for the profession of history.

Of course they aren’t speaking for the profession. There are professional organizations that do that. They are speaking as a group.

Were an academic organization to declare a political position, it would at that moment cease to be an academic organization and would have turned itself — as the Historians Against Trump turn themselves — into a political organization whose arguments must make their way without the supposed endorsement and enhancement of an academic pedigree. Its members would be political actors who share the accidental feature of having advanced degrees. But it’s not the degrees, which are finally inessential, but the strength or weakness of the arguments that will tell in the end.

Ah, whining for the good ol’days of “objectivity,” when professors only talked from moderate perspectives that reinforced the political status quo, wore ties to class, and, of course, were a bunch of wealthy white men.

I have no idea if being a historian gives me special insight into Donald Trump. But I do know that Stanley Fish is effectively decrying the very thing he himself does all the time, with the caveat that he does it all on his own and without help from others. Why he feel the needs to scream into the wind on this topic of all things is completely unknown except that concern trolling is something he feels a compulsion to do.

I wonder if Stanley Fish was this outraged when Arthur Schlesinger Jr was stepping outside his area of expertise and advising JFK on how to kill communists in Bolivia? I think we all know the answer to this.

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  • Dilan Esper

    Honestly, whether I agree or disagree with Erik on a particular issue, I would think that the voices of historians are among the MOST valuable with respect to current events and politics. Any attempt to understand a phenomenon like Trump that IS NOT informed by history is likely to be grossly incomplete.

    • osceola

      A poli-sci professor I once had said, “Politics without history has no root. History without politics has no fruit.”

    • Barry_D

      For once I agree with Dilan.

    • miwayha

      I think Fish is making a more subtle point here. As foolish as I know Godwin’s Law is, I’m going there anyway…

      Take the following argument:
      1. Hitler murdered lots of people.
      2. If you murder lots of people, you’re a bad person.
      3. Therefore, Hitler was a bad person.

      I think everyone agrees with all three of the above. The question is, on what basis do we agree with all of the above. On the basis of history, I believe we accept 1; it is a historical fact. I don’t believe we accept 2 on the basis of history; we base it on our moral notions of right and wrong. It’s still true, but it’s true because morality, not because history. Therefore, we can’t get to 3 on the basis of history alone. We need history and morality in order to get to 3.

      The point Fish is making is: what do historians do? They go to grad school to learn how to make statements like 1, not statements like 2. They write dissertations and scholarly publications to establish facts like 1, not like 2. Universities pay them to do things like 1, not things like 2. It’s not that, in saying things like 2, they are wrong; it’s just that they have stopped being historians.

      The problem comes when they assert things like 2, and justify it with arguments from authority. If a historian says to me “new evidence shows that we got the number of people Hitler killed wrong by a hundred thousand,” I would accept their argument based on authority. They’ve earned the right to use that authority. But I shouldn’t be accepting statements like 2 based on authority for 1.

      So should our understanding of Trump be informed by history? Yes and no. Trump is a bad person, but history alone isn’t sufficient to tell us that… we also need moral judgement, but we hire historians to do history, not morality. When a historian says “trust me, I’m a historian”, they should keep their comments confined to history. I’m very grateful to my historian for telling me the historical facts that inform my judgement, but historical facts themselves can’t provide their own judgements. A Hitler-hater and a Hitler-lover should be able to agree that statement 1 is true. What they disagree with is whether 1 is a good thing or a bad thing, and that’s a question history can’t answer.

      Fish calls Historians out for pretending that history can answer those kinds of questions. Historians can tell you that Trump is a fascist, and electing fascists tend to have particular consequences, but whether those consequences are bad is a moral question, and historical credentials don’t give you license to weigh in on moral questions.

      If Fish were to give his opinion on Trump, I would imagine it would go something like “Yes he’s terrible, and I’m not basing that on my PhD in English; I’m basing it on being a decent person.”

      • it’s just that they have stopped being historians.

        Fish uses this phrase all the time, and it’s kind of nuts. It’s also ambiguous between “they have stepped out of the role of historian temporarily” and “they have disqualified themselves from ever again being historians,” and as such is obnoxious.

        • miwayha

          That’s an interesting reading. I’ve never found any ambiguity… I’ve always seen it as “they have stepped out of their role of historian”, never the latter, but now that you point it out I can see how it’s confusing.

          I’m confident that he never intended the second meaning. But, I could get behind a criticism of confusing writing.

          • CD

            You’d be more persuasive if you actually engaged with the content of what the historians say re Trump, rather than confecting straw Hitler-examples.

  • efgoldman

    I guess Fish isn’t old enough to have taken one of Howard Zinn’s lecture courses in thew late 1960s.

    • Vance Maverick

      Fish established himself as a literary scholar in the ’60s, so he’s plenty old enough.

  • Ruviana

    Lol! I thought this would be Loomis grumbling about Campos!

