The Fate of Ideas in the Modern Age: A Conversation with Stanley Fish

Interview with Stanley Fish
Thinking in Public
January 10, 2011

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them.  I’m Albert Mohler, your host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Mohler:                From time to time you have a conversation and you know even before the conversation happens basically where it’s going to go.  How it will begin and how it will end.  Well I’m about to start a conversation that is anything but predictable.  The conversation today is going to be with Stanley Fish, and I can tell you right now I really have no idea where this conversation is going.

Stanley Fish is an intellectual force of energy.  One of the most interesting people on the American intellectual scene, he is currently the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Humanities and Law at Florida International University.  He’s been there since 2005.  He’s the author of many works including the very interesting work Is there a Text in this Class?  The Authority of Interpretive Communities; The Trouble with Principle; Save the World on Your Own Time and most recently How to Write A Sentence.

Dr. Fish welcome to Thinking in Public.

Fish:                       Well, it’s a pleasure to be back.

Mohler:                It’s great to continue the conversation with you.  I’ve looked forward to this and in anticipation my mind was drawn back to one essay you wrote back in 1996 that quite frankly I read and re-read from time to time just coming to terms with it.  It’s entitled Why We Can’t Just All Get Along and in it you make the point that many Christians seem not to understand the kinds of claims that we ought to be making that create the problem of a direct collision with enlightenment values.  I’m just thinking about  the state of Christian intellectual conversation in a secular age.  What are you telling us here?

Fish:                       Well, I’m telling you that among other things, what enlightenment liberalism involves in part at least is a withdrawal from strong claim.  And instead the emphasis is placed on process, on the assurance that every voice will be heard and no voices will either be anointed in advance or demonized in advance.  What this means, as I put it somewhat tendentiously elsewhere, is that liberalism is a brief against conviction.  If you have a strong conviction, and by strong conviction, I mean a conviction that on a certain key matter what you believe is in fact true and true not only for you but for everyone.  And also you believe that those who have not yet seen this truth need to see it and should be brought to it.  If you have a strong view in relation to your own beliefs and convictions like that enlightenment liberalism will be suspicious of you and begin saying of you or calling you things like fanatic, rigid, doctrinaire, and dogmatic.

Mohler:                Well, indeed we’ve been called all those things.

Fish:                       Yes, I know.

Mohler:                One of the things you deal with in your essay and in fact you deal with three authors making arguments from a Christian perspective about what they would assert should be a corrective to the marginalization of strong Christian truth claims in the public culture.  And you say it just can’t happen.

Fish:                       Well, it can happen except on the terms that enlightenment liberalism authorizes.  The three authors, all very, very smart men, were trying to find a way to make the liberal sphere of intellectual conversation more hospitable to Christian discourse.  To give Christian or religious discourse in general a place at the table.  But the table is one structured so that no one is supposed to win the conversational contest.  It’s rather the virtue at least from this point of view, is in having a conversation in which everyone’s views are respected.  But to go back to what I said earlier, if in fact you have strong convictions and believe that those who hold other convictions are wrong and that the convictions that they espouse are false you’re not going to accord them with respect because it is not, I believe, either intellectually or morally right to respect falseness and error.  But again that kind of talk the talk that I just indulged in is not welcomed in the liberal marketplace of ideas.

Mohler:                Well,indeed that is why these three authors wrote their works speaking of MichaelMcConnell, and Stephen Carter, and George Marsden.

Fish:                       Yes, all brilliant men and committed Christians.

Mohler:                When you come to the end of your argument you make a point however that I’ve never really seen a Christian pick up and deal with.  You make the argument that if indeed these Christians believe as they believe and we know they do.  You say they should not be calling merely for a place at the table they should be calling for the more or less establishment of the truth at the expense of the false.

Fish:                       That is true.  That is true.  That is what follows.  Now one other way to deal with the position of strong religious conviction in a politically universe is to withdraw from that universe and not attempt to work in it in an active way.  To regard yourself, and here I’m borrowing a term from a very good friend of mine, the theologian Stanley Hauerwas to regard yourself as a resident alien rather than as someone who is pitching in a strong way.  And that’s another possible way of dealing with the liberal world if as a committed religious person you find yourself situated in it.

