Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Annoyed by Fish

I read part of an essay by Stanley Fish recently and found myself annoyed. This is a common reaction among philosophers (see here, herehere, and here, for instance). But why is this? Surely philosophers are used to people saying things they disagree with. Fish does say questionable things, things that have been called into question by Paul Boghossian and by Jon Cogburn and Mark Silcox, for instance.

I think it's more, though, that Fish comes so close to Wittgenstein that we expect more, for one thing, and feel as if he is serving up mere leftover (and mangled) crumbs from Wittgenstein's table, for another. As Martin Stone says, "In literary theory, discussion of Wittgenstein and Stanley Fish often occur in the same breath, and it is often said that Fish is “Wittgensteinian” in his views." Perhaps John Holbo hits the nail on the head when he writes, in a review of an anthology called The Literary Wittgenstein, that:
Two pieces are about how Stanley Fish is the opposite of Wittgenstein, in approximately the sense that one man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tollens. Fish is ponens, Wittgenstein tollens regarding the necessity of interpretation. That is, Wittgenstein sees the wrongness of the conclusion that ‘every reading is an interpretation’ as warranting rejection of premises.
To be fair, I should actually look at what Fish says and not just what other people say about him. Here is some Fish:
While I was in the course of vigorously making a point, one of my students, William Newlin by name, was just as vigorously waving his hand. When I asked the other members of the class what it was that Mr. Newlin was doing, they all answered that he was seeking permission to speak. I then asked them how they knew that. The immediate reply was that it was obvious; what else could he be thought to be doing? The meaning of his gesture, in other words, was right there on its surface, available for reading by anyone who had the eyes to see. That meaning, however, would not have been available to someone without any knowledge of what was involved in being a student. Such a person might have thought that Mr. Newlin was pointing to the fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling, or calling our attention to some object that was about to fall ("the sky is falling," "the sky is falling"). And if the someone in question were a child of elementary or middle-school age, Mr. Newlin might well have been seen as seeking permission not to speak but to go to the bathroom, an interpretation or reading that would never occur to a student at Johns Hopkins or any other institution of "higher learning" (and how would we explain to the uninitiated the meaning of that phrase).
Context matters, in other words, as does our having learned what certain things mean in certain contexts. This is certainly true, but perhaps so certainly true that it does not need saying at such length. Fish presents the point as if someone might mistakenly think that the meaning of the gesture might be seen by anyone with eyes, but surely literally no one has ever thought this. A gesture or sound that means one thing in one language need not mean the same in another language and will not necessarily be understood by someone who does not know the relevant language. This should not need saying, and Fish's acting as if it does seems pretentious. And hence annoying.

He goes on:
The point is the one I have made so many times before: it is neither the case that the significance of Mr. Newlin's gesture is imprinted on its surface where it need only be read off, or that the construction put on the gesture by everyone in the room was individual and idiosyncratic. Rather, the source of our interpretive unanimity was a structure of interests and understood goals, a structure whose categories so filled our individual consciousnesses that they were rendered as one, immediately investing phenomena with the significance they must have, given the already-in-place assumptions about what someone could possibly be intending (by word or gesture) in a classroom. 
At least if you have read Wittgenstein, and I would think even if you haven't, this is obviously true. And the truth in what Fish says is good. The obviousness of a point that nevertheless keeps being made "so many times" by the same person is annoying though. And there is also a grain of falsehood too. Newlin's gesture is not simply invested with the significance it must have given the context. There is a reason, after all, why Newlin chose to make that gesture in that context. He knew what significance it would necessarily be "given" immediately and unanimously by everyone else present. Because that's the meaning that that gesture has in that context. (This is what it means to say that a gesture "has a meaning" in a given context.)

Fish says that, "One can respond with a cheerful yes to the question "Do readers make meanings?" and commit oneself to very little because it would be equally true to say that meanings, in the form of culturally derived interpretive categories, make readers." The cheerfulness about very little is also annoying because it seems unearned (because one is committed to so little). It is true that if Newlin had waved his hand and no one had understood what he meant then there would have been a failure of communication. But this doesn't often happen because his gesture "must have, given the already-in-place assumptions about what someone could possibly be intending (by word or gesture) in a classroom" the meaning that it has. A meaning that a word or gesture must have given already-in-place assumptions is not a meaning that is created by its audience. Or at least words like 'created' and 'made' are extremely misleading in this context. 'Confirmed,' maybe, although even that seems too strong. The inevitability created by what is already in place suggests that 'recognized' would be a better word.  

