Fish StanleyThe teaser copy atop the December issue of Harper’s is simple — “Stanley Fish on Intelligent Design.” What fan of Stanley Fish or the Intelligent Design debate wouldn’t want to read that creative pairing of author and subject?

Fish begins with an unpredictable angle by accusing I.D. proponents of misappropriating the academic style of Gerald Graff, a professor of English at the University of Illinois, Chicago:

What the Christian Right took from him (without acknowledgment) was the idea that college instructors should “teach the conflicts” around academic issues so that students will learn that knowledge is neither inertly given nor merely a matter of personal opinion but is established in the crucible of controversy.

Then he shifts into overstating what I.D. proponents seek:

What is ironic is that although Graff made his case for teaching the controversies in a book entitled Beyond the Culture Wars, the culture wars have now appropriated his thesis and made it into a weapon. In the Intelligent Design army, from Bush on down to every foot soldier, “teach the controversy” is the battle cry.

It is an effective one, for it takes the focus away from the scientific credibility of Intelligent Design — away from the question, “Why should it be taught in a biology class?” — and puts it instead on the more abstract issues of freedom and open inquiry. Rather than saying we’re right, the other guys are wrong, and here are the scientific reasons why, Intelligent Design polemicists say that every idea should at least get a hearing; that unpopular or minority views should always be represented; that questions of right and wrong should be left open; that what currently counts as knowledge should always be suspect, because it will typically reflect the interests and preferences of those in power.

By the end of his brief essay, Fish argues that I.D. proponents are guilty of — oh, he knows how to hit where it hurts — relativism:

In the guise of upping the stakes, Intelligent Designers lower them, moving immediately to a perspective so broad and inclusive that all claims are valued not because they have proven out in the contest of ideas but simply because they are claims. When any claim has a right to be heard and taught just because it is one, judgment falls by the wayside and is replaced by the imperative to let a hundred (or a million) flowers bloom.

There’s a word for this, and it’s relativism. Polemicists on the right regularly lambaste intellectuals on the left for promoting relativism and its attendant bad practices — relaxing or abandoning standards, opening the curriculum to any idea with a constituency attached to it, dismissing received wisdom by impugning the motives of those who have established it; disregarding inconvenient evidence and replacing it with grand theories supported by nothing but the partisan beliefs and desires of the theorizers. Whether or not this has ever been true of the right’s targets, it is now demonstrably true of the right itself, whose members now recite the mantras of “teach the controversy” or “keep the debate open” whenever they find it convenient.

I’ve been unable to find any response to Fish’s essay on the Discovery Institute’s website, or on Evolution News and Views, its blog that critiques media coverage of evolution debates.

Considering that Fish directly takes on Philip Johnson, and knowing how Johnson loves a good argument, the response should be worth the wait.

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  • Avram

    Fish isn’t the first person to have noticed the debt that the Discovery Institute owes the postmodernists. Here’s Joe Kaplinsky writing about it back in March of this year (though I take issue with the way Kaplinsky blames liberals for doubting science — has he never heard of global warming skeptics?), and here’s somebody’s 2001 dissertation called Intelligent design as a methodological basis for a postmodern science, which I haven’t read yet because it’s a PDF.

  • DK

    Although I dismiss ID for various reasons, including some that overlap with Fish’s points, it’s a disappointing piece. Fish is capable of much more.

    Although it’s billed on the cover, his essay is shovelled into the back of the mag because it is a medium-sized, dull, boiler-plate, preaching-to-the-choir essay without style, humor, or insight. Fish does not grasp the deeper issues or even the implications of some of his own statements.

    Here is a guy whose last big feature in Harper’s was about the collapse of the liberal order and who argued against George Marsden in First Things that Christians shouldn’t try to gain influence by working within the rules and value systems of Enlightenment regimes–the academy, the state, the public sphere, etc. Instead, Fish said, they should try to extirpate their opponents, root and branch. I wonder why he is so irked with ID then for not playing by the classical rules of Enlightenment liberalism, academic research, and science and for going instead into the post-liberal, post-modern (and arguably hyperliberal, hypermodern) playbook. Should they play by the rules after all–and perfectly–thus making it impossible to do what they want to do? What is the other option? What woudl a root and branch approach look like? Going through the courts, pressuring judges, backing an ID John Brown in Kansas?

    Here’s a summary for those without a copy of the mag:

    1) ID of course has no real arguments. This is assumed; not argued.

    2) ID/Johnson deliberately follow the pomo relativism playbook pioneered by “multiculturalists” and bad, too-liberal SCOTUS decisions on the FA that go back to J. S. Mill/’On Liberty’. I.e., they argue that argument itself is beneficial and authority is always suspect.

    3) “The academy” and its agents plus “science” are continually referred to by Fish as legitimate, properly-functioning authorities that are doing their job to keep out anti-Darwinists no matter how many Americans reject “evolution.”

    My take:

    * There are a lot more people in the academy–and on the liberal-left–than “multiculturalists” who deserve Fish’s blame. What he is calling “multiculturalism” has been in the water a long time. I suppose he just doesn’t want to say that the pro-ID elements of the religious right are so awful because they are imitating the liberal-left, which has been intellectually and ethically bankrupt for 30+ years to the extent that it has been obsessed with identity politics and a bastardized Marxism that expresses itself as self-serving relativism.

    * The multiculti label for ID is overstated. Nobody on the right is into “who’s to say what’s right/wrong?” arguments.

    * Fish knows that Evangelicals in the academy are seldom relativists. He knows they have a much more specific case to make about their exclusion and the nature of mainstream academic hegemony. He probably also knows that there is division on the “Christian right” about ID, and it is very unpopular with some Christian academics. The recent MoJo article on ID and Baylor did an almost passable job on this.

  • Basil

    No link? This sounds like a great article, and I may just have to buy the latest issue of Harpers to read it.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    You’re correct, Basil: No link. The Harper’s website is rather stingy in distributing articles from the current issue.