  • Warren Terra

    Apparently, Those who have taught the lessons of history are too damned mouthy about it.

  • Joe_JP

    He’s upset that those who are professional historians are implying they have some special cause to be heard here? As compared to him?

    The idea they are “compromising” their credentials is particularly stupid. Also, I suggest reading the letter, including this part:

    As historians, we consider diverse viewpoints while acknowledging our own limitations and subjectivity.


    • wjts

      Look, if these so-called “professors” we’re smart, they’d be Stanley Fish. But they aren’t so they’re not.

    • Davis

      It looks as if Fish didn’t read the entire letter. He makes several claims that are just not there.

  • NeonTrotsky

    I will never ceased to be amazed by people who seem to think academics shouldn’t have opinions

    • Especially when they are also academics who routinely spout their opinion in the New York Times.

      • CP

        “It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry.”

        Richard Hofstader in “The Paranoid Style.”

    • miwayha

      This isn’t the argument Fish is making.

      Fish is arguing that academics shouldn’t use their authority as academics to make claims outside of their area of expertise.

      Trump is a monster. That’s a moral fact, not a historical one. For Fish, if a historian wants to voice his moral opinion, he shouldn’t present it as a historical fact.

      It would be the same as a doctor saying that, in their medical opinion, abortion is morally acceptable. I would agree that abortion is morally acceptable, but I don’t think my moral opinion should be afforded more weight if I had an MD.

      I hope we would agree that it’s unethical for a doctor to present their moral opinions as medical facts, even if we agree with those moral opinions. That’s the argument Fish is trying to make.

      Whether Fish is correct that is another question, but he’s not arguing that historians shouldn’t have opinions.

      • The Dark God of Time

        Were an academic organization to declare a political position, it would at that moment cease to be an academic organization and would have turned itself — as the Historians Against Trump turn themselves — into a political organization whose arguments must make their way without the supposed endorsement and enhancement of an academic pedigree. Its members would be political actors who share the accidental feature of having advanced degrees. But it’s not the degrees, which are finally inessential, but the strength or weakness of the arguments that will tell in the end.

        • miwayha

          I admit I’m confused… what’s your point in posting that quote? Quotes don’t interpret themselves.

          • The Dark God of Time

            Nope, he’s saying that if they do something political as a group, it’s invalid. Not that historians have the right to political opinions collectively.

            2/10. Try again later.

      • Calming Influence

        We’re all “historians” remembering and learning from past successes and failures, actions and consequences, the danger possibly hidden behind a seemingly safe facade. But if as individuals we don’t have the personal experience to warn us of a threat like Trump, then who better than actual historians?

      • DAS

        So it would be wrong for a group of paleontologists to say that it is a moral requirement to try to stop global warming by reducing CO2 levels because the climatic conditions that occurred whenever global mean temperatures and CO2 levels were above certain thresholds were inimical to human life?

        I guess though the argument is one of tone, though, isn’t it? If the historians in question merely said

        Trump is repeating the patterns established by fascists in the past and it is our opinion as learned historians that if Trump gets political power everything people claim to dislike about fascism — the war mongering, the political violence, the totalitarianism — will happen. But if y’all wanna elect Trump , go ahead. We’re historians not moral philosophers, so far be it for us to tell you that voting for a fascist is a bad thing

        IOW, the interpretation of Fish here is that he would have rather the historians been snarky in condemning Trump than earnest?

        Also, it seems that Fish — who, as pointed out already, has a Ph.D. in English and is a law professor telling historians how to practice history — is criticizing interdisciplinary activities? And this, that Fish is merely being a hypocrite, is the charitable, “he has a point” reading of his screed?

        • miwayha

          If by “wrong” you mean “inappropriate given professional norms”, then it would be “wrong” for a paleontologist to say that “as a paleontologist, I know that it is immoral to stop global warming.”

          It’s not the paleontology that yields the moral insight. You *could* imagine a paleontologist that says “as a paleontologist, it’s not morally required that we get greenhouse gases under control. Yes global warming will destroy us all, and all of the things that global warming alarmists predict will happen in fact will happen., but human life is absurd, anyway, so who cares if the race goes extinct? I’m an ubermench / Ayn Rand-ian, so fuck future generations as long as I get mine.”

          These two paleontologists could and probably would agree with the *science*. But paleontology doesn’t tell you that human life is / is not worth saving. Paleontology doesn’t tell you how to value future generations vis a vis current generations.

          The point isn’t that paleontologists shouldn’t be opposed to global warming, they just shouldn’t invoke their authority as paleontologists to be opposed to it. I am not a paleontologist, and I am opposed to global warming. Were I to go get a PhD in paleontology, I don’t imagine I would become more or less opposed to it. Likewise, I am opposed to Trump. If I went and got a PhD in history, I would not become more opposed to Trump.