It's possible that Fish thinks that meanings must be made because he thinks they must be objects of some kind and recognizes that the audience has a role to play in the process of meaning and understanding. This might be a reason to think that no word or gesture could possibly have a meaning before it occurs and is understood. But this is to think that the meaning of a word must be an object, that having a meaning must be something like having a sandwich or a coin in one's pocket, which is to ignore Wittgenstein's work. I don't know whether to think that's annoying or just weird. Has Fish not thought to read the Philosophical Investigations? If he did but struggled with it, which would hardly be surprising even for a very intelligent reader, did he not think to ask someone what it was about? Or did he start theorizing about meaning without realizing that highly intelligent people have spent a lot of time working on this issue? Or did he realize that and just decide to ignore their work? It's half irritating half bizarre. Maybe I just need to read more Fish, but I don't feel very inclined to do so. 


  1. I think he is on the record as not having studied Witt.
    this " He knew what significance it would necessarily be "given" immediately and unanimously by everyone else present" can't be true no way to know such a thing in advance, what could assure such uniformity/consistency?

    1. Thanks. That will save me looking for places where he talks about Wittgenstein.

      This is what Fish says of a gesture that is understood the same way by all the people who see it: "the source of our interpretive unanimity was a structure of interests and understood goals, a structure whose categories so filled our individual consciousnesses that they were rendered as one, immediately investing phenomena with the significance they must have, given the already-in-place assumptions about what someone could possibly be intending (by word or gesture) in a classroom." If he's right then the person making the gesture could know what significance it would be given if he knew the already-in-place assumptions, etc. You could argue that he couldn't know these, but it's not hard to guess that a standard gesture used standardly will be understood in the standard way.

      Talk of either knowing or guessing here is misleading, though, I think, because it suggests that a mistake is possible. As if we could be wrong about the meaning of any and every sentence we utter (because its meaning does not exist when we utter it).

  2. there is also the possibility that this is all just 'fetishism of the small differences' - as Wittgensteinians (or Kantians or Platonists, or whatever) have a tendency to be more critical of other Wittgensteinians (and Kantians of Kantians...) than of others. Perhaps Fish (or Derrida?) annoys Wittgensteinians b/c he is so close.

    I don't much like this term of criticism, 'fetishism of small differences,' because it can be used to marginalize and dismiss important differences.

    So my question is: What is the big difference b/w Fish's claims and Wittgenstein's? and what make it BIG? Where is the contrast b/w Fish and Wittgenstein that makes people want to say that it is a very different kind of philosophy?

    1. Yes, there might not be a big difference. And then it doesn't really matter. I think that Fish either means something different from what Wittgenstein means or else that some of his readers have been misled into thinking something very different. Talk of "making meanings," for instance, could be quite harmless (Fish suggests that it might be) but I have also seen people wonder where meanings are made, and think that they have found where in the brain this happens. That is a long way from Wittgenstein. And the emphasis on context could be useful, but if it leads you to think that you can never understand a philosophical work, say, unless you know about its cultural context then that seems bad to me. I agree that knowing certain things about the cultural context might be very illuminating, but there is a crude and basically wrong way to take this idea that I think has become popular. That might not be Fish's fault, but if he over-emphasizes relatively trivial points they might seem to others to have more significance than they really do.

    2. i agree with everything.

      I think it is useful to try and understand why Fish annoys. It annoys too that it is so hard to articulate. Part of what I find hard is to determine whether I disagree or just don't understand, and then i suspect myself that I might just have different aesthetic preferences about how to conduct philosophy, or that i am biased in some way that prevents me to see an alternative way of doing philosophy.

      I can only say vague things. One thing that often strikes me about conversations about Fish is a certain kind of carelessness about accuracy--or so it strikes me. It is as if once your imagination is stirred by something that was said, it doesn't matter how you develop it. It is as if the trajectory of the discussion is always outward instead of inward: trying to find more and more new stuff to say instead of trying to clarity the old.

      But i am again reminded of this quotation from Dick Moran's “Seeing and Believing: Metaphor, Image, and Force,“ which might be taken to suggest that what i see as carelessness is actually caring about other things which i haven't learned to care about. Here is the quotation:

      "One way in which the characteristic gestures of philosophy and criticism differ from each other lies in their involvements with disillusionment, with the undoing of naivete, especially regarding what we take ourselves to know about the meaning of what we say. Philosophy will often find less than we thought was there, perhaps nothing at all, in what we say about the “external” world, or in our judgments of value, or in our ordinary psychological talk. The work of criticism, on the other hand, frequently disillusions by finding disturbingly more in what is said than we precritically thought was there. In our relation to the meaningfulness of what we say, there is a disillusionment of plentitude as well as of emptiness. And not doubt what is “less” for one discipline may be “more” of what someone else is looking for."

