Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Fish and Green Cheese

Stanley Fish believes that academic work's value lies in the process, not in its connection with the validity of its content.  Or so it seems.

He attended a conference recently:
The subject was originalism — that brand of interpretation that demands fidelity to original meaning, identified either with the standard definition of words at the time of drafting and/or ratification or with the intentions of the drafters.
Never mind that there was no unity of intent or interpretation, even at the time of the drafting of the U.S. Constitution.  What was important was that:
a set of intellectual problems had been tossed around and teased out by men and women at the top of their game.
By this logic, any proposition can be the basis of academic discussion.  And why not?  It's the process, the discussion that's important.  Who cares about 'truth'?

I wonder how Fish would have felt had the proposition been that the Holocaust never occurred, or that the moon is made of green cheese?

Imagine the panel topics at a Cheesist conference:
  • Factors that make the moon appear white to the naked eye: perspectives on atmosphere and sight.
  • Reconciliation of the mass of cheese and the mass of the moon, as measured from earth.
  • Thinking to the future: the moon as a source of nourishment.
  • Ontology of the moon: cosmic cow or random chance?
By Fish's definition, these would be legitimate topics, as long as they were rigorously discussed by smart people.

My reaction to Dr. Fish (Dr. Pangloss writ anew?) and to this type of academic debate was expressed best a long time ago, by Francois Voltaire, in the last line of Candide:
"Excellently observed," answered Candide; "but let us cultivate our garden."
Without something of the real world behind it, discussion is meaningless.  Intricacies of process notwithstanding, debate alone is not sufficient.  At some point, it has to turn back to the world, to the garden.  If not, one might as well argue over the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin.

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