Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies / Edition 1

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Overview


In literary theory, the philosophy of law, and the sociology of knowledge, no issue has been more central to current debate than the status of our interpretations. Do they rest on a ground of rationality or are they subjective impositions of a merely personal point of view? In Doing What Comes Naturally, Stanley Fish refuses the dilemma posed by this question and argues that while we can never separate our judgments from the contexts in which they are made, those judgments are nevertheless authoritative and even, in the only way that matters, objective. He thus rejects both the demand for an ahistorical foundation, and the conclusion that in the absence of such a foundation we reside in an indeterminate world. In a succession of provocative and wide-ranging chapters, Fish explores the implications of his position for our understanding of legal, literary, and psychoanalytic interpretation, the nature of professional and institutional culture, and the place of reason in a world that is rhetorical through and through.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"All of Stanley Fish's writing is distinguished by importance of topic, vividness in presentation, and accessibility to the general reader. This welcome collection of his recent essays has all these attributes. There is no better introduction to a host of important contemporary controversies concerning interpretation in both literature and law. Even those most in disagreement with some of his particular arguments will welcome the brio with which they are expressed."—Sanford Levinson

"Nothing that Stanley Fish writes can be ignored. In this latest work, he explodes all our comforting notions of unbiased, uninflected judgment in the pursuit of interpretation."—Annette Kolodny

"Stanley Fish is one of our most interesting, and most philosophically sophisticated, literary theorists. He is at the top of his form in these essays."—Richard Rorty

Booknews
In this collection of wide-ranging, yet bound-by-a-theme essays, Fish argues that while we can never separate our judgments from the contexts in which they are made, those judgments are nevertheless authoritative and even objective. Rejecting both the demand for an ahistorical foundation, and the conclusion that in the absence of such a foundation we reside in an indeterminate world, Fish explores the implications of his position for our understanding of legal, literary, and psychoanalytical interpretation, including the nature of professorial and institutional culture, and the place of reason in the world. A broad yet demanding book, even majesterial. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR booknews.com
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822309956
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 5/28/1989
  • Series: Post-Contemporary Interventions Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 624
  • Product dimensions: 6.07 (w) x 9.24 (h) x 1.49 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Doing What Comes Naturally

Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies


By Stanley Fish

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1989 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-0995-6


CHAPTER 1

Introduction: Going Down the Anti-Formalist Road


I

It is one of the theses of this book that many of the issues in interpretive theory can be reduced to a few basic questions in the philosophy of language. Consider, for example, the discussion of "presupposition" in Ruth Kempson's Presupposition and the Delimitation of Semantics (Cambridge, 1975). Kempson begins by observing that presupposition can be defined "in one of two ways—either as a relation between statements (parallel to entailment, synonymy, etc.) or as a property of the speaker's belief in uttering a sentence" (p. 2). The difference is between a formal notion of presupposition in which it is a feature of sentences as they exist in the abstract apart from any particular occasion of use, and presupposition as a fact about what is in a speaker's mind—his understanding of the world and of the situation in which he now finds himself—at the moment of utterance. As Kempson observes, the possibility of deriving meaning from the formal properties of sentences cannot survive the serious assertion of a speaker-based theory of presupposition, for "if presuppositions in terms of speaker-belief are considered to be a part of the semantic interpretation of sentences, then it seems that the meaning of sentences must be in terms of speaker-hearer relations and not ... in terms of the relation between a symbol or set of symbols and the object or state described" (pp. 2–3). And if that is so, "one must give up the standard claim that the meaning of a sentence is a function of the meaning of its constituent parts" (p. 60). This follows because if the presuppositions of an utterance vary with the beliefs of speakers and hearers—that is, if no sentence has "a unique set of presuppositions"—then "every sentence can be analyzed with ... as many different sets of presuppositions" as there are different possible contextualizations and there is no regular and predictable way to assign a meaning, or even a range of possible meanings, to a particular sentence. Meaning, in short, becomes entirely contextual and "cannot be determined independent of the speaker of a sentence in a particular situation" (p. 60). Once this conclusion has been reached, others immediately follow:

One is thus faced with an analysis of meaning which claims that every sentence has an indeterminate number of indeterminable meaning representations. And if the meanings of sentences are indeterminable, then meaning relations between sentences such as entailment, contradiction, by definition cannot be predicted. Moreover ... it would follow that the grammaticality of sentences cannot be determined either, independent of the situation in which they are uttered. But this has the immediate consequence that one's grammar would not be predictive.


