Monday 18 May 2009

A second helping of Fish

I'm not sure I can be bothered with this, and those with a better philosophical training will probably make a better job of it, but here goes anyway:

Stanley Fish has written a sequel to his casuistical article in defence of 'faith'. As in the first instalment (and like the shifty rhetoric of his inspiration, Terry Eagleton), Fish's argument once again twists and turns, refusing to be tied down to supporting an actual position, and firing scatter-gun insults at assorted secularists and rationalists. Reduced to its bare bones, his argument seems to be that the 'evidence' against religion put forward by Dawkins, Hitchens et al can't be taken seriously, not because it's faulty, but because:

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 ... that produce the field of inquiry in the context of which (and only in the context of which) something can appear as evidence.

This is the standard post-modernist, anti-realist position: there are no facts 'out there', only different ways of looking at the world, shaped by the assumptions and world-views of those who hold them. As I've noted before, this relativism enables you to trash the views of those you disagree with, not by disproving their arguments, but by showing that their opinions are influenced by the wrong kind of world-view, as Fish does in this paragraph:

But 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? 

This is the familiar po-mo 'guilt by association' move again: Enlightenment notions of individual freedom and autonomy are discredited because they had the misfortune to come to the fore at the same time as nasty capitalist individualism. Note the weak, unsupported causality of 'emerges alongside', and the reductivism involved in claiming that the author is 'merely' a 'site traversed by meanings'. Of course, Fish would never do anything as straightforward as state that this is his view of the world: 'I am not affirming this view', he goes on, 'I am just observing that there are many who hold it' . (Of course you are.)

So faith can't be subjected to the cold light of reason, since 'reason' is just another kind of faith (neat). The way Fish goes on to develop this argument is both simplistic in the extreme, and at the same time wrapped up in the kind of post-modern verbal trickery that makes it look as though he's saying something clever. Rather than responding to his critics by arguing for the validity of religion's claims, Fish sidesteps their arguments by casting doubt on all notions of objective reality. Falling back on philosophical relativism is a strange way of defending belief systems that claim to hold the key to Absolute Truth, and the anti-rational evasions of Eagleton and Fish discredit the very cause they claim to defend.

As before, Fish's rhetorical contortions have sparked a lively debate - see the comments below, and over at Butterflies and Wheels, in addition to a mention of my post, you can find a link to Brian Leiter's dissection of Fish's philosophical incompetence. And see here for John Casey's analysis of Fish's equivocations.

...and there's more from Norm here.


Ophelia Benson said...

The bit where he says how clever somebody thinks he is is good, too.

Martin said...

Yes, another example of using someone else's voice to make a claim. Alongside the 'everything is a matter of faith, so I don't need to engage with your arguments' gambit, the 'I'm cleverer than Dawkins and Hitchens and everyone else thinks so too - so there!' seems to be Fish's only other argument.

Thanks for the comment - and for the link at B&W!

Rose said...

" . . . anti-rational evasions of Eagleton and Fish discredit the very cause they claim to defend." How could a defense of faith be anything but anti-rational?

(Btw I enjoyed you clear analysis of the article in question).

Martin said...

Thanks for the comment, Rose. Yes, a rational defence of faith does sound like a a tautology, doesn't it? But if I could play devil's (I mean, God's) advocate for a moment: there's a strong Catholic tradition, going back to Thomas Aquinas, of proposing 'rational' grounds for belief in God. Aquinas would turn in his grave at Fish's recourse to anti-rationalism to defend religion.

BLS Nelson said...

To be fair, Leiter didn't "dissect" anything; he just gave the philosophical equivalent of "Stanley Fish? Haw-haw!" and left it at that. It fell to the choir in the comments section to actually give any considered criticism.

Blog safe, blog responsibly. *nods*