Stanley Fish Turned Careerism Into a Philosophy


Russell Jacoby in TNR:

It is hardly surprising that Fish passionately defends professionalization. Everything in his method celebrates the professional scholar-critic and his or her happy world. The anti-professionals trade in “essences—a commitment to the centrality … of transcendent truths and values.” Fish is past all of that. His view is the standard denunciation that the profession has succumbed to careerism, mindless specialization, and trivial research—and that, worse, the profession foolishly supposes “a truth that exists independently of any temporal or local concern.” On one side, the disinterested critic apparently taps into a shining truth. “On the other side,” this truth is “continually threatened by the contingent, the accidental, the merely fashionable, the narrowly political, the superficial, the blindly interested, the inessential, the merely historical, the rhetorical, by everything that seems to so many to be the content of professionalism once it has been divorced from or has forgotten the higher purposes and values.” For Fish, the “higher purposes and values” are bunk—or, at least, they can only be approached through the profession and its realities.

Fish proudly defends “the merely fashionable, the narrowly political, the superficial, the blindly interested.” Whatever objections arise against the ills of professionalism take place within it. “In short, the alternative to anti-professionalist behavior … is behavior of the kind we are already engaged in. One could call it business as usual.” For Fish “business as usual” does not necessarily mean complete acquiescence. “'Business as usual’ is understood to include looking around … to see conditions … that are unjust or merely inefficient.” It means also to understand that, whatever disputes emerge, all the parties are “agents embedded in different organizational settings with different priorities and interests” and that none “will be acting purely, that is, with no ax to grind.”