After Theory? Stanley Fish And The Virtue Ethics School Of Academic Freedom

April 2016

Stanley Fish, Versions of Academic Freedom. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2014. 163 pages including Coda, Appendix, Works Cited, Index.

Can one mount a coherent, persuasive defence of academic freedom on the basis of an admittedly “hybrid,” perhaps “monstrous” anti-foundationalist foundation, an anti-theoretical theory? Such is Stanley Fish’s task here, laid out (some may be relieved to hear) with his usual clarity. The six chapters of this slim book sketch a representative “taxonomy” of five main “schools” of academic freedom Fish distills from the literature on the subject: an overview of the five schools; a chapter on each school; a Coda seemingly pointing towards Aristotle as his “surprise” philosophical foundation (more later); and an Appendix containing a talk given at Rice University, “Academic Freedom, the First Amendment, and Holocaust Denial.”

The five main chapters (2-6) together amount to a sustained argument for Fish’s own position, the ‘It’s Just a Job School,’ described immediately in chapter two but then invoked in each subsequent chapter as his standard for critiquing the other four schools. The schools range along a continuum from “the most conservative” (his own) to “the most radical” view of academic freedom, a move “marked by the transfer of emphasis from academic [freedom as limited to a specific realm] … to freedom, which does not limit the scope or location of what is being asserted at all” (p. 4).

Fish’s own standard of academic freedom is “professionalism, pure and simple:” the distinctive task of the academic profession is the pursuit of truth and the advancement of knowledge; professionals should exercise the standards of competence established within their disciplines and the academy as a whole towards achieving this task, and not engage in such extraneous tasks as “forming citizens or inculcating moral virtues or training soldiers to fight for social justice” (p. 10). The latter activities subordinate the disinterested search for truth, the distinctive task or purpose “intrinsic” to the academy, to ends “extrinsic” to the academy’s proper sphere. And Fish both concedes and insists that this intrinsic-extrinsic distinction is not grounded in some prior, external standard of “nature” or “reality” or “theory” but is self- constituting or constructed: it’s how true scholars and academics rightly demarcate their own professional task and boundaries. In this view, then, academic freedom is highly circumscribed: it is limited to those areas in which professors have professional competence, and to the conditions they require for exercising that competence. They are not free, for example, to turn a physics class into a class on social justice.

Conservatives may be pleasantly surprised to hear Fish endorse such a view. But it comes with some large caveats to which I shall later return. This boundary between what is “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” to the academy is of course the bone of contention in disputes about academic freedom, and provides Fish’s own standard for defining the other four schools. The

more any school attempts to expand its definition of “the academy” – and, hence, of academic freedom—into areas “extrinsic” to the academy properly (i.e. professionally) defined, the more the term “academic” is whittled away, swallowed up by the word “freedom,” extended indiscriminately into all areas of life. The result, he says, is that what many “politicizing” professors consider to be an exercise of their academic freedom instead becomes the violation and indeed the ultimate destruction of the entire concept.

Fish’s second school of academic freedom, for example, with which he acknowledges some affinities, is “the ‘For the common good’ school.” It shares with his school the claim that academics are engaged in the special task and “spirit” of following the evidence wherever it leads them, adhering to standards of professional competency, regardless of external market or political forces. But instead of resting content with this task, this school proclaims that its labours are essential to the flourishing of democracy: “professional values are subordinated to the higher value of democracy or justice or freedom; that is, to the common good” (p. 11). Once again, the academy subjects itself to an extrinsic not intrinsic justification of its activities.

Such a school leads logically to “the ‘Academic exceptionalism or uncommon beings’ school,” which claims that the superior “moral virtue” and “wisdom” of academics (conferred on them by their professional training) makes them necessary counterweights to the tyranny of popular opinion in a democracy. Academics should thus be granted greater freedom from the laws and regulations binding ordinary citizens, who are bound for instance as “employees” not to criticize their employers or flout workplace rules. Again, Fish argues that “professionalism” dictates that as employees bound to certain rules and regulations of their universities, faculty cannot claim “academic freedom” allows them to violate those rules; only in the sphere of scholarly research are they free. Professors have one duty in the classroom, where they’re authorized to perform certain tasks; but another in research, where their specifically “academic” employer actually authorizes them to be “free” (p. 91). (Fish invokes Immanuel Kant’s distinction between the “public”/scholarly and “private”/functionary uses of reason, from “What Is Enlightenment?”)

The fourth and fifth schools are “the ‘Academic freedom as critique’ school” and “the [closely related] ‘Academic Freedom as revolution’ school, ” where “the shift from academic as a limiting adjective to freedom as an overriding concern is now complete” (p. 13). Whereas the first two schools argue that academic freedom should be exercised within the limits or norms of the profession, the “critique” and “revolution” schools argue that these professional norms should themselves be subject to critique and overthrow or “dissent,” contesting the very distinction between what is “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” to academia set by those norms that Fish relies on not only to distinguish among the different schools, but to define and defend the very idea of academic freedom itself. The “political agenda” implicit in the “common good” school becomes explicit: the question whether a professor’s e-mail to his class comparing Israelis to Nazis was offered “in the spirit of vigorous discussion, or in the spirit of vigorous partisanship” is moot, for these schools. But in Fish’s view, if academics behave not as scholars but as political advocates, they do not merit academic freedom (p. 19).

