Stanley Fish
The Voice of Postmodernism

Our investigation into the question of whether holders of the postmodern or IKA view of the impossibility of knowledge drew some responses on the WSW E-list. A few of them were singled out for comment, also on 4 Sept 2004. Here, with names concealed out of respect for the private nature of the original exchange, is the comment.

Stanley Fish

Question 1: Don't know how Stanley Fish is that important to your reasoning. Never heard of him. So what?

Answer 1: Sic transit gloria Americana. Over here, Stanley Fish is a big fish in what I will call the IKA ("Impossibility of Knowing Anything") pond. When on 13 July 2003 the New York Times sought a postmodernist to represent moral relativity in a "September 11" discussion, Stanley was the fish they pulled out of that pond. The caption under his photo read "Stanley Fish, a postmodernist, says there is no objective standard for proving truth." Thus do people in this island see the issues, and these are the people who represent those issues . . .

Fish was also prominent among those who came to the defense of the Social Text people when physicist Alan Sokal conned that little Duke University journal into accepting a hoax theory "linking quantum mechanics with the formulations of postmodern thought," a hoax theory that had been constructed by Sokal himself. Fish only made himself ridiculous by coming to the defense of this ridiculous situation.

Fish is quoted in the following senses in Behan McCullagh, The Truth of History (Routledge 1998):

(1). Stanley Fish has declared that texts do not have a literal meaning."There is no such thing as literal meaning, if by literal meaning one means a meaning that is perspicuous no matter what the context and no matter what is in the speaker's or hearer's mind, a meaning that because it is prior to interpretation can serve as a constraint on interpretation." (p135-1365).

(2) When Stanley Fish discussed the problem, he noted that some historians such as Elizabeth Fox-Genovese had resolved it by simply declaring that historians can discover the truth about the past. His reply is that historians cannot know the past because in describing the past they use a language, "and that language must itself proceed from some ideological vision." (p170)

All this is self-serving for a lit crit person. Interpretation is not constrained by circumstances. Interpretation is free (lit wins) at the same time that knowledge is impossible (history loses). The refutation is obvious. If not, one can go to McCullagh for an fully worked-out refutation.

Bishop Berkeley

Question 2: Can't we just hope and try our honest best on the assumption that there is something objective and knowable?

Answer 2: That would do, but a stronger statement may be available. An early IKA theorist, Bishop Berkeley, believed that external realities existed only as creatures of our own perceiving minds (Paradox of the Juniper Tree). Boswell and Johnson were walking home from church one day, having heard the good Bishop preach, and Boswell remarked that the theory was obviously wrong, but very hard to refute. Johnson kicked at a stone with his foot, and said, "I refute it thus." The refutation is even better if some IKA theorist is walking in the dark and trips over an unseen stone, breaking his neck and ending his life on the spot.

If the dead were sentient, we could ask that IKA theorist if his opinion had changed. Whether the dead are sentient is a matter with which history does not deal, so we cannot take the thought experiment any further. We will have to mush on, empirically, as best we can. But perhaps with a certain optimism.

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