Devon, PA. Stanley Fish has made a career out of showing apparent antagonists–no matter the question–that they are both right.  The cheek of his arguments lies always in his conclusion that it is precisely because the perceived antagonists are both right that they are both wrong about what they think they care about most.  I have written elsewhere of the vertiginous nausea Fish’s boiler plate induces (first here and then here), but I always appreciate the paradoxical clarity he brings about.

In this latest little essay, he shows that “leftist” academics, such as Cornell West, and “right wing” critics of the academy, such as David Horowitz, both agree on a fundamental principle: the purpose of the University is enlightenment as Immanuel Kant defined it.

What this means is that despite the point-counterpoint accusations of betrayal, corruption and anti-intellectualism (charges hurled by each party at the other), the left and the right are after the same thing, and it turns out to be just what Immanuel Kant urged in his essay “What is Enlightenment?” (1794) when he answered his title question by declaring that “enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity,” an immaturity marked by his reliance on the pre-packaged guidance of others as opposed to the exercise “of his own rational capacities.”

Mankind, says Kant, must constantly labor to “expand its knowledge . . . to rid itself of errors, and generally to increase its enlightenment.” No one in the Carvalho-Downing volume or on Horowitz’s side of the street would dissent.

Indeed, what is remarkable about reading the essays by the lefties Carvalho and Downing have assembled is how conventional (for me a good word) and, yes, conservative, the authors are both in their pronouncements and their performances.

In arriving at a tertium quid fundamental to two competing claims, Fish pretends to be the public consensus intellectual after which America yearns.  And, I would expect, for most Americans, if they can follow him, he is just that.  But for those who see that Enlightenment, for all its borrowed Johnannine language, either is not what it claims to be or is just exactly what it claims to be — and these come to the same thing — his is simply the latest contribution to the hollowing out of human life and the extension of power and appetite to the furthest corners of our culture.

The disinterested pursuit of truth as Kant conceived it amounts to an endless journey, a quantitative accumulation of knowledge by means of regulated methods.  We never arrive at the truth, but accumulate truths like so many pebbles in the purse gathered along the road.  Eventually, we begin to refer to the eternally deferred truth as “truth,” an ideal whose reality and presence we contemn.  We come to see that quantifiable, atomized truths serve us in practical ways but do not fulfill us, and those little “truths” we cannot dominate and exploit, we dismiss as “trivia” or “factoids” (a word that had already been accepted into the Webster’s Dictionary I received for high school graduation).  And so, we become disillusioned to our journey’s having a real end.  We conclude that the tidbits of progress we thought would lead to a disinterested view of the whole of Truth, a truth we had hoped to serve, actually earns us just little truths we respect only so long as they serve our already present appetites and bodily needs.  We see that the quest was never really about the acquisition of knowledge but the deep drilling for previously untapped powers.  And, at last, we declare that the paths to this truth, the very methods we had taken to be “the substance of things hoped for” were in fact vicious ideologies.  They give us what we really wanted, but not what we thought we wanted — and what we knew that we should, at bottom, want most of all.

Enlightenment according to Kant does not bring us to the end that gives peace, but it does set us on a path of empty, groping restlessness.  It does not set free the reason, but enchains and debases it, making it a servant of technology and power.  And its methods, which pretend to disinterest and dispassion, gain their forms according to the silent machinations of the unchecked appetites of unexamined lives.  Thus the modern theory of reason actually perverts the telos of reason, transforms its content, fetishizes methodology — and, eventually, grows despondent with all three.

Fish accepts this.  Indeed, his public statements express a love and veneration for this importation of the corporate management model of human life into the intellectual life.  And, in truth, the corporate management model — endless acquisition, endless wants, with only ever-accumulating “efficiency” and “profit” as guiding lights — was originally born of the Enlightenment vision of education and culture.  “Culture,” says Goethe, “is endless.”  Not because the world is so rich, but because Enlightenment conceals a profound despair.  We come to celebrate the mechanical, acquisitive, and endless — that is to say, pointless — model of the intellectual life called “Enlightenment,” only once we doubt that, as intellectual animals, the human mind exists for one specific purpose, to know and live not with little truths that serve it, but in the Truth Itself.  We know it when we see it with the eyes of the soul, precisely because the soul begins also to have some small taste of peace.  At that moment, the soul sees that it has much use but little desire for any truths that serve it; the soul, rather, seeks the Truth it may serve always.  We make “knowledge acquisition” yet another empty profession like all others, only when we conclude that the end of reason is not more light, more light, but an abyss in which we will finally see that the world is a shapeless sack of atoms in which it had been “better” (as if that word has any meaning left!) never to have been born.

