Fish Is Brain Food

by Oct 9, 2012Linguistics, NTScholarship

Stanley Fish is a legal scholar, and as best I can tell, he got into that line of work because of his fascination with interpretation in general—he started out as a literary critic and theorist. Law certainly furnishes many fascinating case studies, and when judges with the social prominence and brilliance of U.S. Supreme Court justices weigh in on issues of national importance, the result is irresistible to Fish’s witty pen.

Antonin Scalia recently put out a book in which he describes his hermeneutics, his philosophy for interpreting legal texts. In today’s NY Times blog column, Fish takes Scalia to task for his hermeneutics for the second time, and in the end Fish sounds a lot like he’s spinning a sophistic justification for judicial activism.

But I think Fish deserves a more sympathetic reading. There is real value in what he’s saying. Someone who is so extremely literalistic (a most-abused, polyvalent word) that he has no place for anything—anything!—but the text is indeed failing to be a good reader. He’s failing to appreciate the role the historical situation (or interpretive community, to use Fish’s parlance) plays in both the formation and the reading of a text.

My question is this: how many people who read the Bible really fail to do this? Even the simplest believers in America, in my experience, tend to have a Bible dictionary and a study Bible. And how many people who read the Constitution are textualists in that narrow sense? Even Scalia, whom Fish criticizes for his hermeneutics, isn’t a consistent hyper-textualist, and I can tell this from even the few quotes Fish provides. Scalia recognizes the importance precisely of “how a reasonable reader, fully competent in the language, would have understood the text at the time it was issued.” That sounds like he uses information from outside the text.
Scalia does, however, open himself to Fish’s charge by saying (and part of this is Fish’s own summary in this article—I couldn’t find this passage from Scalia’s book online),

“Of course, words are given meaning by context, and context includes the purpose of the text.” Indeed, purpose “is the context that helps to give words meaning—that might cause draft to mean a bank note rather than a breeze.” But, Scalia and Garner insist, “the purpose must be derived from the text” and not the other way around.

Bible interpreters face this issue as well, of course: what role does history place in interpretation? And by history I mean everything from secular historical accounts and archaeological findings to the use of words as found in papyri. If history plays a hermeneutical role, I think Fish is wise to say about an uninspired document,

The unwritten principles that preside over constitutional interpretation should not be thought of as items in a list; they are, rather, part and parcel of a general project—the implementation of American-style democracy—that is not [sic?] defined and limited by the implications and considerations it gives rise to.

The same is true of Scripture. One of the ways we can make sure our interpretation is responsible is to invest ourselves in the same project of which Scripture is a part: glorifying God through the growth of His church and the redemption of His world. Without that personal investment, we won’t share enough “context” with Scripture to understand it accurately.
I recommend the chapter “Words and Precision” (chapter 6 on this page) by Vern Poythress. The commenter* on Fish’s article who said “Now if we could only get religious fundamentalists to apply that principle to their texts” has no idea that plenty of religious fundamentalists are way ahead of him and at least equal to Fish in their hermeneutical sophistication. A lot of us are behind, however, and could learn a thing or two from Fish.
*I posted a reply to that comment, and I’d appreciate a few “Recommended” votes from readers to make it noticeable. Click here.

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