Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Tuesday July 3, 2007

Filed under: General — m759 @ 9:29 PM
The Ignorance
of Stanley Fish

(continued from
June 18, 2002)

The “ignorance” referred to
is Fish’s ignorance of the
philosophical background
of the words
“particular” and “universal.”

Postmodern Warfare:
The Ignorance of Our
Warrior Intellectuals,”
by Stanley Fish,
Harper’s Magazine,
July 2002, contains
the following passages:

“The deepest strain in a religion is the particular and particularistic doctrine it asserts at its heart, in the company of such pronouncements as ‘Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.’ Take the deepest strain of religion away… and what remains are the surface pieties– abstractions without substantive bite– to which everyone will assent because they are empty, insipid, and safe. It is this same preference for the vacuously general over the disturbingly particular that informs the attacks on college and university professors who spoke out in ways that led them to be branded as outcasts by those who were patrolling and monitoring the narrow boundaries of acceptable speech. Here one must be careful, for there are fools and knaves on all sides.”

“Although it may not at first be obvious, the substitution for real religions of a religion drained of particulars is of a piece with the desire to exorcise postmodernism.”

“What must be protected, then, is the general, the possibility of making pronouncements from a perspective at once detached from and superior to the sectarian perspectives of particular national interests, ethnic concerns, and religious obligations; and the threat to the general is posed by postmodernism and strong religiosity alike, postmodernism because its critique of master narratives deprives us of a mechanism for determining which of two or more fiercely held beliefs is true (which is not to deny the category of true belief, just the possibility of identifying it uncontroversially), strong religiosity because it insists on its own norms and refuses correction from the outside. The antidote to both is the separation of the private from the public, the establishing of a public sphere to which all could have recourse and to the judgments of which all, who are not criminal or insane, would assent. The point of the public sphere is obvious: it is supposed to be the location of those standards and measures that belong to no one but apply to everyone. It is to be the location of the universal. The problem is not that there is no universal–the universal, the absolutely true, exists, and I know what it is. The problem is that you know, too, and that we know different things, which puts us right back where we were a few sentences ago, armed with universal judgments that are irreconcilable, all dressed up and nowhere to go for an authoritative adjudication.

What to do? Well, you do the only thing you can do, the only honest thing: you assert that your universal is the true one, even though your adversaries clearly do not accept it, and you do not attribute their recalcitrance to insanity or mere criminality–the desired public categories of condemnation–but to the fact, regrettable as it may be, that they are in the grip of a set of beliefs that is false. And there you have to leave it, because the next step, the step of proving the falseness of their beliefs to everyone, including those in their grip, is not a step available to us as finite situated human beings. We have to live with the knowledge of two things: that we are absolutely right and that there is no generally accepted measure by which our rightness can be independently validated. That’s just the way it is, and we should just get on with it, acting in accordance with our true beliefs (what else could we do?) without expecting that some God will descend, like the duck in the old Groucho Marx TV show, and tell us that we have uttered the true and secret word.”

From the public spheres
of the Pennsylvania Lottery:

PA Lottery logo

PA Lottery July 3, 2007: Mid-day 105, Evening 268

105 —

Log24 on 1/05:

“‘From your lips
to God’s ears,’
 goes the old
Yiddish wish.

 The writer, by contrast,
tries to read God’s lips
and pass along
the words….”

— Richard Powers   

268 —

This is a page number
that appears, notably,
in my June 2002
journal entry on Fish
and again in an entry,
The Transcendent Signified,”
dated July 26, 2003,
that argues against
Fish’s school, postmodernism,
 and in favor of what the pomos
call “logocentrism.”

Page 268
of Simon Blackburn’s Think
(Oxford Univ. Press, 1999):

“It is said that the students of medieval Paris came to blows in the streets over the question of universals. The stakes are high, for at issue is our whole conception of our ability to describe the world truly or falsely, and the objectivity of any opinions we frame to ourselves. It is arguable that this is always the deepest, most profound problem of philosophy. It structures Plato’s (realist) reaction to the sophists (nominalists). What is often called ‘postmodernism’ is really just nominalism, colourfully presented as the doctrine that there is nothing except texts. It is the variety of nominalism represented in many modern humanities, paralysing appeals to reason and truth.”

Fish may, if he wishes,
regard the particular
page number 268 as
delivered– five years late,
but such is philosophy–
by Groucho’s
winged messenger
in response to
Fish’s utterance of the
  “true and secret word”–
namely, “universal.”

When not arguing politics,
Fish, though from
a Jewish background, is
 said to be a Milton scholar.
Let us therefore hope he
is by now, or comes to be,
aware of the Christian
approach to universals–
an approach true to the
philosophical background
sketched in 1999 by
Blackburn and made
particular in a 1931 novel
 by Charles Williams,
The Place of the Lion.

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