Mohler:                Well, and indeed Professor Hauerwas the author of that book Resident Aliens along with the man who is now the bishop, the Methodist bishop of Alabama Will Willimon.

Fish:                       Willimon, yes.

Mohler:                Was indeed along with Willimon teaching at Duke University where you taught for many years and so it wasn’t a withdrawal as in an Amish or kind of radical anti-baptist withdraw  into a separate community it was an attempt within the universe of a major American research university to continue the conversation.

Fish:                       But they were both in the same place in that particular university that was a holdover from its Methodist establishment.  So they are teaching in the divinity school, although also having conversation with faculty and students in other programs.  And to some extent a true divinity school atmosphere is a part from, even if it is situated in close physical proximity to the rest of the university.  But you mentioned the Amish and that’s an interesting case quite literally because of the famous Supreme Court case Wisconsin versus Yoder where the Supreme Court one time, and one time only, allowed a sectarian group the Amish to withdraw from the generally applicable law that required all other parents to keep their children in school or in some kind of formal education through the age I believe of sixteen and the reason that the court did this is because they were assured by the Amish experience and philosophy that the state would never have any trouble with these people and indeed that the state would not even be called on to provide these people very many services.  So I’ve always looked at that case, which is anomalous in the Supreme Court history, as a self congratulatory gesture by the liberal establishment.  But one which they knew wouldn’t cost them anything.

Mohler:                Well, you say they knew it wouldn’t cost them anything but the Yoder decision really laid the legal groundwork for what became the homeschooling movement in America.

Fish:                       it did and also it is quoted, it was quoted and re-quoted in those days when the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was being debated and then passed and then weakened, although it still had some force.  Yes, that’s one of the interesting things about a Supreme Court decision.  Whatever reasons or motives the justices might have had for doing something what they do, that is the words they write, then become available to any number of parties for a very long time and of course they, that is the justices, cannot control what happens to their decision you cannot be guaranteed that their motives will be the motives of those who follow them.

Mohler:                And that’s especially true when you’re dead.

Fish:                       Yes, so I’ve heard.

Mohler:                Well, I want to go back to your essay again in 1996 you basically said, and you put this in the voice of someone who is responding to Stephen Carter, “we already had the enlightenment and religion lost.”  And you’re really making the case that in a liberal society and by that we mean the kind of participatory democracy, the regime of reason and process, strong conviction just doesn’t have a place.  And so those of us, and I’m speaking here as an evangelical Christian, for whom conviction is first and foremost I’m just trying to process exactly where you would have us to understand this.  You sound at moments like Robert Audi saying that the only entrance to the public square has to be with an absolute neutrality of both argument and of motivation.  Then, elsewhere in your writings you say something that sounds quite different.  Help me to figure this out.

Fish:                       Well, that’s a very good reference.  Audi is on one end of the continuum and as you correctly indicated he not only believes as some others do that when you walk into the public sphere you should always translate your proposals however religious may be their origins into secular terms.  Audi is even more severe.  He says you should not have religious motivations in mind when you think about taking action in the public sphere.  But then at other times of course, as you know, I am saying such a separation or compartmentalization is an impossible one and that demands that are being made under the slogan of being fair to religion couldn’t possibly be fair to religion if the primary thrust of religion, that is to announce, proclaim, and spread the truth, is blunted.

Mohler:                Well, interestingly, you remember in your essay and other species of your writing, you make the implication that there are certain forms of religion that have made peace with the enlightenment.  You refer to Lockian Protestantism which you know I thought was a fascinating way of talking about main-line more liberal Protestantism.  And the secular world doesn’t see that kind of Protestantism which doesn’t make truth claims as a threat.

