In his article, “Is There a Text in This Class?” from his book with the same title, Stanley Fish demonstrates through a simple occurrence of one of his university colleagues that words do not have one absolute determinate meaning. Rather, people interpret the meaning of words based on their own social, cultural, circumstantial and personal contextual situations.
Fish thus asserts in his essay that the interpretive meaning of a literary text does not derive from the author but from the readers based on their former knowledge, culture, community, etc. Fish further elaborates that literary texts are thus fickle and fully dependent on the context and setting of the readers who ascribe the actual meaning to the texts.
In the aforesaid event, a student at Johns Hopkins University asked her professor a supposedly simple and naïve question, “Is there a text in this class?” (page 305). The professor misunderstood the question, believing the student referred to the course’s materials, and the student had to explain what she meant exactly: “No, no… I mean in this class do we believe in poems and things, or is it just us?”
Fish takes this event and analyzes it in order to show that, indeed, there was not a “text” in the class per se; however, as Fish states near the end of the article, “the meaning of the utterance is either perfectly clear or capable, in the course of time, of being clarified” (page 318). This means that although a text is evidently unstable, we would still be able to understand it in a particular situation and circumstance. Sentences are inevitably uttered within a specific framework and context, consisting of social, cultural, personal, and other aspects, and therefore,” the normative meaning of an utterance will always be obvious or at least accessible” (page 307). Had it not been the case, any human communication would verge on the impossible.
Fish hence presents quite a compelling argument, which makes it really difficult to dispute. It would be strenuous to oppose the premise that essentially any text is unstable and cannot be definite without comprehending the larger context in which it is relayed. If this premise were false, linguistics would have been much more restricted and limited with literary/poetic devices such as metaphors, similes, puns, etc. In this kind of dystopian reality, essentially any sort of elaborate communication would be much more tedious, cold and dull – and almost no one would like to live in such a dry and somber reality.
Up until a decade or so ago, perhaps many might have disagreed with Fish’s arguments and believed that even if there are texts open to interpretation, some texts are just hermeneutically closed and sealed. Yet, in the post-Trump era in which truth itself is being challenged, it has become obvious that people would interpret anything in a way that fits their principles, ideas, ideology and opinion, even if it is entirely nonsensical, stupid and utterly refutable.
Perhaps, then, after “Is there a text in this class?” the student should have immediately asked – first and foremost, herself – the proper follow-up question, “And is there a truth in this text?”
Fish, Stanley Eugene. Is There a Text in This Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Page 303-321. Harvard University Press, 1980.