- Hardcover: 336 pages
- Publisher: Harvard University Press; First Edition edition (December 17, 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0674910125
- ISBN-13: 978-0674910126
- Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 1.1 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,362,689 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Trouble with Principle First Edition Edition
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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.
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.
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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). Even if we give up the notion that there are neutral principals, this only underlines the communally-conditioned principals that distinguish Christian, secularist, Muslim, and Jew. What we have now is not a principal-less society but a society of competing principals rooted in competing conceptions of reality. Fish is much more descriptive than prescriptive in his assessment. In the end, Fish seems to imply that there is no real prescription, only the mushrooming of rhetoric as agendas clash in the public sphere.