Fish:                       Not at all.  And what marks that form of Protestantism which you can see beautifully articulated in Locke’s letter concerning toleration is his fidelity to the public private split.  In American life, that is in American political life, has structure by enlightenment thinking.  Religion is something that you should be able to fully exercise so long as that exercise is private.  So long as you understand that your religious life is a personal one.  The relationship between you and your God most appropriately therefore exercise in the home, in the church, in the mosque, in the synagogue, and I guess most centrally in the heart.  The public sphere is then an area in which you’re supposed to leave your religious convictions at home.  Religions which are able to do that, religions which do very nicely conform themselves to the public/private distinction are not going to have any difficulties in the modern enlightenment liberal world.  But once a religion begins to act in a way that suggests a desire to have its tenants and beliefs written into law or to become a continuing part of public institutions the liberal forces in our society, the forces of liberalism, become very nervous.  But again, there’s always the sequestering move which is not only the move performed by the Amish but is performed with the blessing of the New York state judicial system performed by orthodox Jews who are given control in at least one instance of a town in a school district in New York.  There’s an endless inter-play between all of the possible forms of dealing with a religion that I have been naming.  And everything keeps on coming back and returning and I don’t myself see that there will be ever any resolution to this set of problems.  We’ll keep acting them out over and over again.

Mohler:                Well, what makes a conversation like this so powerful is that you learn something you realize you otherwise wouldn’t know and you hear something you otherwise wouldn’t hear.  And so I want to ask you, just point blank, as you’re speaking to an evangelical Christian and I ask you what is the place for Christian entry into modern intellectual life?  What would you respond?

Fish:                       I would say that since 1996 when the essay you were referring to was published things have changed markedly.  And changed in ways that some people would applaud and other people would find distressing.  I do believe that the old set of assumptions that in a sense told religion yes, please be exercised but only at home, that set of assumptions has been successfully challenged in many areas.  In part, because of the faith based initiatives that were launched in the George W. Bush administration now continued at least in spirit by President Obama who always speaks strongly of the place of faith in his life.  And, I believe that in terms of actual first amendment juris prudence there has been more and more of a breach of the so called wall of separation.  So much so that the establishment clause which was originally read as for bidding even this…which I’m sure you know even three tenths of expense of religion institutions the establishment clause no long adheres to that narrow reading is no longer read rather in that narrow way.  And, in recent years there has been more and more commerce between the funds of the state and the maintenance of religious establishments.  It also remains the case that being religious or claiming to be religious, or claiming to be a person of faith is still an absolute requirement in our American political life.  I can easily imagine, of course, a woman being elected president.  I can easily imagine a Jew being elected president.  I can even imagine, although this might take a little time, a gay person being elected president.  But it’s hard for me to imagine an atheist being elected president.

Mohler:                I knew when I started the conversation with Professor Fish that I would want to go at that essay he wrote in 1996 for First Things-Why We Can’t Just All Get Along.” And the reason for that is because he ends it in a place that I think many evangelicals, indeed many theists, don’t want to go.  He says that if we listen to ourselves and to the truth claims that we’re making we should not be asking just for a place at the table we should be asking for the falsehood to be eradicated and the truth to be recognized.  Now, there’s a sense in which we know that is exactly right.  And we have, or should have, reflexes to know that when we under display, when we under articulate, when we under claim the gospel, we’re doing something deeply injurious to our Christian testimony.   At the same time we also know that there’s a difference between preaching that takes place in our church and a conversation in the secular square where we’re trying to find an opportunity to speak legitimately with integrity as Christians to folks who are not ready to hear us on those same terms.  That’s why talking to someone like Stanley Fish is so important.  It’s really an exercise in doing what we know we ought to be doing.

Dr. Stanley Fish has been known as a provocateur within the academic environment for the really the extent of his career and with many different twists and turns and different institutions he has started a conversation that tends to continue in his wake.  Dr. Fish let me ask you, when you deal with the issue of academic freedom, you knew you were stepping into an ongoing controversy and yet you made some strange intellectual bed fellows in your argument about academic freedom.  How did that come about?

