Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Pomo footnote: Stanley Fish at it Again

*Alright, since I screwed up and published this for about an hour earlier today, and since people were interested in responding, I'll throw it up now and not wait until Tuesday which is when this is stamped and when it was scheduled to go up. (Today is Sunday 13 April.) Thanks to a comment made by Keith DeRose during its brief, earlier life, it's been modified to reflect his input. Thanks also to Lori Wilson for talking me down off the ledge and encouraging me to tone it down a bit. Which I hope to have done.

Last week Stanley Fish published another essay on deconstruction. Here are two sequential paragraphs taken from it.

Instead (and this is the killer), both the “I” or the knower, and the world that is to be known, are themselves not themselves, but the unstable products of mediation, of the very discursive, linguistic forms that in the rationalist tradition are regarded as merely secondary and instrumental. The “I” or subject, rather than being the free-standing originator and master of its own thoughts and perceptions, is a space traversed and constituted — given a transitory, ever-shifting shape — by ideas, vocabularies, schemes, models, distinctions that precede it, fill it and give it (textual) being.


The Cartesian trick of starting from the beginning and thinking things down to the ground can’t be managed because the engine of thought, consciousness itself, is inscribed (written) by discursive forms which “it” (in quotation marks because consciousness absent inscription is empty and therefore non-existent) did not originate and cannot step to the side of no matter how minimalist it goes. In short (and this is the kind of formulation that drives the enemies of French theory crazy), what we think with thinks us.


John Searle said it first, but it applies here: it’s stuff like this that gives bullshit a bad name. This sure gives deconstruction a bad name. Is there one coherent thought contained in the gobbelygook of those two paragraphs? Honestly. Isn't it just so much nonsense? Literally? If not, would someone please express the sense or meaning of these sentences in English I can understand.

You see, there's a difference between not understanding a physics or engineering paper or textbook and not understanding nonsense. Nonsense can't be understood because it's nonsense. Physics can be understood, it is understand-able even if you or I can't understand it. Not so with nonsense. It's not understandable. It's nonsense. Faulting someone for not understanding nonsense is like faulting a quadrapalegic for failing to jump into a pool to save a drowning child.

And here's the thing: not all philosophy done in the deconstructive mode is nonsense. Some is perfectly sensible, helpful and useful even. I have a colleague who is a card-carrying Continental philosopher, a former student of Caputo and something of an expert on Derrida. Never have I read anything by him that is nonsense. Sometimes I haven't understood him, but not because what he said wasn't understandable, but was instead nonsense. No. Usually it's because I lack knowledge of some sort. And after he educates me, I understand perfectly well. This bit of Fish's strikes me as a fish of a different color. Seems to me that it's either nonsense or an exercise in verbal or intellectual masturbation.

Context is an important consideration, however. I understand that. I understand that there are contexts in which the written word isn't offered in the spirit of communicating or conveying a point and to fault it for failing in this regard is a mistake. Within some contexts the aim of the written word may be to inspire, agitate, play, provoke or something else entirely (think of some types of poetry, for example). But the context of this essay of Fish's is the bloody NY Times. And an editorial at that (I think). Alright. I'm done. Have at it/me.

27 comments:

Kyle said...

Ummm, I have no problem understanding it (though I don't know if I could easily explain it, even if I had the time and energy). This may, however, be a product of my having been studying in English departments for nearly eleven years now. It's basically a two paragraph summary of something that can't easily be summarized in five times the space. And quite uncharacteristic for Fish, who probably has garnered more of a following over the years than perhaps his ideas merited because he was one of the few clear communicators of theory.

Anonymous said...

I've come to the conclusion over the years that when somebody calls some piece of writing "nonsense" it usually means that that person has no idea what they are talking about. I'm not saying that is necessarily the case here, but if I were a betting man I'd say the odds were in my favor.

Let me guess, you didn't even run this past your colleague to see if he could make sense of it before you declared it "nonsense" or verbal/intellectual masturbation.

The principle of charity would suggest that given the context (an article about a book called "French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States") he might say a few things that the average NY Times reader might not be able to understand.

Keith DeRose said...

It's when Fish is writing for the NYTimes that one would expect him to write so as to be understandable to a general audience. In many of the pieces he writes for the Times, he succeeds admirably at that. But this piece is bewildering. Yes, Anonymous, the title of Fish's opinion piece does to some deggree portend trouble, but that doesn't negate the presumption that he'll write for his audience. Seeing the title, the reader thinks: "Wow. He's writing about *that* in the Times? Great: Now maybe I'll get an explanation of that stuff that I can understand."

