Shaking the Anti-Foundation


The Trouble With Principle, by Stanley Fish, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 328 pages, $24.95

Stanley Fish is one of a handful of American academics—Harold Bloom, Camille Paglia, and Henry Louis Gates also come to mind—whose reputations transcend their professional disciplines, whose books flirt with bestseller lists, and whose media audience eclipses their actual readership. As public intellectuals, they occupy a peculiar rung on the celebrity ladder—potential panelists on Politically Incorrect if not quite worth a box on Hollywood Squares.

In The Trouble With Principle, Fish—current Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois and former head of the English department at Duke—turns his attention to the practical dangers and logical paradoxes of reasoning from principle. He argues that strict adherence to any abstract principle—call it "rationality," "impartiality," or "tolerance"—is in fact no more than a fetish of a "liberal Enlightenment" that insists "our allegiances [should not be] to persons or to wished-for outcomes but to abstract norms that…are indifferent to outcomes." For Fish, that's a fetish every bit as dogmatic as the dogmas against which classical liberalism defines itself. Liberal Enlightenment, according to Fish, should thus be recognized as only another competing faith. Even though it purports to arbitrate fairly and "disinterestedly" between the opposing sides in every dispute, it is actually a side unto itself, pre-eminent at the moment perhaps, but still just fighting it out in the public sphere with its competition.

The book is actually a gathering of somewhat disparate essays around which Fish has tossed the conceptual lasso of "anti-foundationalism"—the belief that all knowledge is socially constructed, that truth exists only within ways of looking at the world, and that no particular way of looking at the world is any more or less valid than another. The advantage, for Fish, of anti-foundationalism is that it enables him to call into question everything—except, of course, anti-foundationalism. His stance metamorphoses him into the ultimate gadfly. Read in that spirit, and bearing in mind the metaphysical heft of your average fly, his collected buzzings offer occasional insights.

Fish has a broad range of interests. Essays on constitutional law are interrupted by lengthy disquisitions on the character of Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost. Hobbes, Locke, and Mill are trotted out like the old warhorses they are, put through their paces, and then returned to their stalls. Even St. Augustine has a cameo leading up to a consideration of 1964's landmark legal case, New York Times v. Sullivan. In Sullivan, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of the press shielded the media from libel suits for publishing defamatory reports about public figures, even if the reports turned out to be false, as long as they were made without malicious intent. That's a decision which, according to Fish, "privileges expression as a value over the substantive worth and veracity of that which is expressed." Rather predictably, Fish mocks a gathering of political conservatives in Washington, D.C.; less predictable are his remarks on the anti-abortion movement, which are measured, even compassionate. He does not dismiss religious activism out of hand, as is the wont of many left-leaning academics. In fact, Fish reserves his nastiest comments for the lefty theorist Jurgen Habermas.

Fish is at his very best in a chapter called "Boutique Multiculturalism." He probes the underlying inconsistencies of the multiculturalism movement, dividing multiculturalists into two classes: boutique multiculturalists and strong multiculturalists. The former profess respect and sympathy for exotic cultures, "but [they] will always stop short of approving other cultures at a point where some value at their center generates an act that offends" the boutique multiculturalist. As merrily as the boutique multiculturalist may celebrate the incidentals of Islamic culture, for example, he stands appalled at the death warrant issued against Salman Rushdie after the 1988 publication of The Satanic Verses. The boutique multiculturalist, in short, "resists the force of the culture he appreciates at precisely the point at which it matters most to its strongly committed members."

As Fish notes, the resistance of the boutique multiculturalist to the fatwa is guided by a principle of rationality and the belief system of liberal Enlightenment that coalesces around it: 1) that all people, as rational beings, are really the same under the skin; 2) that evident differences among people, such as religion, ethnicity, race, sex, and class, are superficial, "matters of lifestyle"; and 3) that common humanity requires open-mindedness to dissent. Hence, the boutique multiculturalist's ever-so-reasonable response to Rushdie's book: If it bothers you, don't read it. Religious duty—as well as ethnic loyalty, racial solidarity, sexual identity, and class consciousness—is thus trivialized by the boutique multiculturalist, "who does not and cannot take seriously the core values" of the other culture. Core values, indeed, are dismissed as though they could and should be shrugged off at a moment's notice.

By contrast, the strong multiculturalist "will want to accord a deep respect to all cultures at their core, for he believes that each has the right to form its own identity and nourish its own sense of what is rational and humane." Tolerance, rather than mere rationality, is the guiding principle for the strong multiculturalist. Yet even the strong multiculturalist cannot go all the way: "Either he stretches his toleration so that it extends to the intolerance residing at the heart of the culture he would honor, in which case tolerance is no longer his guiding principle, or he condemns the core intolerance of that culture…in which case he is no longer according it respect at the point where its distinctiveness is most obviously at stake." Hard cases, such as the Rushdie fatwa, force the hand of the strong multiculturalist and reveal him to be either a boutique multiculturalist or no multiculturalist at all—for if he goes all the way and embraces the fatwa, he becomes a "uniculturalist" who approves the effort to stamp out opposing points of view. Since boutique multiculturalism is a mere posture and strong multiculturalism an impossibility, Fish concludes, "no one could possibly be a multiculturalist in any interesting and coherent sense."

As Fish is aware, however, multiculturalism is more than an intellectual exercise. It's a social movement that presents practical difficulties. Should colleges allow ethnic dormitories, even if they result in de facto segregation? Should speech codes be enacted in the workplace to ensure a non-oppressive environment, even if they infringe on an individual's right of free expression? Rather than addressing these practical issues with "mind numbing abstractions" such as "the meaning of democracy, the content of universal rights, the nature of community, the primacy of the individual and so on," Fish offers "inspired adhoccery." In other words, forget about applying an overarching principle and treat each situation as it comes up "as an opportunity for improvisation." Go with what works—since, according to Fish, that's what we always do anyway.

