Is There a Truth in This Class? A Conversation with Stanley Fish

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline 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: Too seldom people think, and even more rarely do they think again. That’s what makes the conversations today with Professor Stanley Fish all the more interesting. Stanley Fish is an intellectual force of energy. He is one of the most interesting people in the American intellectual scene. He has held posts teaching literature and law in major American universities. He’s the author of many works, including Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities, The Trouble With Principle, Save the World on Your Own Time, How to Write a Sentence, and most recently—the book that occasions this conversation—Think Again: Contrarian Reflections on Life, Culture, Politics, Religion, Law and Education.

Dr. Fish, I really enjoyed our conversation almost now five years ago, and in terms of your new book entitled Think Again: Contrarian Reflections on Life, Culture, Politics, Religion, Law and Education, it appears that in the last five years there are few things about which you have not thought and written.

FISH: Well, things catch your attention. This an exciting time to be alive.

MOHLER: Well you wrote most of these pieces for the New York Times and many of them attracted a great deal of attention. But let me just go to the heart of I think of the kind of question that someone who is an evangelical Christian would want asked Stanley Fish. Can we genuinely know anything?

FISH: Yes. There’s no attack on the concept of knowledge in my work unless by “know” you mean “know in a way that could be demonstrated to any rational person no matter what his beliefs or lack of beliefs.” That’s, of course, a very severe requirement, and it’s basically the requirement of knowledge independently of any human perspective. That kind of knowledge is not available to us. We would have to be in the position of God that is able to take a God’s eye synoptic view of everything, and no one of us is able to do that. Often when people make the requirement, especially a requirement that it is addressed to religious believers, the point is made that religion cannot deliver objective knowledge—by which is meant, usually, knowledge that is verifiable by empirical, rational, or scientific methods. But that is to make a double mistake. The first mistake is to think that rational or empirical knowledge is itself independent of preconceptions, or of assumptions, or of a perspective. And the other mistake is to assume that rational or empirical evidence is conclusive when it comes to matters of faith. And I think both of those mistakes are made over and over again by those who make a living, as it were, out of attacking religion.

MOHLER: Well I want to turn to your critique of the New Atheists, as they’re called, in just a moment, but I want to go to the preface your book. Is all knowledge perspectival, and are all perspectives merely political?

FISH: The answer to the questions are as follows. The answer to the first one is yes. The answer to the second is no. If by political you mean political in the partisan sense. If, on the other hand, you mean by political “stemming from some challengeable point of view” or “some point of view not held by every rational being,” yes, all knowledge is like that. That is, the dream of rationalists and empiricists especially is to find a way of validating statements that depends on no particular set of beliefs, and I think that is fool’s errant. It will never succeed. Any knowledge that we have, any certainty that possesses us, will be a certainty that is experienced within some set of assumptions, or presuppositions, or beliefs. If we were wish to step outside of all assumptions, presuppositions, and beliefs, we would find ourselves nowhere, and we would also be unable even to know what the meaning of the word “know” was.

MOHLER: But that appears to place you somewhere other than one of two extremes. One would be absolute epistemological realism, on the one hand. And, on the other hand, those who claim that all truth is merely socially constructed. You don’t appear to be standing in either of those two positions.

FISH: No. In fact, in a sense—and again, one must be careful about these proclamations—the truth, if it is true that all truths, or matters of fact, or conclusions based on evidence socially constructed, then that truth is one that is inert and useless, because if everything is socially constructed, to say of it that it is socially constructed is to say nothing and is certainly not to say something that could form the basis of a criticism of that which was socially constructed since everything is. So what I’m saying is the socially constructed thesis, while true on a very general level, is trivially, trivially true. You can’t go from it to any conclusion about a particular matter of fact, whether the matter of fact exists in the realm of science, or politics, or religion, or any other realm.

MOHLER: Every time I read one of your works, and this goes back to the very beginning of my intellectual engagement with you in the 1980s, I fail generally to understand where you are, and in this book it’s more clear than ever that that’s at least a part of your intention.

FISH: That’s right. I no doubt—well I don’t even know, I shouldn’t pronounce on my own intellectual or spiritual state—but I no doubt believe a number of things and have positions on any number of controversial questions, but it’s not my purpose in these small essays to reveal any of my positions and then to argue for any of them. Rather, what I’m trying to do is unpack the arguments that turn up in the public square, usually with a view toward undermining some of those arguments that have seemed to many to be persuasive or even commonplace. So that’s the work done by these columns, at least the work I hope is done by these columns. Hence the title, Think Again.

