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The Obfuscations of Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish has written:

“In the period between the attack on the World Trade Center towers and the American response, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times called to ask me if the events of the past weeks meant ‘the end of relativism.’ (I had an immediate vision of a headline—RELATIVISM ENDS: MILLIONS CHEER—and of a photograph with the caption, ‘At last, I can say what I believe and mean it.’) Well, if by relativism one means a condition of mind in which you are unable to prefer your own convictions and causes to the convictions and causes of your adversary, then relativism could hardly end because it never began. Our convictions are by definition preferred; that’s what makes them our convictions, and relativizing them is neither an option nor a danger. (In the strong sense of the term, no one has ever been or could be a relativist for no one has the ability to hold at arm’s length the beliefs that are the very foundation of his thought and action.) But if by relativism one means the practice of putting yourself in your adversary’s shoes, not in order to wear them as your own but in order to have some understanding (far short of approval) of why someone else—in your view, a deluded someone—might want to wear them, then relativism will not and should not end because it is simply another name for serious thought.”

  So the first way Fish envisions someone defining moral relativism is like this: “a condition of mind in which you are unable to prefer your own convictions and causes to the convictions and causes of your adversary, then relativism could hardly end because it never began. Our convictions are by definition preferred; that’s what makes them our convictions, and relativizing them is neither an option nor a danger.” Let’s call this the “preference” account of relativism. Fish rejects the idea that such relativism can or should go away because, after all, people holding beliefs means they take them seriously.

  And the second formulation of relativism goes like this: “the practice of putting yourself in your adversary’s shoes, not in order to wear them as your own but in order to have some understanding (far short of approval) of why someone else—in your view, a deluded someone—might want to wear them, then relativism will not and should not end because it is simply another name for serious thought.” Let’s call this the “empathy” variant of relativism. And again, Fish says this variant of relativism shouldn’t and can’t go away either.

  The problem here, as I see it, is that Fish has offered two highly idiosyncratic definitions of relativism. Ethical relativism is the view that says morality is relative—usually to culture, though some relativize it to subcultures or even individuals. It’s a subjective understanding of morality in the sense that there aren’t objectively true moral answers—instead the content of morality is a function of individual, subcultural, or cultural choice. The problems confronting ethical relativism are legion and well-rehearsed. What’s interesting to me about Fish is that he simply tries sidestepping all of that by offering two accounts of relativism that have nothing essentially to do with it.

  Consider the preference variant. Fish is of course entirely right to say people prefer their own beliefs. But if so, why would he think that anyone means by relativism the denial of such a thing? If a student did such a thing in a paper, I’d rake him over the coals. So why on earth is Fish, an established academic, doing such a thing?

  Take the empathy variant. There’s nothing indigenous to relativism that involves putting yourself into your enemy’s shoes to see things from his perspective. That may be a cultural or subcultural approach, but it equally well may not be, in which it would be, by relativistic lights, the wrong thing to do. If someone wants a principled reason to embrace judicious tolerance and a cultivated sense of empathy, he needs to look in direction other than relativism. In other words, any good reasons there are to cultivate such attitudes most assuredly don’t come from relativism. So why treat such a thing as relativism’s distinguishing or defining feature except to answer the easy question and avoid the hard ones?

  Fish is an academic who works with words. Remarkable to me how willing he is to bastardize them with such shameless and reckless abandon, and that an outfit like the New York Times accords space to such obfuscation while turning down so many pieces far more worthy but written by folks less well known. For he employed the same procedure in an October, 2001 NYT commentary on 9/11 when he reduced “postmodernism” to merely this: “The only thing postmodern thought argues against is the hope of justifying our response to the attacks in universal terms that would be persuasive to everyone, including our enemies.”

  Postmodernism means lots of things, but surely what it doesn’t mean is the mere suggestion that we can’t persuade terrorists that their tactics are wrong—a recognition anyone has who’s spent more than an hour engaged in substantive debate. Postmodernism isn’t without its insights—the need to see other perspectives, recognize our own shortcomings, demonize opponents, etc. (though I hardly think we need postmodernism to grasp such truths). But I simply don’t see how discussion is advanced when, confronted with the flaws and fallacies of one’s approach, one simply reduces the view in question to an isolated, incidental, innocuous thread and argue it’s harmless, while overlooking the plethora of troublesome and profoundly counterintuitive implications of its more robust (and honest) versions. Serious academics should do a whole lot better.