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Friday, July 25, 2008

"Save the World On Your Own Time"

That's the title of Stanley Fish's latest book.  In the book, as the dust jacket says, Fish argues that "the only goal appropriate to the academy is the transmission and advancement of knowledge.  When teachers offer themselves as moralists, political activists, or agents of social change rather than as credentialed experts in a particular subject and the mthods used to analyze it, they abdicate their true purpose. . . . Those who do this will often invoke academic freedom, but Fish argues that academic freedom, correctly understood, is the freedom to do the academic job, not the freedom to do any job that comes into the professor's mind."  He is, in short, an anti-Gutmann, an anti-Nussbaum (although, wrongly in my view, he doesn't mention either of these scholars).

I'm only a third of the way through the book, but it's a great read so far.  I hope to put up a series of more substantive responses to it (and yes, as always, I'm looking for a law review that might be interested in a review of this very timely book).  I make note of it now because it seems pertinent to many of the questions we've been airing in the past few days, and some that have lurked behind our discussion: Are religously affiliated schools proper "academic" enterprises in the sense in which Fish uses the word?  Is the "academic" enterprise necessarily as narrow as he suggests, or should we have a broader conception?  Should an "elite" education be measured by any other metrics than the most academic ones?  Is there any room for a pluralistic conception of the mission of higher education, or is there only a narrow definition of "academic" and a series of other schools, focused on religious mission or social change or any number of other values, that may be fine but aren't "academic" as such?  And are law schools, which mix intellectual inquiry and practical training, really part of the academy in the first place? 

I think Fish is too monistic in his view of the university, and hope to expand on that point soon.  In the meantime, however, let me say that Fish is characteristically spirited and fun and, so far in my reading, has made many incisive, if repetitive, points.  He is particularly useful in arguing that the academic enterprise, in its seeking after truth, should eschew a sense of urgency, which is the realm of politics, in favor of a certain sense of timelessness -- a point I have made here before, and probably a sticking point for law schools and much legal academic writing, and for the endless and distorting quest for "novelty" among both authors and law review editors. 

And it's all very Fishy, written with a tremendous sense of joie de vivre and Peck's bad boyishness.  After the jump, a few quotes.  Note, in particular, the quote questioning whether law schools belong in the university at all, the discussion of whether it would have been right for academics in the '50s to make any positive declarations about segregation, and the very anti-Nussbaumian argument that reading novels doesn't make you a better person.

"Moral capacities (or their absence) have no relationship whatsoever to the reading of novels, or the running of statistical programs, or the execution of laboratory procedures  . . . . "

"Anyone who asks for more [than academics in a narrow sense] has enlisted in the 'we-are-going-to-save-the-world' army along with Derek Bok . . . ."

"[I]sn't the university primarily a place for the unfettered expression of ideas?  The answer is no.  The university is primarily a place for teaching and research.  The unfettered expression of ideas is a cornerstone of liberal democracy; it is a prime political value.  It is not, however, an academic virtue, and if we come to regard it as our primary responsibility, we will default on the responsibilities assigned us and come to be what no one pays us to be -- political agents engaged in political advocacy."

"If you're not in the pursuit-of-truth business, you should not be in the university."

"[W]hat about professional schools and professional training? . . . [I]f students [at such schools] are taught methods and techniques in the absence of any inquiry into their sources, validity, and philosophical underpinnings[,] that professional school is not the location of any intellectual activity and is 'academic' only in the sense that it is physically housed in a university."

"The judgment of whether a policy is the right one for the country is not appropriate in the classroom, where you are (or should be) more interested in the structure and history of ideas than in recommending them (or dis-recommending them) to your students."

"In the 1950s the legal and moral status of segregation was a live political question working its way through legislatures and courts, which were (and are) the proper venues for adjudicating the issue.  Faculty members were free to air their views in public forums and many did, but those who used the classroom as a soapbox were co-opting a space intended for other purposes."

"[A]s for ethical judgment in general, no doubt everything you encounter helps to shape it, but reading novels by Henry James is not a special key to achieving it; and indeed -- and there are many examples of this in the world -- readers of Henry James or Sylvia Plath or Toni Morrison can be as vile and as cruel and as treacherous as anyone else."

Posted by Paul Horwitz on July 25, 2008 at 09:59 AM in Books | Permalink


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I don't suppose that _anyone_ thinks that reading novels _necessarily_ makes one a better person (is there anything that, if done, necessarily makes one a better person? I'm fairly skeptical about that but would be willing to be put straight.) But, the idea of this didn't make me think of Nussbaum so much as Richard Rorty who argued (in a paper in his 3rd volume of collected papers, if I remember correctly, but I'm going from memory here) that we are more likely to become good liberals (people who think cruelty is the worst thing, in his version of it, I think) by reading sentimental stories than by abstract argument. I think he's likely right about that, at least most of the time and for most people. As for Fish, I can't be bothered to pay him much attention most of the time. He's written some interesting stuff about Milton, and some others, but when he turns to philosophy or politics I think he's terrible, really second-rate stuff, at best.