Perhaps somewhat in line with the beginning of kyle's comment: At various places in Fish's essay, what Fish is saying would seem clear enough -- except for the fact that what he seems to be saying is so blazingly absurd. Strangely, it's some form of charity toward Fish that tends to make me have Kevin's reaction: It's because I'm trying to read Fish as saying something sane that I reject the "surface" reading, and then I'm left with little idea about what it is that Fish is saying. But maybe it's better to allow that Fish is making bizarre claims, in which case, at least at many points, I'm with Kyle's opening remark: It's tolerably clear just what crazy things Fish is saying.

Kevin Corcoran said...

Kyle and Anon:

I have not said that Fish is always spouting nonsense or even that this entire essay of his is nonsense. It's those two paragraphs I was commenting on.

I think Keith is exactly right. The NY Times is not a graduate level English department. It's not read ONLY by people who get off on this sort of thing. It's read by a far larger audience, a general audience. So I think Fish should write so as to be understood by that audience, of which I am a member.

Anon: In the past, when a physicist has written for the NY Times they have taken very complicated and technical material and presented so that even I, a non-physicist, can understand it. Fish should strive to do the same. If he did, he failed.

Please hear me: I am not one of those analytic philosophers who think that whatever Continental philosophers are doing isn't philosophy or isn't worth doing. I've read (and understood) the writing of some CP. I've found it to be enormously beneficial and illuminating. What Fish has given us in those two paragraphs is neither. It's silly.

Anonymous said...

I never once thought that you were "one of those" Analytic philosophers. I merely stated an conclusion I've come to - that when somebody claims that something is nonsense, it usually ends up being a statement about their own understanding and not the piece of writing.

Your claim now - that Fish failed to write something that you understand - is much different than your original claim - that what Fish wrote is either nonsense or intellectual/verbal masturbation. I concede your point that Fish can be faulted for not writing to the NY Times audience.

Kevin Corcoran said...

Anon:

Aren't those two claims--that what Fish writes in those paragraphs is nonsense/verbal, intellectual mastrubration AND that I don't understand it--compatible? That was sort of the point, that I don't understand it, not because I have failed, but rather because what he's written is nonsense. I don't think I said anything substantially different in the comment than I did in the post.

I think you're right, of course, to concede the point you do.

Anonymous said...

Well, I took your comment to be saying that if you were a Continental philosopher or one of those "people who get off on this sort of thing" that perhaps you would be able to understand it. But you aren't and so you don't. But perhaps I was wrong.

Perhaps if I ask this more generally I will get my point across. How do you distinguish between "I don't understand because this is nonsense" and "I don't understand and therefore it looks like nonsense to me." Using your physicist analogy - if one of those physicists had written something that wasn't brought down to the general reader's level, what would you have done to determine if what he or she had written was merely a case of you not understanding what was written or was in fact nonsense? Did you do those things with these paragraphs?

Jack said...

First, to be fair, I think you need to include the link to the article. Reading two paragraphs in isolation does not help those who are not NYT subscribers to decipher it.

Second, I think it simply says, how can our brain (mind) understand itself?

Kevin Corcoran said...

Anon:

Those are good, fair questions. So let me try to answer. First, usually nonsense looks like nonsense to me. But, to be honest, I'm not often faced with a piece of what looks like nonsense (to me). When I am, and I want to distinguish nonsense from what looks like nonsense to me I go about it this way. First I read it. Then, I read it again and again. Then I call on people I respect and who I judge to be a lot smarter than me (like, say, Keith, for example).

If that fails, I might take to posting it on a blog and saying something like is there one coherent thought contained in the gobbelygook of those two paragraphs? Isn't it just so much nonsense? And then I might say: if not, would someone please express the sense or meaning of these sentences in English I can understand.

Did I do that in this case? Yes.

Jack: I did include a link to the essay. Just click on the word "essay" in the first sentence of the actual post.

Kevin Corcoran said...

Jack:

You said:

I think it simply says, how can our brain (mind) understand itself?

Is that what those two paragraphs said? How can a self can think about itself, well that's a sensible question. And an interesting one too.

Maybe other readers can chime in here. Is that what Fish mean to say in those two paragraphs?

Anonymous said...

