Fish at it again

Stanley Fish is at it again.  Last week, I wrote a critique of Fish’s argument that philosophy does not matter (here).  I point out that Fish demonstrates a lack of understanding of what relativism is–confusing it with a kind of moral agnosticism.  I also gave some counter-examples for why I think philosophy  matters.  Apparently I was not the only one who took issue with Fish.  He received enough negative comments that he felt the need to defend himself in the Opinionator this week.  I’d like to address his rebuttal, in particular his comments on religion and philosophy.  One of Fish’s commentators noted that religion is often inextricably linked with philosophical views and that such religious belies do travel into the everyday lives of those believes.  Fish disagrees.  The relevant section appears below.

Stanley Fish, Does Philosophy Matter? (Part 2), August 8, 2011


. . . Believers, Marie Burns  (1) observes,  do rely on  their religion “to determine their views on a variety of subjects.” Many people, An Ordinary American (140) reminds us,  when asked why do you do this, would reply, “This is what my religion teaches me to do.”

The question is whether religion should be considered philosophy. For a long time, of course, philosophy was included under religion’s umbrella, not in the modern sense that leads to courses like “The Philosophy of Religion,” but in the deeper sense in which religious doctrines are accepted as foundational and philosophy proceeds within them. But for contemporary philosophers religious doctrines are not part of the enterprise but a threat to it. The spirit is as  Andrew Tyler (38) describes it:  “to be skeptical, critical and independent so that you’re not so easily duped and frightened into submission by religious dogma.” Courses in the philosophy of religion tacitly subordinate religion to philosophy by subjecting religion to philosophy’s questions and standards. Strong religious believers will resist any such subordination because, for them, religious, not philosophical, imperatives trump. The reason religion can and does serve as a normative guide to behavior is that it is not a form of philosophy, but a system of belief  that binds the believer.  (Philosophy is something you can do occasionally, religion is not.)

But aren’t beliefs and philosophies the same things? No they’re not. Beliefs such as “I believe that life  should not be taken” or “I believe in giving the other fellow the benefit of  the doubt” or “I believe  in the equality of men and women” or “I believe in turning the other cheek” are at least the partial springs of our actions and are often regarded by those who hold them as moral absolutes; no exceptions recognized. These, however, are particular beliefs which can be arrived at for any number of reasons, including things your mother told you, the reading of a powerful book, the authority of a respected  teacher, an affecting experience that you have generalized into a maxim  (“From now on I’ll speak ill of no one.”).

A belief in moral absolutes, as an abstract position, is quite another thing. It affirms no particular moral absolute (although it might lead down the road to naming some); rather, it asserts that the category of moral absolutes is full; and it does so against the arguments of those who assert that the category is empty, not with respect  to any particular moral absolute, but generally. Wherever one stands at the end of a such a philosophical argument  one will be committed not to any specific moral  stance (like turning the other cheek) but either to the thesis, again abstract,  that  moral stances are  anchored in and justified by an underlying truth about the nature of moral behavior or to the thesis that they are not.

There are a couple of points  with which I take issue here.  First, Fish tries to stipulate his way out of Marie Burns’ observation by creating a false dichotomy between religion and contemporary philosophy.  But isn’t it true that contemporary philosophy, if it has anything to do with religion, subjugates it to a critical analysis?  While it certainly is the case that some philosophers of religion are skeptical of religious doctrines, we cannot conclude from this that contemporary philosophy as a whole is antithetical to religiously based philosophical speculations.  Many philosophers of religion start with metaphysical and religious presuppositions (gasp).  I would like to assure Dr. Fish that Natural Theology is alive and well in the modern era.  Also there are the Eastern philosophical systems, many of which are inextricable tied up with metaphysical theses originating in the Vedic religious systems, Taoism, and Confucianism.  It should also be noted that many philosophers who are critical of religion are just as susceptible to having unproven metaphysical presuppositions in their writings.  This can hardly be avoided.  But, if a philosopher is open and honest that they are starting from those presuppositions, his or her arguments do not suffer for it.  It is the philosopher who pretends to be absolutely skeptical of whom we should be skeptical.  Take a careful look and you will find metaphysical naturalism, compatiblism, Platonism, nominalism, or some other exotic axiom lurking enthymematically between the lines.

Fish would like us to think that contemporary philosophy is nothing more than a meaningless chess-game, where the victor is the one who places her opponent’s cherished beliefs in checkmate.  Sure, if one thinks philosophy is just about being skeptical, one might be led to the conclusion that philosophy doesn’t travel.  But, at the end of the day we either move beyond skepticism or we won’t travel at all!  The skeptic is stuck in the mud of doubt.  But not every philosopher is a skeptical stick-in-the-mud.  In fact, most aren’t.  This is because philosophers are free to take any presuppositions they want for their starting points.  There is no rule that says one must start with only those premises that one knows to be true without any doubt.  Descartes tried it and has since become the philosophical whipping boy for his attempt.  Rather than Descartes, we should follow the example of Kant– one of the undisputed greatest philosopher of all time who leaves skepticism behind in order to make significant contributions to moral theory. In order for him to do this, Kant had to move beyond what he thought he could prove with theoretical reason.  So, what he could not prove, he postulates.  Kant’s entire moral system is built on the presumption that God exists, there is freedom, and the soul is immortal.  Without these three postulates of practical reasoning, Kant would not have been able to move much beyond his first critique.  So, philosophy doesn’t subjugate every belief.  Rather, it is a belief that is the touchstone for some insightful philosophical reflection.  Obviously some of these touchstone beliefs are religious in nature.

The second issue I have with Fish’s response has to do with the way in which he tries to separate beliefs from philosophy.  He admits that particular beliefs can be arrived at for many reasons, but it does not appear as though he is willing to explicitly admit the obvious: that particular beliefs can and often are deduced from higher and more abstract principles and that often these principles are based upon entire philosophical systems.  Philosophy does travel.  It travels up through induction, and down through deduction.  It travels sideways by analogy.  Sometimes philosophy even takes great leaps through abduction.  All the while, general principles are distilled  into particular beliefs and particular beliefs are promulgated into particular actions.

Sorry Fish, philosophy still matters.

Posted on August 9, 2011, in News and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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