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Stanley Fish on the Crisis of the Humanities

October 13, 2010

If Stanley Fish is indignant about the crisis of the humanities, he has an odd way of showing it. Indeed, with a little revision, Fish’s latest post would make an excellent defense of the man he apparently despises — George M. Philip, the SUNY Albany president who recently decided to cut the French, Italian, classics, Russian and theater programs at his university.

After all, why should Philip continue to fund the humanities when one of their most prominent faculty members is making the case that they do not, in fact, “enhance our culture” or “make our society better”? Why fund the humanities when they are said not to “contribute to economic health of the state — by producing more well-rounded workers or attracting corporations or delivering some other attenuated benefit”? If these are bad arguments, as Fish proposes, what good arguments can be made on behalf of the humanities? Fish does not say — though he in one place does even further damage to his cause by stating his belief in the core curriculum “as a device of employment for me and my fellow humanists.”

Despite all of this, Fish enjoins senior academic administrators to “explain and defend the core enterprise” of the humanities; to “proclaim the value of liberal arts loudly and often”; and to “at least try to make the powers that be understand what is being lost when traditions of culture and art that have been vital for hundreds and even thousands of years disappear from the academic scene.” A few obvious questions arise: What is the core enterprise of the humanities? What is the value of the liberal arts? And what is being lost when these traditions of culture and art disappear? Fish offers no guidance.

Though it may seem paradoxical, Fish’s call to arms is logically consistent with his dismissal of pro-humanities arguments. For Fish (this is something I gather not from the post, but from his other writings), what look like reasons given on behalf of impersonal, objective truths — including truths about the importance or unimportance of the humanities — are usually only a mask for self-interest. The world is a Hobbesian battlefield and it is up to university administrators to wield the rhetorical weapons necessary for humanities faculty members to keep their jobs.

Fish may be right about this (I have my doubts). Yet, however effective Fish’s philosophical outlook has been in attracting followers within the classroom, it will clearly do little to convince the rest of us that the humanities still matter.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. catullus permalink
    October 16, 2010 10:48 am

    Stanley Fish sees no value in protecting speech that offends people. He wrote a book making that point, in which he argued that Jerry Falwell had a right not to be lampooned by Hustler. His outlook is indeed Hobbesian and at times he makes wonder if isn’t outright Manichaean. It stands to reason he doesn’t buy the idea that a humanities core will not preserve and transmit the best that is written or said. It’s possible that Henry Miller and Celine would make such a list and Fish can’t have that.

  2. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    October 16, 2010 12:53 pm

    I think you have in mind “There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech and It’s a Good Thing Too.” I will say that I have been quite impressed with Fish’s critique of liberal rationalism, in that book and elsewhere. Nevertheless, I don’t think it follows that all we’re left with is “politics” — which Fish (in my view, wrongly) understands as the struggle to assert one’s interests over and against the interests of others.

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