Study Guide

Stanley Fish Buzzwords

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There's No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It's a Good Thing Too 

In lieu of offering a whole slew of buzzwords, I am here to tell you that I am categorically and morally opposed to buzzwords. Nonetheless, I will define a few words that circulate around my name, but that is in the interest of clarification—not to impress you with high-falutin' jargon. This much is true: I am not one of those academics. In fact, I wrote a whole book about how much I hate jargon and all of the silly precious ideas that kind of fancy talk is responsible for.

On the left or the right, academics are the worst when it comes to accusations, name-calling, bullying, teasing, denigrating, and finger pointing. All the buzzword tossing actually thwarts academics from getting anywhere. Conservatives say they hold "transcendent values." Lefties claim they have cornered the market on "tolerance" and "equality." Though I don't believe we can ever rise above politics, I also don't think that squabbling is going to resolve the culture wars.


Being an anti-foundationalist—like it sounds—basically means hating on foundationalism. Okay, not a very helpful definition. Let me clarify. Foundationalism is the idea that once you excavate all of the layers of information, voilà, you will arrive at some basic truth. But, as my detractors are all-too willing to point out, I believe judgment is shaped according to its context. Because our judgments are always made in particular contexts, and those contexts always evolve, our judgments must change, too. People accuse me of being wishy-washy, but I'm just saying that foundationalists can be a pretty stubborn group, always neatly situating their ideas in one unchanging context that just isn't always appropriate.

Reader-Response Criticism

I burst onto the scene with my own version of reader-response criticism with Surprised by Sin, my tome about Milton's Paradise Lost. Readers of literature love RRC because it puts them behind the wheel. They feel like someone cares about what they think. No more pesky efforts to figure out what the author meant or what sacred undying truths live in the text. Down with formalism and New Criticism. Power to the reader!

Interpretive Communities

This idea—which I'm totally behind—was the child of reader-response criticism. As the name implies, interpretive communities are compilations of folks (not necessarily friends or people sitting next to you in lecture) who share a collection of cultural beliefs and apply them to understanding a book or other text. It all sounds reasonable, right? Well, people accuse me of claiming that "words have no meaning," which makes me "relativistic," a four-letter word for academics, meaning I believe that no definitive truth is out there waiting to be harnessed.


Yep, humanities. I'm sure you already know this as an umbrella term for all of those academic disciplines that look at the human condition. (No, not as in "How are your abs?" That's for physiology or kinesiology or something). We're talking about what people have pondered, explored, declared, and argued about through the ages. The humanities includes many fields, like philosophy, history, and literary studies.

But one of my concerns with the humanities is how woefully underfunded (through grants and private donations) they are—compared to the sciences, for example. People used to care about being well rounded (you know—a "Renaissance Man") and understanding the human capacity for creative productivity instead of just getting a high paying job. Those ugly careerists! Back then (as Anthony Kronman has said) "a college was above all a place for the training of character, for the nurturing of those intellectual and moral habits that together from the basis for living the best life one can." Though the humanities may not get you a job at a Fortune 500 company, I maintain, "The humanities are their own good." Learning has its own rewards. For more deets, just check out my article in the NYTimes. NBD.

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