          Imagine the historians said:

          As a historian, I know that trump is very similar to historical fascists x, y, and z. More so than the media or the general population realize, even. The same arguments that Trump is using, fascist X used to justify atrocity Y. Moreover, fascist X’s political enablers believed he could be contained, and used the same arguments the current GOP are using today. If fascist X’s political opponents couldn’t contain him, then likewise current opponents might not be able to contain Trump, leading to consequences a, b, and c. Trump’s statements go against the core beliefs and norms that have sustained this country since its founding. As a citizen, a neighbor, a parent, ally, and decent human being with a modicum of empathy, I am appalled. He must be stopped, GOP leaders must oppose him, the media must oppose him, all people with a conscious must do everything they can to prevent his getting elected.

          Fish would have no problem with such an argument. It’s not that Fish would rather have historians be snarky rather than earnest, it’s that he doesn’t want professors their authority as professors to present moral facts as academic ones.

          That gets to the point of Fish’s complaint. Fish isn’t criticizing interdisciplinary activities, he’s criticizing inter-professional ones. We don’t hire historians to tell us how our society should be; we hire them to give us an accurate understanding of how it was. Hopefully, we’ll use that knowledge to make smart decisions about how our society we should be, but understanding how it was and deciding how it should be are separate activities which require separate skills. Getting a PhD prepares you for one activity but not the other.

          Fish isn’t an English professor telling historians how to practice history; he’s a scholar and former dean telling scholars not to confuse scholarship and activism. Fish isn’t opposed to activism. Fish isn’t opposed to scholarship. Fish is opposed to activism masquerading as scholarship, even when it’s activism you agree with.

          • I like you use “former dean” to give him authority. Former dean. Oooooooooohhhhhh. Boy, that changes everything!

            • miwayha

              For Pete’s sake. One of the reasons I really like this site is because its authors have a really good track record of arguing seriously and in good faith. Snarky, sure, but there’s at least an honest attempt to engage with an argument you disagree with. I’m frankly astonished that I’m having to ask for the same courtesy.

              DAS made a narrow point accusing Fish of hypocrisy, and built the charge of hypocrisy in part around an understanding of Fish’s credentials. To rebut that point, I pointed credentials that DAS had neglected. Per DAS’s assumption, a proper understanding of Fish’s credentials is necessary for determining whether Fish is a hypocrite. There is nothing hypocritical about a former dean expressing an opinion about how faculty should conduct their professional duties. Indeed, that’s what deans are for. With regard to the narrow point of whether Fish is a hypocrite (at least for the reasons DAS alleges), Fish’s professional past is exceedingly relevant.

              (You could mount an point that Fish is hypocritical for other reasons. Indeed, it seems everyone in the comments simply takes this for granted, even without arguing for it. But, that’s a different point that DAS raised and I rebutted.)

              I didn’t use Fish’s credentials as a reason to believe Fish’s larger opinion, as you suggest. I’m generally disappointed, because I genuinely like the things you right. I don’t necessarily expect you to agree with me, but please give me a little more credit than that.

  • brad

    The good news is that people who both listen to Fish and are uncertain about Trump or the propriety of academics criticizing him number in the high dozens.

    • Breadbaker

      Do you have some link to that? My guess would have been the low dozens.

  • mikeSchilling

    The trope “Can you believe that X has a column at the Paper of Record?” might have some point if the TImes’s columnists weren’t uniformly awful. As things are, nope. Not even a little one.

  • (((Hogan)))

    “Your rhetoric is rhetoric. My rhetoric is objective analysis. Because shut up, that’s why.”

    • DAS

      I am so stealing that line. I plan to use it at the next contentious faculty senate meeting.

  • Or in other words: We’re historians and you’re not, and “historians understand the impact these phenomena have upon society’s most vulnerable.”

    To which Fish replies, “I’m a literary critic and you’re not, and as such I know what you’re permitted to say and you don’t.”

    Fish can be very good at analyzing a problem, but in 90% of the time when he’s not writing about poetry, he doesn’t have anything substantial to say, and he misses the point massively. This one seems phoned in.

    It does sound a little preening to claim that all historians are sensitive to the problems of the most vulnerable, though. Obviously some don’t.

    • howard

      does he have something substantial to say about matters literary? that’s actually what i was looking for in the comments, someone who would know!

      i know his name, but i only know his writing from the work in the times, which, in those instances i’ve bothered, has ranged from tedious to pointless, so i’m open-minded on the question of whether he’s a good scholar in his own field.

      • (((Hogan)))

        In the ’70s he did some very good work on 17th-century English literature, with a book on Paradise Lost (Surprised by Sin) and a book on nonfiction prose writers (Self-Consuming Artifacts). After that he wandered into reader-response theory, disappeared up his own fundament, and started crapping out the same vulgar-pomo article over and over again. Which is probably why he wandered into law–everyone in literature was tired of his schtick, law professors had never seen anything like it before, and it seemed to have something to do with interpretation, which is something law professors talk about.