Again, Fish seems content with this model of human life, of the intellectual life, and of its uniform application to every walk of human activity.  And he rightly points out in this essay that most academics feel the same way.  They merely clothe their road to the abyss in the language of “democratic equality” or “disinterested academic freedom” as a clotted secular updating of Kant’s elegant theft from the Gospel.  Such language makes sense to most of us, because we have confused the form of quotidian life — eat, work, sleep, rise, eat, work, and so on — with the end of life — to know and dwell in the Truth that is Love.  Most of us think that endless acquisition, whether of dollars or trivia, exhausts the potential of human life, and if we are not happy with that, as we look out on the great spectacle of the human race, we find little to prompt us to think anything else is possible.

But education’s end is human life’s end, precisely because the human being is an intellectual animal.  We cannot truly be happy with anything less than the contemplation — not of truths possessed but — of the incomprehensible Truth Itself.  All our educational institutions were founded with this perception securely in place, and they continue to exist on its suffrage, though they have come to deny it or conceal it in such language as the endless prattle of “critical thinking.”  Fish claims that educational liberals and conservatives hold much already in agreement.  I am sure they do.  They both believe that the purposeless exercise of the unconstrained human intellect is the purpose of education.  On the surface, that is an amusing paradox.  At bottom, it indicates the unconscious nihilism and plastic paganism that informs nearly every aspect of modern life.

When one argues for the centrality of place and limits to the well lived human life, one does not just mean that a household or a community can only reach a limited size before it becomes deformed and ceases to serve its natural purpose.  This, but not this only.  Such teleological arguments apply to all things — above all to human nature and, so, to the human intellect.  Therefore, one should argue also for limited education.  Not in the trite “conservative” sense of the “3Rs,” as if education should stop shy of the soul’s capacities.  And not in the egregious “education for guilt” that academic Marxists thinks will radicalize students into lives of egalitarian “praxis” (that they deploy the euphemism “democracy” fools only the students).  This latter sort of education only disillusions the young to the intellectual life, convinces them that power and inequality are the axes on which human life is graphed, and so “liberates” them to become the kind of usurious exploiters their leftist professors had hoped to counteract.  True education is limited education, because it is education that understands the end or purpose of education is the peace found in the loving contemplation of Truth.  On one point, both ancients and moderns agree: education frees the soul.  But the ancients stand almost alone in understanding that the “sense of an ending” to education is no mere source or foundation of that freedom but is itself the actualization of the highest liberty.

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James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. An award-winning scholar of philosophical-theology and literature, he has authored dozens of essays, articles, and reviews on subjects ranging from art, ethics, and politics, to meter and poetic form, from the importance of local culture to the nature of truth, goodness, and beauty. Wilson is also a poet and critic of contemporary poetry, whose work appears regularly in such magazines and journals as First Things, Modern Age, The New Criterion, Dappled Things, Measure, The Weekly Standard, Front Porch Republic, The Raintown Review, and The American Conservative. He has published five books, including most recently, a collection of poems, Some Permanent Things and a monograph, The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry (both Wiseblood Books, 2014). Raised in the Great Lakes State, baptised in the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas, seasoned by summers on Lake Wawasee (Indiana), and educated under the Golden Dome, Wilson is scion of a family of Hoosiers dating back to the early nineteenth century, and an offspring of Southside Chicago Poles whose tavern kept the city wet through the Depression (and prohibition) years.  He now lives under the same sentence of reluctant exile as many another native son of the Midwest, but has dug himself in for good on the margins of the Main Line in Pennsylvania with his beautiful wife, dangerous daughter, and saintly sons. For information on Wilson's scholarship and a selection of his published work, click here. See books written and recommended by James Matthew Wilson.


