Perhaps responding to the recent discussion on this blog of Alan Sokal and Stanley Fish, a reader alerted me to an epic put down of Fish by Russell Jacoby, which can be found here. [I pause to await the plaudits of the cloud for my success in embedding a link in my blog. If I live long enough, I may make it all the way into the twenty-first century.] Then today, I came upon this piece by Fish in the NY TIMES. [Twice in one paragraph!] As you will see if you read it, it is, for the most part, a gracefully written defense of the Humanities against the new emphasis on measurable educational outcomes and on-line education.
Buried in the middle of Fish's highly critical discussion of on-line education, keyed to some writings of William Bowen and Derek Bok, there appear these sentences:
"Years ago when the philosopher John Searle returned from a conference on Transformational Grammar, I asked him what had gone on. “They can’t get from the physics to the semantics,” he replied. Getting from the physics to the semantics — from counting things to knowing anything deeply important about them — is what the new digital techniques (like the old computational linguistics) have not yet been able to do, and neither Bowen nor Bok offer any argument, save for the argument of faith, that what Bowen calls “nirvana” will ever arrive."
As I read these lines, it suddenly became clear to me that Fish did not have the slightest idea what he was talking about. It was Alan Sokal all over again. Searle had offered a precise, pointed, and perfectly reasonable critique of the work at the conference, and Fish's gloss on that critique interpreted him as expressing a longing for the ineffable over the scientific. I would imagine that Fish hadn't a clue what the words "syntax" and "semantics" actually mean in Linguistics, nor did he really understand the debate that Searle had been having within the field of Philosophy of Language. Fish obviously just thought it was a catchy tagline to use in his animadversions against online education [which, by the way, I am sympathetic to.]
The truth is, Fish is not able to offer a reasoned defense of the Humanities that will withstand criticism. With friends like that, the Humanities have no need of enemies.