Again, this may sound pretty good to those of us who deplore the rampant politicization of the academy. But now to the caveats. Fish concedes that he shares with Judith Butler (the “critique” school, not quite a “ revolutionist”) her anti-foundationalist critique of any appeal to “professional norms” as having any permanence or ahistorical foundation in “reality” or “the nature of things.” The line they draw between what is “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” to the academy or profession is indeed an arbitrary one, drawn by disciplinary practices as those unfold over the long period of historical time that is in his view wholly constitutive of those disciplines. Disciplines with their norms are always evolving, and as they do, the lines demarcating what is “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” to those disciplinary practices are always changing: one man’s sphere of disinterested scholarly practice is or becomes another man’s interested political practice. There is no unchanging theory or epistemology or philosophy that undergirds or presides over those norms; they are always intrinsic to and emerging out of the disciplinary practices themselves, providing them with a wholly “ immanent [not philosophical or transcendent] intelligibility” (p. 22) (quoting philosopher Ernest Weinrib). As Fish quotes his primary philosophical guru, Richard Rorty, this means that the philosophical defences of academic freedom are merely “abbreviations of practices rather than foundations for practices”—“that is, it is the history of a practice and not a theory about it that tells us what is central to its performance” (p. 22).

This means that, according to someone like Butler, Fish can neither authoritatively carve out a sphere of contemplative scholarly thought, a sphere regulated from within by its own disciplinary norms or “immanent intelligibility,” nor account for change within a discipline, the kind of change that “dissent” and “revolution” can only bring to that discipline from “outside” those norms. Fish dismisses her objection to the arbitrariness, artificiality, and fictionality of his line of demarcation by conceding it. (Yes, that line is a willed construct, defined by the task any discipline sets for itself; but so what? These constructs are all we have; we can’t perform all tasks; and the line gains its own authority through the history of the disciplinary practices as those unfold.) Here, he points out, he and Butler absolutely agree: “Is it a transcendental ground that conditions the academy’s difference, or is it precisely the way that line of demarcation is drawn that produces the difference upon which the academy’s self- definition depends? Both Butler and I would affirm the second alternative” (p. 125; my emphases).

What Fish does not concede to Butler is that disciplinary change can only come from the outside: again, from a philosophical, theoretical, God’s-eye or Archimedean point of view outside the disciplinary practices that in his view constitute any such illusory point of view. Nor can disciplinary change arise from an external “reality-beyond-our-heads,” that is, a “realist epistemology” that would allow the truth, objectivity, or reality of the discipline’s object of study to resist and hence alter the disciplinary practices brought to bear upon it. For Fish there is no truth, reality, or objectivity outside of those understood as constituted by the practices themselves. Any change within disciplinary norms is generated from within, by the gradually evolving practices of its practitioners. And how do those happen? Presumably, through perfectly “amicable collisions” among them.

This is why Fish concedes that his defence of academic freedom through a possibly “quixotic” or “quaint” return to an “ivory tower” idea of the academy as a sphere of rarified, contemplative intellectual activity removed from practical concerns and self-justifications may indeed be “a hybrid, perhaps even a monster. I combine an antifoundational epistemology with an insistence on maintaining a foundational structure that is, by my own admission, artificial, historically emergent and, therefore, challengeable; and I do so in the conviction that without such a foundation—supported by nothing but itself—a certain mode of experience will be lost” (p. 127).

His Coda waxes Aristotelian on this “certain mode of experience” —the virtues of contemplative thought (he calls these pleasures; we can also call them goods)—that for Aristotle constitute the highest human goods: the pleasures of rationality, the intellect. Aristotle’s distinction between the contemplative and the active life, or theoretical and practical wisdom, where the activity of contemplative wisdom “seems both to be superior in serious worth and to aim at no end beyond itself, and to have a pleasure proper to itself” (Aristotle) is, Fish says, “a perfect account of the academy, a realm where contemplation with no end beyond itself is mandated, and ‘practical activities’ are admitted only as objects of that contemplation. That is the basis of the distinction I have been urging between the kinds of truth sought in the academy—truths sought independently for their ‘own sake’ independently of any call to action—and the kind of truth sought by those who conduct inquiry with a view to deciding and implementing policy” (p. 133).

Does this betoken a “conversion” to Aristotelian metaphysics, foundationalism, epistemology, or ideas of virtue? Fear not: it heralds what I predict is Fish’s “new direction,” which will turn out not to be a new direction at all. He is headed for what I’ll call “The virtue ethics school of academic freedom”: he will “reconstitute” this foundational Aristotelian distinction on the anti-metaphysical, anti-realist, anti-foundational, historicist “practices” of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue, mentioned just once in Fish’s book but completely congruent with Fish’s account of the authority of historically evolving practices or disciplines (p. 63)), together with Rortyan pragmatism. Such will be the new version of Aristotle’s “practical vs. theoretical wisdom,” with the latter not a transcending of disciplinary orthodoxies from which they might be critiqued but their apotheosis.

Fish has indeed a hybrid here: Rorty, MacIntyre, Kant, Thomas Kuhn (acknowledged), most of all Edmund Burke’s account of the slowly evolving nature of institutions, constituting a “second nature” that elides “nature” altogether. He is trapped within his disciplinary orthodoxy, his dogma, endlessly repeating the loop, because he will not allow for the possibility that there may be a real Aristotle who will elude him because Fish’s disciplinary orthodoxy precludes that very possibility tout court. Too bad: Aristotle’s line of demarcation has everything to teach us all about what ought to be the real relation between theory and practice, which is what Fish is really looking for and thinks pragmatism has found. Interestingly, Marxist theorist Terry Eagleton (a relentless critic of the social constructionism practiced by Fish and his benighted profession) praises virtue ethics as a way of “recovering the real” against such constructionists, commenting in passing that virtue ethics properly understood is to moral philosophy what authorial intention is to literary studies (Trouble with Strangers, 2009). Is authorial intention the real form of “immanent intelligibility” Fish as literary interpreter searches for but will never find? Now that would be a conversion experience.