  1. Have you read Fish’s work on Milton? It would appear to me that Fish definitively does not accept the Enlightenment model as you have laid it out here. In fact, he attributes it directly to Milton’s Satan … locating it especially in Milton’s description of his study of Christ as he seeks the “truth” of Christ via a Kantian path … ie., “another method I must now begin …” but the method repeatedly fails because Satan does not “know” Christ.

    Fish provides one of the most compelling critiques and answers to this problem I have read. That said, your first paragraph description of Fish is perfect!

  2. Here is Fish:

    A nice example is provided by the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Regained, who at the beginning of the poem assigns himself the task of figuring out just who this person is who has been singled out by John the Baptist at the river Jordan and on whose head “a perfect dove” has descended. We know that Satan is in trouble when he immediately says of the dove “whate’er it meant.” If he doesn’t know what it means when he sees it, the gap between him and knowledge will not be filled in by additional information, for that information will itself become drawn into the vortex of his uncertainty. For four books and thousands of lines Satan stalks the Son, subjecting him, as he says, to ever “narrower scrutiny,” and hazarding his “best conjectures” as to the nature of his adversary, but still finds himself, after all his surveillance and sifting of evidence, “yet in doubt.”

    In the final scene he is still devising ways to “know . . . more” and announces, “Another method I must now begin.” This is the authentic voice of technological modernism, which holds out the hope that the world will deliver its truth when the right techniques-instruments of disinterested observation-are applied to it; but no matter how close the phenomena are brought to the doubting eye by sophisticated instruments of observation, that eye will see only its own doubt at once miniaturized and magnified. As Augustine puts it, “The fool is void of wisdom, therefore he knows not wisdom, for he could not see it with his eyes.” And moreover, if he could see it, he would no longer be a fool because there would now be something in him answerable to that which he seeks to know: “He cannot see it and not have it, nor have it and be a fool.” Were Satan to succeed in coming to know who the Son truly is he would no longer be Satan because it is his distance from that knowledge that defines him and makes him both what he is and what he isn’t, and what he is, at least until some moment of total conversion, is someone who says of the dove, “whate’er it meant” and will say the same of anything-the Son, baptism, the Trinity, resurrection, God-whose significance exceeds what is apparent on the empirical surface.

    Satan is the very type of those who would reason before they believe. Such a one, Augustine insists, has things exactly backward; if you begin to reason before the mind has been cleared of error, your reasoning will be forever errant: “To wish to see the truth in order to purge your soul, when as it is purged for the very purpose that you may see, is surely perverse and preposterous.” Purge the soul first by orienting it to the appropriate object of desire, and then reason, for only then, says Augustine, are you “capable of receiving reason,” capable, that is, of engaging in reasoning that is not endlessly spinning its own wheels.

  3. “endless acquisition, endless wants, with only ever-accumulating “efficiency” and “profit” as guiding lights” sounds a lot like Web 2.0.

  4. JMW:

    I would interested in your thoughts on Aristotle’s. It would seem to me that he is the real culprit and true root of the endless Enlightenment you so wonderfully describe.

  5. Fish’s work on Milton does show the frustrations inherent in Satan’s version of Kantian epistemology, but we shouldn’t move from there to saying that he disagrees with it per se. The hero in Fish’s Milton is Milton himself (or the Bard), not the Father or the Son, because he so admires Milton’s dramatic/rhetorical manipulation of the reader. Milton shapes the conventions within which reason may take place, and that is why Paradise Lost is so amazing (or rather, foundational), says Fish. So for Fish (like the ancient sophists he admires), it is the work of the great to form the conventions according to which the rest of us will “reason.” Milton has the Archangel Michael lay down a (bizarre post-Reformation) religious myth that will serve Adam and Eve (and by extension, the rest of us) as a web of conventions within which they may exert their reason, employing whatever “methodologies” they see fit, so long as the conventions are honored. The masterwork, for Fish, is Milton’s, not God’s. There have been many subsequent refoundings, and they’re all fine and good too, so long as they effectively establish conventions. The key thing for the intelligent ones is to realize this, settle for it, and enjoy ourselves in the Matrix.