Okay you read it and re-read it. That's good. You ask smart people like Keith (and your card-carrying Continental colleague?).

And then you ask people on your blog if they understand it, which also seems like a decent way to go about things. Except of course for the fact that you declared it nonsense before you gave any of your blog readers a chance to try to explain it to you.

Kevin Corcoran said...

Anon:

Let me add to my last response and confess. One might think Keith DeRose, being a fellow analytic philosopher, is not the right sort of expert to consult on these matters. Well, my Continental philosopher friends were not around to query about those two paragraphs of Fish. Jamie Smith is in England and Pete Rollins (someone else I would have consulted) was out of touch for a couple of days. So I brought it here, to you and others.
So far, though, Jack is the only one who has sought to explain what he thinks Fish may have meant. If Fish meant what Jack took him to mean, then I do find it troubling that what Fish spent two paragraphs to say in obscure jargon Jack managed to say in twelve jargon-free words.

But I wonder if others who think Fish managed to say something meaningful/sensible also think Jack's right.

Kevin Corcoran said...

Anon:

Guilty as charged. (Sorry, I was composing my last comment when you published yours.) I'm still waiting, though, for someone to take the offer and explain the meaningful/sensible thing Fish was attempting to say in those paragraphs. So far Jack is the only one to offer anything.

Ought I to have judged it nonsense before I put it out there for you and others to explain it? Why not judge it nonsense by my lights (the only ones I have), publish and invite others to publicly engage me. If I'm shown to be wrong I'll admit it.

Anonymous said...

Here's what I think it says.

Just before these two paragraphs Fish explains that the French theorists believe that the knowing subject, the world and their descriptions are not independent of each other. Then he says that these very concepts are mediated through language, rather than unmediated things in themselves. He then says that the knowing subject also isn't just a thing in itself, separate from the world and descriptions of the world, but rather is constituted by the ideas, concepts, models, etc. that those in the "rationalist tradition" say are in the service of the knowing subject. Cartesian foundationalism doesn't help us here since consciousness itself is constituted by those ideas, concepts, models, etc.

In the paragraph that directly follows these two, he goes on to say that not only are our consciousness and our ideas, concepts, models, etc. not unmediated things in themselves, but also the world isn't either. That wraps up what he said before the two paragraphs you quoted about all three of those things not being independent of each other.

That's basically what I took him to be saying. I really have no desire to defend the truth of it, but I take it that that isn't your concern here, either.

Kevin Corcoran said...

Anon:

That's what you took him to be saying in those two paragraphs? In any event, unlike Fish (in those two paragraphs), what you say here is capable of being understood. And we could at least examine what you say and discuss the likelihood of its being true. I don't think we could do that with what Fish says (in the two paragraphs at issue).

It probably will come as no surprise btw that I think what you say he might have said is false and its falsity fairly easily established. (For example, the the knowing subject, the world and their descriptions are not independent of each other seems obviously false, given the fact that we human beings are rather late comers on the scene. What, no mountains or dinosaurs before we showed up to describe them?)But, as you say, the truth or falsity of the claims Fish may have meant to express in those two paragraphs I cite is not my concern here.

In the penultimate paragraph of your comment, are you just saying that we human cognizers can never get a God's eye view of the world, that we can't describe it except from some point of view or other? That I agree with. But that the world--or the things that populate the world aren't "unmediated" independent things-in-themselves, I'm not sure what you mean. If you mean those things couldn't exist without us to cognize them, that seems false, especially since many of them did exist before any humans did. (I'm a fan of socially constructed objects, too; I just don't think that mountains or slugs are socially constructed.)

Anyway, you've made sense. I don't think Fish made sense in the paragraphs I cited.

Peter B said...

Hey Kevin
Interesting thoughts, and I look forward to hearing more of your take on Tony Jones' book. I haven't read it yet, but look forward to piecing through it at some point in the future. Right now my non-free reading is taken up with academic articles, and my free reading is my making of my way through "A Secular Age"

I think this interaction with Fish's writing is an interesting one, because I think some of the critiques you voice here are similar ones I have with language around spirituality and the Christian faith. I think often churches are helpful in diagnosing the problem of sin in clear tractable language (self-deception, self-absorbtion, relational depravity) but more 'poetic' bordering on Fish'ian 'nonsense' when it comes to identifying the solution (lean on God, walk with Jesus, make Godly decisions). Not that these terms aren't true, but they are quite a bit more poetic and often unclear when it comes to identifying that of which we actually speak.

