Stanley Fish

Fish on Milton

Stanley Fish offers some interesting reflections on John Milton. Here’s a snippet:

Rather than being employed for its own sake, the poetry is always in the service of ideas and moral commitments, and it is always demanding that its readers measure themselves against the judgments it repeatedly makes – judgments about the nature of virtue, about the proper mode of civil and domestic behavior, about the true shape of heroism, about the self-parodying bluster of military action, about the criteria of aesthetic excellence, about the uses of leisure, about one’s duties to man and God, about the scope and limitations of reason, about the primacy of faith, about everything. Milton’s poetry never lets you relax . Even when one of the famous similes wanders down what appears to be a desultory path of mythical allusions and idealized landscapes, it always returns you in the end to the moral perspective that had only apparently been suspended.

And on the difference between Milton and Shakespeare:

And the difference is that after reading or seeing a Shakespeare play you want to sit down and discuss the glories of Shakespeare, whereas after reading a Milton poem you want to sit down and discuss the ideas and imperatives he has thrust at you … Shakespeare does many voices but identifies with none of them. (His, as Keats said, is a negative capability.) He’s hard to find, as his would-be biographers well know. Milton has many characters, but they all speak with one voice — his. You don’t have look for him; you can’t get away from him. Despite the variety of scenes and genres there’s always just one guy talking to you; the conversation goes on and on and it is a conversation in which, as Barrow first said, everything is at stake. This is a poetry that reads you.

Stanley Fish on demands for justification

Stanley Fish’s latest post, Politics and the Classroom, makes fascinating reading. Along the way, he makes an observation about demands for justification that might be employed in any number of imaginable (theological) conversations:

The demand for justification … always come from those outside the enterprise. Those inside the enterprise should resist it, because to justify something is to diminish it by implying that its value lies elsewhere.

Fishing for a non-justification for the humanities

Last week, I drew attention to Stanley Fish’s piece, ‘Will the humanities save us?’. After receiving nearly 500 comments, Fish has now posted a follow up, ‘The Uses of the Humanities, Part Two’, wherein he writes:

I don’t [teach humanities] because it inspires me to do other things, like change my religion, or go out and work for the poor. If I had to say, I’d say that I do it because I get something like an athletic satisfaction from the experience of trying to figure out how a remarkable verbal feat has been achieved. The satisfaction is partly self-satisfaction – it is like solving a puzzle – but the greater satisfaction is the opportunity to marvel at what a few people are able to do with the language we all use. “Isn’t that amazing?,” I often say to my students. “Don’t you wish you could write a line like that?” …

Of the justifications for humanistic study offered in the comments, two seemed to me to have some force. The first is that taking courses in literature, philosophy and history provides training in critical thinking. I confess that I have always thought that “critical thinking” is an empty phrase, a slogan that a humanist has recourse to when someone asks what good is what you do and he or she has nothing to say. What’s the distinction, I have more than occasionally asked, between critical thinking and just thinking? Isn’t the adjective superfluous? And what exactly would “uncritical thinking” be? But now that I have read the often impassioned responses to my column, I have a better understanding of what critical thinking is …

The second justification for studying the humanities that in my view has some force speaks to those of us who have been trapped in conversations with people who, after “How about those Bears?” (the equivalent of “hello” in Chicago), can think of nothing to say. EM observes that “being exposed to great ideas from variety of fields . . . and learning how to think critically all make for a more interesting and informed person” and that “lots of people want interesting and informed people as their friends, lovers and employees.” Amen. Count me as one of those who would welcome an increase in the number of those who can be relied on to enliven a dinner party rather than kill it (although I have seen dinner parties killed by the most erudite and sophisticated person at the table). But it won’t do as a defense society will take seriously to say, Let’s support the humanities so that Stanley Fish and his friends have more people to talk to.

While I share Anthony Thiselton’s criticism that Fish’s reader-response theory is ‘unsuccessful in [its] attempt to ground his context relative literary theory in an adequate or convincing philosophy of language’ (New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 515), I like what Fish is trying to fight for – and fight against – here: the integrity of the humanities in an age in which everything is valued via an appeal to pragmatics.