    • Dwight, I certainly agree with this. However, Fish’s admiration for Milton’s accomplishment says something important about Fish himself.

    • “The key thing for the intelligent ones is to realize this, settle for it, and enjoy ourselves in the Matrix.”

      Also, you say this as if it is self-evidently bad. I think it can stray into dangerous waters, but given it’s best expression, i.e., TS Eliot’s aphorism “you are the music while the music lasts,” it captures a profound truth.

  6. Re: Jordan

    Not so. Aristotle thought acquisition (whether of goods, knowledge, etc.) was necessarily conditioned by perception of the Good. I.e. one ought only take in as much (of whatever) as will move one toward happiness, which is to say the fullest rationality. And the fullest rationality doesn’t mean the fullest brain.

    Hobbes explicitly broke with Aristotle in the matter of acquisition: he thought it was better to acquire endlessly, and so numb ourselves into peace, rather than pointedly seek a Good that could put us at odds with one another.

    • I just can’t help but think Aristotle’s mania with “measuring and quantifying” has more to do with our modern obsession with “science” and our concept of “law” or “justice” as something that must be quantifiable than any of the tweaks that have come since his monumental contribution to Western thought. (Sorry, horrific sentence, but I am just too lazy to rewrite.)

      conception of truth than anything else.

      • I’m not sure whose Aristotle you’ve read here. The Metaphysics specifically serves to critique the Pythagorean temptation that haunted all of ancient Athens, that is, the temptation to reduce all things to number, or to say that number is the first principle of reality. Aristotle says, rightly enough, that, au contraire, being is what is real and thus first. Number comes in a distant second at best.

  7. The elusive Stegall and Wilson in one stream, this restless auto-didact gives thanks for the mirror they hold up.

  8. Like most folks, I imagine, I first heard of Fish through his book on Milton. And, from what I can remember and from what you quote, I think my own reading of the poem is deeply informed by Fish’s.

    One of Fish’s interesting and infuriating positions is to occupy at once the liberal position of reason-as-method and also the position of disillusion I describe above, i.e. the realization that method cannot guarantee reason, but the conviction that there is nothing outside method to which one could appeal.

    As T.S. Eliot said of Aristotle: “There is no method but to be very intelligent.”

    This essay makes no pretense to originality; it is simply an Aristotelian critique of modernity. So, that confession should answer Jordan’s question without, of course, necessarily satisfying his concerns.

    • Perhaps that is why I find your contributions to FPR to be brilliantly intelligent, superior in quality of prose… but somehow always missing something. The point? Wisdom? Heart? I don’t know, but I will continue to read your pieces with interest, if only to try to better understand how our intelligentsia has lost the plot.

      • I’m pretty sure it would be impossible to reply to such a comment, although I’m gratified to think that Old Sabin would like me to.

  9. Reminds me of a conversation with my wife’s grandfather (a graduate of Boston University, Yale, and Harvard — his own academic quest never ended even though he collected letters behind his name like butterflies on a card) that heaven would be dull in the presence of God without an endless pursuit of knowledge. Knowledge of what? Heaven is dwelling in the presence of the source of all Truth. He was a Kantian in many respects.

  10. I’ve never much liked Fish, as he seems always to want to eat his cake and have it too. He’s like an academic equivalent of a limousine liberal. He says some quite interesting things, but they usually end with an implied, “But on the other hand…” I don’t find that “prophetic.” I find it “annoying.”