MOHLER: I want to go directly at one of those very central principles of your criticism here, or aspects of contemporary thought that would be taken by many, especially the academy, as axiomatic. In your section in which you are thinking out loud about religion, you point to the fact that though there might be credible arguments—I don’t mean to put words in your mouth—but you say there could be good arguments against theism, you suggest that the so-called New Atheists, in particular Dawkins, and Harrison, and Hitchens, are not offering good arguments against theism.

FISH: Yes, that’s correct because they offer those arguments in ignorance of the target of their criticism. They write as if objections to theism based on suffering in the world, for example, is something that they just thought up this morning, whereas in, as you know better than I, much of Christian literature is a meditation on problems like the problem of suffering or the origin of evil. So that the tradition that the New Atheists attack is much richer in its consideration of the very questions they raise.

MOHLER: In your in your work you do a very considerable work at deconstructing, we might say, many of the modern secular assumptions concerning where religion can and should fit into the modern world. And in many ways, I think that that’s the most interesting portion of your work and of this particular book. So when you were addressing the way that the modern secular theorist believes about religion—and I said that as carefully as I could—when they think about the place that religion should have in society, what are they actually saying?

FISH: What they’re usually saying if they’re, let’s say, speaking in the liberal mode, or in the mode of liberal democracy, they’re saying “Let’s not discriminate against anyone because of his or her religion. Let religious voices be heard in the country.” But at the same time they’re saying “That doesn’t mean that we have to take them seriously. We have to allow them, permit them, as social phenomenon in our political space, but that doesn’t mean that we then have to give them a voice in political policy deliberations.” So the liberal tradition, at least a large part of liberal tradition, has the strategy—and I’ve sometimes said this—of honoring religion by kicking it upstairs. It’s something that we should recognize and allow and perhaps celebrate, but we want to keep it in the sphere of thought, expression, and faith and not allow religious perspectives to invade the arena of political consideration.

MOHLER: So that does two things, and you identify one of them directly. Let me ask you about the other one rather indirectly. The first thing that does is to allow only religions that do not have any public significance, and you address that in in terms of how you see these secular theorists trying to place religion in a safe position over against modern societies.

FISH: That’s right, and that’s usually done by the device, a very handy device, of the public-private distinction, which is, I’m sure you know, central to large portions of liberal thought. So the idea is that we should allow religious perspectives to flourish in the private spaces of the home, the chapel, the synagogue, the mosque, the church, but when we venture out into the public square, either to do business in a mercantile sense or to do political business, we should leave our religious views at home. And the argument is then made because if we don’t, we’re going to be speaking to people, other people, in a language they do not share. Instead, the liberal will then say, let’s all agree to speak a language that has no metaphysical or theological hostages, and then we will be able to speak in a way that affords perfect communication between us. There are many problems with, and one obvious problem is that there is no language that is free of substantive assumptions or metaphysical underpinnings. Liberal thought thinks that it has discovered such a language in the workings of empirical science, but that project as productive and amazing as it, is based no less on a set of metaphysical assumptions than any other.

MOHLER: Well that’s a question I wanted to ask you straightforwardly because I appreciate it very much where in the book you discuss this. It’s kind of a form of intellectual political apartheid, which is this public-private distinction. But I want to ask you honestly, does anyone actually hold to an absolute public-private distinction? You’ve been in the academy for your entire adult life. And it appears to me that those who hold to supposedly secular worldviews are amongst the first to have very strong insistence on the public significance of their own worldview.

FISH: Well that’s true, and that touches on another area of my work on the topic of academic freedom where my complaint is that too many academics believe that the freedom that is given them by the doctrine of academic freedom is the freedom to parade, and indeed, indoctrinate on the basis of their own political views. And I want to say that no, that’s not the business that the academy is in. And so you’re quite right, card-carrying liberal rationalists will at the drop of an academic hat, become political activists and I’ve been arguing against that for a long time. Not that they shouldn’t be political activists if they wish to be on their own time, but they shouldn’t be doing this on the college or university’s time. That is neither what they were paid to do, nor what they were trained to do.

