Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Does Subjectivism Lead to Nihilism?

I recently read this quote from an interview Dinesh D’Souza had with Stanly Fish for his book, Illiberal Education. Stanly Fish argues that:

They worry [the opponents of his educational philosophy] that there will be young people walking around acting in a random, nihilistic way, or perpetually perplexed about life. But that doesn’t follow from my position at all. I’m just saying that our standards are acquired through socialization. My critics assume a world in which persons are not socialized. Actually, it is impossible to live without standards. The only question is, where do standards come from, how are the realized, whose standards prevail?

If you don’t know who Stanly Fish is, he is a rather notorious English/literature/religion educator who writes frequently for the NY Times. He is notorious, in part, because his brand of subjectivism is not always easy to nail down. He argues that we can realistically discuss objective moral values, but that they are always subjectively applied give any and every social context. The above quote was published when he was an English professor at Duke in 1991.

The first sentence of the quote strikes me as frighteningly prescient, which make Fish’s position naïve. Eighteen years later, and I think the argument that subjectivism does create a bunch of perplexed nihilists is pretty much done. I think it is inevitable that this level of subjectivism leads to an unhinged randomness about life. If the only real question is where our “standards come from,” given time, the only answer students will have is “me.” That is a bad place for value, standards and meaning in life.

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