Commentary Magazine

The Trouble With Principle by Stanley Fish

The Trouble with Principle
by Stanley Fish
Harvard. 328 pp. $24.95

Of all the controversial figures in today’s academy, Stanley Fish perhaps tops the list. An English professor and Milton scholar by training, Fish first achieved celebrity by helping to develop “reader-response” theory, the idea that literary texts have no meaning apart from what readers bring to them. Then came his famed chairmanship in the late 1980’s of the once-sleepy English Department at Duke, where he gathered around himself a veritable vanguard of fellow postmodernist theorists. More recently, Fish has become a dean at the little-known branch of the University of Illinois at Chicago, where—for an astonishing annual salary of $230,000—he has already begun to hire the hottest professors in cutting-edge fields like “queer studies.”

Nor has Fish hesitated to go on the attack when the radical ideas with which he is associated have been challenged. At Duke, he raised a furor when he denounced the National Association of Scholars—a respected organization of over 2,000 tradition-minded academics—as racist, sexist, and homophobic, and called on the university to blacklist any professor who joined. On the op-ed page of the New York Times, he has defended contemporary “scholarship” on “body parts, excretory functions, the sex trade, dildos, bisexuality, transvestism, and lesbian pornography,” accusing those who do not want public dollars to support such work of not “know[ing] anything except what they don’t like.”

In light of Fish’s colorful record of service to the academic Left, it has come as something of a surprise to some readers that his latest book is a far-reaching critique of . . . academic liberalism. Has Fish changed his mind, or switched sides? Far from it. But even while providing further evidence of the destructiveness of his own ideas, he does have many worthwhile things to say about his less radical peers and colleagues on the Left.



Fish’s main target in The Trouble With Principle is the influential school of liberal thought developed by such well-known theorists as John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Amy Gutmann, and Jürgen Habermas. What unites these writers—and their many followers, especially in legal circles—is a deep commitment to the principle of “neutrality,” that is, to the idea that the essence of liberalism is to be open to all points of view and ways of life.

As Fish convincingly shows, however, this pose of neutrality is little more than a sham, a rhetoric of tolerance that often serves as a cover for intolerance. Thus, for instance, Gutmann—the director of the University Center for Human Values at Princeton—welcomes fundamental disagreements among the members of a liberal community, but only so long as these disagreements are “intellectual” in character—a qualification, Fish points out, that allows her to banish from public discussion those whose opinions about blacks and homosexuals she happens to find abhorrent. Similarly, Habermas, Germany’s leading social theorist, finds no room in “civilized debate” for religious fundamentalists. As Fish dryly notes, “It is a strange openness indeed that is defined by what it peremptorily excludes.”

Fish uses a number of court cases on freedom of speech and religion to demonstrate how liberalism’s claim of neutrality is, in practice, a smokescreen for its own brand of intolerance. One of his favorite examples involves a born-again Christian named Vicki Frost, who sued her daughter’s public school because it assigned a textbook whose respectful treatment of all religions, according to Frost, undermined her daughter’s beliefs. In response, the school contended that the purpose of the textbook was not to indoctrinate the child but simply to expose her to a variety of viewpoints, preparing her to make her own choices.

Needless to say, the school’s argument prevailed. But as Fish observes, the distinction between “indoctrination” and mere “exposure” invoked by the school, and accepted by the court, is hardly a neutral one. Rather, it is part and parcel of liberal ideology, and reflects a commitment to the distinctive liberal ideal of “autonomous decisionmaking.” That ideal frankly discriminates against a religious believer like Vicki Frost, who could not possibly want her daughter to treat all opinions as equally likely to be true; she wants her daughter to be taught the Truth.



The point of all this, as Fish hastens to say, is not to give aid and comfort to religious believers, or for that matter to conservatives. To the contrary, Fish objects to the idea of neutrality in large part because he thinks it is useful to the other side. It disarms liberals, giving them a bad conscience for wanting to suppress patriarchal, authority-bound religions, or for wishing to keep the neo-Nazis from marching in Skokie or pornographers from publishing material harmful to the interests of women. Worse, neutral principles can be turned directly against liberal policies, as when critics of affirmative action appeal to the need for a color-blind society.

In the end, Fish’s complaint against liberals is not that, despite their rhetoric, they are intolerant; rather, it is that they are not intolerant enough. As he says of Amy Gutmann, her “instinct to exclude is the right one,” but

her gesture of exclusion is too tame—it amounts to little more than holding her nose in disgust—and falls far short of wounding the enemy at its heart. A deeper wound will be inflicted only by methods and weapons her liberalism disdains: by acts of ungenerosity, intolerance, perhaps even repression, by acts that respond to evil not by tolerating it . . . but by trying to defeat it.

Fish wants a morality of ends, not means. His guide, he tells us, is Machiavelli.

Nor is that all. The deeper problem with neutral principle, as Fish never tires of saying, is that no such thing exists. We are, he insists, “socially constructed” beings, “embedded” selves, and cannot stand above our desires and goals; we can only acknowledge them, whatever they should happen to be, and live them out. Pretend though we may to transcend the particulars of our own situation, appeal though we may to reason, moral truth, or justice, our lives, Fish concludes, consist of nothing but “ideology and politics.”



There is much to recommend in The Trouble With Principle, not least the wit and elegance with which Stanley Fish punctures the pretensions of modern liberalism. One only wishes that more professors were capable of writing, for example, that the ACLU is “that curious organization whose mission is to find things it hates and then to grow them,” or that a liberal public forum is one in which “you can’t say kike and you can’t say God.”

But Fish’s major premise—that contemporary liberalism as a whole has somehow become fastidiously and self-destructively devoted to principle—is unconvincing. Indeed, American liberals have shown great flexibility in recent decades when their ostensible ideals have collided with their political ends. Fish’s claims notwithstanding, the principle of color-blind justice has done little to prevent liberals from embracing forced busing, lower academic standards for minorities, and racial preferences, nor have their scruples about freedom of speech and religion kept them from advocating speech codes at our universities and branding religious believers as “zealots” and “hate-mongers.” More recently, when sexual-harassment law might have destroyed the Clinton presidency, liberals were notable for standing not by their supposed principles, but by their man.

One might point to any number of reasons for this sorry turn in American liberalism. But one of them surely has been the gradual dissolution in elite culture of any belief in transcendent standards, political or otherwise. When truth itself is thought to be “relative”—a product simply of one’s time and place—ideals begin to lose their hold, giving a freer rein to mere prejudice and self-interest. What Stanley Fish fails to see, in other words, is that his ideas—and those of others like him—have long since helped to create on the American Left the very ideology of power that he accuses it of lacking. Whether this fact is, as he would have it, a cause for celebration, and whether liberals should be grateful to him for calling attention to it, are a different matter.


About the Author

Adam Wolfson is editor of the Public Interest

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