Stanley Fish on truth in numbers

The intersection of Church Street and State Avenue

The intersection of Church Street and State Avenue.
Image credit: Project Tolerance - Political Philosophy

Liberalism privileges tolerance because it is committed to fallibilism, the idea that our opinions about the world, derived as they are from the local, limited perspectives in which we necessarily live, are likely to be in error when—again, especially when—we are wholly committed to them. If God or God’s representative is removed as the guarantor of right judgement, all that remains is the judgement of fallible men and women who will be pretending to divinity whenever they confuse what seems to them to be true for what is really true. Because this mistake is natural to us, because the beliefs we acquire always seem to us to be perspicuous and indubitable, it is necessary, liberalism tells us, to put obstacles in the way of our assenting too easily to what are finally only our opinions. One way to do this is to institutionalize [John Stuart] Mill‘s advice and to require, as a matter of principle, a diversity of views with respect to any question. The New York Times v. Sullivan decision quotes with approval Judge Learned Hand‘s declaration that in essence the First Amendment “presupposes that right conclusions are more likely to be gathered out of a multitude of tongues, than through any kind of authoritative selection.” Typically, those who make pronouncements like this assume (without saying so) that the tongues making up the multitude will belong to persons who are committed to the protocols of rational inquiry; frivolous persons, persons who exploit those protocols or play with them to gain political ends, are not imagined. (When [Gerald] Graff counsels “teach the controversy,” he means the real controversy, not the manufactured ones.) But nothing in a statement like Hand’s rules them out, and once “authoritative selection” has been discounted and even rendered suspect because of its necessarily fallible origins, there is no reason at all for excluding any voice no matter how outlandish its assertions. After all, who’s to say?
Stanley Fish in his essay “Academic Cross-Dressing: How Intelligent Design gets its arguments from the left” in Harper’s Magazine, (New York: Harper’s Magazine Foundation, December 2005), p. 71-72.

Related Media: Trailer for documentary “Truth in Numbers: Everything, According to Wikipedia”

Stanley Fish John Stuart Mill Learned Hand Gerald Graff Posted on behalf of Stanley Fish, John Stuart Mill, Learned Hand, and Gerald Graff on Thursday, August 26th, 2010 under Quotations.

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