So long, and no thanks for all the Fish

Stanley Fish has written his last “Opinionator” column for the New York Times, and I can’t say I’m sorry to see him go.  His writing was dreadful (and he’s an English professor!), his opinions cranky and quirky (see here, for instance). He was the intellectual equivalent of the old man who yells, “Hey, kids! Get off of my lawn!”, and he always conveyed an invidious air of intellectual superiority—if you could actually wade through his tedious prose to discern that.  Plus he hated New Atheists, though I suspect he was an atheist himself. (I says “suspect” because, as he notes in his column, he was more interested in the nature of an argument than resolving it.) He merely wanted to show that the rest of us weren’t up to his ability to tackle the sophisticated arguments for religion. It’s a mystery to me why the Times let him rabbit on so long: eight years!

His last column, published December 23, is called “So long, it’s been good to know you,” but what he really meant was “So long, it was good for you to know me.” In his final column, he explains why readers were often frustrated with him, gets in a lick at New Atheism, and then decries the boycott of Israeli universities—but without giving his opinion on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

His atheist bashing:

I explained (too often) that I was typically less interested in taking a stand on a controversial issue than in analyzing the arguments being made by one or more of the parties to the dispute. I was making an argument about the structure of argument, and the fact that I came down hard on the reasoning put forward by one side didn’t mean either that I rejected its position or embraced the position of the other side.

So, for example, when I found the writings of the “New Atheists” — Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens — shallow, callow, historically uninformed and downright silly, that didn’t mean that I was a religious believer. Bad arguments can be made on behalf of a position you may well hold, and by pointing out their badness you don’t (necessarily) reject the position.

. . I tried to stand on the side of cogency and against slipshod reasoning, which meant that I stood on neither side of a substantive question like “Is there a God?” or “Does religion do more harm than good?” I might of course have answers to those questions, but it wasn’t the point of the columns I wrote to reveal them. Let me hasten to say that I wasn’t trying to be objective (a label pinned on me by both my detractors and defenders) or to be above the fray; I was in another fray, making points about making points, and reserving the deeper, moral issue for another day, which usually never arrived.

Pity about that.  As Marx said in his Theses on Feuerbach, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” But Fish didn’t even interpret the world; he interpreted arguments. That’s fine for a philosophy class in college, but not for a newspaper column.  “Making points about points”, an arcane meta-analysis, does have its uses, but it would have been nice had Fish let us know where the correct arguments actually led.  But at least he gets to show here that he’s brainier than the more popular New Atheists. (I suspect a bit of jealousy, since Fish aspired to be a “people’s scholar”.)

Fish does note, thank Ceiling Cat, that the boycott of Israeli universities is misguided (“No matter what the motivation or the circumstances, curtailing the freedom of academics because of a political judgment — saying, as the boycotters say, “because we don’t like the policies of your government, we won’t have anything to do with you” — is just flat out wrong.”), but then pulls back when it comes to the larger question, saying that this is “a geopolitical calculation I am not competent to make.”  Bullfeathers! I don’t believe that for a second.

So goodbye to Fish, goodbye to meta-analysis, goodbye to tedium and labored prose.  Let us hope the New York Times, which has often made dreadful choices in its “Opinionator” writers, will replace him with one of the many academics who write livelier prose and actually have opinions beyond “Look at ME!”.

Fish’s final paragraph:

In saying that, I find myself back at the same old stand, making a point about the kind of point I’m not making, doing what I do just after having announced that I will no longer be doing it. As John Wayne might have said, but in fact didn’t, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. And in whatever venue (including, perhaps, this one) I continue to do it, I hope you’ll be along for the ride.

“As John Wayne might have said, but in fact didn’t”?? I’d cross that out if it were in a student essay.

And sorry, Dr. Fish. I’m getting off that horse.


  1. Posted December 26, 2013 at 5:51 am | Permalink

    Great reference to Douglas Adams.

    • George
      Posted December 26, 2013 at 7:49 am | Permalink

      Actually, I thought it was a bit insulting to Adams to associate him in any way with Fish.

  2. NewEnglandBob
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    Okay, I’ll be the first to say it: The New York times is getting rid of the stink of the rotten Fish.

  3. lanceleuven
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    That post title is awesome. Flawless, in fact. Kudos.

  4. bric
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    Norman Malcolm reports that Wittgenstein wrote to him ‘ . . . you made a remark about ‘national character’ that shocked me by its primitiveness. I then thought: what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., & if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life, if it does not make you more conscientious than any . . . journalist in the use of the DANGEROUS phrases such people use for their own ends.’

    • grasshopper
      Posted December 26, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      It’s a little known fact that Wittgenstein had a half-brother, who, whilst also seeking to make a name for himself in philosophy, published his works under the unfortunate name of Half-Wittgenstein.

  5. Posted December 26, 2013 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    This is a point about the structure of a point and an argument about the argument of a point that leads me back to the garbage where old Fish belong.

