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Gregory Currie TEXT WITHOUT CONTEXT: SOME ERRORS OF STANLEY FISH "Intuition told him that the vast ineptitude of the venture would serve as proof that no fraud was afoot." —Jorge Luis Borges, "Tom Castro, the Implausible Imposter," in A Universal History ofInfamy There are those of us who seek unity, universality, patterns of invariance in any diverse multitude of particulars. With the interpretation of texts, the diversity is evident, the unity, universality and invariance less so. Still, we have the text itself, a sequence of determinately meaningful signs, independent of, and a constraint on, the activities of interpreters. We universalists might want more than that, but it's a start. It's a start some people are not prepared to give us. Stanley Fish is one of them. According to him we are looking for something which does not exist, and which we do not need. I shall argue that Fish is wrong on both counts. According to Stanley Fish, there are no constraints on interpretation that transcend particular, local interpretive communities. Indeed, there is no truth or validity that is community transcendent, no standard of lightness, proof or confirmation that has any warrant other than community approval. Intellectual ascendency is always ultimately a matter of rhetorical power, and the locus of power shifts as the norms of the community change. Yet we need not worry that this implies any dangerous kind ofrelativism or subjectivism. Each ofus is deeply immersed Philosophy and Literature, © 1991, 15: 212-228 Gregory Currie213 in his or her own community. Our thoughts, intentions, and actions gain their very identity from the structure of public, communitarian relations we enter into, and the community imposes on us a tight structure of norms and intellectual options that "situate" us (a favored word in the Fish vocabulary) in such a way that it is always clear what interpretive move is appropriate.1 Fish is no epistemological anarchist in the style of Feyerabend: it is not the case, for him, that "anything goes." There is always a clear distinction between what goes and what does not; it is just that the rules, the structure, the hierarchy of options are not invariant across time or communities.2 Now we do it like this, tomorrow we may do it like that; we do it this way, they do it that way. Wherever you are, the rules are always clear, but the rules depend on where you are. I shall call this thesis "internalism." It bears some resemblance to views of the later Wittgenstein, and rather closely parallels Thomas Kuhn's theory of scientific paradigms. It has a negative and a positive aspect. The negative aspect is that community-specific constraints on interpretation are all we have. The positive aspect is that they are all we need. Is internalism correct? I say it is not. I say that the positive claim is false, because internal constraints alone can never answer the relativist's challenge, when that challenge is properly understood; more about that in a moment. But this merely serves to highlight the importance of the negative thesis: if that is correct then relativism carries the day. So my primary concern here is with the negative thesis. Fish's main argument for the negative thesis is that what seems to most of us to be an obvious external constraint on interpretation—the literal meaning of the text in question—is no such thing. And he bases this claim on some arguments which purport to show that there L· no such thing as literal meaning. So my aim, it emerges at last, is to defend the idea of literal meaning. But first, I shall say something about the question of relativism. II Fish's answer to relativism, it will be remembered, is that interpretive communities constrain the interpretive choices of their members in such away that there can always be seen tobe nonarbitrary ways ofproceeding when it comes to formulating and choosing between interpretive hypotheses . This claim, the positive claim of Fish's internalism, raises two questions: Is Fish right, as a matter of fact, about the ways in which interpretive, and more generally intellectual communities constrain the 214Philosophy and Literature thoughts and actions...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 212-228
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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