MOHLER: I want to ask you about a text, and not just about any particular text, although the Constitution of the United States or the Bible might be in the background of this question. But you have you been well-known throughout your public career as dealing with how we should engage a text. And our conversation comes relatively fast on the heels of the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, about whom you wrote in terms of his jurisprudence and his constitutionalism. You wrote two articles, one on why Antonin Scalia is right, and the other on why Antonin Scalia is wrong, and the text was central to your analysis. Can you expand upon that now?

FISH: Yes I will, but before, can I tell you a little story?

MOHLER: Please do.

FISH: In thirty-seven years of marriage, I’ve only been able to impress my wife once, and that was when we were driving to another town for a doctor’s appointment. The telephone rang while we were in the car, and I answered it and I said to the person at the other end, “Yes, I’m available at the moment.” A moment later, obviously someone had picked up the phone and said hello to me, and then I said, “And good morning to you, Justice Scalia.” And at that moment my wife looked at me with the “maybe this guy I’ve married has something to him after all” look. So I’ll be forever grateful for Justice Scalia for giving me the one occasion on which I was able to impress my wife.

MOHLER: Well that is a moving story in and of itself, but it also tells me something about you and about Justice Scalia that the phone call took place.

FISH: Oh yes, he came to the Cardozo Law School to participate in an occasion that was in my honor. So he came to honor me, and I was honored by his participation. But to get back to your question, Justice Scalia and I are—or were, I guess in his case, unfortunately—both originalists, and originalists at least in the context of constitutional interpretation, as someone who believes that basically the act of interpretation is the act of trying to figure out what the text originally meant when it was produced at whatever date. And I would say that that understanding of interpretation—that you’re trying to figure out what some speaker or writer meant—is not an approach to interpretation, it is interpretation, because what else could you be doing when you’re trying to interpret the words of another except trying to figure out what that other meant by these words? Where Scalia and I diverge is that he is a textualist originalist, and I am an intentionalist originalist. A textualist originalist thinks that the answer to the question, “Well what was meant by this text at the time of its junction?” is to be found by examining the text in and of itself independently of any consideration of intention or, Scalia said, independently of any consideration of legislative history. I, on the other hand, am firmly persuaded that the only way to get at the meaning of a text is to figure out what the author had in mind, or authors had in mind, at the moment of its production, and that if you just look at the text in and of itself it won’t tell you anything, or it will tell you too many things. But if you can at least make a good guess based on the available evidence about the spirit of purpose within which this utterance emerged, then you will have a way of determining what the text meant. So that we’re both originalists, but we diverge in the version of originalism each of us follows.

MOHLER: You know that’s really interesting because toward the end of his life, Justice Scalia actually preferred not to call himself an originalist at all, but rather a textualist, which just kind of affirms your analysis there.

FISH: Well yeah, that’s right. His textualism and my intentionalism are both variants of originalism, but originalism is I guess the mothership that houses us both.

MOHLER: So that leads to a couple of questions to me. The first is you said that that is not a method of interpretation, it is interpretation. So how can it be that in the modern academy interpretation is evidently something other than what you just to find it to be?

FISH: Well it’s because people have confused interpretation, and therefore meaning, with communication. Many have observed that any text that has either been uttered or written is available to many interpretations, and that has led people incorrectly to assume that texts or spoken words are irremediably ambiguous. And I would reply no, that’s not the case. The debates about interpretation, the interpretive debates over a text, either written or oral, are always debates about the spirit within which the text emerged—always debates about what the author or authors had in mind. And people who have different answers to that question—what the author or authors had in mind—will then see the text as meaning differently. And there’s been the unwarranted conclusion from that picture of interpretation that interpretation is entirely subjective and can go in any direction one likes. It’s not subjective, neither is it objective in the sense that there’s any machine for producing correct interpretations. What you have to do, and it’s an empirical exercise, is to try to figure out as best you can what the author or authors had in mind. Let me give you an example. My wife and I got off a plane in the small town of Stewart, Newburgh, rather Newburgh, New York, Stewart Newberg Airport at quarter to twelve in the evening, fifteen minutes before midnight, and we were immediately met as we stepped off the plane into the terminal by a sign that said, “Hot panini sandwiches now being served in the Euro Café.” So the question is, “What does that sign mean?” And it’s obvious that the sign could mean at least two things—actually more, but we’ll stick to two. It could mean either, “if you trot down the hall right now to the Euro Café, you will be able to enjoy a hot panini sandwich,” or it could mean, “we have now added hot panini sandwiches to our menu.” So how do you figure out which it means? And the answer is that you have to put yourself in the place of those who produced the sign, and you have to also note that you’re in a rural airport in upstate New York, and that in almost any airport in this country, aside from O’Hare and a couple of others, no restaurants are open at quarter to twelve in the evening. And therefore, through that kind of empirical reasoning, you can figure out what author or authors of the sign had in mind. The text itself won’t tell you, and that’s why I’m an intentionalist, not a textualist.


