Don’t adjust your screen. Don’t worry, there is nothing wrong with this picture. It is disquieting, but that is by design. This is Stanley Fish we are talking about.
Stanley who? That’s what I thought when I first heard about this book in an interview with the author. Well, as it turns out, he is kind of a big deal, at least to many.
Fish is a highly influential thinker in the ivory tower of academics, but is also well known for his New York Times column called Think Again, which ran regularly from 1995–2013. This volume consists of nearly 100 of the over 3,000 articles that were published in that series.
Over the years Fish has written many controversial books such as, How to Write a Sentence, There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and Is There a Text in This Class? These books were not controversial because they posed arguments or touched on issues that were controversial in themselves. Rather, Fish is a controversial individual precisely because he is so good at playing the role of “the devil’s advocate.” He simply wants people to stop and think about the arguments that they are making.
Fish explains his approach well in the very last article in that NYT series that also appears in the present volume. He says that, “‘I believe X, but think that the case you guys are making for X is faulty’ is a perfectly reasonable thing to say. In the columns that provoked frustration, I stopped short of offering the ‘I believe X’ part, leaving readers to wonder where I stood. I tried to stand on the side of cogency and against slipshod reasoning” (p. 413).
In fact, even Fish’s long time readers will be unable to discern basic features about him such as whether he is religious or with which political party he most closely aligns. For example, Fish’s aim is not to argue for or against religious freedom, his aim is to analyse arguments that are being used in the public sphere and expose their erroneous thinking or praise their correct thinking. So, for example, Fish has a long string of articles (pp. 237–270) wherein he boldly attacks the new atheists Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. His aim in these articles, is to cause these three, and their devotees, to stop and think again about what they are saying and how they are saying it.
Another major topic for Fish is the issue of academic freedom and the role of educators. He believes strongly that teachers need to “do their job” (p. 301). He argues that teachers, especially at the college and university level, need to get their noses out of politics and put their noses back into teaching. Teachers, according to Fish, are not meant to save the world, but to interpret the world. Admittedly, this was one of Fish’s most controversial series of columns, but he stands by his arguments and thoroughly documents how a broad view of academic freedom can have destructive results.
As the title suggests, this book covers a great many topics including, aesthetics, culture, politics, law, religion, education, and academic freedom. But for who would this book be good? In all honesty, I believe that any thinking Christian would benefit from this book. Because Fish’s main skill is in analysing arguments, rather than offering his own opinions, he is a welcome anecdote to much of the media that is currently available. But more than this, this book is a delight and a joy to read. It is funny, it is thought provoking, it is witty, and it will cause you to stop and think. It will force you to sharpen your arguments; to clarify what you believe. This is a bed side table book. Pick it up and read a few articles and you will find yourself nudging your spouse and saying, “listen to this.” You will find yourself, as I have, reading the articles aloud in order to invite others into a conversation, a conversation that is worth having.
Stanley Fish. Think Again: Contrarian Reflections on Life, Culture, Politics, Religion, Law, and Education. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. xx + 427 pp. Hb. $29.95. ISBN: 978-0-691-16771-8