  11. I am, first of all, grateful that you did not put the word Enlightenment in scare quotes, the old trick of some peevish Catholic scholars. This alone shows an openness to dialogue. It is curious that the tendency today amongst conservatives today seems to be to try to link “Leftists” (and I mean the scare quotes here) with the weaknesses of the Enlightenment. Let’s not forget that some of the most fun critics of the same were some of the very famous leftist scholars of the past, the Frankfurt School of Horkheimer and Adorno. (Personally I love Adorno’s critique of Jazz which I extend to a lot more music in our world) .But I suspect that many conservatives don’t like the conclusions of their famous Dialectic of Enlightenment. Precisely because it gives a rationale for a criticism of the weaknesses of the Enlightenment’s effects as a matter that can at least can be discussed, rather simply lived. Your view, it seems to me, boils down to not so much a view, as a lifestyle. I am willing to concede that you might be right that human beings are perhaps incapable of acting in the best way in a society, or world, that is too big for them. Having just see the behemoth creations in Shanghai recently I am inclined to agree that such a future would be dystopian. But how in the world is all this Kant’s fault, or the Enlightenment generally?? Perhaps you don’t think the Eighteenth Century’s liberations did us much good. But we see the alternative in places like Afghanistan where there never was an Enlightenment. I think there is no way of getting around the fact that the vision of men like Lessing, for instance in his Masonic colloquies, originated a broad style or attitude of informed tolerance for diverse religions and viewpoints that has saved the Western world’s butt more times than can be counted. That must mean it did something good, right? Or, like so many conservatives, do you yearn for a Gotterdaemurung?? Maybe the real issue — and I’m not trying to be funny — is the heady pretense of Kantianism and its myriad descendants who really form a new sort of faith, which has to be “tolerated” just like any other. That might deflate the egomania of many philosophical adherents and their folks that fill faculties, the frequent target of conservative theorists. More to the point, such deflation, as a form of toleration, which Nathan the Wise preached, has within it a great respect for cultural, local difference determined by place. That is “place” in the sense used on this website, meaning local. Not to end on a know-it-all point, but there really is nothing new under the sun, and a lot said here, even in critiques of Enlightenment thought, was already said by Montesquieau, inspirer and proto-critic of the Enlightenment, even before it was even over.

    But it occurs to me that maybe you meant all this, as so many revanchists have before, as a sub rosa paean to the necessity of some latest version of Thomistic thinking. To that I would say, oh that, never mind!

  12. Are you sayin’. . .we’re so busy collecting facts that we miss Truth himself? Makes sense to me, but then I’m just a lowly truck driver.

  13. Only a bird that enjoyed hearing his own cockamamie song above all others would call Fish “annoying”. Call me disjointed but the longer I live, the more I enjoy hearing views contrary to my own. It is all well and good to cosset ourselves within the warm folds of our own conceits. But to find a beneficial harbor within opposing views and then to stay a while as these opposing views are linked with strains, however weak , of one’s own cherished convictions…well, this is what makes the mind a productive rather than fallow field.

    Kant, “horrifically ” wrong. I should like to envy such confidence but I don’t, preferring the chastening effects of doubt.

    • Re: finding Fish annoying. I do not find him annoying because I dislike views contrary to my own, but because he seems too often to want to have things both ways. There is a certain type of reader who finds that type of thing profound. I’m not one of them.

      And I’m all for reading contrary opinions, by the way. I’m neither a Catholic nor a libertarian, for instance, and I have considerable disagreements with both Catholicism and libertarianism, but this in no way stops me from reading both Catholic authors and libertarians.

      • In one of my essays, to which I linked in the essay above, I compare reading Fish to watching the Sopranos. I’d encourage Sabin to have a look at that one to see where the analogy leads, but it bears mentioning here that I began watching that gangster show with much enthusiasm. I ceased watching it at a point when “annoyed” could no longer adequately describe my distaste.

  14. Sorry for the delay. I was not too convinced by this particular Fish essay. I’ll have to argue with you about Kant and the enlightenment some other day. Fish writes “the left and the right are after the same thing” and slides it in subtly between saying professors are name-callers and the Kant reference.
    You have to ask yourself why all these professors are digging deep to write about academic freedom in the first place. It’s a battle. Freedom for the lefties means being free from the righties, and vice versa. That scholars are particularly adept at shining up a turd doesn’t really change the fact that what were looking at is a turd.

    Saying they want the same thing simply because they draw from the same past isn’t much of an argument, is it? Isn’t more likely that what Fish is describing are arguments to authority? Most everyone would like Kant on their side – most – and this sounds more like a fight over which side best preserves and follows in our academic heritage.

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