        • Thom

          Most law professors, of course, do this without having completed a research degree (i.e a PhD or even an MA). I speak as a law graduate who later got a PhD in history. By now many law professors at the elite schools have PhDs, but this is a fairly recent phenomenon. When I was at Boalt (Berkeley) in the late 70s, very few if any of the (mostly very bright) professors had PhDs.

        • rm

          Yes, and his (very tiresome) schtick was always “rules/systems/laws/theories are social constructs with no absolute objective basis, therefore no argument is better than any other and reasons never count, EXCEPT MINE, so I win, and you secretly agree with me.” Every essay began with a general statement of po-mo epistemology, digressed into a baseball anecdote, and returned to the argument with goalposts utterly relocated.

          Such a putz.

          He’d have done so much better if he were now an emeritus Milton scholar who had rested on his laurels the last forty years.

          • The Dark God of Time

            Stanley Fish, Supergenius.

            Indeed. That’s the hypocrisy in the “all intellectual positions are just faith positions” argument. I wonder whether Fish actually believes what he says. Surely not? If science is just as unjustified as the most egregious faith positions, does Fish then accept that the earth is flat, that the earth is round, that milk makes people fly, and it doesn’t, that he is a total idiot, that lightning is caused by babies farting in Japan, etc., etc..

            Skepticism about the very foundations of rationality is a dishonest method of muddying the waters that the British philosopher Stephen Law calls “going nuclear”, since it makes all argument useless. All positions become equally unjustifiable. He writes, “Indeed, those who employ this [argument] are usually quite content to rely on reason to make their case just so long as they are not losing the argument. It’s only when the tide of rationality turns against them that they reach for the nuclear button… Going nuclear is, in truth, almost always a ploy. Those who use it don’t usually believe what they’re saying about reason. They say it only to raise enough dust and confusion to make quick their escape.”

            (Quotes from Believing Bullshit – an outstanding little book for dismantling anti-reason arguments.)

            • rm

              Nice quote.

              To be fair to the putz, Fish’s work very consistently says two things: (1) that “nuclear option” from the quotation, all beliefs are just beliefs, and (2) this DOESN’T MATTER and chaos does not follow, because we are all the prisoners of the structures of thought in our heads and must act as if they are real whether we claim to be relativists or not.

              BUT. And here is where the putzitude starts. He always leaps irrationally from the ho-hum truism that “we don’t have divine revelation for our ideas” to “no evidence-based decision between alternatives is ever justified.” And he tries to hide the leap behind equivocation or anecdote.

              • we are all the prisoners of the structures of thought in our heads and must act as if they are real whether we claim to be relativists or not.

                Where does Fish say that?

                I’m pretty sure (from personal experience) that if you start reading Fish without first doing reading in structuralism (and I don’t think Fish is considered a structuralist), especially if you are predisposed to disbelieve in the idea of a mental structure of that extent, you can read an awful lot of him without having even the inkling of an idea that that’s what he believes.

                • (((Hogan)))

                  He may not say that interpretive communities are entirely self-contained, but I get the impression that he assumes that. I could be spectacularly wrong about that, though.

                • rm

                  That is my 20-year-old memory of essays read in both undergrad and grad school. I have read plenty of structuralism and post-structuralism, but I may be using the wrong words in paraphrase. I mean that I remember him appealing to interpretive communities, which I am perhaps confusing with ideas like cultures/languages as giant controlling structures (death of the author, prison house of language, something like that). He would always say “don’t worry that anti-foundational epistemology will lead to chaos, because we are bound by our interpretive communities.” That’s fine as a corrective to conservative freak-outs that postmodern theory leads to dogs and cats living together. But he always used it as a preface to bad arguments.

                  So, for instance, he argued that “theory doesn’t matter” because theory is about abstraction, and in practice we always follow the constraints of our situation, including prior ideas, and we are incapable of making radical breaks. I think that essay was called “Against Change”? I refuse to look it up, or wait till I have access to my books as it is summer.

                  And he, big-time literature scholar, dismissed everyone who has worked in composition or rhetoric in an article that said that students will learn writing no matter how you teach it to them, as long as you put effort in, so none of this pedagogy shit is worthwhile. But, of course, they learn different things about writing depending on how it’s taught.

                  So, one of his big equivocations was to define “theory” as inherently abstract and useless, when most people use theory to mean something that can guide action and be revised through experience.

                  Another big equivocation was what Holden mentions below — is “interpretive community” a phrase that describes an entire self-contained system or structure that cannot be escaped? Or is it a way of describing little groups and subcultures and professions? Depends on what he needs it to mean paragraph by paragraph. He suggested that changing one’s interpretive framework would be like stepping outside an airplane in flight to make a few repairs, but elsewhere said oh, you can be part of many such communities with their own frameworks.

                • Okay, I’ve read a bunch of philosophical pragmatism, and that’s what that sounds like to me. More or less, “we are where we are, we have communities that work, and we don’t need to get a theoretical justification before we can do what we do.”

