Fish's main point, as I see it, is that meaning depends on context. I agree.
He also says that:
one hears an utterance within, and not as preliminary to determining, a knowledge of its purposes and concerns, and that to so hear it is already to have assigned it a shape and given it a meaning.This seems unfortunate to me, and might be one source of the idea that individuals make meanings, an idea that I take it Fish would reject. [Update: It turns out I was quite wrong about this.] One thing that's unfortunate about it is that one surely does not in any clear sense hear an utterance within a knowledge of its purposes and concerns. I don't (necessarily) already know the purpose of your utterance before you have finished uttering it. A few pages later Fish goes so far as to say of someone that, "her words will only be intelligible if [her audience] already has the knowledge they are supposed to convey." It's pretty obvious that Fish does not mean what he is saying. That is, he does not mean that if I ask you what time it is then I cannot understand what you say unless I already know what time it is. What he means is that I will not understand what you say unless I understand the context well enough to know what kind of thing you are going to say. If you say "six thirty" then in certain circumstances I will know that you mean breakfast time, in others I will know that you are giving me the score in a football game, and so on. If I had no idea what the context was then I could not tell what you meant, if anything.
But in understanding the relevant context I am not assigning a shape to someone's utterance, nor giving it a meaning. As Fish himself says, "To be in a situation is to see the words, these or any other, as already meaningful." These words in this situation already mean whatever they mean. There is no assigning or shaping that I as the speaker or the listener can do to them. The relevant purposes and concerns, as Fish says, are already there.
So we don't (Fish says, and I agree) always interpret utterances. Sometimes we do and sometimes we don't:
I am not saying that one is never in the position of having to self-consciously figure out what an utterance means.This self-conscious figuring out is, I take it, the normal sense of 'interpreting.' Fish does not deny that we sometimes have to interpret utterances, but he points this out because he is so far from saying that we always do. He explicitly rejects the assumption that there is always:
a distance between one's receiving of an utterance and the determination of its meaning -- a kind of dead space when one has only the words and then faces the task of construing them.I think that what Fish means is perfectly right, he just doesn't always express himself perfectly (who does?). This is a problem with his use of the word 'assumption.' Words that are uttered, he says, "are immediately heard within a set of assumptions about the direction from which they could possibly be coming." Assumption is an act, though, and assumptions are things that we make. The phenomenon that Fish is describing is more passive than that. There is no dead space in which one faces the task of making the necessary assumptions before trying to understand, or immediately--the assumptions having been made--understanding, someone else's words. There is something like assuming going on here, and we can call it assuming if we like, but it is not consciously chosen. Fish fairly clearly recognizes this. At one point he refers to one individual's assumption of what the concerns motivating someone's question could possibly be, but elsewhere he talks about "the understood practices and assumptions of the institution" (not of the individual) and of people's being possessed by "a structure of assumptions, of practices," which I think is closer to what he means and should mean.
In short, I think I agree with Fish.
UPDATE: For more on Fish see here (where I still think I agree with Fish but explain why I'm not entirely happy with some things he says) and here (where I finally lose patience). In other words, "I agree with Fish" is by no means my last word on the subject. And if you're interested in what I've written here then you'll probably be interested in what I've written in those other two posts.