The Great Fish

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I am not speaking of Leviathan, though Stanley Fish is treated by so many people with a reverence equal in magnitude to the awe and fear due the mythical sea monster… Fish, I’m afraid, is a sea monster of a different order. In the great sea of academia, he is a creature sailing on the momentum of past achievement and (depending on your point of view) former intellectual fame or notoriety.

I’ve been reading his blog on the New York Times “Opinionator” pages on-line off and on for several years. It seems every entry is more and more vexing. His latest, which coat-tails on the suddenly (once-again) compelling issue of plagiarism among high school and college students, is finally, for me, the last straw.

The back of this camel—forbearance in the face of bloviation and extreme moral relativism (the position he nominally espouses; one critic says he’s something worse, and that is, a “fatalist”)—has been broken and Fish, I am sure, will quake in his beautiful bespoke shoes (my fantasy; he has certainly made enough money, and I think he probably thinks he deserves it), will have to grapple with my “comment” to this latest apostrophe of his. In all events what he says always makes himself one slippery fish indeed. It’s no less true in this case.

Here’s the URL of the original “Opinionator” blog entry of Fish: http://nyti.ms/fish_plagiarism

And here’s my comment, in case the editors do not see fit to print it, or it ends up so far down the column you may have trouble finding it:

Either this is sophistry of the worst kind (the index of which is a moving measure determined by Mr. Fish as a function of time passing), or Mr. Fish is approaching retirement age. It would be nice to see him take with these putatively sidetrack skirmishes* as equally a clear position as he does with other, more marquee, ethical issues, or just shut up. The proposition that this is not a philosophical matter, on the thin (practically non-existent) self-referential Fish viewpoint is ridiculous. To allow the inference that plagiarism does not raise ethical questions (and if ethics are not the province of philosophy, then it means millions of humans since the beginnings of self-consciousness have been deluding themselves) is to commit an ethical breach of another sort. Mr. Fish’s clever, if not so subtle, disclaimers and self-exculpatory remarks: “I’m reporting, not endorsing…” are becoming truly repugnant. Maybe it’s time to quit Stanley, or at least stop taking The Times’s money for this twaddle. Cashing in on your highly inflated reputation is a pitiful thing to witness.

* The U.S. Dept. of Education reported upwards of 18 million enrolled college and university students in the country in 2007. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 1.7 million post-secondary teachers employed in 2008. If these numbers define a minor sequestered skirmish in the great war to win a now requisite credential, a post-secondary certificate or degree, to seek a likely underpaid job in the worst job market in 80 years, I’d hate to hear what Mr. Fish thinks is a “major battle” in that war. This is a statistical indicator that Mr. Fish’s chief interest is in reading his own words… as opposed to making sense, never mind dispensing wisdom.

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