MOHLER: To be human is to be an interpretive creature. Christians explain this from the biblical worldview—my understanding is that every single human being is made in the image of God, thus we are interpreting all the time. We are interpreting what we see, we are interpreting what we experience, we are interpreting what we hear, and of course, we are interpreting what we read. But how that interpretation takes place makes all the difference. What are the boundaries? What are the structures of that interpretation? What are the principles by which a correct interpretation can be contrasted with an incorrect interpretation, or for that matter, is any interpretation superior to any other? The Christian worldview has a particular stake in that question and, at the end of the day, a particular answer to it as well.


MOHLER: A couple of other questions derive from that. One is where in your book you look at the Supreme Court’s decision in the gun-control case of the Heller decision, and by no coincidence it was Justice Scalia who wrote the majority opinion. It was a five-four opinion. But one of the things that many people noted in the aftermath of Justice Scalia’s death is that even though people differed with him in terms of reading the text or the intention behind the text, just about everyone accepted to the argument to the extent that they all did argue from what they believe to be the intention of the text. And that’s why in one of your essays in this book, you say though the decision was five-four, the victory for intentionalism was nine-to-zero.

FISH: Absolutely, because that was what the disagreement was about. And Scalia had one view of what the Framers had in mind, Justice Stevens had a second, and Justice Breyer had a third. But they were all trying to get at the same thing, and just doing it by different routes. So yes, that I thought was a case that was a clear victory for intentionalism. It was also, in my view, a textbook example of why textualism is the wrong version of originalism, because in that decision, what Scalia does is he takes the words of the Second Amendment, and rather than considering them as they appear in the linear sequence of their unfolding, he atomizes them, takes each word separately, not even in the order in which they appear in the Second Amendment, and then looks in any number of dictionaries and other places for meanings that he might attach to these detached words. And I say I believe that the trouble with that method is that it’s a failsafe method, it cannot help but succeed since you’ve removed yourself from the constraint of the linear syntax and are just left with inert words waiting to be plumbed. You can plumb in any direction that you like. So I thought that Scalia’s methodology there was entirely inappropriate. But I would also note that that is also the methodology of some famous seventeenth-century Anglican preachers, notably Lancelot Andrewes, whose sermons proceed in exactly the way that Scalia proceeds in DC versus Heller. The difference is that Andrewes, like other Christian preachers, assumed that the meaning of anything that you looked at in the world would be either a celebration of deity or an injunction to men and women to love each other for deity’s sake. So the detaching of the biblical texts from their linear syntax, and this is Lancelot Andrewes’ method, is not in error because in a world where God informs everything and where God’s meaning is in fact the meaning of every item and object, you can’t go wrong. So my complaint against Scalia is that he was importing a theological method a lot, a theological method of interpretation, into the judicial arena of the Supreme Court.

MOHLER: And that leads to an inevitable question for me to present to you, and that is speaking as an observer from outside, what would you then say to Christians about—and Christian preachers in particular, the heirs of Lancelot Andrewes—what would you say to us about how we should understand the Scripture as a text?

FISH: Well, again, I think that—here I follow Augustine in On Christian Doctrine, which is an extended mediation about how to read both the Bible and the world, that is as Augustine and so many others have said, is God’s book. So that I think that the biblical text can be read in any way or direction so long as the message or truths delivered by the reading are consummate with the basic truths of the faith. So I don’t think that the kinds of constraints and empirical demands that attend the interpretation of legal texts apply to the interpretation of sacred texts.

MOHLER: So let me take you back to Duke University where famously you were head of the English Department. There’s a divinity school right across the lawn. How would your approach to texts have differed from what was being taught in the divinity school right there on campus.

FISH: I’m not sure, actually, but I should have inquired because one of my closest friends and my next door neighbor was a man named Stanley Hauerwas, whose name I assume you know.

MOHLER: He has been a guest on this program, yes.