  6. Matt G
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    Self-importance seems to be a common trait among New York Times columnists (convergent evolution, or descended from a common ancestor?). Fortunately, New York Times readers invariably savage the columns (not that the columnists are even aware of it…).

  7. Simon Hayward
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    we’ll call it a wrap then….

    • Posted December 26, 2013 at 7:23 am | Permalink

      …with old newspaper, a common fate for fish.

  8. Don Quijote
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    New York Times, perfect for wrapping Fish (and chips) in.

  9. Barry Lyons
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    I totally forgot about Fish’s column! I remember from a long while back that he pissed me off about something stupid he said about atheists, but I don’t remember what it was now.

    Jerry, will you take the gig, if the Times comes calling?

  10. Diana MacPherson
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    I would be confusing to make a point about Fish making a point about how others make a point. I bet that was his trap – criticizing his points could appear pointless because they inevitably become pointy.

    But seriously, how can anyone suggest that Dawkins and Harris argue badly and get historical facts wrong? Both are supreme and I’d pick either to defend me on anything.

    • Kevin
      Posted December 26, 2013 at 8:04 am | Permalink

      Your first paragraph nails how it feels when reading Fish’s writing. Points about points about previous points that make points more pointy. Feels like what managers talk about in nice clothes.

    • Posted December 26, 2013 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

      Re: your 2nd paragraph –

      Fish was enamored of continental philosophy, esp the French stuff from the latter part of the 20th cent, postmodernism chiefly. My first encounter with him was several years ago when he write at the Opinionator that postmodernism was *the most* interesting intellectual thing going on in the late 1900s. I never went out of my way to have any further encounters with him.

      It makes sense to me, then, that he would pooh-pooh writers who actually take stands, write intelligibly and succinctly, and demonstrate respect for empiricism/reality by eschewing armchair speculation or unsupported philosophical claims.

      • Posted December 26, 2013 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

        JFC! *wrote*

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted December 26, 2013 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I thought a caught a whiff of post modernism in his meta meta analysis.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted December 27, 2013 at 12:05 am | Permalink

        If Fish liked postmodernism then I guess his dislike of Richard Dawkins, who patently did not share his enthusiasm, is not surprising.

  11. Kevin
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    I am so glad that I have no idea who Stanley Fish is (and now was).

    “shallow, callow, historically uninformed and downright silly”…Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens writings?? The universe is composed of so many things that this idiot is blind to and he is intentionally unaware of how precious our existence in it is.

  12. wildhog
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    Great analysis, Jerry. That first paragraph is quite an assassination, and you used “rabbit” as a verb!

  13. gbjames
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    “I was in another fray, making points about making points, and reserving the deeper, moral issue for another day, which usually never arrived.”

    IOW, he wasn’t interested in anything important. What a waste of newspaper ink and electrons.

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 26, 2013 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

      Exactly my opinion. Stopped reading him long ago.

  14. Marta
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Stanley Fish’s name has always reminded me of an Ayn Rand character. Rand’s readers knew what they were supposed to think about the character because she’d give the character a name that was faintly lip-curling, like “Fish”. (I was always surprised that more of her characters weren’t named “Pimple” or “Moisten”.)

  15. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    As John Wayne might have said, but in fact didn’t…

    You nailed the idiocy of that one, Jerry. Perhaps even Fish realized that “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” is such a hackneyed phrase that he had to pull it from the mouths of John Wayne’s screenwriters, sorta, kinda.

  16. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Quite an opinionator assassination. Thanks for that!

    When I read Fish I have the urge to stand up and say “No, you!” Not only because he engenders in what he characterizes others as doing, but because he seems so childish:

    I found the writings of the “New Atheists” — Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens — shallow, callow, historically uninformed and downright silly,

    Even with the citation marks I find anyone who refers to mainstream atheists (whether minor or major) as “New Atheists” in Fish’s words shallow, callow, historically uninformed and downright silly. Callow and callous. It is a simplistic politicization of framing Your Enemy as an out-group.

    Bad arguments … of a substantive question like “Is there a God?”

    Really, what worse argument can be put forward than the special pleading that an existence question of reality is _not_ an empirical question but a religious/theological/philosophical one? No other questions has ever been answered by the latter, while the former has an distinguished track record of answering such questions.

    Moreover, that track record is of some historical dignity, millenniums of theological and philosophical failure versus hundreds of years of science success. So it is Fishy indeed to pronounce _atheists_ as lacking in historical chops when it is the anti-empiricists that want to conceal historical facts. What Fish is doing is to compare the historical length of the pole he swings about, whether that is appropriate or not, with the length of the poles of other persons, without noticing how “shallow”, “silly” and childish such a display is.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 26, 2013 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      And since I’m watching Sagan’s “Cosmos” for the first time, before the updated series is released, I’m reminded that while science as such is young, the ideas of atomists that got the basic cosmology correct (matter vs vacuum, stars vs distances) are _older_ than the quaint notions of abrahamists. So Fish will actually come up short if he wants to argue historical prerogatives.

