Stanley Fish (born 1938) is a professor of English literature and law at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Fish earned his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1962. He taught English at the University of California at Berkeley and Johns Hopkins University before becoming Arts and Sciences Professor of English and professor of law at Duke University from 1986 to 1998.

Considered a leading scholar of Milton, he is best known for his work on interpretive communities, an offshoot of reader-response criticism that studies how the interpretation of a text by a reader depends on the reader's membership in one or more communities defined by acceptance of a common set of foundational assumptions or texts. This work can be viewed as an explanation of how meaning is possible in the context of a particular interpretive community, even if one accepts the deconstructionist position that no single privileged reading of any text exists.

A simple illustration of interpretive communities is Fish's story of umpire Bill Klem who once waited a long time to call a particular pitch. "Well, is it a ball or strike," the player asked impatiently. To which Klem replied, "Sonny,it ain’t nothing ‘til I call it’" - saying, in effect that balls and strikes are not facts in the world but "come into being only on the call of an umpire." This example shows how his scholarship questions our conventional assumptions about fairness, justice, and truth.

A prominent public intellectual, his works include Is There a Text in This Class? Interpretive Communities and the Sources of Authority (1982), There's No Such Thing As Free Speech: And It's a Good Thing, Too (1994 ISBN 0195093836), and The Trouble with Principle (1999). As his provocative titles indicate, Fish has vigorously debunked pieties of both the left and the right, sometimes in the same sentence.

He has said that deconstruction: "relieves me of the obligation to be right . . . and demands only that I be interesting."  

Charles Murray of the conservative Hoover Institution [1] calls that "a silly thing for a grown man to say and a criminal thing for a teacher to say."[1] Murray is best known for defending racism in the controversial book "The Bell Curve". However, Fish's complicated relationship with deconstructionism makes it unclear whether to accept the statement as an argument for or against the practice. More likely, it's a description of a doctrine's consequences, of which his statement is a compelling example.

Stanley Fish has also appeared in a PBS documentary film on the ACLU saying something similar to "These people think that ideas should just be able to just bounce into each other and somehow we will figure out what's right. I know of no way to tell sense from nonsense."

Fish has written extensively on the politics of the university, having taken positions justifying campus speech codes and criticizing political statements by universities or faculty bodies on matters outside their professional areas of expertise.

External links

Entry for

  • Stanley Fish in the Johns Hopkins University Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism.

  • Stanley Fish page at the at the University of Illinois at Chicago.