FISH: But I never did inquire into what exactly was being taught in the divinity school in terms of biblical interpretation.

MOHLER: You know, in terms of you work, I honestly find just about every page of your writing interesting and what I’d like to talk to is the academy. But before turning to that, a more urgent question comes to my mind. In 1996, you wrote an article that sparked a great deal of controversy in the journal First Things. It was entitled, “Why we can’t just get along.” So 20 years old this year, and in it you were drawing—well, you were really challenging Christina believers that we had better take into account just how radical is the distinction between the Christian understanding of the world, of truth, and of all, as compared to the increasingly secular dominance in the culture. So that was 20 years ago. If anything, that distance has not grown smaller. How would you update your argument for 2016.

FISH: Well, yes, its not unlike the argument that Stanley Hawerwas made in Resident Aliens and other of his books. I think that the, shall we say, the distance between religious forms of thought and secular empirical forms of thought has become even greater for two reasons. One is that the turn to personal religion, in the sense that religion now has for many people come to mean a relationship between one’s self and one’s god that is unmediated by any church structure or by and set of doctrines, and therefore the whole connection between organized religion and religious life seems to have become attenuated. The other factor that has contributed is – I think – the popularity of what you called a moment ago the New Atheists. And their arguments became well-known and have received a lot of media attention, aided by commentators and comedians like Bill Maher and others. I was just listening to a program today on NPR where there was some research done by the Pew Research Foundation and others indicating that a serious religious commitment—that is, a commitment that involves some set of specific beliefs and some doctrines—is less and less part of what especially the younger generation is offering.

MOHLER: Well, when you look at that and come to understand that distance growing greater, what would you say to Evangelical Christians, speaking from your vantage point in the culture, what would you say we had better understand about to the reality of this cultural moment?

FISH: Well, I think what you had better understand—well, maybe I shouldn’t say better—I mean, I’m not in any position to tell people exactly what they should understand—but it seems to me that the culture is now not hospitable to taking religious belief and religious perspectives seriously. What we might call the “Eisenhower Doctrine” is what now rules American thinking about religion. I remember years, and years ago Eisenhower spoke of the Americans as the religious people and said—and this is not exact quote—that it doesn’t matter what religion it is. And to say that sounds ecumenical and generous and tolerant, but what it does is cut the heart out of religion. Religion independent of the set of beliefs is, I believe, is a curiously empty thing, but it’s that thing which is now gaining popularity. And I certainly don’t know how to counsel anyone or any group that wishes to deal with this phenomenon. I don’t know. I guess the answer to your question is I don’t know.

MOHLER: Well, that’s fair and and honest, but a question I had to ask you given your very provocative assertion back in 1996. Let me say what was missing in 1996 in terms of the public discussion was what is missing is now, and even on the day we are having this conversation, chillingly apparent. And that is the resurgence of Islamic terrorism. So, let me ask you, how in the world does a secular world come to terms with the kind of theological argument that the Islamic State and others are making? It seems to me that what you hear from many secular authorities is the denial that theology can matter. Then, they don’t know what to do with the reality that makes very clear that theology does matter.

FISH: The way in which people deal with—that is the secularists deal with—this is the way they been dealing with it ever since the middle of the 19th century, and that’s to call these people crazy, as if there was something wrong with their brain and that if we could only get them to read the right books or take the right medicine, everything would be all right. So that’s the only way in which liberalism can deal with religion. Either religion is found something safely quarantined in the private space, and then we can give it due honor, or religion takes itself seriously, which is an indication that some people have quite literally “gone off their rockers,” and that seems to be about the limit.

Now, of course the fact of the Islamic state and the deeds that are performed in its name gives great comfort of a negative kind to the New Atheists into commentators like Bill Maher and others so that they can then say, “See that’s what religion leads to. Not only is it empty, in a fairytale in a residue of medieval ignorance, it’s also flat-out dangerous.” And then you come to proposals like the proposal recently made by candidate Donald Trump to not allow Muslims into this country, presumably because they have some belief in their head, which is like a virus or a disease, and we only catch it. But that’s where we are.

MOHLER: Now finally, just turning to the modern academy, the modern college and university campus, how would your approach fare now in the contemporary academy? That world seems to be shifting so fast where postmodernism, structuralism, and poststructuralism have given way to any number of other numbers of philosophical and ideological approaches. The breakup of the discipline seems to be continuing unabated. Is the very possibility of the university still alive and cogent?

