Stanley Fish on Theory Minimalism (2000)

In 2000, Fish wrote . . .

I have just returned from the AALS (American Association of Law Schools) meeting in Washington, where I was a member of a panel considering the state of legal theory at the beginning of the new century. I gave my standard stump speech (called “Theory Minimalism”), which always makes the same three points:

1) if by theory you mean the attaining of a perspective unattached to any local or partisan concerns but providing a vantage point from which local and partisan concerns can be clarified and ordered, the theory quest will always fail because no such perspective is or could be available; [theory as a vantage point, i.e. a supra-contextual “grounding,” is unavailable, cf. Heidegger on theoria (= the God’s eye view, i.e. the theos-eye]

2) the unavailability of that supra-contextual is in no way disabling because in its absence you will not be adrift and groundless; rather you will be grounded in and by the same everyday practices—complete with authoritative exemplars, understood goals, canons of evidence, shared histories—that gave you a habitation before you began your fruitless quest for a theory; [. . . but you’re grounded in everyday, i.e. historical and therefore revisable, practices anyways] and

3) nothing follows from 1) and 2); knowing that resources of everyday life are all you have and knowing too that such resources are historical and therefore revisable will neither help you to identify them nor teach you to rely on them with a certain skeptical reserve; the lesson of 1) and 2) goes nowhere; if grand theories provide no guidance (because they are so general as to be empty), the realization that grand theories provide no guidance doesn’t provide any guidance either. [. . . BUT, knowing this won’t make everyday practices any easier to identify or be sceptical about, i.e. they aren’t available as a “ground” either.]

End of story, end of theory as an interesting topic.

I like this argument because no one else does. Those on the right don’t like it because they have a stake in believing that without the foundations of fixed and absolute verities, the world will go to hell in a handbasket. Those on the left don’t like it because they have a stake in believing that in a world where truths are always being revised and authorities dislodged, we can sweep old structures away and begin from scratch to build the just society. This means that I am never in danger of persuading everyone or even many; and that means that I’ll never have to give up the argument because there will always be those who don’t get it and complain (as did two members of the audience) either that I have undermined certainty and stability, or that I haven’t.


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