- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Harvard University Press; New edition edition (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: 15 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #799,560 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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[Stanley Fish's] attacks are so smartly provocative that they are worth reading. (Edward Rothstein New York Times)
[A] beautifully written and genuinely provocative book. (Raymond Tallis Times Literary Supplement)
The Trouble with Principle continues the assault on liberal shibboleths that Fish first launched with There's No Such Thing as Free Speech...and It's a Good Thing Too...He is a penetrating thinker and, rarity of rarities, a clear and accessible writer...He will challenge, if not change, the way liberals think about, say, multiculturalism. (Sanford Pinsker Philadelphia Inquirer)
In The Trouble with Principle, his latest collection of papers, Fish deploys a master argument that goes like this: The trouble with principle is that they are either so abstract and contentless that all the work is done filling in the details, or else sufficiently concrete as to be very controversial indeed. (Richard Rorty New Leader)
Fish's main target in The Trouble with Principle is the influential school of liberal thought developed by such well-known theorists as John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Amy Gutmann, and Jurgen Habermas. What unites these writers--and their many followers, especially in legal circles--is a deep commitment to the principle of 'neutrality,' that is, to the idea that the essence of liberalism is to be open to all points of view and ways of life...As Fish convincingly shows, however, this pose of neutrality is little more than a sham, a rhetoric of tolerance that often serves as a cover for intolerance...There is much to recommend in The Trouble with Principle, not least the wit and elegance with which Stanley Fish punctures the pretensions of modern liberalism. (Adam Wolfson Commentary)
That his arguments so crisply challenge traditional ways of thinking about jurisprudence is what makes The Trouble with Principle so provocative and engaging. Lawyers or anyone else interested in examining and questioning the foundations of judicial thought should consider this book required reading. (Randall J. Peach New Jersey Law Review)
I consider this book a splendid rarity: a work by a non-Christian with the (unintended?) virtue of making those Christians more devout. It's also a good read: Fish is master of a lucid and witty prose of a kind rarely written by academics these days. (Paul J. Griffiths Christian Century)
Sports, film, TV and radio, politics and journalism--Fish is fluent wherever he goes... His rhetorical style is surgically precise, and in The Trouble with Principle it is his best friends who are put under the knife--liberals comfortable with beliefs whose rightness they take for granted...In the art of argument, he is formidably skilled...He will unravel your every position, reducing it to words of reversible meanings...The Trouble with Principle is a shrewd, unsparing critique of liberalism by a man most people assume to be one of them. (Michael Skube Atlanta Journal Constitution)
No stranger to controversy, Fish smashes an idol sacred to conservatives and liberals alike: the principle of government neutrality in cultural disputes. Taking on conservatives, Fish challenges the racial neutrality championed by opponents to affirmative action, arguing that such neutrality serves only to obscure historical inequalities crying out for redress. But he pours out his most scalding criticisms on the liberal theorists--from Locke to Rawls--who have formulated the neutralist rhetoric and its underlying logic...True liberals will rally to defend the principled neutrality Fish assails, but many readers will welcome his call for an end to doctrinal paralysis. Sure to become a touchstone in debates on political theory. (Bryce Christensen Booklist)
[Fish] 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 Fish, we can never find a neutral position that will fully transcend our prejudices, commitments and beliefs...Fish--hard-nosed, unflinching and persuasive--maintains that differences are real and must be faced squarely without recourse to timeless, abstract principles. His cautionary reasoned arguments, not easily dismissed, will excite controversy. (Publishers Weekly)
About the Author
Stanley Fish is Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His many books include There's No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It's a Good Thing Too.
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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. This is fishy (excuse the pun) becuase, as Fish writes, there is no way these christian thinkers would have aligned themselves with the post-modern argument (that they usually criticize) unless they found the argument, not true, but useful. That is, whereas christians might believe in objectivity of facts as a general principle, they don't really mean that. They'll gladly switch to the postmodern 'relativist' argument if it suits their needs.
He's not ONLY bashing the christins or the right wing in this book (his criticism is dispersed over all ideology). Rather, through 'deconstruction', he is trying to show that ALL general principles are constructed in the service of conclusions ALREADY REACHED. I do not take it that far as I think that in science and law, for instance, where the rules are already somewhat 'set', one can reach conclusions not ideological by nature, therefore I found myself disagreeing with Fish's assessment of the first amendment as ideologically laden.
Still, I found the book a warm antidote to some of the problems in this petty world I sometimes call crackademia. Particularly, I can vividly recall not being able to control my laughter (signifying agreement with Fish) in, of all places, my university library, during a chapter where Fish criticizes academic philosophers. Philosophers, he says, think that in order for morality, epistemology, of what have us, to work, there needs to be a coherent, internally consistent system or theory (and it is the philosophers job to argue for one). Therefore, moral philosophers are baffled because morality (as it is in the real world) doesn't seem to follow one system, any system. The philosopher wants a sound argument for a cogent system, looking at human action as somehow extracted from this system. The philosopehr wants first principles (without those, we can't act). Fish's response? "Open your eyes, look at the world, and realize, dear philosopher, that people survive without your philosophic systems and first principles." The philosophers job, then, is not to concoct general principles or argue for systems that nobody will use anyway, but to actually look at behavior, action, and things as they are in the real world, not the fake one philosophers gleefully construct for themselves. The chapter is the last one called "On Truth and Toilets" and is alone worth the price of the book!
To end, while I do not agree with Fish's ideas as applied as extremely as he applies them, I think there is much more truth to what Fish says than critics let on. Fish does not say that judgment is impossible; he only says that neutral judgment (an oxymoron) is impossible. We judge from where we are; our first person subjective viewpoint. Nor is Fish a nihilist. If the world is not objective, FIsh is not saying it is nihililstic, but _intersubjective_. Basically, may the best first-person argument win. Whether Fish seems like your cup of tea or makes your stomach churn, you will not come away from this book unchanged or unscathed.