FISH: I don’t think the disciplines are breaking up at all. The disciplines are doing what they’re always doing: examining their assumptions, admitting new materials into the curriculum, downplaying some materials that were for a long time at the core of the curriculum. There’s always been a lot of talk in the last 40 or 50 years about interdisciplinarity and of the invidious effects of having disciplines. But as far as I can tell, that’s all talk. It’s still the case that if you want to figure out what’s going on in some feature of our world, you utilize the tools of whatever branch of academic knowledge is relevant, whether those are tools of literary criticism, or sociology, psychology, or anthropology, empiricism, whatsoever. So I don’t think that disciplines are in danger. I think that there’s a lot, that there are challenges within the academy to the various assumptions that make the academy what it is. But that’s a very healthy process so long as it doesn’t lead to the activity of blowing up the whole enterprise. If what you’re continually doing is searching, subjecting the enterprise to searching inquiry, that’s a good thing.

Now what we seeing on campus in the last eight months to a year and a half—that is the rise of things like “trigger warnings,” the accusations of “microaggressions,” the practice of non-platforming—that is not allowing people with those views he disagreed to speak on campus, the demand for “safe-spaces,” all of that—that I think is a direct assault on the university, and dangerous one because what the net effect of all of this student education is to turn the university into a political instrument, or into an instrument of general cultural therapy. And once you do that, once you lose that idea of contemplative inquiry that comes down to us in the Western tradition from Plato and Aristotle, once you lose that, then there’s no way in which the university will be defended, because then it will be just like everything else: an arena of politics or of self-discovery, depending on which direction you go in. So everything depends from my point of view on remembering what it is the university is for and adhering to the distinction between contemplatively studying matters and entering into a discussion about policy decisions, or electoral politics. Once that wall is breached, then I think the university enterprise is in danger of being lost. And in the present situation, many administrators are caving into the students in ways that will hasten that loss. Very few are making the kind of firm statements that the President of Harvard, Drew Faust, made when students demanded that the university divest from fossil fuels stocks because of a disapproval of the fossil fuel industry. She simply said that Harvard is an academic institution and for us to make decisions on the basis of political considerations would be to lose the heart of what the academy is. And I think that is exactly right, but I fear that she is a few who will have the strength to say that.

MOHLER: One final question, Dr. Fish. When it comes to education and the role of the four-year college and university, you rather surprisingly, at least to many, you say that the university should not be in the business of forming character. You reject that idea, and you say that instead, the university should stay at its business, which isn’t the formation of character, but something else.

FISH: Character formation is a good thing, and it’s something that I think the parents should be concerned with, churches, synagogues, and mosques should be concerned with, some cultural agencies in the government should be concerned with. But it’s not the university’s business. I, for example, have been trained as a literary critic, and then trained myself to be also a legal academic. And I think I have the competence to pronounce on some literary and some legal matters. I have no competence whatsoever in the fashioning of character. So my obligation to my students in class is to present to them an up-to-date set of materials relevant to whatever the title of the course is, and then introduce them to the methods of analysis that are now competing in the field, with the idea of making them—that is making the students competent practitioners of the disciplines art. That’s my obligation. And it’s a big one. It’s a hard task, especially if you only have 14 or 15 weeks to do it. So that’s the task that we have been assigned ourselves, and it doesn’t behoove us to take on other tasks, however worthy they may be for which we are spectacularly untrained.

MOHLER: Always provocative, always honest, always engaging, Professor Stanley Fish, thank you so much for joining me today for Thinking in Public.

FISH: Boy, it’s great to be here, and I hope that its less than five years before we do it again.

MOHLER: I will make you the assurance that I’ll look forward to our next conversation far sooner than that.