In not a few places, Forsyth was properly scathing against the exaltation of pragmatics. In his The Soul of Prayer, for example, he reminds us that at the end of the day that which is truly the most practical is that which contributes to the end for which creation and humanity were made. (p. 33). Also, in his The Principle of Authority, Forsyth describes the ‘appetite for success, for numbers, for effect, [that] grows as it feeds upon the democratic philosophy of Pragmatism, with its note of American business and efficient bustle’. Such an environment poses particularly difficult challenges for the Christian preacher: ‘A harder time than ever would seem to be awaiting the conscientious preacher in a popular body as the Caravaggio - Narcissus (1598-99), Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, RomePragmatist definition of truth comes to prevail, that it is what “works.” Our truth does work, no doubt, but in very large orbits; and not always in time, within one life, to let us make up our minds about its results with that certainty which alone enables it to “work.” The vice of Pragmatism, so understood, is that, where absolute truth, or any faith, is concerned, we must begin with a belief in the absoluteness of it before we can set it to work with its native might. We must begin working with that conviction of its absoluteness which its working is supposed to provide. We must begin producing with the product in our hands. We cannot make an absolute truth work in which we do not yet believe. The world can only be converted by a Church which believes that in Christ the world has already been won’. (pp. 341-2)

Forsyth rightly here steers our attention from ‘pragmatics’ to ‘ends’. And if Forsyth is right (and who dares to question him!), then the question we are left with – and which Fish may be pushing for, though he’s less than clear – is what is ‘the end for which creation and humanity were made’? It seems to me that anything that encourages the flourishing of such an end already has its justification. And if such an end is the glory of God in the wedding of his Son to his Son’s Bride, then the humanities – like all other human activity – are only finally justified as they serve that end. Here the humanities are no more privileged than the sciences, or football. In the interim, of course, even those activities which seem to negate such an end (like Chelsea losing the Premiership this year) might still in fact serve the end for which God created the world.

On this note, I like Jonathan Edwards:

The end, the ultimate end of the creation of God was to provide a spouse for His Son, Jesus Christ, that might enjoy Him, and on whom He might pour forth His love. Heaven and earth were created in order that the Son of God might communicate His love to His spouse and bring that bride into the very family life of the Trinity’. (Works 18, Misc. no. 710).

‘God created the world for his Son, that he might prepare a spouse or bride for him to bestow his love upon; so that the mutual joys between this bride and bridegroom are the end of creation’. (Works 13, p. 372; Misc. no. 271).

‘This spouse of the Son of God, the bride, the Lamb’s wife, the completeness of him who filleth all in all, that for which all the universe was made. Heaven and earth were created that the Son of God might be complete in a spouse’. (Works 13, Misc. no. 103).

Bruce McCormack’s TF Torrance Lectures – Lecture 4

Steve Holmes has posted his fourth reflection of McCormack’s recent TF Torrance lectures at St Andrews. He writes of Bruce’s proposal:

Let me approach it like this: it is a standard thesis of classical theology that God’s being is His act; further, God’s act is single, and simple. This is, of course, already a problem, at least if one wants to continue to maintain that God’s existence is independent of the created order: St Thomas devotes considerable ingenuity to explaining how God’s act of creation can happen without any change in God (1a q.45 arts 2 &3). When Barth brings the doctrine of election into the doctrine of God (it is treated in the second part-volume of vol. II, not the first of vol. III), and links election closely to incarnation, the problem becomes acute. However, the gains of Barth’s novel doctrine of election are sufficiently obvious that almost every serious (Protestant) theological proposal of the second half of the twentieth century chose to face the problems, rather than lose the gains.

In general, and in one way or another, the problems were eliminated in the later twentieth century by the simple expedient of losing the axiom of impassibility, properly understood: if God’s life is allowed to be dependent on creation, there is no problem. The single greatest merit of Bruce’s proposal, it seems to me, is that he is not prepared to play this game. Instead, he develops a novel account of kenosis.

Read the full post here. I have linked to all of Steve’s notes here, and I hope to post my notes from these lectures sometime soon.