                  Pragmatism is pretty anti-metaphysical, so if it addresses structuralism at all, it’s probably dubious.

                  Fish’s reading of philosophy, though, always seems to overread. Pragmatism doesn’t say we’re not allowed to question our practices, or that it isn’t sometimes helpful; Fish takes that extra step.

      • drwormphd

        Speaking as a sometimes-Miltonist: Surprised By Sin is one of the best books ever written on Milton, and probably the best practical application of the reader-response criticism he’d later champion. He’s still capable of good work; I assign his recent How To Write a Sentence book in comp classes. It kills me every time he writes something like this.

        • I guess it only goes to show that, just because you know how to write a good sentence you don’t necessarily know how to think a good thought.

      • howard

        Thank you all for the insights: the times columns now make complete sense.

        • (((Hogan)))

          For a look at his earlier career I recommend David Lodge’s novels Changing Places and Small World. (Morris Zapp is the fictionalized version of Fish.)

          • Thom

            And those are great novels even without the Fish connection.

      • You already have your answer, but my take as a non-expert who’s less down on theory (and postmodernism) than Hogan, at least in theory:

        – Fish’s first couple books on theory were the first theory I read after Eagleton’s book. They seemed lucid and convincing first steps toward some project, as far as I could tell. Later it became apparent that almost nobody was doing theory the way Fish did. I still think some of the essays are thought-provoking, but frustrating.

        – He took up the case “against free speech”, before he got involved with law schools, I think, when it was trendy for a certain kind of law professor to push that case. That was in one of those two early books–Milton also wrote about free speech.

        – “The Trouble with Principle” (written after he was teaching in a law school) seems to me (not a lawyer) to be a well researched and argued–and very pessimistic–explanation of a bunch of recent (mostly 1st Amendment) cases. The ending is kind of like, “Rodney King’s assailants got an acquittal! WTF, we’re doomed!” I was deciding whether to keep it and figured (1) there’s probably better books on the 1st Amendment, and (2) Fish cites Amy Goodman and some other interesting-sounding people a lot, but I’m probably better off reading them.

        eta: Also, the literature background shows when he keeps saying things that sound a lot like: “I can’t follow these opinions; obviously this shows that judges don’t use logic.”

        – I thought “Professional Correctness” was interesting and I kept my copy.

        – One of Fish’s big ideas with Milton is, “You thought Blake was right that Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost, but no, because Original Sin!” He also likes to say that the sign of Jesus’s blessedness in Paradise Regained is that he refuses to do anything. I don’t know about the quality of his Milton interpretations. I guess you’d have to get over the oddity of a Jew writing about Milton’s theology. Fish would probably say his beliefs and upbringing don’t matter because he was educated by Miltonists and now he’s a Miltonist.

        – That said, I’m usually sorry I read the NYT columns.

        • The Dark God of Time

          My prof for Intro Philosophy was an Orthodox Rabbi who studied Kant. He was a colorful fellow, who seemed to be e beatnik with tenure, saying, Hey baby, to one or all. I even had a drink at his house my last semester at The Harvard of the Midwest.

          • To the best of my knowledge, Kant is secular, though. I’d say it’s possible for a Jewish student to study an awful lot of gentiles without approaching anything like the discomfort of expounding on the theology of the Son as the only Jew in a roomful of Protestants (actually Fish claimed half the Miltonists in his day were Jews, go figure).

            • The Dark God of Time

              I did not know this:

              In 1965 he was elected Professor of Philosophy and Judaic Studies at Washington University, St. Louis.

              He edited the journal Judaism-A Quarterly Journal from 1961 until 1969 and was the senior editor of the Werke of Hermann Cohen.

              He was awarded an honorary degree by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

              Both in person and by correspondence he entered into dialogue with the American Protestant theologian and pacifist John Howard Yoder, with the American Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton, and with many leading figures in philosophy and in Jewish thought.

              In 1989 he died after suffering an aneurysm.

              In 1965 he was elected Professor of Philosophy and Judaic Studies at Washington University, St. Louis.

              He edited the journal Judaism-A Quarterly Journal from 1961 until 1969 and was the senior editor of the Werke of Hermann Cohen.

              He was awarded an honorary degree by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

              Both in person and by correspondence he entered into dialogue with the American Protestant theologian and pacifist John Howard Yoder, with the American Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton, and with many leading figures in philosophy and in Jewish thought.

              In 1989 he died after suffering an aneurysm.

            • DAS

              Kant certainly wasn’t Jewish. Actually I don’t think he liked Judaism much. But, outside of “classical Reform”, Kantian thought permeates liberal Judaism. Kantian metaphysics jibes well with much Jewish theology and his emphasis on duty provides a philophical veneer to the Jewish concepts of chiv (obligation) and mitzvah (commandment).