Well, any conversation with Stanley Fish is a tour-de-force, an intellectual feast, and one of the most interesting things about the conversation with Professor Fish is he is so ambiguous about where he stands on these crucial questions. It is like talking to someone who has commented intelligently on almost everything, who has been a provocateur across any number of issues in realms of human thought, and yet one who does not disclose what he believes about almost anything. That is an interesting role to play, and yet that’s a role the Stanley Fish has fulfilled in American public life for a number of decades now. And it’s interesting to note that in his eight decade of life he is still very much at it, as this new book, mostly a compilation of columns he’s written for the New York Times, makes very clear. Just consider the comprehensiveness of the subtitle of this book, again the title is: Think Again, but the subtitle is: Contrarian Reflections on Life, Culture, Politics, Religion, Law and Education. Few are they who would take on all of those realms of thought in one book—not to mention in a series of columns—but you’ll notice at first word in the subtitle as well, “Contrarian.” Stanley Fish has thrived on his reputation—intellectually, academically, and publicly—as a contrarian. Several interesting angles of the conversation come immediately to mind. One is the fact that when you’re talking with Stanley Fish, you’re talking with someone who, unlike so many in academy, actually reads what we might say is “our literature.” To read this book is to understand that Stanley Fish, though not writing at all from a confessing Christian perspective, nor even from a vantage point of declared theism in any sense, Stanley Fish has read major Christian literature. He is able to cite Augustine; he will repeatedly cite Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress; he understands that Christianity is a sustained, intellectual community and a sustained, intellectual argument, and one that, unlike the so-called New Atheists, he takes seriously. As a matter fact, one of his central critiques of the New Atheists is that what they are rejecting is not Christianity as it has been lived and believed throughout the centuries. He dismisses as superficial and as unfair the kind of criticism that comes of the New Atheist concerning the “problem of evil and suffering.” He does not say that it is not a problem, but he makes very clear that Christians, and Jews, and others have struggled with the question for a very long time. And speaking specifically of Christianity, he is able to cite the sources and even the developing contours of that conversation. The other thing you have to note about talking with Stanley Fish is that he is honest about where we stand, speaking in the sense of Evangelical Christians, speaking to the situation of Christian believers, that is, those who hold to the cognitive truth claims of Christianity in the late Modern Age.

I mentioned that article back in 1996 that he wrote for First Things, which is entitled, “Why We Can’t Just Get Along.” It was a very interesting argument that he made then, and one that he updates, actually, in this new book, Think Again. The argument basically comes down to this: it’s what James Orr, that Scottish theologian, was talking about in the late 19th century when he said that between the Christian worldview and the modern view of the world, as he called it, there is, in his words, a deep and radical antagonism. That is exactly what Stanley Fish is talking about. If you understand Christianity as Christianity and you understand the modern secular worldview as a worldview, you come to understand that between them there is indeed a deep and radical antagonism. Stanley Fish goes right at the more liberal side here, and that’s not a political statement, that’s an ideological statement. By liberal he means that set of beliefs based in human freedom that marks the modern world, the advent of modernity. The deal that the liberals sought to make in terms of political philosophy was that religion would be tolerated so long as it would reduce itself and retreat into a merely private sphere. But as Stanley Fish understands, that’s what serious religious belief cannot do. Speaking specifically of Christianity, that’s what Christianity cannot do because the Christian truth claim is not merely a matter of private significance, but of public significance. It is, as many have declared, a public truth. The apostles were not declaring a private conviction. They were declaring public truth, and so must we as well.

I appreciate the candor with what Stanley Fish refers to that deadly deal offered to theism by the modern world is a form of intellectual apartheid. That is exactly what it is. And he points to the fact that liberalism, too, is making comprehensive claims. That goes back to John Rawls, the political philosopher identified in this book by Stanley Fish, who said that in the modern public square there must be no assertions of what he called comprehensive doctrines, that would be a comprehensive worldview. But as I asserted in my conversation with Professor Fish and as he affirmed in his own inevitable way, it is those who declare an absolute distinction between the public and the private who do not admit that they themselves are holding to a worldview that is not merely limited to the private but is in every way extended into the public.

A couple of other matters to which must give attention. First, interpretation of the text. If Stanley Fish has been identified with anything throughout his academic career, it has been about texts and the proper interpretation of texts. And in that sense, something very interesting is happening here. As I mentioned, Stanley Fish stands between two extremes. The two extremes are this: one is epistemological realism—that is the hermeneutical understanding that our responsibility is to come to terms with the text exactly as it is. On the other hand and at the other extreme, you have those who are holding to some form of postmodern thought and a deconstructionist hermeneutic that suggests that the text itself does not matter, perhaps the text is itself the problem that must be overcome. Stanley Fish places himself, as you heard of this conversation, somewhere between those two extremes. But where? That’s the crucial issue.