Fish:                       Well, I was always disturbed when I was a faculty member and before I became an administrator by the ease with which the phrase “academic freedom” was thrown around by faculty members who as far as I could tell, were just looking for a way to avoid fulfilling their responsibility.  Academic freedom was understood by many to be a carte blanche ticket, I can do anything I like in my classroom, I don’t even necessarily have to hold every class that is in the schedule, I don’t have to stick to the syllabus as the catalog prints it and as the students who entered the class read it, etc, etc.  Academic freedom has also been invoked as the reason for bringing one’s politics directly into the classroom and attempting to sphere one’s students into some ideological direction.  I always knew in my heart that that was wrong and in recent years I begun to think about it and to write about it.  And basically what I said is that the term academic freedom, perhaps an unfortunate phrase, should be understood with the emphasis on the word academic as opposed to the word freedom.  And too many people seize on the word freedom in the phrase academic freedom and take it to mean they are free to do what they like.  And what I want to say in general is no, what you are free to do, or should be free to do within certain constraints is the academic job.  But if you’re not doing that academic job because you’re irresponsible in your pedagogical habits or because you decided to trade in the academic job for a political job, or a therapy job, if you’re not doing that then you should have no freedom at all because you’re no longer performing as an academic.  That’s the basic argument.

Mohler:                Well, and it is a very controversial argument when you place it along side what has been the long fought definition or shall we say inclination of academic freedom as put forward by groups like the American Association of University Professors and lately by one of its seminal figures…Carey Nelson.  One of the interesting questions I have in all of this, and I guess it comes down to this question, given the prevailing understanding of academic freedom in the larger American university culture, how is anyone ever judged to be outside of that freedom?

Fish:                       Well, that is a good question.  In fact, I wrote about a professor in Canada who is or was a professor of physics in one of the good Canadian universities.  What he decided to do was something he gave the name academic squatting to.  By that he meant when he was assigned, and this is not a hypothetical example, this is actually what happened, when he was assigned to teach a course in environmental physics he told the students on the first day two things.  First, you all are going to get A+ and we’re not going to do environmental physics we’re going to do political activism.   By which he meant not study political activism which would be an appropriate academic objective study done according to the usual academic standards of evidence and assessment.  No, students in this course we’re going to learn how to be political activists.  And for him, academic freedom was a mantra that justified this action even though as I pointed out he was busily subverting the very institution that was giving him a room to teach in and a salary to live on.  One more thing, the same expansive notion of the phrase academic freedom led for example in England to a great extent, in this country to a lesser extent, the boycott by some academics of Israeli institutions and the refusal to deal with professionally deal with Israeli academics unless they, that is the Israeli academics repudiated the policies of their own government.  How in the world you can get from being a member of an academic community to acting in that obviously political way has always been beyond me.

Mohler:                Well, it may be beyond you but I’m going to stretch you on that.  Because you’ve been a department chair in a major university, you’ve been an academic dean, and now a distinguished university professor, so you’ve been on all sides of this equation.  You know, what is it about America’s academic culture and it’s intellectual environment that leads to these kind of outrageous claims?  And why is it that so many professors seem not to want to teach their discipline but to teach something else?  How did that come about?

Fish:                       I don’t know exactly.  It has something to do with the fact that many in the 1960’s who saw their immediate revolutionary hopes fail or not completely succeed transfer those hopes to the academy where they felt perhaps that although we can’t win the political battle in the fashion we had hoped to win it, we can win nevertheless by producing generations of students who will do the kind of work we believe should be done in and for society.  So it was, sometimes the rhetoric that accompanied this shift, was the rhetoric of unfreezing or uncongealing the long held prejudices, biases, and commonplace traditions of the ivory tower.  So with a revolt against ivory towers which was thought of as hauntingly hermetic sealing the academy and students away from the society at large.  So, and I’m sure, there are other factors, there were other factors involved too.  One of them which we would have to take about three programs to discuss was the introduction of a certain form of theory especially into the social sciences and humanities and the politicization of that theory at a certain point.  So that there was thought to be a passage, a direct passage, from a certain account of the way in which language and evidence worked to the way in which you were supposed to conduct yourself in courses.  I don’t think that that was a legitimate leap but it was made by many.  So those are just some of the reasons that this occurred.

Mohler:                Now you mentioned humanities.  You also make the argument that the worth of the humanities as areas of intellectual endeavor, as areas of university curriculum, much under siege we might say in these budgetary times, you say that the worth of these fields of study has to be intrinsic.  That in fact you go to say they’re ex-intrinsic worth is nil.

Fish:                       Well nil is, I no doubt said that and it was an exaggeration, nil is an exaggeration.  But what I do mean that if the justification for the humanities must take the form of some kind of external measurement then the humanities has lost that argument before it begins.  Because if you begin to ask questions like, well what benefit will accrue to the state and its citizens by having a series of courses in late medieval art, or higher mathematics, or medieval Christianity, the answer to that question is not much benefit that I can see because the benefit is being sought in the justification that is being demanded is a bottom line benefit.  And a bottom line justification the humanities, I do not think, can appropriately offer that justification and once they start to do so they’re playing in the other guy’s court, that is they are exceeding, acceding to the demand  please justify what you do in my terms and if you respond to that you of course have already given up your terms.  So, what I’m saying is that no the humanities must defend themselves in their terms and those terms are they seem paradoxical the terms of being useless at least in the context of certain justificatory demands.  And so once the humanities enter this justificatory, this sweepstake of justification they’re going to lose every time which is exactly what has been happening especially in higher public education.

Mohler:                Your new book is entitled How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One.  I have to tell you I found reading this an absolute delight.  It’s very different than anything at least I have found that you have written before.  It’s really a celebration of the power of the sentence and a very fascinating tour through English literature.

Fish:                       Yes it is.  It’s actually two books which I tried to bring together.  One is as suggested by the title, how to write a sentence, an account of how sentences work and why sentences fall apart, and what kind of exercises that you might perform that would put you in better command of the structure of sentences.  There, my key statement is that a sentence is a structure of logical relationships, and I spend some time trying to explain exactly what that means.  But, I start also from the very beginning illustrating the grammatical or craft points I’m making with, by some very nice and indeed great sentences.  And at a certain point of the book the formal instruction recedes never quite goes away, but recedes from the foreground.  And the immense pleasure of encountering absolutely stupendously great sentences you can marvel at in the same way you marvel at a high level athletic performance, that then takes center stage.  And the book begins to as it were, ride on the tracks of these absolutely amazing authors who can do things with the very same language that you and I use every day that you and I would never be capable of doing.

Mohler:                Well, I found myself delighting in so many sentences.  John Updike writing about a baseball in the air things like that but you come to the end of your book and you make an amazing, an amazing statement.  You say this, “Sentences can save us.  Who can ask for anything more?”  Ok, save us from what or what?

Fish:                       Well, I’m here as you know explaining a passage from one of Gertrude Stein’s lectures in America.  And she’s talking about the incredible experience of harnessing yourself to the power of sentences that you did not write.  And she says I like the feeling the everlasting feeling of sentences as they diagram themselves.  And then she adds in that way one of the completely possessing something and incidentally oneself.  And what she means is that if you start thinking about language and its use in a self regarding way you will not get anywhere because your own ego and ambitions, and projects, will always be getting in the way.  But if you submit through analysis, through reading, through re-reading, to the extraordinarily great sentences of great authors their art will become yours by proxy and you will because you have submitted emerge with a better self than the self that you might have had had you persisted in your egotistical ways.  Now as I’m sure you recognize there’s a not very submerged religious argument underneath this because the submission of the small self to a larger power and authority which in affect makes the small self large because it has given up its own providence is precisely the message of many religions and certainly the message of Christianity.  And that’s why I end the main body of the book with my favorite sentences from the book which is a sentence from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and that sentence describes the moment when Bunyan’s hero Christian having discovered that he is burdened with original sin and mourning to rid himself of it starts to run from his village toward a light that he barely sees and now here is the sentence, “now he had not run far away from his own door.  But his wife and children perceiving it began crying after him to return.  But the man put his fingers in his ears and ran on crying ‘life, life, eternal life.'”  That is both a great sentence absolutely amazing sentence, the way in which it is structured and a lesson in what it is that sentences can and cannot do.  Sentences can send us in the direction of something greater than they and therefore greater than us so sentences in a way perform their best office when they turn us in the direction of life, life, eternal life.

Mohler:                I have to end by asking you the question that came to my mind at the end of your latest book.  In a secular age is it perhaps true that for most sentences are all that remain?

Fish:                       Yes.  And that is what I call in the book at a certain point the religion of art.  And when the liberal ethos doesn’t so much as give up religion but puts it in a corner it has to worship something.  And what it usually worships is art, and one form of that art are sentences.  But I believe that the sentences that really matter don’t, neither invite nor allow that worship but in fact encourage you and invite you to search for something greater.

