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The Trouble with Principle Paperback – April 1, 2001

ISBN-13: 978-0674005341 ISBN-10: 0674005341
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

American democracy rests its freedoms and legal procedures on principles that are impersonal and universal (e.g., freedom, equality). A good idea? No, says Fish. He argues vigorously that universal principles actually impede democracy. Counterintuitive as his claim may appear, Fish makes a strong and lucid case. The trouble with principle, he explains, is this: it disregards history, tradition and contexts of every sort that shape understanding. According to FishAa controversial literary scholar and theorist who has applied his theories of interpretation to the study of lawAwe can never find a neutral position that will fully transcend our prejudices, commitments and beliefs. And worse yet, high-minded abstractions can be used to mask undemocratic privilege. He offers the current controversy over affirmative action and reverse discrimination as a case in point. Those who agitate for an end to affirmative action usually do so on the principled grounds that it ignores "merit." But what is merit? It describes, says Fish, "whatever qualifications are deemed desirable for the performance of a particular task, and there is nothing fixed about those qualifications." Fish supports affirmative action because he believes we must take into account the history of oppression suffered by the groups that affirmative action is meant to benefit. Yet Fish is no liberal. In fact, he devotes most of his book to the problems entailed in the liberal understanding of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Liberals, he says, duck behind the comforting fictionAor "principle"Athat we are all the same underneath. FishAhard-nosed, unflinching and persuasiveAmaintains that differences are real and must be faced squarely without recourse to timeless, abstract principles. His cautiously reasoned argument, not easily dismissed, will excite controversy. (Dec.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

By turns ludicrous and shrewd, a polemic against ``neutral'' principles like free speech, freedom of religion, and nondiscrimination. Continuing his pilgrimage away from his origins as a literary critic, Fish (Dean/College of Liberal Arts and Sciences/Univ. of Illinois, Chicago; There's No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It's a Good Thing Too, 1993, etc.) plays political philosopher here, applying his own brew of postmodern pragmatism to analyses of current public issues. He wants to expose as a sham what he calls ``neutral principle''''abstractions like fairness, impartiality, mutual respect.'' These, he says, are inherently empty of meaning, which they acquire only when invoked in the service of a ``partisan agenda,'' at which point they are no longer neutral. Fish doesn't mind using these principles when they serve the agenda he favorsleft-centrist concerns like enhanced opportunities for minorities and womenbut is annoyed when they are used to support causes he opposes, such as the repeal of affirmative- action laws. Largely to discredit the ``hijacking'' of these principles by right-wingers and other foes, he deconstructs neutral principles in many forms: First Amendment law, multiculturalism, religious tolerance, foundationalist philosophies. Many chapters have previously been published as separate articles, and their presentation here is sometimes repetitive. Fish is, nonetheless, an entertaining writer, adept at close reading and handy with a barb (the ACLU, ``that curious organization whose mission it is to find things it hates and then to grow them''). Still, his neo-Machiavellianism will repel anyone who does believe in principle, and his arguments are rife with muddy concepts and self-contradiction. How, exactly, do you tell the difference between ``neutral principle'' (bad) and ``moral principle'' (good)? And how can Fish deny the existence of a neutral point of view while insisting he does so from a neutral point of view? Fish likes to think of himself as appealingly ``provocative'' and ``perverse,'' but the appeal may escape some readers, leaving him merely perverse. -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (March 2, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674005341
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674005341
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.8 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,661,105 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Stanley Fish is the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and a professor of law at Florida International University. He has previously taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins University, Duke University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he was dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He has received many honors and awards, including being named the Chicagoan of the Year for Culture. He is the author of twelve books and is now a weekly columnist for the New York Times. He resides in Andes, New York; New York City; and Delray Beach, Florida; with his wife, Jane Tompkins.