Posted by: Matt | Jul 25, 2008 7:19:23 PM

Well, if so, then he needs to consider the arguments in Love's Knowledge before making the above generalizations.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jul 25, 2008 6:58:33 PM

Wrong book -- I'm pretty sure Paul was referring to Nussbaum's "Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education."

Posted by: micah | Jul 25, 2008 6:46:58 PM

Perhaps the central argument Nussbaum makes relevant to this post is the following: “…[T]here may be some views of the world and how one should live in it…-- that cannot be fully and adequately stated in the language of conventional philosophical prose, a style remarkably flat and lacking in wonder—but only in language and in forms themselves more complex, more allusive, more attentive to particulars.”

Nussbaum also makes two related but logically distinct arguments, the first captured by the claim that “conception and form are bound together; finding and shaping words is a matter of finding the appropriate and, so to speak, the honorable, fit between conception and expression. If the writing is well done, a paraphrase in a very different form and style will not, in general, express the same conception.”

“The second claim is that certain truths about human life can only be fittingly and accurately state in the language and forms characteristic of the narrative artist.”

So Nussbaum is critical of a “predominant tendency in contemporary Anglo-American philosophy” which heretofore has “ignore[d] the relation between form and content altogether,” or, “when not ignoring it…treating style as largely decorative—as irrelevant to the stating of content, and neutral among the contents that might be conveyed.”

As Nussbaum makes clear, Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (1990), “examine[s] the contribution made by certain works of literature to the exploration of some important questions about human beings and human life.” This strikes me as a far more modest project than the one attributed to her by comments in your post. Consider, for example, Nussbaum’s remark that she is “concerned with intentions and thoughts that are realized in the text, and that may appropriately be seen in the text, not with other thoughts and feelings the real-life author and reader may find themselves having.” She well appreciates the likelihood that the reader “may fail to be what the text demands,” so there can be no claim here about the magical and virtuous effects of reading novels simpliciter. Again, as she says, “I am interested…in all and only those thoughts, feelings, wishes, movements, and other processes that are actually there to be seen in the text.” Or consider the categorical statement that “No claim about novels in general, far less about literature in general, could possibly emerge from this book.” Nussbaum finds certain literary texts allow her to philosophically address questions, problems, and issues in the “ethical sphere” that have not or perhaps cannot be addressed in the conventional styles and expressions of philosophical discourse (of course not a few of the existentialists concerned themselves with this subject as well). Implicit in Nussbaum’s argument is the belief that the approach to ethical topics among Kantians (or deontologists) and utilitarians (or consequentialists) alike unduly circumscribes what counts as properly “ethical,” focusing as they do, for example, on specific actions and situations, hypothetical thought-experiments and cliched dilemmas, while excluding much of what affects, impinges upon, or spills over into what is conventionally included under “the ethical.” Hence, she begins with the Aristotelian question, “How should a human being live?” Nussbaum is here one with the late Iris Murdoch (indeed, she quotes from one of Murdoch’s novels: ‘You may know truth, but if it’s at all complicated you have to be an artist not to utter it as a lie.’) as well as Joel Kupperman, the latter finding in Asian philosophies like Confucianism and Daoism a different way to think of the ethical life, one not focused on discrete acts or types of actions but on character and a way of living. In short, the enterprise of moral philosophy, argues Nussbaum, can benefit from a close examination of some novels and other works of literature for what they tell about in their unique form about living an ethical life. She is not dismissing traditional modes of ethical inquiry or forms of ethics: she merely wants to supplement these forms of moral inquiry on the order of the model she provides in examining some works by Henry James and others. So, for instance, we might learn form both Aristotle and James about an ethical ability she terms “perception,” that is “the ability to discern acutely and responsively, the salient features of one’s particular situation.” The novel, especially in the hands of someone like James, appears well-suited to teaching us how to become “finely aware and richly responsible,” an ability, according to Nussbaum, at the core of practical wisdom in the Aristotelian sense.

I could go on but I trust this demonstrates that the arguments by Nussbaum on display here are not identical to the ones found in Love’s Knowledge. In short, whatever the arguments of Fish, it was perhaps prudent he didn’t mention Nussbaum even if, as you say, he is “anti-Nussbaum.”

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jul 25, 2008 5:10:40 PM

It's been a while since I've read Nussbaum's Love's Knowledge, but I don't recall her making the arguments Fish appears to be attributing to her (hence a lot of strawmen). As I recall, she was simply saying that philosophers, especially those schooled in certain ethical traditions, could learn something about the nature of perception and judgment from the likes of James, and that philosophers should look again to literature for philosophical insights perhaps missing from the stock-in-trade philosophical paper, etc. She was reminding us that philosophy at one time took a variety literary forms and that literature too can be chock full of philosophical insights: she wasn't claiming that reading literature turned us into virtuous agents, nor was she claiming we resort to the reading of novels so as to develop moral capacities ab initio as it were (we might further cultivate or refine them, however, but that of course is dependent on a certain kind of reader and a particular kind of reading).

Similar arguments were later made by Colin McGinn in Ethics, Evil and Fiction (1997). [A bit pressed for time or I would have gone into more detail--perhaps later.]

Sorry, no bibliography.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jul 25, 2008 11:25:07 AM

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