Home > Uncategorized > Stanley Fish responds to critics, underwhelmingly

Stanley Fish responds to critics, underwhelmingly

A few posts ago I commented on Stanley Fish’s review of Terry Eagleton’s book attacking the “new atheists.”  Well Fish is back to defend himself against all those simpleminded critics that believe that evidence and reason are more than just subjective concepts.  To Professor Fish everything is subjective, no real world exists to which the human mind can observe, therefore people who have faith, I suppose, that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse are on the same ground as those who trust that if I drop a ball it will fall down.  Here is an example of his “reasoning.”

Let’s say (to give a humble example from literary studies) that there is a dispute about the authorship of a poem. A party to the dispute might perform comparative analyses of the writings of rival candidates, examine letters and personal libraries, research the records of printers and publishers, look at the history of reception, etc. Everyone who engages in the dispute will do his or her work in relation to well-established notions of what counts as evidence for authorship and accepted criteria for determining whether or not the evidence marshaled is persuasive.

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? (“Writing,” says Barthes, “is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin.”)

Got that?  This passes as argument to a lot of people; and apparently the New York Times.  I encourage you to read his whole argument so you don’t think I’m quote-mining. Here’s my humble response, which I posted in the comments.

God exists or it doesn’t. A specific author (or group of authors) for a poem literally wrote it. If author X actually wrote the poem (whether as a conduit for a generation or zeitgeist or not) then evidence that seems to point to author Q is wrong if someone calls it evidence that author Q wrote the poem in question. It doesn’t matter if they have faith that author Q wrote it or is the true spokesperson for his generation or anything else. Professor Fish, do you really believe that no one can be correct or incorrect on the question of whether god exists or not? Is it even possible to you that an atheist is right? I’m an atheist but I believe it is possible I’m wrong – I just haven’t seen evidence that a god exists.

If evidence cannot be evaluated without a faith that god exists or doesn’t, what is a person questioning his faith to do? Does no objective reason exist for which he can look to persuade him one way or the other? If that is true, why do you bother writing anything because that must apply to all things not just supernatural entities? Those are meant as serious questions.

Look we all have to “see through a glass darkly” but there is still a world to be seen.  Just because it’s not always clear what is true or false does not mean all worldviews are equally valid.  Good grief; that such muddled thinking passes as argument is so frustrating sometimes.  

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