Customer Reviews

3.4 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

22 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Currie-Knight VINE VOICE on January 13, 2004
Format: Hardcover
It has been about three months since I've read this book and I am still calling it to mind on a regular basis. Like some reviewers below, I give this book a high rating while admitting that Fish's views are unpalatable, infuriating, and troubling, as often as not.
Fish's central thesis here is that there are no such things as neutral principles - those completely objective, a priori dicta, formula, and abstract ideas to base our 'neutral' theories on. From my experience with this book (and I think you will have the same experience), not only was Fish saying something quite differnt (less radical?!) than what his critics pretend he was saying, but I found myself in more agreement with Fish than I thought I would (or wanted to be!).
To make it brief: Fish is saying that whereas intellectuals like to think that we derive theories from neutral principles ("We value freedom, liberty and individual autonomy; therefore we shall create a policy of free-markets."), it is usually the opposite that takes place: we figure out what our ideology is and THEN we quest for the 'neutral principles' that will justify it. ("I believe in the free-market; the free-market emphasises liberty, freedom, and individual autonomy, so I will use those to justify my preferences.") More directly, the neutral principles, Fish writes, are not _a priori_ but _a posteriori_. Actually his most revealing example (towards the end of the book, as I recall) was that of christians struggling to 'justify' creation science by using, of all things, the postmodern criticism that science (or evolution, at least) is simply ideology masked as empiricism. These christian thinkers even CITE POSTMODERN THEORIESTS AS AUTHORITIES.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Victor McCracken on August 20, 2001
Format: Paperback
As always, Fish's gadfly polemic will compel and madden at the same time. Fish is a stringent anti-foundationalist, challenging the ethical presumption that we can base our public policy and discourse on neutral principals upon which every person can agree. No, says Fish, these principles are little more than obfuscations of deeper, unstated agendas. Fish explores his thesis in creative deconstructions of such unquestioned notions as "academic freedom," "freedom of speech," and the "cultural canon."
The book suffers somewhat from the repetitive nature of the study (after all, Fish is basically restating the same thesis over and over again). It is as if Fish is playing a rhetorical fugue, creating new variations in each chapter on the same theme. The song doesn't always sound as compelling from chapter to chapter, but the balance of the book is worthwhile and provocative. The best chapter of the book, chapter 1, explores multi-culturalism and affirmative action in compelling fashion. Fish does well to reorient the debate so as to demonstrate how the very concept of principal robs Fish (and I presume, others who agree with Fish's politics) of the ability to include historical particularity as a factor in public policy. Thus, even Fish's deconstruction of principals is a political act, Fish's way of removing an obstacle to the furtherance of his undeniable agenda.
The implication of Fish's thesis is that western culture consists of a complex mixture of competing agendas, stories, and ethical values that cannot cohere through simple appeals to foundational principles ("freedom of individual self-expression," "speech," "religion," ad nauseaum).
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By "jess_carter" on May 9, 2001
Format: Hardcover
There's no question but that reading Stanley Fish is always an enjoyable experience. Just as in _There's No Such Thing as Free Speech (And It's A Good Thing Too)_, Fish's skills as a polemicist are, as most of the reviewers here have noted, considerable: he possesses wit, insight, a grasp of history, a command of details, clear and incisive logic, and a gift for demolishing bad arguments.
To a certain extent, _The Trouble With Principle_ repeats the arguments of _There's No Such Thing as Free Speech_, particularly Fish's critique of free-speech absolutism and of the conservative critique of affirmative action. Both these books are less sustained arguments than collections of individual pieces dealing with common concerns and taking a common approach.
This approach is, I must add, somewhat less original that Fish seems to think it is. His argument has two basic points:
1. Ethical principles like "fairness" and "equality" are not self-sufficient, but are used in specific contexts in order to gain certain ends, and skillful rhetoricians pick them up and put them down depending on whether or not they will be likely to obtain those desired ends in a given context;
2. What ends one seeks emerge, ultimately, from some desire or motivation that is not subject to rational argument because it is not held for rational reasons.
Now, this is really nothing except consequentialism; if we desire, for example, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, then sometimes treating everybody equally is going to do that and sometimes making special allowances for particular groups is going to do that.
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