      • Filippo
        Posted December 28, 2013 at 8:26 am | Permalink

        I find myself wishing I was looking forward to watching “Cosmos” for the FIRST time. I’m hoping the remake is not too “edgy,” “edgy” seeming to be the order of the day for anything one sees and hears in today’s mass-consumption media.

  17. Posted December 26, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    I explained (too often) that I was typically less interested in taking a stand on a controversial issue than in analyzing the arguments being made by one or more of the parties to the dispute.

    In other words, he’s a coward and a troll.


    • Posted December 26, 2013 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

      And he’s under the impression that that’s the sophisticated, respectable thing to do.

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 26, 2013 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

      And making a living out of it.

  18. uglicoyote
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Road.

  19. dongiovanni
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Don’t forget his article defending Social Text…

  20. A B Carter
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, if you are going to excoriate Stanley Fish you’re going to have to stand behind a very long line, one that includes the likes of Martha Nussbaum, Camille Paglia, Terry Eagleton and Ronald Dworkin. Stanley Fish is a uniter: there are any number of intellectual foes who have forgotten their differences and find common ground in loathing the guy. Perversely, I have an affection for him: someone so universally hated has got to be doing something right. So a few comments.

    While I understand the motivation it is silly to call Stanley Fish a bad writer. He is not only a fine stylist, but like you, someone who appreciates the importance of good English. If you want to see clear English read some of the articles he wrote for the Journal of Higher Education regarding how to manage a department, and if you want to see his appreciation of good writing read “How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One.” Likewise he could argue in a perfectly straight-forward fashion. His work “Surprised by Sin” was a major contribution to Milton studies and a seminal work in the development of reader’s response criticism.

    However, Fish is a showman. He enjoys winning arguments and doing so by changing the rules whenever possible, which makes his defense of Social Text during the Sokol affair particularly embarrassing. Worse, he enjoys embarrassing an opponent and happily uses whatever rhetorical trick will win the day whether or not it advances the discussion. He is an agent provocateur of the first order. Still I find reading him invigorating and challenging. I couldn’t disagree more with his views on free speech, but the arguments for my own position are all the more solid for reading him.

    If you want to see a critical yet honest grappling with some of his views you can search for his name on Brian Leiter’s blog.

    For what it’s worth I think he is a believer, though I can provide neither specifics nor a specific citation.

    Finally, if you ever read David Lodge’s trilogy on academia (Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work), remember that the character Morris Zapp is based on Stanley Fish.

  21. parnell
    Posted December 27, 2013 at 1:40 am | Permalink

    I took a freshman English course taught by Stanley Fish at UC Berkeley nearly 50 years ago. He taught close textual analysis and emphasized the importance, especially in poetry, of individual words.

    In one class session he called on a young woman to tell him what a word in the first line of a poem meant. She didn’t have an answer, didn’t even say “I don’t know.” She just remained silent. Professor Fish stood in front of her and waited for her to respond. He waited for twenty minutes until the period ended. The young woman never said a word.

    It was perhaps the cruelest thing I’ve ever seen a teacher do in a classroom.

    I learned a lot in that class from Stanley Fish — the man knows his Milton — but I didn’t learn to respect him.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted December 27, 2013 at 7:01 am | Permalink

      How bizarre. If I were the woman I would have commented on his behaviour and perhaps left. I had some odd professors in my day but I think it was more borderline personality disorders and I got along with them fine where others were terrified of them.

    • Filippo
      Posted December 28, 2013 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      Had the Honorable Fish previously somehow given the young lady grief, or had embarrassed her in front of classmates? I gather that “co-eds” then had to bear up in a more subordinate mode. Perhaps she was bound and determined not to let that noble professorial soul get the best of her, judging that silence was the best strategy in dealing with such a popinjay.

      My high school science teacher, when an undergraduate at a private religious (Southern Baptist) college in the late 50’s/early 60’s, called a professor, to his face and in class, a son-of-a-bitch. (Perhaps he was giving voice to what not a few classmates were thinking, dealing with a petty tyrant at a private religious institutional tyranny.)

      After the incident, the student went to the professor and apologized for embarrassing him in front of the class. The professor replied, “But you’re not apologizing for what you said?” The student replied, “No,” and as a consequence failed the course (though not expelled).

      I suppose that at that time a student at a secular institution would have received a similar consequence, but not in 2013, eh? From my own direct public middle and high school observation and experience, it’s kinda-sorta all in a day’s work for teachers, nothing to be “Shocked! Shocked!” at.

  22. Filippo
    Posted December 28, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Circa 1940, FDR gave an uproariously funny speech, where he ended paragraphs in a sing-song manner (e.g., “Moe, Larry and Curly,” or “Dewey, Cheatham and Howe”) with the names of three politicos, the last being (Congressman Hamilton) Fish, really laying into the enunciation of “Fish.”

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