I love Stanley Fish. He’s a circus clown who bounces around and distracts us from the changes between acts. His latest ” Opinionator ” column in the New York Times is a classic performance.
Plagiarism is not big deal, he argues, because there is no such thing as originality. Every work of art, literature, and criticism draws upon, builds from, and quotes from past efforts. So, in a sense, insofar as we think and write, we’re all plagiarists.
The argument is akin to the old Marxist view that there is no such thing as theft, because all commercial transactions are based on a system of exploitation. It’s theoretically impossible to have a truly honest transactionor to write something entirely originaltherefore stealingor plagiarizingisn’t wrong in any deep sense.
Fish misses the point. Although, as Paul Griffiths has pointed out in his fine book, Intellectual Appetite (which I reviewed in the February issue of
First Things ), our modern fixation on the notion of property tempts us to see plagiarism as theft, it is actually a form of prevarication.
When I assign a paper, I’m asking my students to analyze material and tell me what they think. Plagiarism amounts to avoiding the assignment, and turning in something that appears to be one’s own analysis. The transgressiondishonestyis not complicated, and it has nothing to do with theories about the possibility or impossibility of originality.
Plagiarism is a problem in higher education, because it involves students (and professors, who also plagiarize) who lie. They lie about what they know. They lie about what they have considered and thought about. They lie about their competence. Their success contributes to creating a culture of impostors.