Fish on Academic Inquiry


Students at most American universities began returning to school these last few weeks. And with them has come a renewed discussion over intellectual freedom in the classroom. This year’s incoming freshman class at the University of Chicago was sent this letter from the Dean of Students in which the Dean, apparently responding to some perceived challenge, affirmed the university’s commitment to academic freedom and the administrators’ refusal to support “trigger warning” requirements and intellectual “safe spaces.” The tone of the letter is weirdly antagonistic though it names no adversary. In the absence of an organized argument to join, it seems the University of Chicago has resolved to create its own. In the last week, a new debate has arisen in academia and throughout the broader internet over free expression, inclusiveness, the role of the teacher in relation to the student, and the meaning of liberal values in the university enterprise. Here I’m using the classical meaning of liberalism advanced by John Locke, James Madison, John Stewart Mill and many many others, which rests on the free exchange of ideas, the impartial contestation of those ideas, and equity of power between contestants. In the modern university, Liberalism provides the rules and structure by which debate and inquiry are to be carried out with the aim of producing a reliable and credible result. To question Liberalism’s rule is a radical gesture and potentially very destructive. And yet Liberalism, when practiced correctly, demands that we regard it with some skepticism. For when Liberalism defeats its skeptics, it renews its reign and emerges ever more resilient and unassailable. We must always scrutinize Liberalism for flaws, because it does have some. I think the recent arguments over inclusion versus expression in universities emanates from the classic tension in Liberalism between freedom and equality.

There have been plenty of other attacks against the sacrosanct institution of liberalism, in the last few years, in the last few decades, in the last few centuries. One of the more interesting excursions into liberal disputation that I’ve found recently is this essay by Stanley Fish which ran in the Chronicle of Higher Education a few weeks ago. Fish comes to the defense of the old totems of academic persuasive writing: impartial analysis, exhibition of supporting evidence, citation of accepted authority, involvement with related counter arguments, and so on and so forth. He contrasts this grand old method of patient, plodding inquiry with a more activist approach–work that has an interest in some other agenda beyond the cold, mechanical pursuit of truth. He cites a student with whom he came to loggerheads over whether it is acceptable to submit work which betrays an obvious political bias and which proceeds from an unproven ideological proposition, rather applying the more orthodox method of starting from a posture of neutrality and building proof toward whatever conclusion the facts lead. It may seem like Fish is setting up straw men, but I’ve encountered people at my own university who do work this way and see nothing wrong with doing so. I know post-structuralists who reject any attempt at objectivity on the grounds that it is an imaginary precept and impossible to achieve. I know critical theorists whose explorations into identity politics are so wound up in their own narcissistic experience of themselves that they are utterly blinded to the ideas and arguments offered by others. I know social scientists who not only “study” subaltern populations but they also carry water for them politically and who would be the first ones at the barricades fighting for them when the revolution breaks out. And Fish is correct: challenge any of these activist types about the validity of their work as persuasive scholarship and their first response is to question the validity of an academy that fails to see the validity of their work. Yes, I’ve know plenty like this. I found it more than a little heartening to see them put in their place by one of the old masters.


Regrettably, the Fish essay is behind the Chronicle’s paywall. Here’s a rough summary:

Paragraphs 1 to 3: Fish complains about the uncredited appropriation of his interpretive community idea by other scholars. Defines interpretive community as being “made up of those who, by virtue of training, experience, and practice, have internalized the norms of some purposive enterprise—law, eduction, politics, plumbing—to the point where they see with its eyes and walk in its ways without having to think about it.”

Paragraphs 4 and 5: Proposes that this episode demonstrates the value of originality in academic discourse.

Paragraphs 6 to 9: Cites critics of the originality value, those who question the possibility of originality given the supposed spuriousness of authorship. Observes that such critics, in spite of themselves, still sign their work and take proprietorship over their ideas.

Paragraphs 10 to 12: How to make good academic arguments. Fish discusses the imperative in academic writing of contextualizing ones work by citing the work of others and with addressing opposing viewpoints. Uses example of student’s non-persuasive polemic.

Paragraphs 13 to 15: The problem with academic programs that give admission to non-academic writing, that is, writing that is not rigorously argued using the traditional framework of persuasive writing.

Paragraphs 16 to 21: Challenge to professional norms is perfectly legitimate, but it must be made within the boundaries of liberal inquiry. “An academic discipline can tolerate any challenge so long as the challenge is conducted within its precincts. Supposedly subversive arguments are absorbed into the very intellectual structures they claim to overthrow.”

Paragraphs 22 to 30: Formation of acceptable norms of argumentation and what counts as a worthy argument. Example: Holocaust denial.

Paragraphs 31 to 36: Effects of academic arguments. Academic arguments are made to produce a better understanding of the world in their listener. This is in contrast to activist messages which are intended to inspire people to action. Because academic arguments can be purely speculative, it is possible to achieve a certain degree of objectivity. This is the utility of academic discourse—that participants may inquire into a topic without having an interest in the outcome. This utility must be preserved. “[Academic arguments] are weightless, that is, without weight in the give and take of political strife unless they are appropriated for political purposes. But their weightlessness is their glory, and that is why they are different from domestic arguments, political arguments, and legal arguments. Like virtue, the making of them is their own reward. Other rewards are left to time and heaven.”

Reading this essay for now the third or forth time, I’m led to ask what I find so compelling in it. The argument isn’t particularly original; it’s just a version of Adorno’s theory and praxis dialectic decontextualized to the cloister of academic disputation. Fish’s language has a remarkable clarity, but the structure of the piece is a bit diffuse and he seems to begin to lose focus by the end. The Holocaust denial example is not fully explicated, I think. In spite of its shortcomings, the essay is still an interesting and even exciting piece of writing to read. I think it demonstrates exactly what good academic writing is supposed to do and what bad “non-professional” writing fails to accomplish. It arouses curiosity and intrigue. It weaves taught, marvelous ideas for the reader and then immediately calls them into question. It puts forth a proposition that offers the reader a means of making meaning of the ideas that are presented. It offers credible evidence to support that proposition. It persuades the reader to its side but also shows her the merits of the other side and what of interest can be found there. I find this to be a much more effective and worthwhile mode of writing than the dreck it inveighs against, because it seems to be at its very core motivated by honest curiosity. It is a path of thought beaten by an inquisitive spirit. And of all the motivations that propel humans forward, I think that is the best.