Now a question that comes up for me is whether certain truths (e.g. spiritual development or Christian formation, even Christian language around the soul perhaps) are best thought of as metaphors at best, and dealt with most aptly in poetry. Or, is this 'poetic' language we sometimes hear in Christians talk and Christian sermons due to a lack of clarity on the truth of which we speak, and the best language to address it with. If I read Pete Rollins, then it is only with this 'theo-poetics' by which we can speak of a reality like God. If this is the case, then I can deal with this langauage ambiguity. if its not, then I think as Christians we need to be more clear in our language, especially around redemption. I think the worst of all worlds is where many churches are at now, speaking poetically but assuming that this poetic language is a clear and tractbile way to speak of reality (the poet who thinks s/he is speaking in prose... perhaps Fish in this article).

With regards to Fish, I think any critique has to wrestle with his intent, and whether he is attempting to clearly speak with clarity and truth, or whether he is attempting to speak poetically of a certain truth underneath his prose. If his intent is the former, then he fails... if his intent is the latter, then perhaps he does fulfill his intent (it at least got quite a few blogs dialoging on postmodernity right?? more than most editorials on nytimes)

Jack said...

Sorry, I dont know how I missed that link.

Now having read his essay I want to discuss what I think is an important point. This applies to the emergent folks also, and my concern about deconstruction, and post modernism, is its denial of universal, and eternal truth.

But we dont have to discuss this in religious terms, I would like to discuss this in scientific terms. What I am getting at is that Fish in this essay lumps mathematics in with language because it is symbolic.

But I think mathematics is different. Mathematics describes the world as it is. It is not just symbolic, it is not dependent on us or our thoughts, or our language. It is truth, it is beauty. It just is.

See the following:

http://www.dartmouth.edu/~matc/MathDrama/reading/Wigner.html

Anonymous said...

"That's what you took him to be saying in those two paragraphs?"

Yes. Of course, I had to take into account the surrounding paragraphs since the two you picked out were in the middle of a larger point he was trying to make. But I think I indicated where I was talking about the paragraphs before and after the two you were referring to.

Regarding my penultimate paragraph, Fish says "This is not say that the world apart from the devices of human conception and perception doesn't exist 'out there'; just that what we know of that world follows from what we can say about it rather than from any unmediated encounter with it in and of itself." I take this to mean that Fish would say "Yes, those things can exist without us to cognize them."

Jack said...

Try again

http://www.dartmouth.edu/~matc/MathDrama/reading/Wigner.html

Kevin Corcoran said...

Anon:

Fish says "This is not say that the world apart from the devices of human conception and perception doesn't exist 'out there'; just that what we know of that world follows from what we can say about it rather than from any unmediated encounter with it in and of itself."

Look at that sentence of Fish's in quotes: Clear, lucid, coherent. Hold it up against the many sentences in the two paragraphs I picked out. As different as night is from day.

I think Peter may be getting at something important and helpful too in his comment. I hope to respond to it soon.

But, thanks, anon. I appreciate the effort, and I hear ya.

Kevin Corcoran said...

Peter:

You raise an important issue and I'm not sure just which paragraph to locate it in. Let's take this one:

With regards to Fish, I think any critique has to wrestle with his intent, and whether he is attempting to clearly speak with clarity and truth, or whether he is attempting to speak poetically of a certain truth underneath his prose. If his intent is the former, then he fails... if his intent is the latter, then perhaps he does fulfill his intent...

I don't know just what Fish's intentions were. Given the source or venue (The NY Times)and the title of his essay, I assumed a particular intent: to explain something and so to do so with clarity.

But what you suggest about a theo-poetics I think is important. If our aim is to invite others into a new or different way of seeing the world or being human or what have you--in other words if our aim is not to explain-- then the pedestrian, colorless, clear prose of the analyst is rather pitiful and impotent.

This is how I read Pete Rollins (and some of Caputo). I read him as doing a kind of theo-poetics, as doing what some poetry, parables, music or even a good novel (like N.Krauss's The History of Love) do for/to me. They do something in my heart that flat-footed prose can't do. They tell a story or reveal to me new possibilities. I'm not sure just how to put it. I just know that after I read some of Pete's stuff or I listen to my favorite music or read a really good novel (of a certain sort) I feel like a window's been open to a way of being in the world that strikes me as true.

