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The Mises Review

Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.


The Trouble With Principle

Stanley Fish

3 2000
Volume 6, Number 3


Consumed by Argument?

Fall 2000

The Trouble With Principle by Stanley Fish (Harvard University Press, 1999; 328 pgs.)

I expected to dislike this book. Stanley Fish, the author of distinguished books on Milton and George Herbert, long ago found the world of literary scholarship too confining. He obtained a law degree and frequently comments on public affairs, usually from a leftist point of view.

With characteristic open-mindedness, I have abandoned the prejudice I brought to the book. It is impossible to dislike someone who writes: "As far as I am concerned, any positive reference to Habermas in the course of an argument is enough to invalidate it" (p. 122).

Mr. Fish, it turns out, has gotten hold of an important truth, but he in part mistakes his target. He correctly sees that many influential political philosophers, including Rawls, Nagel, and Dworkin, pursue a mistaken project. They aim to establish "neutral" principles: no one, it is alleged, regardless of his religious or philosophical commitments, could rationally reject these principles.

Fish contends that these allegedly neutral deliverances of pure reason are in fact biased against religion and non-liberal opinions. In fact, he holds, the principles mask their advocates' own political views. He counters the "neutralists" with his own contextual view of reason. Fish seems to me largely correct in what he attacks, but wrong in what he defends.

We can best see what Fish means by a neutral principle by considering his criticism of Thomas Nagel's impartiality argument. Suppose that you hold certain religious beliefs of a kind unfashionable at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. You believe that all those who do not rightly profess the faith delivered unto the saints are condemned to everlasting perdition. Do you have grounds for imposing your beliefs on others? According to Nagel, you do not.

If you step back from your beliefs, you will recognize that others in society are equally committed to competing beliefs. Occupying what Nagel terms "the view from nowhere," you recognize that your commitments are no more (or less) important than those of anyone else. That being so, you have no justification for acting on the basis of your religion to impose restrictions on others.

Fish locates the fatal misstep in Nagel's argument. "Deferring to a higher order impartiality is not to constrain or bracket `your own beliefs' . . . but to enact them; it is to testify to the truth, as you see it. The so-called higher order impartiality is anything but impartial. . . . It is our notion of the good, as contestable as any other" (p. 182).

Our author has here made an important contribution to contemporary political theory, but he misjudges what he has done. He has shown that certain very influential attempts to derive principles that everyone should rationally accept fail of their purpose. Why, e.g., should our imagined religious believer allow the impartial "view from nowhere" to take precedence over his faith?

But Fish generalizes too fast. It does not follow from the failure of Nagel's project, or of Rawls's, that any attempt to derive universal principles of reason must fail. Our professed contextualist here himself neglects the context of what he has done.

Fish would, I think, reply to my argument by saying that his objections to Nagel and like-minded theorists can validly be generalized. All arguments depend on presuppositions that cannot be further supported. "[E]vidence is never independent in the sense of being immediately apprehensible; evidence comes into view (or doesn't) in the light of some first premise or `essential axiom' that cannot itself be put to the test because the protocols of testing are established by its presumed authority. This is not to debunk rationality in favor of faith but to say that . . . you can't have one without the other" (p. 255). (The argument is attributed to Stephen Carter but is clearly endorsed by Fish.)

This argument is vulnerable to a familiar move. It claims that all truth is relative to one's presuppositions. But if it is true, then it is true only relative to some presupposition. What is it? And what happens if we do not adopt it? Fish's argument has become a "self-consuming artifact."

Fish makes a few other dubious philosophical claims. In what way is accepting that two plus two equals four "like adhering to the convention that we drive on the right side of the road" (p. 270)? Could we, if so minded, adopt a different convention? The point that we do not hold our beliefs voluntarily does not support Fish's claim "that beliefs emerge historically and in relation to the other beliefs that are already in the content of our consciousness" (p. 284). The nonvoluntary nature of belief is consistent with the most extreme rationalism. (Incidentally, if we do not choose our beliefs, how is two plus two equals four a convention?)

Unusually for me, I do not wish to stress Fish's mistakes. His achievement in this book far outweighs them. Influential philosophers have tried to exclude religious and other unfashionable views from influence on policy. We are told that if, for example, you take the Bible to forbid abortion, you cannot use your belief when you are deciding questions governed by "public reason." Fish has shown that these philosophers give us no good grounds to abandon our beliefs when we enter the public square. And he does so with a skill at the analysis of philosophical rhetoric that recalls William Empson. For this he deserves our gratitude. 

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