cover image The Trouble with Principle

The Trouble with Principle

Stanley Fish / Author Harvard University Press $26.5 (336p) IS

American democracy rests its freedoms and legal procedures on principles that are impersonal and universal (e.g., freedom, equality). A good idea? No, says Fish. He argues vigorously that universal principles actually impede democracy. Counterintuitive as his claim may appear, Fish makes a strong and lucid case. The trouble with principle, he explains, is this: it disregards history, tradition and contexts of every sort that shape understanding. According to Fish--a controversial literary scholar and theorist who has applied his theories of interpretation to the study of law--we can never find a neutral position that will fully transcend our prejudices, commitments and beliefs. And worse yet, high-minded abstractions can be used to mask undemocratic privilege. He offers the current controversy over affirmative action and reverse discrimination as a case in point. Those who agitate for an end to affirmative action usually do so on the principled grounds that it ignores ""merit."" But what is merit? It describes, says Fish, ""whatever qualifications are deemed desirable for the performance of a particular task, and there is nothing fixed about those qualifications."" Fish supports affirmative action because he believes we must take into account the history of oppression suffered by the groups that affirmative action is meant to benefit. Yet Fish is no liberal. In fact, he devotes most of his book to the problems entailed in the liberal understanding of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Liberals, he says, duck behind the comforting fiction--or ""principle""--that we are all the same underneath. Fish--hard-nosed, unflinching and persuasive--maintains that differences are real and must be faced squarely without recourse to timeless, abstract principles. His cautiously reasoned argument, not easily dismissed, will excite controversy. (Dec.)