I can't figure out just how to say this. I'll think more about it. But I don't think it's an accident that the story of God's way with the world did not come to us in the form of numbered propositions withh a QED at the end. It came and comes to us in stories, sacraments, concrete images and pictures that stir the heart. Philosophy, at least of the sort I do, doesn't stir hearts. If anything, it clears heads.

Kevin Corcoran said...

Jack,

I don't know that emergent or pomo denies universal or eternal "truth". My sense is that emergents would just find it a pretty uninteresting topic. Their feet are planted more firmly to the ground. But I think what both pomo and emergent types would have us realize is that all knowledge--even knowledge of "universal and eternal truths" (if such there be) is always grasped locally and from some particular perspective. But, of course, if you read my previous post you know that I think philosophical postmodernism falls on a continuum. On one end is pomo as an epistemic claim and at the other is pomo as an ontological claim, i.e., roughly what Plantinga called "creative anti-realism" and what I called "social constructivism".

The sense I get with emergent is that it is a very wide tent. They're a pretty generous lot. There may be some who participate in the conversation who are anti-realists, but I suspect that most think of the epistemic dimension of pomo, i.e., that it would do us well to recognize that that our views of everything are always only partial, fragmentary and incomplete. And, as I've indicated, I have a lot of sympathy with that sort of pomo.

Jack said...

Yes, we see through a glass darkly. Yes, we only see fragments of a truth. And, along the lines of Fish, we may not be able to comprehend Truth. However, as a reformed thinker, I would say those things are all because we have fallen and are depraved. We have three sources of revelation to understand the Truth, the creation, which we understand through observation, mostly scientific, although something can be said about aesthetics too I suppose, the written word, which is limited in the sense that Fish is talking about, and Christ.

Of course we are fallible and can't read any of the three things correctly, but that doesnt mean that Buddhism, and Christianity; Universalism, and Annhilationism are all true depending on your perspective. Having too broad a tent, while consistent with pomo, and liberal ideas, is not logically consistent. But of course Fish argues it is our system of logic, our axiomatic method, that is at fault.

Peter B said...

Thanks for your response Kevin. A few follow-ups.

You write, "If our aim is to invite others into a new or different way of seeing the world or being human or what have you--in other words if our aim is not to explain-- then the pedestrian, colorless, clear prose of the analyst is rather pitiful and impotent."

Would you argue that this is the primary role of the church, church teaching, discipleship? Furthermore, how ought this 'invitation' be balanced with clear prose on how who God is, and what we are capable of knowing about Him. As I suggested earlier, I think the church often is quite capable at prose with regards to identifying the problem, but poetic when it comes to outlining the solution. Is this poetic response a result of a lack of clarity? Or is this poetic response to be best explained by suggesting it is the best way to speak of these truths?

2) I would love to hear you address at some point (perhaps in a future post) how this, "window... to a way of being in the world that strikes me as true" ought to be defined. I would agree with you again, but from the perspective of 'pedestrian, colorless, clear prose of the analyst' I still am unclear on what it means.

Kevin Corcoran said...

Jack,

You raise an interesting issue in your last response and I'm sorry I haven't had time to address it. You suggest that the facts that our knowledge is only partial and fragmentary owes to our fallen nature. But why think that? Could it owe to our created, finite nature? In the New Jerusalem, do you suppose we actually will enjoy a God's-eye view of things?

I agree, btw, that it doesn't follow from epistemic fallibility that there is no truth or that both universalism and annihilationism are true or that God both was and wasn't in Christ reconciling the world to himself, and that the truth depends on one's perspective. Right.

Jack said...

Kevin asked: "You suggest that the facts that our knowledge is only partial and fragmentary owes to our fallen nature. But why think that? Could it owe to our created, finite nature? In the New Jerusalem, do you suppose we actually will enjoy a God's-eye view of things?"

First of all, we are in the New Jerusalem ;) Seriously. But I know what you mean.

I should clarify that what is limited by our fallen nature is our understanding of spiritual things, and I was saying that our understanding of God, of Truth, is limited by our fallen nature.

Of course we are also limited by our finitude, and I honestly think that in our final eschatological state our cognitive abilities will be essentially the same as they are now, our restored understanding of spiritual things not withstanding.

Kyle Nolan said...

Thanks for writing this. It's nice to see that a philosophy prof. can feel this way too. I'm a writing major, and I don't feel like it's ever necessary to be completely unclear, especially if you're writing for a popular audience.