Philosophy Returns to the Real World

Crispin Sartwell in the New York Times:

ImagesWhen I was in graduate school at Johns Hopkins in the early 1980s, I played on the intramural softball team of the postmodern literary theorist Stanley Fish. I recall his umpiring at a practice once when the batter, my buddy Mike, now a distinguished professor at Yale, argued a call. Fish good-humoredly pointed out that what’s a ball and what’s a strike is not an objective, external, or natural fact, it’s an interpretive practice; and according to that practice, whatever the umpire calls is real: If he calls it a strike, it’s a strike. (So that was a strike, Mike.)

The next day in class he expanded the ball and strike example into a theory of literary interpretation, and finally of reality: what’s true or false in these areas is what authoritative interpretive communities approve. Law is a practice like this, he said. Philosophy is. Science is.

Over his career, Fish had gone from close readings of “Paradise Lost” to an approach to textual interpretation that made use of French post-structuralists such as Jacques Derrida. And by developing the view that truth was a matter of linguistic practice rather than referring to a reality outside of language, he had become one of the spearheads of “postmodernism.”

It was in one of Fish’s seminars that I first read Richard Rorty, another arch-postmodernist who was later my dissertation adviser. Rorty convincingly defended himself against the charge of relativism – I know, having spent hours in his office, trying to make it stick — and yet he maintained that it was useless to talk about the world, or truth. It was ridiculous or impossible, he asserted, to try to describe reality outside of our linguistic practices, to describe it as it would be if it were not being described.

More here.