Also, around the traps …

  • Locke and Mill both believed in being open to the other side’s ideas. Read here.
  • Andy and Jim (part 1; part 2) have both posted reviews on Rob Warner’s, Re-inventing English Evangelicalism 1966-2001: A Theological and Sociological Study
  • Barry Smith of Birkbeck College London gives a lucid account of Wittgenstein’s conception of Philosophy in this MP3.
  • Stanley Fish asks, ‘Will the humanities save us?’. He concludes:

Teachers of literature and philosophy are competent in a subject, not in a ministry. It is not the business of the humanities to save us, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university. What then do they do? They don’t do anything, if by “do” is meant bring about effects in the world. And if they don’t bring about effects in the world they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.

    To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said … diminishes the object of its supposed praise.

    Is God democratic?

    In his essay, Why Democracy, Stanley Fish explores, among other things, the relationship between God and democracy. He writes: “Is God democratic?” That one’s easy. God, like Hobbes’ sovereign, requires obedience, and those who worship him must subordinate their personal desires to his will. (Here the Abraham/Isaac story is paradigmatic.) His rule, therefore, is the antithesis of democracy, which elevates individual choice to a position of primacy. That doesn’t mean, however, that God frowns on democratic states or requires a theocratic one or has any political opinions at all. (On the other hand, someone who, like Walt Whitman, believes that God is not a separate being but resides in each of us might conclude that democracy is the deity’s favored form of government).’

    I am reminded here of two words: one from CS Lewis and the other from (surprise, surprise) PT Forsyth. Lewis writes,

    I am a democrat [believer in democracy] because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that every one deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. . . . I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost. Much less a nation. . . .The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.

    And from Forsyth:

    Democracy is but a half-truth. It must have a King. Aristocracy is just as true and as needful. It builds on an authority in things no less than democracy builds on an equality. The free personality of democracy is only possible under a free authority. The free soul is only possible in a free King … There must always be a House of Moral Lords. There must always be leaders and led, prophets and people, apostles and members, genius and its circle, and elect and a called. Ah! democratic and aristocratic principles are both deep in the foundations of our Christian faith.

    Democracy is, after all, only ‘the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half the time’ (E.B. White)

    Suffering, Evil and the Existence of God

    In today’s New York Times, Stanley Fish gives us a heads up on two soon-to-be-published books on the theodicy question. The two authors are Bart D. Ehrman (a theist turned agnostic) whose book is entitled God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer, and Antony Flew (an athiest turned theist) whose book is entitled There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. While both come from opposite directions they meet, or rather cross paths, on the subject of suffering and evil.

    Fish suggests that while ‘Flew is for the moment satisfied with the intellectual progress he has been able to make … Ehrman is satisfied with nothing, and the passion and indignation he feels at the manifest inequities of the world are not diminished in the slightest when he writes his last word’. Fish asks, ‘Is there a conclusion to be drawn from these two books, at once so similar in their concerns and so different in their ways of addressing them? Does one or the other persuade?’ Fish contends that while the odd reader may have their mind’s changed as a result of reading either book, ‘their chief value is that together they testify to the continuing vitality and significance of their shared subject. Both are serious inquiries into matters that have been discussed and debated by sincere and learned persons for many centuries. The project is an old one, but these authors pursue it with an energy and goodwill that invite further conversation with sympathetic and unsympathetic readers alike’.

    Fish concludes: ‘In short, these books neither trivialize their subject nor demonize those who have a different view of it, which is more than can be said for the efforts of those fashionable atheist writers whose major form of argument would seem to be ridicule’.

    While these two books testify to humanity’s ongoing quest for a theodicy (or an atheodicy), Forsyth was right to press that the real question is not the justification of evil – as any attempt at a theodicy is ultimately to retreat into an ideology, which is the one thing we must not do – but the justification of God for whom there can be no rational vindication, as the Cross bears witness. I am reminded here of Bonhoeffer’s assertion in Creation and Fall, Temptation (pp. 84-5), that the question of why evil exists is not a theological question, for it assumes that it is possible to go behind the existence forced upon us as sinners. If we could answer it then we would not be sinners. We could make something else responsible. Therefore the ‘question of why’ can always only be answered with the ‘that’, which burdens humanity completely. The theological question does not arise about the origin of evil but about the real overcoming of evil on the Cross; it asks for the forgiveness of guilt, for the reconciliation of the fallen world.