About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Stanley Fish, wrong again

I have taken issue before (here and here) with the writings of Stanley Fish in the New York Times, and I’m about to do it again. Fish is a professor of law at Florida State University, and often writes reasonably on a variety of topics in the NYT, but there is a streak of deconstruction running through some of his columns, that brings him to espouse pretty questionable positions when it comes to science, religion or philosophy.

In his April 6 column, Fish delights in announcing the publication of a book by Francois Cusset entitled “French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Delouze & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States.” I have not read the book, so I will confine myself to questioning Fish’s comments, though it is no secret that I have a very low opinion of Foucault, Derrida and co. to begin with.

Fish starts out by summarizing the contribution of these deconstructionists (or postmodernists, or whatever) authors, telling us of the challenge they posed to the “rationalist tradition” of the Enlightenment and the philosophy of Francis Bacon (who, strictly speaking, was an empiricist, not a rationalist). Stanley tells us that what deconstructionists have been up to is “an interrogation of [the Enlightenment’s] key components: an independent, free-standing, knowing subject, the ‘I’ facing an independent, free-standing world.” To put it in another fashion: the human ability to inquire about nature is limited by the fact that we are a part of nature itself, whether we like it or not.

In particular, emphasize both the deconstructionists and Fish, the problem is with language: “The trouble is that everything, even the framing of [scientific] experiments, begins with language, with words; and words have a fatal tendency to substitute themselves for the facts they are supposed merely to report or reflect.” Deep insight, but as Fish himself tells his readers, this isn’t Foucault talking, it’s Bacon himself! Bacon, like any reasonable philosopher of science, was well aware of what he called “idols,” certain habits of thought common about human beings that have a tendency to get in the way of scientific inquiry. Indeed, Bacon made a list of such idols (there are four fundamental kinds), and warned his readers to be aware of them and actively work to avoid them.

Foucault and friends simply took a good idea and ran with it to the point of absurdity, famously claiming, among other things, that “there is nothing outside the text” (where “text” for deconstructionists is not just the written word, but pretty much any aspect of human communication and culture). Or take an American counterpart of the French “revolution,” philosopher Richard Rorty, who said that “where there are no sentences, there is no truth … the world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not.” Duh, is the most articulated response that comes immediately to mind. Again, late by some three centuries, as Fish himself reminds the reader: Thomas Hobbes had already said that “true and false are attributes of speech, not of things.”

So what’s the big deal? Besides the fact that Fish makes a bit of a mess of the relationship between different philosophies and philosophers (the rationalist Descartes becomes associated with the intellectual program of the empiricist Bacon), we are told that because of the tremendous insights of deconstruction “we lose ... a certain rationalist faith that there will someday be a final word, a last description that takes the accurate measure of everything.” I actually know of very few scientists or philosophers who hold such hope, which makes me suspect that someone is going with a vengeance against a straw man. But I do object to the very idea of a “rationalist faith.” Faith is, by definition, irrational, because it is about believing something regardless, or even in spite, of evidence. So rationalist faith is an oxymoron.

But it gets worse. Fish concludes his article by attempting to shield deconstruction from its worst enemy: itself. You see, if the human condition makes it impossible to ever state that something is objectively true and not just a matter of social construction, then what is stopping us from rejecting deconstruction itself simply on the ground that is is just another social construction with no normative value? Fish quotes Cusset himself: “Deconstruction thus contains within itself … an endless metatheoretical regression that can no longer be brought to a stop by any practical decision or effective political engagement.” Translating the esoteric mumbo jumbo: deconstruction is worthless intellectual masturbation. But then again, how come its authors, Derrida and Foucault in particular, are often hailed as revolutionary social critics? Social criticism implies that one can tell whether something is right or wrong, that is, it implies normative judgment, which Fish and Cusset tell us simply cannot be done -- by definition -- in the case of deconstruction.

All of this is why I must agree with physicist Alan Sokal (the very same one who perpetrated a historical practical joke on the editors of the leading postmodernist journal Social Text), when he says that “When one analyzes [post-modernist and deconstruction] writings, one often finds radical-sounding assertions whose meaning is ambiguous and that can be given two alternative readings: one as interesting, radical, and grossly false; the other as boring and trivially true." Amen.


  1. Curious--where'd you find the Sokal quote? It's a damn good one.

  2. In a chapter he wrote for: Koertge, N., Ed. (1998). A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science. New York, NY, Oxford University Press.

  3. Max, it may interest you to know that I recently exchnaged e-mails with a lecturer from some college in LA, who insisted that my adherence to science was "just another interpretation". So I asked him to clarify: was he really saying that my belief the Moon is made of lunar rock and dust is no more true than the assertion it's made of cheese?
    And he replied "Yes".
    What hope for our children?

  4. Kimpatsu - amazing that he would respond like that. If you pressed him I don't see how he could avoid admitting that some interpretations are more useful than others. Forget truth for a moment and focus instead on usefulness. If I wanted to land on the moon what interpretation would be most useful in designing the vehicle?

  5. @Me:
    It's classic postmodernist doublethink. I get the impressio nthat he's saying that because he comes from the "Western" construct, his car runs on gasoline because he believes it runs on gasoline, but if a Togolese says it runs because of tiny gremlins under the hood, then that is what makes the car go, because the Togolese believes it.
    Yes, it really is that fatuous.

  6. Kimpatsu, Are you sure this lecturer wasn't just Cal in "academic drag"

  7. Despite Cal's rantings being a drag, I'm afraid not...

  8. Ho hum, not really anything to say about post-modernism. Is there?


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