              Of course, even Jewish fundamentalists find that veneer unnecessary, centrist orthodoxy emphasizes (to use the original German terms of the debate) gesetz over gebot (although I should add #notallcentristorthodox … in terms of religiosity Soloveitchik certainly was Centrist Orthodox but I wouldn’t say he at all emphasized gesetz over gebot), and classical Reform rejected the normativity of mitzvot. So those groups are maybe less Kantian than say Progressive Reform, Conservative/Masorti are.

              BTW, Schwarzschild was orthodox? His ordination was Reform. He did study with Soloveitchik, who certainly was Orthodox, but not all Jews who stringently follow Mitzvot or even all Jews who studied under Soloveitchik are Orthodox.

              • The Dark God of Time

                He kept kosher by being a vegan, so I mistook that for an adaptation that fit in with being Orthodox.

                He was a very amusing fellow, coming to class with a thermos of coffee and lighting up a cig while he lectured between puffs and swigs of Java.

                A hell of a great guy.

          • calling all toasters

            The Harvard of the Midwest

            The only thing you need to know about that place is that they call themselves that.

          • DW

            the Harvard of the Midwest

            Drake, right?

            • The Dark God of Time


        • (((Hogan)))

          It seemed to me that if you took reader-response theory seriously, your next move would be into ethnography, talking with readers about what they read and how (and maybe why) they read it, and read it the way they do. Janice Radway (full disclosure: I took a class with her) did exactly that in Reading the Romance and produced some fascinating results. Fish went in . . . a very different direction.

    • howard

      it’s further along now and i continue to appreciate all the insights: this is why i am in constant slack-jawed amazement at the number of advanced savants about almost anything here in lgm comments.

  • CP

    Ah, the Republican Party and its post-reality platform. “On my right, a history professor who’s studied this his entire life! On my left, a guy who couldn’t tell you the name of the man on the one dollar bill! They’re going to have a discussion about history!” Seriously, the more I see of our politics, the more I think George Orwell, with his notions of doublethink, Newspeak, and the complete rejection of reality as something that exists separate from the preferences of your political movement, was a goddamn visionary whose work remains as relevant as it ever was.

    • rmgosselin

      That’s right! What does a climate scientist know about climate, or a medical doctor know about vaccinations?? Their opinions are no better than my mechanic’s!

      • CP

        I mean, to be fair, it’s my understanding that anti-vaxxerism is primarily a left-wing pathology (the West Coast hipster type) rather than a right-wing one.

        But even that kind of makes the point for us: as far as I know, the Democratic Party and the majority of the activist left mostly treat them as the loons they are, even though they’re on “our” “side” of the aisle. Compare and contrast with the respect Republicans afford to climate change deniers and creationists.

        • ASV

          This is not correct; anti-vax views are not related to political ideology. It may manifest differently in people holding different kinds of underlying attitudes (e.g., via religion for those on the right, via naturalism for those on the left), but it’s across the spectrum.

          [Source: My own research on this subject; see also Dan Kahan’s work.]

          • Origami Isopod

            Agreed. Christian megachurches are full of anti-vaxxers. They resent teh gubmint telling them what to do with their property children, and there’s paranoia about “The Mark of the Beast” being left on the body.

      • Breadbaker

        Particularly since, if you’re a true Republican, you chose your mechanic for the size of his gun rack rather than his actual skill or knowledge of auto repair.

  • mikeSchilling

    Academics should stick to things they understand, like research and teaching. They have no expertise in what’s involved in publishing this kind of opinion. In fact, I’ll bet they hardly got any clicks at all.

  • lhartmann

    >Does anyone read Stanley Fish and think, “Wow, I can really see why he has a column at the Times. This is brilliant work”? <



    actually, you had me at "Stanley Fish".

  • Davis

    Is he one of those people who begins sentences with “I’m a liberal, but…? You can make a good living that way.

    • DAS

      Those people clearly have forgotten a ‘t’. What they mean is “I’m a liberal butt”. Of course since liberal butts get so much media exposure, it’s pretty obvious where people get their negative perceptions of liberalism from.

  • rmgosselin

    Fish’s argument is self-defeating. If an advanced degree is merely an “accidental feature,” and does not carry with it the assumption of hard-earned expertise, then he, himself, should quit writing for the NYT, scurry off back to his office, and commence to grading essays. It’s like he doesn’t even know the origin of his own ethos.

    • rm

      Story goes that at an MLA conference someone asked “How can you say X, Y, and Z?”

      He replied by asking where the questioner taught — Podunk State.

      And where did Fish teach? At Duke.

      “That’s how I can say X, Y, and Z.”

      It is part of his interpretive view that appeals to principle, consistency, theoretical coherence, are appeals to illusory nonexistent things which don’t exist and don’t matter at all. No matter what story you tell yourself about following the star of some higher logic, what really counts in making arguments is who is talking with what institutional/cultural authority. Is that in total contradiction to his appeal to a principle of professionalism when he criticizes these historians? Principles don’t matter. What matters is that Fish got himself a perch at the NYT and these historians just wrote some kind of letter. I think his real point is that they shouldn’t make this gesture because they are not already the winners, so it’s pointless. Egghead losers write pathetic letter. Sad!

