July 22, 2005
Evolving Fish . . .
by Dennis Johnson
In a New York Times op-ed column on Tuesday, literary theorist Stanley Fish wrote, “If interpreting the Constitution — as opposed to rewriting it — is what you want to do, you are necessarily an ‘intentionalist,’ someone who is trying to figure out what the framers had in mind. Intentionalism is not a style of interpretation, it is another name for interpretation itself.” As Scott McLemee points out in his own column for Inside Higher Ed, the implication is that “Talk of ‘a living constitution’ that must remain open to the changing times — that, in short, is not interpretation, but a roundabout means of rewriting the Constitution.” Which led conservatives who’ve long been saying the same to say, “What a voice for sweet reason! Is this Stanley Fish not the same man who turned the English department at Duke into a training camp for left-wing theoretical guerillas? Has he perhaps had a change of heart?” But as McLemee writes, “All of which underscores the difference between being well-known and being well-understood. There is nothing in Tuesday’s op-ed that Fish hasn’t argued many times over the years.”
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives