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Rhetoric & Public Affairs 5.2 (2002) 388-391

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Book Review

The Trouble with Principle

The Trouble with Principle. By Stanley Fish. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999; pp. 328. $26.50.

In The Trouble with Principle, Stanley Fish, the esteemed Milton authority, infamous legal scholar and political theorist, and now dean at the University of Illinois, Chicago, presents his collection of recent—mostly previously published—law review and political theory essays. These essays—consistently engaging, provocative, and disquieting—are devoted to his well-rehearsed commitments to anti-foundationalism and the idea that "Everything is rhetorical" (228). The development of these essays constitutes unmistakable evidence of how extraordinarily clever Fish is both at choosing (Fish admits this selectivity) the legal and political theorists who happen to exemplify the contrivances of liberalism that especially violate these themes and then manifesting his animus against them. Even Fish's harshest critics acknowledge this cleverness; astute readers, no matter how put off they may be by the substance of what Fish says, should not forbid themselves from appreciating that cleverness.

These troubled contrivances that Fish argues plague contemporary liberalism are attributed historically and rhetorically to the task that Locke set out for himself: finding a solution other than coercion to resolve the inevitable conflicts in a polity that arise over plural and competing beliefs. As reported by Fish, the Achilles heel of the Lockean resolution, and its contemporary progeny, is to seek principled grounds for transcending such conflicts when the very lack of such grounds is constitutive of the conflicts that liberalism seeks to resolve.

The claim that "Everything is rhetoric"—Fish's alternative to principle and academic theories that seek to defend it—tends to unsettle readers because Fish steadfastly maintains that "nothing of a positive or helpfully negative . . . can be derived from" it (146).

What Fish means by this is that "minds are always and already settled in some direction or other, and subsequent reasoning is shaped by the direction that the mind has already taken" (289). Therefore, Fish's criticisms of liberal principles and his alternative to them leave his readers exactly where they were (according to Fish) all along: in the web of their own commitments. Whatever common ground might appear in the conflicts over beliefs, asserts Fish, is ad hoc and temporary; it emerges from context-specific and consequentialist considerations that are themselves controlled by the winners in acts of war, courts, elections, cultural debates, a Kulturkampf, and the like. [End Page 388]

So why then does Fish persist in writing essays attacking liberalism? One answer lies in his apparent affection for the idea that intellectual elites dominate agendas of discourse such that the rest of the intellectual community fails "to make distinctions that would be perfectly clear to any well-informed teenager" (43). So Fish takes it upon himself to expose (as modern Marxists also do) the corrupt and feeble "decorum" of liberal principles (for example, "fairness," "individual rights," "tolerance," "mutual respect," and a "color blind" Constitution (40, 240, 312) upon which blind-sided liberal theorists depend.

For example, Fish is exasperated with, and appalled by, those liberals who persist in using the principle of freedom of speech to protect both Shakespeare and pornography—this despite their vivid protestation about the harms of pornography and the extent to which it disgusts them. His preference is for persons who resituate themselves within the web of their own "strong moral intuitions as to how the world should go . . . [and to] resolve [themselves] to be faithful to them" (9). To do otherwise, pleads Fish, is self-defeating (237-38) and, relatively speaking, "immoral" in the sense that to do otherwise contradicts one's own convictions.

The message that bad things are done in the name of principle is meant for those on the partisan Left and the Right. Fish wants those on the Left to awaken to the fact that the Right has commandeered for reactionary purposes the "magic words" of "America's civil religion," such as "equal opportunity" and "especially rights" (312), and in the process displaced the rhetorical legitimacy these words once afforded...


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