      • JonH

        “What do Duke’s poor hiring decisions have to do with it?”

    • rm

      I should have added that “Fish’s argument is self-defeating” might sound like a compliment to him, for obscure epistemological reasons.

  • Jeff Ryan

    Wait a minute. “[P]rofessors…were a bunch of wealthy white men.”?

    Where the fuck did you go to school? I can’t remember a single professor from my undergrad days (UMass Amherst) or my law school days (Loyola University of Chicago Law School) that I would describe as “wealthy.”

    • Nobdy

      Fish went to Penn and Yale, where professors do decently well.

      But generally this blog counts anyone who is doing reasonably well economically as “rich” or “wealthy.” The term is not restricted to just the American 1%.

      To be fair, from a global perspective (which Loomis tends to take) most Ivy League university professors are definitely wealthy, even if I personally don’t think of most of them as rich.

      • JonH

        It also seems pretty likely that Fish’s own professors could have come from wealthy families.

    • mikeSchilling

      “Wealthy” in its current sense of having a job you’re not in constant fear of losing and that doesn’t involve asking if you want fries with that.

  • Linnaeus

    In fact they are merely people with history degrees, which means that they have read certain books, taken and taught certain courses and written scholarly essays, often on topics of interest only to other practitioners in the field.

    It surprises me that Fish, of all people, would write something like this, but maybe it shouldn’t.

    • rm

      I think he’s getting at his “interpretive community” idea. Truths can only be valid within the community that shares an interpretive world, so the lessons which ring true in the interpretive community of professional historians can’t have any value or relevance for the community of voters, and how dare they talk as if they are somebodies in that world.

      • Colin Day

        And Fish is in the same interpretive community as a significant portion of American voters?

        • Good point. Professional Correctness is probably what you’d want to read if you wanted to know the most detailed thing Fish said on that and you were okay with still not knowing at the end of it. It is short!

          • Wait. You mean, all this time I’ve been striving to be politically incorrect, when I should have been going for professionally incorrect? Well, shit.

      • Colin Day

        Also, is the claim that truths only apply within an interpretive community itself only true within an interpretive community?

  • Scott Lemieux

    Multiple decades as a pundit, and Fish has yet to come up with a second idea.

    And I must leave this here again:

    Stanley Fish, lawyer and literary critic, is in truth about as left-wing as Donald Trump. Indeed, he is the Donald Trump of American academia, a brash, noisy entrepreneur of the intellect who pushes his ideas in the conceptual marketplace with all the fervour with which others peddle second-hand Hoovers.

    • sharculese

      Up until the “second-hand Hoovers” bit I was certain this had to be Jeb Lund.

    • Nobdy

      Stanley Fish is not, as far as I can tell a lawyer and does not have a law degree, so does not meet the requirements to sit for the bar exam.

      The fact that he has been on the faculty at various law schools definitely says a lot about law school, but what it does not say is that Stanley Fish is a lawyer, because he’s not.

    • Eh, I’m not a huge fan of Terry Eagleton’s recent mainstream-media essays either, which as far as I can tell are “left-wing” because he says so.

      • Origami Isopod


        Today, Oxbridge retains much of its collegial ethos. It is the dons who decide how to invest the college’s money, what flowers to plant in their gardens, whose portraits to hang in the senior common room, and how best to explain to their students why they spend more on the wine cellar than on the college library. All important decisions are made by the fellows of the college in full session, and everything from financial and academic affairs to routine administration is conducted by elected committees of academics responsible to the body of fellows as a whole. In recent years, this admirable system of self-government has had to confront a number of centralizing challenges from the university, of the kind that led to my own exit from the place; but by and large it has stood firm. Precisely because Oxbridge colleges are for the most part premodern institutions, they have a smallness of scale about them that can serve as a model of decentralized democracy, and this despite the odious privileges they continue to enjoy.

        That said, another data point regarding how left-wing Stanley Fish isn’t.

  • Unemployed_Northeastern

    “PROFESSORS are at it again, demonstrating in public how little they understand the responsibilities and limits of their profession.”

    Just to drive the point home here, not only is Fish a very public academic expounding on all sorts of matters in which he has little or no expertise, but he also has taught at multiple law schools, including freaking Yale, even though he has neither a law degree nor any formal legal training himself. If you were one of those nerds who bought an Aspen Examples and Explanations or two before 1L year, you knew more about law by matriculation than Stanley Fish, a law professor.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      wait, what? no law degree or even training- he never even *tried*? Yale? how the hell does *that* work?