Mohler:                Every time I have the opportunity for conversation with Stanley Fish I realize there is more to talk about than even I knew when we started.  Dr. Fish thank you for joining me today for Thinking in Public.

Fish:                       Oh thank you so much.  It has been a great pleasure.

Mohler:                I’ll look forward to another time for another conversation.

Fish:                       I certainly hope so.

Mohler:                Well, I told you up front that I wasn’t exactly sure where the conversation was going.  And that was true at almost every point, and it’s because when you’re talking with Stanley Fish the roads of conversation that open before you are multiple.  And yet you have to choose.  I’m glad we chose the conversation we had.  It’s given us a lot to think about.

I think it’s fair to say that most evangelical Christians underestimate the challenge before us-the intellectual challenge.  We’re right and ready to look at the apologetic challenge in terms of framing arguments in defense of the gospel.  But in reality the larger intellectual challenges even having the opportunity to be heard that’s where someone like Stanley Fish is interesting.    In the essay he wrote entitled Why We Can’t Just All Get Along he makes the point that the enlightenment happened.  And just to take the enlightenment on its own terms modern liberal societies make it almost impossible for the kind of argument that an evangelical Christian would want to make about the things most important to us.  In the course of the conversation he remarked about some of the changes that have come about in terms of American public life, but I think the challenge that he saw back in 1996 and directed toward Christians is exactly where we are today.  You know I think the quandary that he addressed to Christians he was there speaking to some authors who had been talking about, well, critiquing the marginalization of Christian discourse and Christian arguments in secular culture.  He came back to say if Christians really mean what they say, though you heard him say it, then we need to be very clear that we believe that what we are asserting is true and thus that which is against it, contradictory to it, is false.  But that doesn’t fit too well.  Not in terms of the participatory democracy, the process culture of rational discourse in a secular society that’s when we find ourselves in a very different situation then in recent decades or in recent centuries for sure.  The challenge isn’t going to go away.  It may change in terms of the contours of the discussion and in terms of some of the particulars of debate but the challenge is out there.  And that’s why talking with someone like Stanley Fish becomes an exercise in thinking through some of these most urgent issues because Stanley Fish also writes and speaks with respect to religious conviction.

And yet you have to wonder, how does that situate itself in the larger intellectual climate of post-modern America?  Stanley Fish is a provocateur and that’s one of the most interesting things about talking to him.  He does start conversations that reverberate long after he’s left the room.  And I think he finds delight in that.  That’s why I find the conversation with him not only interesting and unexpected, and perchance unpredictable, but fruitful because I do find myself thinking about many of these things long after the verbal conversation has ended.  When I talk to Stanley Fish I also think about some other really important issues that face us.  That’s why we’re able to talk about the modern university.  Few people have had the kind of experience he has had and frankly earned the enemies he has earned. Just in terms of a conversation about things like academic freedom or what weren’t able to even talk about today and that is the interpretation of text.  But something else becomes clear in this.  When I asked Stanley Fish to describe himself theologically, well he doesn’t want to do that.  He speaks with respect and for that matter great knowledge about Christian text and Christian literature but he’s speaking as someone who is speaking to us rather than as one of us.  That’s why Christians need to risk more conversations like this.  We need to have conversations that take us outside the Christian’s sphere of conversation and meaning outside our church communities and our Christian institutions.  To have a conversation with those who are very much a part of the larger intellectual environment.  If we do not, then let’s face it, we’re just talking to ourselves and there is no reason just to talk to ourselves if we think we’re serving the cause of the gospel.

Thanks for joining me today for Thinking in Public.  I want you to know about something very special happening on the Southern Seminary campus.  On Friday and Saturday February 11 and 22 of 2011 Southern Seminary will be hosting the annual Give Me An Answer Conference for college students.  This year’s theme is Recalibrate.  I’ll be speaking as well as our own Dr. Russell Moore and special guest C.J. Mahaney.  We want to challenge students to focus on true theology by living a life of humble obedience.  For more information, visit

Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public.  Until next time, keep thinking.  I’m Albert Mohler.