Friday, February 26, 2010

Freshly sliced Fish

In the NY Times “Opinionator” blog Stanley Fish makes a confused case for (re)including religion and religion-derived justifications as valid motivations for state policy. Fish, agreeing with author Steven Smith, thinks that

Once the world is no longer assumed to be informed by some presiding meaning or spirit (associated either with a theology or an undoubted philosophical first principle) and is instead thought of as being “composed of atomic particles randomly colliding and . . . sometimes evolving into more and more complicated systems and entities including ourselves” there is no way, says Smith, to look at it and answer normative questions, questions like “what are we supposed to do?” and “at the behest of who or what are we to do it?”

Fish gets here by mischaracterizing “secular reasons” as being reasons that are expunged of all questions of values and only deal with raw empirical data

reasons cut off from any a priori stipulations of what is good and valuable — can take us a long way. We’ll do fine as long as we only want to find out how many X’s or Y’s there are or investigate their internal structure or discover what happens when they are combined, and so forth.

Russell Blackford does a beautiful job slicing up Fish's historically naïve musings. He notes, significantly, that Fish's strangely reductive definition of liberal secularism is a distortion- that one can recognize that values inform and motivate all decisions without thereby opening the field to arbitrary supernaturalistic explanations for one's values.

In attacking the Lockean approach to separation of church and state, Fish totally misunderstands the notorious fact/value distinction, which is not the same as the distinction between empirical and logical, or the distinction between natural and supernatural.

There is a distinction between allowing the state to make value-laden judgments (as all judgments are) in material matters where there is some recourse to facts to guide the decision making. But, as Blackford correctly points out, Fish's desire to include the realm of the religious here shows a sad ignorance of history. Religion is a type of knowledge structure which specifically privileges ignoring material facts and rational argumentation within its own epistemology- indeed it's proud of doing so, just ask kind old Martin Luther. Religion is in many ways a unique type of “epistemology” (*ahem*), and making it a matter for the state to decide has been historically dangerous. The result, sickening cycles of bloody religious warfare/cleansing and lame justifications of political tyranny, was the very history that motivated much of the early thought on tolerance!

However, I would also mention that Fish's obviously impossible definition of secular reasons, that they are thought to somehow leap directly out of data without values playing a part, does have its precursors. Notably, in the defenders of economic privilege with their notions of the market as some sort of force-of-nature. The last two centuries, especially with the dropping of “political economy” in favor of “economics”, have seen proponents of capitalism pretend that state decisions in the areas of property law, regulation, workers' control and political participation have been made on the basis of purely factual considerations. Even more obvious an example was the grossly misnamed “scientific socialism” of the Leninists, who pretended that it was “just the facts” of inexorable economic law that “forced” them to liquidate worker's councils in revolutionary Russia in 1917-18 or slaughter dissidents at Kronstadt in 1921 .

It has been a long battle to reintroduce considerations of values into economic and political discussions, or at least uncover that they have been there all along. Fish's argument would swing us all the way back to the other end of the spectrum by hiding the very real differences between types of value systems; “secular” knowledge structures such as Habermasian discourse ethics or Bryan Turner's vulnerability ethics can't possibly be equated with the arbitrary pronouncements of misogynistic, ethnocentric tribal leaders from thousands of years ago. Sorry to my postmodern relativist friends!


  1. Nice response. Fish's arguments are "target rich," and sometimes it's hard to choose where to begin exposing his BS. I like that you pulled on multiple threads. :) In the end, tho, having read numerous equally ridiculous blog posts from Fish, I've concluded that he either genuinely lacks the imagination to perceive that others view the world differently (and certainly the imagination to perceive HOW they see it), or he's the biggest leg-pulling jackhole out there. I really think it's the former. The idea that religion might be an adaptive advantage, one that can come in and out of usefulness like an intestine's appendix or a snake's toes, is beyond his ken. Even in his movie reviews this guy asserts that his emotional reaction is the only correct one. He's not a stupid man, but he is limited.

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  3. I can't speak for Fish as a lit theorist, but his recent attempts at fighting the "New Atheists" are just pathetic. At least if he's really this befuddled I have some pity; I'd really begun to think he was simply scamming like some of the French postmodernists.

    About religion's evolutionary origins, Jerry Coyne mentioned this new paper. I agree with Coyne that religion looks more like a byproduct (or malfunction really!) of our evolved intentionality detection abilities...well I mean all religion except the worship of John Frum, which is divine truth of course....