      • Roughly, it’s same basic move that English or Philosophy BAs do when they graduate and try to figure out “what next” and go to law school for the money. Law schools were looking to upgrade their faculty and the various “Law and…” Sub specialties meant that they recruited non JD faculty. So for a while you had a mix of JD and non law PHD faculty. Then programs started graduating lots of JD/PhDs so this jump became harder.

        Fish did his jump quite a while back. I sincerely doubt he’d either want to or even could jump back to a lit department.

        • jim, some guy in iowa

          okay, that makes sense, that Fish was brought in to kind of broaden the horizons so to speak… thanks!

          • Pretty much.

            Also, it’s not that unheard of for people to jump to related or nearby disciplines. my training is in Philosopjy, yet I work in Computer Science.

            • The Dark God of Time

              One of my friends was a math major and he used the Set Theory class taught under the rubric of the Philosophy Department to satisfy his distribution requirements outside of his major.

              • The Intro to Symbolic Logic class at UNC satisfied the Math requirement. But it is mathy. Sounds like your friend found a loophole.

                That being said, I did have philosophical interesting in Math and Computer Science plus logic, so the transition was easier for me than it would be for some. It’s, as I understand it, less common to jump fields that don’t have some active overlap.

        • If only I had thought to pitch “Law and Knot Theory” back then!

          I sincerely doubt he’d either want to or even could jump back to a lit department.

          Hey, if he brings the fuel, I’ll stand him a light.

          • rea

            Law and knot theory? I’m a lawyer, and I can tie a bowline; even a sheepshank . . .

      • Unemployed_Northeastern

        Just one of the many reasons legal academia is looked down upon by most real academics.

        Bijan is right, though: an increasing number of legal academics are now JD/PhDs. From Dawn of the Discipline-Based Faculty,

        “Approximately 29% of the tenure-track faculties of the top twenty-six law schools currently hold Ph.D.s, and 67% of those schools’ entry level hires in 2014 and 2015 are J.D.-Ph.D.s. Recent hiring has separated into two tracks. On the growing J.D.-Ph.D. track, both legal experience and preparation time is declining…. Preparation time for a law teaching job is now slightly lower on the J.D.-Ph.D. track. If current hiring trends continue, a majority of the members of top twenty-six law faculties will hold Ph.D.s by 2028, and a large majority of them will have no experience in law practice.”

        • And many real lawyers, apparently?

          • Unemployed_Northeastern

            It’s gotten bad enough that the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity has recommended to the Secretary of Education that the ABA lose its accreditation powers for a year; the rationales including student achievement and graduate debt levels. For a graduate-level accreditor overseeing a group of almost entirely non-profit organizations, this is absolutely unheard of.

            But yeah, nationwide 40% or more of every graduating class has failed to land full-time, long-term, license-required work within nine (now ten) months of graduation since the ABA started keeping more accurate score with the class of 2011.

            • twbb

              I think it’s just that they lose the ability to accredit new schools for a year; I think, but am not sure, that for reaccreditation they’re fine.

              • Unemployed_Northeastern

                I see it as a shot across the bow. The next shots will be more serious: limited federal loans for law students, perhaps. Or limited eligibility for IBR plans for law students. And on a broader scale, virtually anything is on the table with the HEA reauthorization next year. Repeal PAYE and REPAYE? I’ve seen plans. Limit or repeal GradPLUS? I’ve seen it proposed. Replace the default rate with a repayment rate and make schools liable for the balances that aren’t getting repaid? This was floated by as odd a couple as Hatch (R-UT) and Shaheen (D-NH) last year.

                And even getting accreditation yanked for a year is unheard of for any accreditor that isn’t just rubber-stamping for-profit undergrad mills.

                • twbb

                  From your mouth to the accreditation god’s ears.

        • twbb

          I have no doubt that if I were to apply to law schools after I finish my PhD, my experience practicing would literally be worth less than nothing to the hiring committee, as in they would likely count it against me (though the fact that my law school was not Harvard, Yale or Stanford would probably weed me out before it reached that stage). Law academics truly do have this weird contempt for practitioners in their own field.

  • Origami Isopod

    Does anyone read Stanley Fish

    You could have ended the sentence there.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Yeah, honestly I assumed his NYT column had ended years ago.

    • mikeSchilling

      From Wikipedia:

      Fish is a major figure associated with postmodernism, at times to his irritation. Instead he views himself as an advocate of anti-foundationalism He is also viewed as being a major influence in the rise and development of reader-response theory.

      Being one of those troglodyte STEM types, I summarize all of this as “Fish is a huge wanker”. At least, that’s this reader’s response.

      • rm

        Such binary thinking. Those topics are legitimate, AND Fish is a huge wanker.

      • CD

        Even huge wankers occasionally do good work — see the attestations upthread re his Milton book. But see also the Eagleton piece linked upthread, which pretty much nails Fish.

  • Bruce B.

    Today in hardcore sf geekery: Fish is the narrator of Norman Spinrad’s “The Ersatz Ego”.

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