The trouble with principled arguments, in Fish's nutshell, is that when we apply them to practical, real world situations, we wind up with results that are repugnant—at least to enlightened liberals. A principled formulation of the First Amendment turns out to support the right of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, or of anti-abortion extremists to post hit lists of physicians, including names and addresses, on the Internet. Actually, a more accurate title for Fish's book would be What's So Bad about Hypocrisy? We're all hypocrites in the intellectual foxholes, Fish maintains, and the effort to pretend otherwise is self-defeating. The single hypocrisy that Fish would have us shun is the pretense that we are above hypocrisy; or, in positive terms, the single principle to which Fish would have us cling is that we must always remain, to a certain degree, unprincipled.

This isn't a bad analysis—it's well worth remembering that hard cases test the internal tensions of every principled position. And Fish constructs parallel cases against unwavering champions of the First Amendment: In the end, they must silence those who would silence them. And against stalwart defenders of academic freedom: In the end, they must oppress those who would oppress them.

But he pushes the argument too far—and here he is betrayed by his anti-foundationalist theory. From the nifty though slight observation that a little hypocrisy is, from a practical standpoint, inevitable, or that perfect consistency is, from a moral standpoint, untenable, Fish derives the sort of utter non sequitur that makes literary theorists objects of derision among trained logicians. Namely, he argues that the quest to be guided by uniform principles is idiosyncratic to liberal Enlightenment and thus a politically freighted enterprise.

This is simply silly—beginning with Fish's use of the word political. "The game of neutral principles," he declares, "is really a political game." And again: "Liberal neutrality does political work so well because it has managed to assume the mantle of being above politics." And he titles the first section of his book "Politics All The Way Down"—by which he means that reason itself is a political tool.

The problem with such pronouncements is that if all world views are "political," then the word becomes meaningless. Logicians know this as the law of connotation and denotation: the more broadly a term is applied, the less it actually signifies. If I say "All men are poets," then the predicate in "Keats is a poet" adds nothing to the subject "Keats." (We notice this phenomenon nowadays in charges of racism; the charge is made so often it is no longer clear what it means.) If, as Fish wants to argue, all world views are political, then the attribute "political" simply becomes implicit in the concept of a worldview.

What Fish is trying to say, however, is that all world views are equally arbitrary—that is, no particular perspective bears a closer resemblance to objective reality than any other. Furthermore, people adopt their perspectives based ultimately on their self-interest. How we look at the world, in essence, is conditioned less by the way the world actually is than by the way we want it to be. Attempts to justify one perspective and denigrate another are always made from within the conceptual framework of the perspective being justified—thus the enterprise is inescapably "political."

None of which inhibits Fish himself from privileging his own perspective. He argues in favor of affirmative action by citing "the undoubted facts" of systematic discrimination. And he thereafter rejects the notorious argument made in Richard Hernnstein's and Charles Murray's 1994 book The Bell Curve that (in Fish's summary) "blacks occupy inferior social and economic positions because they are naturally inferior" on the grounds that there exists "an overwhelming scientific consensus that the concept of race has no biological foundation." By invoking a scientific perspective to reject a conclusion he does not want to entertain, Fish privileges reason over faith. But isn't this hypocritical?

Exactly! Fish would respond.

Despite his own practice, therefore—and hence invincibly—he is still willing to insist that there is no epistemological distinction to be drawn between a system rooted in principles of reason or revealed faith. "Rational deliberation," he declares, is itself an orthodoxy, "and the faith…is that through rational deliberation we shall arrive at the truth."

What Fish has failed to notice (and this is the perpetual relativist blindspot) is that the exercise of reason, at least on the level of first principles, is common to every society that has ever existed. Among ancient societies, for example, the eruption of a volcano might be ascribed to the anger of a god; among contemporary societies, it would more likely be ascribed to geothermal forces. Regardless of who is right, the process of rational deliberation is constant. The volcano erupted for a reason; something caused it to happen. That is the law of causality—which is not one way people have of looking at the world but the way they have of looking at the world.

From a recognition of the universality of rational deliberation follows a critical distinction between, on the one hand, societies that permit the exercise of reason to run its course relatively unfettered and, on the other hand, societies that willfully subordinate the exercise of reason to non-rational concerns. Naturally, the division is never cut and dried; Fish is quite right in his contention that a society's dominant world view always, to some extent, hems in its pursuit of truth. But the fetters are tighter in some societies than in others. There is a clear difference between a university whose motto is "Truth through investigation and experiment" and one whose motto is "Glory unto God in all things."

Likewise, there is a clear difference between a society that values individual freedom over collective stability versus one that values that latter over the former, or between a society sustained through republican democracy and one sustained through totalitarian force. Fish would argue that such a difference is, at bottom, merely a difference in perspectives—in other words, a political difference, not an ethical one. That is his perspective, and, despite its horrific implications, he will not be shaken from it.

Of this last point, I am certain. For in the interest of full disclosure (another principle) I must note that Fish and I engaged in a lengthy e-mail exchange last year after he took exception to a newspaper column I wrote. Though I cannot claim him as a friend, during the course of our correspondence, I found him to be a person of conscience, manners, and not-inconsiderable charm. As an intellectual, he probes effectively but prescribes badly. Despite his prominence, therefore, he'll never be more than a gadfly. But his buzzing is almost always provocative.

Mark Goldblatt ( has written for The New York Times, The New York Post, The Daily News, Newsday, and Commentary. He teaches English and the history of ideas at Fashion Institute of Technology of the State University of New York. His novel Sloth has been serialized by the webzine Ducts (