That’s where his intellectual engagement with Justice Antonin Scalia is really, really interesting. In those two articles he argues, first that Antonin Scalia was right, and then, secondly, that Antonin Scalia was wrong. He says that the “mothership”—that was his word—that combines both Scalia and Fish is the mothership of “originalism”—the understanding that original intent should guide interpretation. But he said where they diverged—and this is very crucial for us—where they diverged was Scalia’s textualism over against his own intentionalism. He suggested that textualism, Scalia’s position, is problematic, because Scalia could just go to the dictionary and find anything he wanted to find. He suggested that, instead, there was more control when it came to interpreting by means of the intention of the authors. I appreciated his candor in saying that some form of originalism is not just a method of interpretation; it is interpretation. To that degree, evangelical Christians would be in wholehearted agreement with Stanley Fish.

But where we can’t go along in terms of his interpretive strategy is where he departs from the text into interpretation. It’s one thing, by the way, to do that with the U.S. Constitution. It’s another thing altogether to use that approach when it comes to the Bible, and that’s because when we’re talking about the Bible, we are talking about what Christians believe to be not only an authoritative book, but a totally true and trustworthy book, not only that, the inspired, the verbally inspired Word of God. That puts the role of interpretation in an entirely different category of possibility. Because if indeed we’re talking about intention, when it comes to believing Christians in the confessing church that means that the original intention is God’s own intention, and that intention is available to us. Well, here Justice Scalia’s smirking the background only in terms of the words of the text, its grammatical structure, the text itself.

But we’re indebted to Stanley Fish for making us think ever more carefully about this. One of the most important things that Christians need to do is listen attentively to those outside our belief systems speak, even in very challenging ways to us. Someone like Stanley Fish, thus, offers us a rare opportunity to make certain that we’re thinking clearly, even when we speak, not only to the general public, but when we speak to ourselves. That helps us to understand why we must be so attentive to a hermeneutic—that is, to a method of interpretation when it comes to Scripture—that is faithful to Scripture as Scripture. It’s very interesting the Stanley Fish, when it comes to Scripture, even standing outside the church, speaks with respect of how the church through the consensus fide—that is through the consensus of the faithful or the rule of faith—has actually read the Scripture throughout the 20 plus centuries of the existence of the Christian church. Again, it goes back to the fact that he understands there’s been a sustained, interpretive, theological, doctrinal, confessional discussion throughout the history of the Christian church. That is something that even many Christians do not will recognize.

Finally, our conversation ended in terms of the modern academy. That’s where Stanley Fish has made his home and made his reputation now for a number of decades. What was one of the most interesting things about Stanley Fish is that he does believe in academic freedom, but he doesn’t believe that means the freedom of academics to do anything other than academics. And it also means that he conscribes, he limits, the responsibility of the university to teaching, to the appropriate fields of academic endeavor. He says that the development of character is simply outside the competence or the job description of the university.

Now we need to note something. That turns the very idea of the university, going back to its medieval roots or even its 20th century manifestation especially in the first half of the 20th century—an understanding that education necessarily involves character. This is where the Christian worldview based in Scripture comes back to remind us that there is no such thing, there is no such entity or reality as education, as biblical defined, that does not involve the heart as well as the mind. That’s why for Christians it’s simply impossible to say that education and character formation can be separated. I respect Stanley Fish when he says that is primarily the job of parents; but let’s face it, anyone who teaches in any realm of endeavor, who teaches any subject to any person at any time, is seeking to reach not only the head, but the heart. And that again is explained by the biblical worldview that tells us that to be made in the image of God, this is how God made us for his glory. We are thinking, feeling, intuiting, observing, cogitating creatures. And all the time, it involves both our head and our heart. Knowledge and character are, for the Christian, inseparable.

Finally, that to be very thankful to Stanley Fish is an example of how to be intellectually honest throughout a lifetime. One of things you have to understand is that this is a man who has written and said what he has believed throughout his lifetime, and he has been very willing to knock over any number of the idols of the contemporary academy in order to make his arguments. At the end of the day, though it’s really really interesting, it’s absolutely vital from a Christian perspective, to understand the Stanley Fish doesn’t leave us with any particular worldview, with any particular truth claim, with any particular place to stand. And that means that at the end of the day, as much as we might admire his insight and his ability to critique, we have to stand somewhere, and where we stand had better be right. It had better be standing in truth, but in that light, it is our responsibility to fulfill the title of Stanley Fish’s new book not only to think, but to Think Again.

Once again, thanks to Professor Stanley Fish for joining the conversation.