By producing this sequence of entailments, Kempson (however inadvertently and even reluctantly) makes a very important point: once you start down the anti-formalist road, there is no place to stop; remove the connection between observable features and the specification of meaning, and you also remove everything else that is supposedly independent of context; entailment, contradiction, grammaticality itself, all become as variable and contingent as presupposition. This, however, is not the conclusion Kempson reaches; and indeed it is the specter of reaching it that drives her in the opposite direction:

We are thus faced with the conclusion that a theory which incorporates a speaker relative concept of presupposition as part of its semantic representation is in principle unable to fulfill any of the four conditions I set up initially (1.1) as a prerequisite for any semantic theory and therefore must be relinquished, (p. 60)


Those conditions include "a systematic relation between the meaning of lexical items and the syntactic structure of the sentence," a "finite set of predictive rules," the mechanical separation of non-deviant from anomalous sentences, and predictability of meaning relations between sentences. Kempson is quite right to observe that a speaker-relative concept of presupposition and therefore of meaning makes the fulfilling of those conditions impossible since the variability of speakers and the difficulty of determining what is in their minds precludes generality and makes every speech situation unique. The surprise is in the last phrase: "and therefore must be relinquished." Her reasoning is that since speaker-relative presupposition, if taken seriously, would create grave (indeed, insurmountable) difficulties for a semantic theory, we cannot take it seriously. The conclusion is not reached because the evidence for speaker-relative presupposition is weak or because the connection between speaker-relative presupposition and meaning is specious, but because to pursue this line of thought would be to give up the pursuit of theory. In short, for Kempson this line of thought is unthinkable in the sense that her deepest assumptions mark it as obviously absurd. Surely any thesis that is incompatible with the assumed goal of linguistics— the goal of building a theoretical model of language—must be rejected out of hand; after all, the "four demands" that speaker-relative presupposition fails to satisfy "are agreed in principle by all linguists" (p. 2). If Kempson were to give credence to this thesis, she would be denying her membership in the community of linguists and (in effect) denying the most significant aspect of her being.

I would not be misunderstood. I am not criticizing Kempson for rejecting arguments that are stigmatized in advance by the beliefs she necessarily holds as a practicing linguist. She has no choice, if by choice one means a judgment reached independently of any predispositions or biases. It is just those predispositions and biases—those assumptions concerning what must be the case in the matter of language—that fill her judgment, and one would be making if not an impossible at least a Herculean demand if one were to ask her to set them aside.

Again, I would not be misunderstood. I am not saying that Kempson is beyond criticism simply because the context of which she is an extension prevents her from seeing certain arguments as respectable or even makable. In my very strong opinion the arguments she clings to, the arguments that underwrite the project of formal linguistics, are wrong. And it is part of my argument that I can say that despite the sympathetic analysis I make of her "epistemological condition." This does not mean that I am not in the same condition—embedded in conviction—but that precisely because I am embedded in conviction, my sense of the rightness of my arguments is no less strong than hers and is in no way diminished by my ability to give an account of its source. That at least is the burden of several of the essays in this volume, especially of those that assert the inconsequentiality (in certain terms) of theory.

This, however, is to get ahead of my story, and for the time being I would like to linger a little longer on the issues Kempson raises, for much of what I want to say builds on the thesis from which she draws back in horror, the thesis that the meaning of a sentence is not a function of the meaning of its constituent parts; or to put it another way, that meaning cannot be formally calculated, derived from the shape of marks on a page; or to put it in the most direct way possible, that there is no such thing as literal meaning, if by literal meaning one means a meaning that is perspicuous no matter what the context and no matter what is in the speaker's or hearer's mind, a meaning that because it is prior to interpretation can serve as a constraint on interpretation. It might seem that the thesis that there is no such thing as literal meaning is a limited one, of interest largely to linguists and philosophers of language; but in fact it is a thesis whose implications are almost boundless, for they extend to the very underpinnings of the universe as it is understood by persons of a certain cast of mind. It is a cast of mind Kempson displays when she concludes that if a unit of meaning cannot be identified independently of the beliefs of speakers and hearers, the entire enterprise of formal linguistics falls apart, since the first principle of that enterprise demands what the speaker-relative account of presupposition denies.

The far-reaching effects of the unavailability of literal meaning are even more evident in the decision of a Minnesota court in a case argued in 1924. The point at issue is the "parol evidence rule," a rule that prohibits the introduction of oral evidence in order to alter or vary the meaning of a contract that is deemed to be complete in itself. Obviously it is a rule designed to hold interpretation in check by insisting that it respect a self-sufficient and self-declaring (literal) meaning. The alternative, as the court sees it, is chaos:

Were it otherwise, written contracts would be enforced not according to the plain effect of their language, but pursuant to the story of their negotiation as told by the litigant having at the time being the greater power of persuading the trier of fact. So far as contracts are concerned the rule of law would give way to the mere notions of men as to who should win law suits. Without that [the parol evidence] rule there would be no assurance of the enforceability of a written contract. If such assurance were removed today from our law, general disaster would result ... (Cargill Commission Co. v. Swartwood, 198 N.W. 538 [1924]).


What is remarkable about this passage is the short time it takes to move from the focus on the "plain effect" of language to the conclusion that if that focus is abandoned, general disaster—not just disaster for those with a professional interest in notions like "plain meaning"—will result. The reasoning behind this conclusion is not drawn out, but it is worth drawing out because it is writ large in many of the essays that follow. It is first and last a question of power in relation to the putting in place of constraints. What the Cargill court sees is that if there is no public way of setting down marks that stand firm against interpretive manipulation, the rule of law—of perfectly explicit and impersonal utterances—is replaced by the rule of persuasion, the rule of "the litigant having at the time being the greater power of persuading the trier of fact." As a result, authority becomes structurally unstable, embodied not in some abiding core (what H. L. A. Hart calls an "authoritative mark") but in the words of whatever person or persons happens to have sway "at the time being." This last phrase connects the court's fear with an ancient tension between a notion of truth as something independent of local, partial perspectives and a notion of truth as whatever seems perspicuous and obvious to those embedded in some local, partial perspective. It is the difference between a truth that judges human achievements and a truth that is a human achievement, inseparable finally from "the mere notions of men," and it is the court's contention that only the first kind of truth—the truth whose availability makes plain language at once possible and essential—will assure order that is principled, based not on the accidents of history and culture, but on the essence of enduring values.

By making its cases in these terms, the Cargill court illustrates the intimate relationship between formalism as a thesis in the philosophy of language and foundationalism as a thesis about the core constituents of human life. Formalism as a doctrine has been under attack for a long time now and few will acknowledge subscribing to it, but as Roberto Unger has observed, "Those who dismiss formalism as a naive illusion ... do not know what they are in for ... they fail to understand what the classic liberal thinkers saw earlier: the destruction of formalism brings in its wake the ruin of all other liberal doctrines of adjudication." Here and in other places Unger issues a double warning: don't think that formalism is a simple position, easily identified and easily avoided, and don't think that you avoid formalism by acknowledging context, or proclaiming the inescapability of politics, or any other of the gestures by which the anti-foundationalist insight is embraced at a general level without any strong awareness of the implications of that insight for assumptions and practices that remain unexamined. Formalism, as Unger correctly sees, is not merely a linguistic doctrine, but a doctrine that implies, in addition to a theory of language, a theory of the self, of community, of rationality, of practice, of politics. A formalist believes that words have clear meanings, and in order to believe that (or because he believes that) he must also believe (1) that minds see those clear meanings clearly; (2) that clarity is a condition that persists through changes in context; (3 ) that nothing in the self interferes with the perception of clarity, or, that if it does, it can be controlled by something else in the mind; (4) that meanings are a property of language; (5) that language is an abstract system that is prior to any occasion of use; (6) that occasions of use are underwritten by that system; (7) that the meanings words have in that system (as opposed to the meanings they acquire in situations) are or should be the basis of "general" discourses like the law; (8) that because they are general rather than local, such discourses can serve (in the form of rules or statutes) as constraints on interpretive desires; (9) that interpretive desires must (and can) be set aside when there is serious public business afoot; (10) that the fashioning of a just political system requires such a setting aside, the submission of the individual will to impersonal and public norms (encoded in an impersonal and public language); (11) that this submission would be a rational act, chosen by the very will that is to be held in check; (12) that rationality, like meaning, is an abstract system that stands apart from the contexts in which its standard is to be consulted; (13) that the standard of rationality is available for the settling of disputes between agents situated in different contexts; (14) that the mark of a civilized (lawful) community is the acknowledgment of that standard as a referee or judge; (15) that communities whose members fail to acknowledge that standard are, by definition, irrational; and (16) that irrationality is the state of being ruled by desire and force—that is, by persuasion—rather than by a norm that reflects the desires of no one, but protects the desires of everyone. All of these beliefs and more follow from and give support to the belief that words have clear meanings, and many of the essays in this book begin by challenging the linguistic thesis and end by challenging everything else.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Doing What Comes Naturally by Stanley Fish. Copyright © 1989 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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