“For all the radical talk,” Stanley Fish concludes in a summary of the political theory of William Corlett, “what we have here is liberalism all over again.” Something similar might be said of this collection of Fish’s essays: though he does not, to be sure, revert to liberalism, his radical gesturing has a disappointing payoff. After spending a chapter demolishing liberalism, he closes with the admission that any political recommendation he might offer is “entirely superfluous” and instead gives this advice: “Figure out what you think is right and then look around for ways to be true to it.” This is oddly refreshing, for it shows Fish loyal to his position even when it leads him to look like “the new Polonius,” as he concedes in a self“deprecating aside. Tracing Fish’s path from his radical beginning to this bathetic conclusion provides an instructive illustration of the insights and limitations of secular critiques of liberalism.

The radicalism is on the surface of the book. Fish is against universal principles and neutrality, and in favor of political combat, rhetoric, difference, and taking sides. As the title suggests, Fish’s attack is largely directed against the uses of “principle.” The sort of principle he objects to is an abstraction “like fairness, impartiality, mutual respect, and reasonableness” that “can be defined in ways not hostage to any particular agenda.” Principle in this sense, Fish argues, simply does not exist, because principle and substance are always mixed. Faith comes before reason, and reason is always exercised toward an end that is defined by the starting point. All appeals to equality, for example, are appeals to some substantive concept of equality, and this concept may differ from one disputant to another.

For the same reasons, anytime a “principle” is embodied in law or custom it will favor the interests of some and be detrimental to the interests of others. Affirmative action, for example, is seen as a policy of “fairness” toward historically oppressed minorities, but since it affects many whites unfairly, it is nonsense to defend it by appeal to some universally agreed upon notion of fairness. “Fairness” must be given content or it is vacuous. Fish prefers frankly moral or prudential defenses of policy: affirmative action is defensible (for Fish) not because it is “fair,” but because the outcome is a desirable one (for Fish). Not even facts are immune from this form of relativism, since what counts as a fact will vary according to one’s network of beliefs. For a Christian, the “facts” brought against the resurrection of Jesus do not erode belief because they do not count as facts. There is, Fish insists, nothing in common, and we are left with a clash of “churches,” each of which is orthodox to itself.

Though principles do not exist, they still do political and cultural work. In one of his most intriguing gambits, Fish argues that principle, often viewed as a buttress against moral relativism, actually contributes to relativism and is an enemy of resolute moral action. Adherence to principles of free speech and viewpoint neutrality has left American courts incapable of judging between literature and vulgarity, and paralyzed in the face of neo“Nazi propaganda. Their enslavement to principle, in short, makes it impossible for the courts to defend civilization against the barbarians.

Fish does not entirely reject appeals to principle, however. Principles may be invoked as rhetorical feints and jabs in a political rumble. Where liberals appeal to principle with sincerity in an effort to transcend political clashes, Fish appeals to principle because he is “playing to win””and winning in the current political climate requires just such an appeal.

Politically, Fish’s target is not liberalism as a set of policy positions but “Liberalism with a capital L,” a system that attempts to “bracket metaphysical or religious views”the sources of intractable endless disputes”so that public questions can be considered in terms that will be accessible to, and appear reasonable to, everyone,” regardless of their “comprehensive doctrines.” Liberalism claims to open up a political space where all substantive agendas have an equal chance to compete.

But this space is necessarily a bounded space; liberalism is founded, as all political orders are, on an act of exclusion. Agendas that would seek to reshape public life according to a specific vision of the good are outside the bounds. In a word, religion is outside the bounds. Limiting religion’s influence on public life is, Fish contends, the liberal project; a regime of tolerance cannot tolerate the intolerant, and by Fish’s lights true religious believers must be intolerant of error (more on this below). True believers thus expose the dilemma of liberalism: “If such doctrines are welcomed into the conversation, they may shut it down; if the door is closed to them, liberalism will seem to be exercising the peremptory authority it routinely condemns.”

Fish’s deconstruction of “Liberalism with a capital L” is revealing and convincing on many points. He is correct that principles are not neutral, and his analysis of the dynamics by which religion is marginalized gets it exactly right. In the end, however, Fish stands amid the rubble with no blueprints for rebuilding. This is quite deliberate, a consequence of his pragmatism. In his usage, “pragmatism” is a version of antifoundationalism, the view that beliefs and practices are not grounded in anything more basic than history and tradition.

