Stanley Fish and Rejecting the Call for Justification
Following my chance to hear the latest from Michael Sandel last month, I had the opportunity to listen to a lecture by Stanley Fish, currently a professor of law and the humanities at Florida International University and a New York Times columnist. Like Sandel, Fish also has the passing distinction of being someone I read as a part of my undergraduate thesis. Unlike Sandel, this was not the first Fish lecture I had attended, as I also heard him back in the fall of 2007.
The Chautauquan Daily has complete coverage of Fish’s lecture on understanding the role of the arts and of studying the arts in contemporary society. In particular, Fish is concerned with those in and out of higher education who seek to defend the liberal arts approach to education against its critics. In a very well-crafted lecture, Fish rejected the usual arguments of the defenders of humanities education: that it inspires critical thinking, builds oral and writing skills, prepares students for later life, fosters cross-cultural understanding, and generally makes for a better citizenry.
I enjoyed the totality of the lecture, which also included a stanza-by-stanza deconstruction of George Herbert’s 1633 poem, “The Forerunners.” There was one statement from Fish, though, that particularly struck me. When explaining his position in favor of arts education but in opposition to the usual justifications for it, Fish said:
The demand for justification is always a demand that something be justified in terms not its own.
He went on to explain that even its supporters fail to “acknowledge that the arts and humanities might operate according to their own terms or that these terms might be the basis both of the value they have and of the pleasure we take in them.” Although he closed by offering a justification of sorts that seemed to mostly satisfy him (“If the study of the arts and the humanities is to be justified, it will be because it keeps alive and refurbishes glorious human artifacts that might well be lost or less available to future generations if they were no longer taught.”), the thrust of Fish’s view was that continued funding of arts education requires no justification.
Fish’s statement about demands for justification reminded me that those who accept a challenger’s invitation to justify often do a disservice to that which they are attempting to justify. For example, Christians who indulge their critics’ various demands for proof of God’s existence usually don’t especially succeed in advancing the Christian cause. Even if they do present a satisfactory justification, they have cabined their religion to the critic’s imposed terms. The Christian faith surely encompasses the rational– the scientific, the observable, the tangible, the historical– but for adherents, Christianity is broader than that. Jonathan Edwards, the eighteenth century American theologian, recognized that, to the extent humans can know and understand God and the world, that understanding comes through both human reason (a gift from God) and revelation from God. To limit a “defense” of God would be both inadequate and misleading, since Christians do not know God through reason alone.
An examination of Edwards’ epistemological views on reason and revelation could fill its own post. See, e.g., here and here. The simple goal of this post is to highlight the broader application of Fish’s statement as cautioning those who would justify their views and questioning the helpfulness of asking for justifications.