    3. Yes, stirring the imagination might be a key idea. A friend of mine once asked me who the latest French philosophers (or maybe theorists) were. No philosopher would ever ask this, but someone who was looking for new ways to look at or think about works of art (this friend is an art historian) might very well want new theories. For those theories to be useful they need to be half understood, but no more than that. And a misunderstanding shared with others in the arts might be more useful than a genuine understanding of the theory in question. If a popular misconception of what Lacan was up to or how the brain works is leading to exciting, perhaps even insightful, new criticism, then no one wants a bore to point out that it is a misconception. So there could be uses of philosophical work that are defensible but not likely to be accepted by philosophers.

      On the other hand, I don't think I've ever met anybody who said that this was their approach. I doubt Fish would say he didn't care whether what he said was true or false as long as it was interesting or fruitful. Perhaps Rorty would have said that of his own work, but he would have been making a point about truth rather than confessing to deliberate sloppiness. Some approaches to the history of philosophy treat it in something like this way too. People will admit that they don't care whether they are getting Aristotle, say, right as long as they find useful ideas in his work. So it's not only non-philosophers who do this kind of thing.

      It's nice when you can tell what someone is up to, but different disciplinary cultures might make it harder in some cases. I don't know.

  3. This paper by Stephen Mulhall is relevant too on interpretation: http://philpapers.org/rec/MULDOI

  4. The idea that meanings are made seems to be present in some work influenced by Wittgenstein in discursive psychology: by Rom Harre, for example. If I recall correctly, he thinsk that meanings are jointly constructed in conversations. This might connect back to Crispin Wright’s idea of meaning being plastic to or in use. But I suspect it is a response against views of meanings - held by cognitive psychologists - as carried by inner vehicles or mental representations. If so the discursive psychologists picked up on Wittgenstein’s criticisms of perhaps a Cartesian picture of the sort of thing that could come to mind, be present in a flash, and then assumed that the only response to them was to think that meanings could not come to mind at all and had to be created piecemeal in conversations.

    1. Thanks, that's helpful and interesting. I suppose meanings could be jointly constructed in conversations if everyone involved ad libs together. But this is surely a rare kind of case.

      I suspect you are right that people assume this must happen because they reject one false picture and see only one alternative.

    2. Fish was a poster child for misguided thought regarding constitutional interpretation:


      In that venue, he was quoted as arguing that "intentions are prior to meaning." So that you cannot know a person's meaning until you unlock the secret code that he has for it. I considered this to be about as anti-Wittgensteinian as anything could be (p.132-133 in Flexible Constitution).

      But his assertion above now seems to have shed this mistake. In specific reply to to Tim Thorton, I took a position in my book that seems to square with Rom Harre, though I have never read him (and hence am not sure). Harre is must surely correct that meanings are jointly constructed in conversations. I take this position in my book on page 86, note 4:

      "When communicating in ordinary words and short sentences --e.g., 'Bring me the chair' -- we would like to think that our language specifically directs. Or that we 'speak out intentions.' But in truth, what we really say to one another is, 'Through this behavior, guess what I really want in this circumstance, and help me.' In other words, people who speak to one another don't often send completed, fixed messages; they send incomplete messages that require the other person fill in the missing parts. So much of what the language game really is, is agreement to help one another. If we are handed something with two of three blanks already filled in, we simply become good at filling in the third ourselves, This is how we communicate (we are good at it). As we get to know people personally, we can even communicate with two blanks missing. A mother sometimes knows what a child wants merely by seeing the child's eyes."

    3. I sometimes think that there is a distinction between a kind of transcendental and empirical reading of bits of Wittgenstein which have to do with the contingency of what one might have thought wasn’t contingent. So the deviant pupil is either a transcendental possibility devised to undermine a false explanation of how explanations of rules or meanings are possible or is a genuine empirical possibility ruled out for the most part by something substantially in play. I tend to incline to the former. And hence I take it that although misinterpretations are sometimes possible – suggesting perhaps that gaps were left in an explanation of what one meant – they are sometimes practically, empirically impossible. In a law court, an appeal to a ‘Wittgensteinian’ possibility in this latter sense would be ruled out. All that is by way of an introduction to short thought: although I can imagine there are situations where one genuinely co-constructs meanings – a kind of jazz conversation down the pub, for example – my temptation would be to say that in the amazingly terse communication of long term partners or friends, no such invention or construction is needed on the day (though the context needed such construction over, say, 20 years of friendship). One needs to have ‘ears to hear’ the meaning but it is simply there for the audience intended.

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