Stanley Fish

From Academic Kids

Stanley Fish (born 1938) is a prominent literary theorist. He was born in Providence, Rhode Island, and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Fish earned his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1962. He taught English at the University of California at Berkeley and Johns Hopkins University before becoming Arts and Sciences Professor of English and professor of law at Duke University from 1986 to 1998. From 1999 to 2004 he was Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Following his resignation from this position, he spent a year as a professor of English before leaving the institution. The last course he taught there was a graduate seminar entitled "Religion, Citizenship, and Identity." In June of 2005, he contracted with Florida International University to teach there for five years, based out of the FIU College of Law, as the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Humanities and Law.

Considered a leading scholar of Milton, a reputation cemented by the book How Milton Works in 2001, Fish is best known for his work on interpretive communities, an offshoot of reader-response criticism that studies how the interpretation of a text by a reader depends on the reader's membership in one or more communities defined by acceptance of a common set of foundational assumptions or texts. This work can be viewed as an explanation of how meaning is only possible in the context of a particular interpretive community, even if one accepts the deconstructionist position that no single privileged reading of any text exists. This contrasts, however, with his claim that the only possible meaning of a text is the meaining that the author intended. He distinguishes between this, which is an interpretive claim, and his claims regarding interpretive communities, which are sociological claims. The only possible meaning is what the author intended, but what a given reader will see that intent as being will vary based on their interpretive community.

A simple illustration of interpretive communities is Fish's story of baseball umpire Bill Klem, who once waited a long time to call a particular pitch. "Well, is it a ball or strike," the player asked impatiently. To which Klem replied, "Sonny, it ain't nothing 'til I call it" - saying, in effect, that balls and strikes are not facts in the world but "come into being only on the call of an umpire." This example shows how his scholarship questions our conventional assumptions about fairness, justice, and truth.

His famous essay "How to Recognize a Poem When You See One" (from the book Is There a Text in This Class?) deals with similar issues of individual freedom of interpretation and cultural influence, and uses the example of a class he taught where a group of students took a list of random names on the board and assumed it was a religious poem just because Fish told them that it was, and because that was their area of expertise. Fish concludes that culture fills our minds with assumptions and beliefs that are not only similar, but "alike in fine detail," and, because of this, individual originality and creativity are convenient fictions of our time.

A prominent public intellectual, his works include Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (1980), There's No Such Thing As Free Speech: And It is a Good Thing, Too (1994 ISBN 0195093836), and The Trouble with Principle (1999). As his provocative titles indicate, Fish has vigorously debunked pieties of both the left and the right, sometimes in the same sentence. In 1999, "The Stanley Fish Reader" was published, edited by H. Aram Veeser, and in 2004, there came out a volume of reactions on Fish' work: "Postmodern Sophistry: Stanley Fish and the Critical Enterprise", edited by Gary Olson and Lynn Worsham.

He has said that deconstruction: "relieves me of the obligation to be right . . . and demands only that I be interesting."

Charles Murray of the conservative Hoover Institution [1] ( calls that "a silly thing for a grown man to say and a criminal thing for a teacher to say."[2] ( However, Fish's complicated relationship with deconstructionism makes it unclear whether to accept the statement as an argument for or against the practice. More likely, it is a description of a doctrine's consequences, of which his statement is a compelling example. He is also known, for example, for an incident in which, after asking an adversarial question to his wife, Jane Tompkins, while she was speaking at a conference, to which she asked, "What is it that you and people like you want?", replied, "I want to be right!"

Fish has written extensively on the politics of the university, having taken positions justifying campus speech codes and criticizing political statements by universities or faculty bodies on matters outside their professional areas of expertise.



  • John Skelton's Poetry
  • Surprised by Sin:  The Reader in Paradise Lost
  • Seventeenth Century Prose:  Modern Essays in Criticism (Ed.)
  • Self-Consuming Artifacts:  The Experience of Seventeenth Century Literature
  • The Living Temple:  George Herbert and Catechizing
  • Is There a Text in This Class?  The Authority of Interpretive Communities
  • Doing What Comes Naturally:  Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies
  • There's No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It's a Good Thing, Too
  • Professional Correctness:  Literary Studies and Political Change
  • The Stanley Fish Reader (H. Aram Veeser, ed.)
  • The Trouble with Principle
  • How Milton Works

External links

  • Stanley Fish ( in the Johns Hopkins University Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism.
  • Stanley Fish ( page at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
  • Stanley Fish interview ( at the minnesota review (

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