The Trouble with Stanley

"The Trouble with Stanley," review of The Trouble with Principle, by Stanley Fish, National Review, 7 February 2000, 46-48.


The trouble with principle, we learn from Stanley Fish, is that it does not necessarily accord with what we like. And when it doesn’t, instead of sacrificing our desires to principle—as we should—we sacrifice principle to our desires.

It’s not a new point, but Fish, a man of the Left, uses it mainly to attack the stance of liberals toward religion. His book is a collection of previously published articles, all lively polemics employed against professors who do not write as plainly as he does. His opponents are liberals who concoct theories about how to treat people who are not as liberal as they are. Should liberals talk to them, give them a place at the table, deliberate with them? Fish puts his finger on the sore point: Should religious believers, who reject the ultimate authority of reason, be included in debates in which reason is the norm? Isn’t someone who speaks from his faith instead of his reason making an unjustified, special, privileged claim, one that willfully excludes others?

Liberals today are constantly manufacturing theories of toleration or freedom of religion that they claim are neutral among all sects. But in fact, Fish shows, religious believers cannot accept them without abandoning or trivializing their beliefs. So while pretending to be tolerant or “inclusive,” as liberals like to say these days, these theories are actually intolerant and exclusive. And this is so not only because they are weak—Fish makes easy sport of them—but more generally because no principle can succeed in checking the partisan agenda or “naked preference” that inspired it. It’s impossible to be principled or consistent. Being consistent requires you to abstract from what is good for you at the moment, but you cannot do that. Most everybody believes in consistency, Fish admits, but nobody practices it.

This is my first experience with Stanley Fish. Years ago when I first heard of him, I asked who he was. The answer came that Stanley Fish would not have cared for that question. One was supposed to know who he was without asking. I have since learned that he is indeed a big name I should have known—a man of parts with a steep upward trajectory. He began his career as a professor of English, and a Milton scholar. This was not grand enough for him, however, and aided by the laxity of our age and especially of our universities, he became a chairman, a law professor, and a mover and shaker both at supercool Duke University and in his profession. The latest is that he has been made a dean at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

National Review Online Archive