Pragmatism does not, Fish insists, entail any particular moral or political positions, and he fairly revels in its “inconsequentiality.” Pragmatism is simply a belief about the way beliefs come to be held, and this belief about beliefs has only “local effects” on one’s network of beliefs. Yet pragmatism does have one general effect: it prohibits any generalized political or moral guidance, and thus Fish restricts himself to saying, “you are on your own,” and, “the resources you need are within you if they are anywhere.” The radical Fish unmoors us from secure anchors, only to turn into Polonius, albeit a rather feisty one.

The claim that pragmatism has only “local effects” points to a set of questions that gets to the heart of Fish’s project. His entire critique of liberalism grows from his insistence that political convictions cannot (and should not) be “bracketed.” Political actors not only should but necessarily do seek to realize their particular vision of the good. If this is truly the way of the world, however, Fish’s critique of liberalism, no matter how persuasive as theory, loses most of its practical force. It amounts to the charge that liberals are not really acting on principle but just engaging in good old political maneuvering, deploying whatever rhetorical weapons are at hand. What would happen if liberals found Fish convincing? They would”and Fish is quite explicit here”continue engaging in good old political maneuvering. They might even persist with the pretense that they are acting on principle, though now consciously as a political tactic. In short, little or nothing would happen.

In several other respects, Fish draws back from the consequences of his radicalism. He has gleeful fun dissing Jürgen Habermas, pointing out that politics is not a philosophy seminar. In response to Richard John Neuhaus, he argues that his professional competence as a Milton scholar is not compromised by his disagreement with Milton’s theology, and he warns his readers several times that they cannot draw any conclusions about his own political convictions from his analyses of liberalism. All of this raises a critical question. The issue is not whether politics is a philosophy seminar or a Milton lecture. The issue is how a philosophy seminar or a Milton lecture is possible if in fact it is “politics all the way down,” if in fact there is no “device” that enables one to “quarantine politics.” Fish limits himself to the claim that politics is politics all the way down, but he wants to be able to leave politics to the side when he picks up Paradise Lost.

In another revealing passage, he argues that “the way you are in the world of practices is independent of the account you might give of those practices.” This means that one can deploy whatever rhetoric is useful at the moment, since deploying a rhetoric “won’t commit you to acting in any particular way.” The fascinating practical effects of this counsel are worth pondering, but my criticism is about the coherence of Fish’s position. He lambasts principle because it is “abstract” and “contentless,” but ends by saying that one can play whatever language game one wishes since language games do not bind. Abstraction, it seems, has made an impressive recovery, now at the level of rhetoric rather than at the level of principle”and this after Fish has introduced rhetoric as part of his effort to escape abstraction and neutrality. This is hardly a stance that will help him achieve his ambition of making “rhetorical” an “honorific” term.

Although Fish is not a believer, some of the most pertinent implications of this book are theological. By his own admission, he is inclined toward absolutist theological positions. If someone is a true believer, he should want his beliefs to shape the world. This means, for Fish, that believers who appeal to liberal principles of fairness and equal treatment have been coopted by the world. They should want to win, not ensure a fair fight.

Ultimately, Fish is surely correct that a believer will want his beliefs to shape the world, but he has not quite grasped the nuances of theological justifications of the liberal order. He recognizes that believers might employ liberal principles as a way of gaining a foothold in a democratic system, but he fails to see that this strategy may be theologically grounded. It is one thing for a secularist to say that he hopes that truth will out in the marketplace of ideas; it is very different when the same thing is said by a Christian who has confidence in God’s providential oversight of human affairs and who looks forward to a final judgment when all injustices will be righted. Against this eschatological horizon, a reluctance to root up the tares is not cooption, but faith. Christians may accept and even defend a penultimate justice (more accurately, an antepenultimate justice) precisely because they know that an order of ultimate justice will one day break through.

But Fish’s book raises the question of how a secular defender of liberalism might justify resting satisfied with less than perfect justice. The Trouble With Principle suggests unintentionally that the most viable defense of liberalism is its original defense, which was fundamentally theological.

Whether or not a theological defense of liberalism is coherent is another question, one answered negatively in recent years by such theological critics of liberalism as Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, and Alasdair MacIntyre (who has become increasingly theological of late). Fish shares much common ground with these writers, but precisely because they work within a theological tradition, they are able to offer substantive and, one might say, truly radical alternatives to both the Lockean liberalism that Fish attacks and the Hobbesian agonism that he celebrates. In the end, then, Fish pushes antiliberals toward a choice: if one hopes to avoid mimicking Polonius, one must make peace with the apostle Paul.

Peter J. Leithart is Fellow in Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho.