Plagiarism is a Philosophical Issue: A Response to Stanley Fish

There have been a number of pieces around issues of plagiarism and copyright in the New York Times recently.  I could write a whole blog that did nothing but catalog these articles: the piece describing college student skepticism regarding the idea of plagiarism, another describing the travails of a woman hired by BMI, one of the largest performing rights organizations in the world, as she moves from town to town, trying to persuade restaurant and club owners to pay royalties for their use of copyrighted music; a third on the impact of copyright law on the fashion industry.  And then there’s literary/legal scholar Stanley Fish’s “Plagiarism is Not a Big Moral Deal”, which makes the argument that plagiarism is not a moral or philosophical issue but simply one of professional decorum. The argument restates Fish’s broader thesis that there are no pre-existing meanings, only interpretive communities that make fragile but decisive agreements about meaning.  Thus:

“ … in order to have a basis, plagiarism would have to stand on some philosophical ground. But the ground plagiarism stands on is more mundane and firm; it is the ground of disciplinary practices and of the histories that have conferred on those practices a strong, even undoubted (though revisable)  sense of what kind of work  can be appropriately done and what kind of behavior cannot be tolerated. If it is wrong to plagiarize in some context of practice, it is not because the idea of originality has been affirmed by deep philosophical reasoning, but because the ensemble of activities that take place in the practice would be unintelligible  if  the possibility of being original  were not presupposed.”

The obvious rejoinder to Fish’s essay (and Fish’s position in general) is that if plagiarism is not a moral problem, then surely one should campaign for  reform of laws and rules governing plagiarism.  After all, students can be thrown out of college, employees can be fired, artists and writers fined large sums of money if they are found guilty of plagiarism in various disciplinary contexts.  There’s no indication in the essay that Fish believes in such reform.  If one did argue for legal reform, the particular intellectual frameworks that support the current disciplinary practices and interpretive communities  would reveal themselves and plagiarism would quickly become a philosophical issue…

Or a theoretical one, at any rate.  After all, the main “philosophical” argument made in favor of intellectual property is that it’s natural that human beings claim their thoughts as their property, even when it’s equally evident  that no one can own language and that every thought has its basis in a chain of signs, events, influences which do not belong to the thinker.  The presupposition of originality that Fish speaks of is ideological: it supports the interests of a particular economic and political framework or, if you like, practice. It is necessary in order to render that practice intelligible … but at what cost? And for who’s benefit?

That discussion of plagiarism in mainstream media tends to be ideological is beyond doubt.  The first sentence of “The Music Copyright Enforcers” lets you know what is to follow: “Few things can make Devon Baker cry”.  Baker, the BMI representative is a caring, feeling individual, while those who resist paying fees to BMI are a gang of subhuman beasts who curse and threaten violence at every turn.  At no point is the idea of the public domain or fair use mentioned in the article, even though these concepts are an integral part of intellectual property law today.  Following Fish, we might argue that it’s necessary, or valid, to present copyright violators as subhuman beasts because otherwise the practice of intellectual property law would become unintelligible.  That argument has obvious weaknesses though. It ignores the power relations that allow certain parties (for example corporations that benefit from aggressive enforcement of intellectual property law) to dominate discussions of what is intelligible and what is not, and who gets to practice what. Even so, practices of imitation, labeled as plagiarism or not, continue, because in them the life of the people manifests in a somewhat autonomous way.

Unlike Fish, I do believe that there’s a need to align “disciplinary practices” such as intellectual property law with philosophical principles.  I don’t claim that this is easy to do well. But the law as it stands is already taking explicitly philosophical positions and it always has been, all the way back to the Statute of Anne with its direct basis in Lockean possessive individualism.  In In Praise of Copying, I connect plagiarism to the problem of deception since what is objectionable in plagiarism is not the borrowing of someone else’s work, but the lack of attribution.  But that’s one of the main objections to copying in general: that something is presented as something else, and that we are deceived when we mistake the copy for the original.  This was Plato’s objection to mimesis and the poets in the Republic. The main challenge to the perfect operation of reason and self-knowledge according to Kant in Critique of Pure Reason is also deception.   So plagiarism is intimately connected to very basic issues that the western philosophical tradition has struggled with since the beginning.

In his second piece on plagiarism, written in response to the many comments on the first piece,  Fish restates his objection to philosophical examinations of plagiarism:

“I don’t say, as several posters charge, that rules against plagiarism are called into question by the deconstruction (in some quarters) of the idea of originality. I introduce those arguments only in order to assert their irrelevance to any enterprise founded on the presumption of originality as both a possibility and a value. A theoretical debunking of a concept has no effect on a practice whose very shape depends on that concept’s being firmly in place.”

But the point of a theoretical debunking is to make a concept that appears to be “firmly in place” less so. And if the “very shape” of a particular practice “depends on that concept’s being firmly in place”, dislodging it will at least potentially lead to a change of practice.  It’s worth a shot, anyway.

Fish’s rethinking of the concept of practice is key to understanding his work.  He develops his ideas on this topic most fully in Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies (1989). A lot of what seems paradoxical in these New York Times op ed pieces has to do with the very specific meaning that Fish assigns to words like morality, philosophy, theory and practice.  At the same time, as Alan Jacobs notes in his excellent review of that book, there’s something wrong with how Fish thinks about practice.   Everything is practice – fine. The world is a multiplicity of unstable but significant constellations of practice and practices — sure. With plagiarism, we’re talking about a number of different practices, even when we focus on the problem of student plagiarism in the university, as Susan Blum notes in her new book on the topic.

The internet for example has changed the practice of teaching and learning in the university.  We can rigidly stick to a particular framing of education and the concepts that enable it, such as plagiarism, originality etc., but when that framing is undermined by the practice of consulting iPhones in the classroom, we have the option of abandoning or at least revising our values and the concepts which inform our practices.  This might involve teaching methodology, practices of citation more, as Fish notes in his second column. But also a greater acceptance of competent but unattributed use of other people’s work – since if the goal is learning, the intrusion of the internet into the university classroom is, amongst other things, the intrusion of a different practice of learning. That practice comes more naturally to many students today than the practices of citation that governed the Gutenberg/book era university.  So: there’s a conflict of practices.  Theory has a role in illuminating and resolving that conflict.

Mimesis is a concept that Fish doesn’t talk about much in his work, even though it’s pervasively present.  He loves to use examples from sports to illustrate his arguments about practice.  Practice is mimetic because it’s about the repetition of a form shaped by rules.  Sports are an intensely mimetic activity, as we know from reading the two great theorists of play, Huizinga and Caillois. But sports are not a great model for thinking more broadly about practice since the explicit agreements about rules that make them possible don’t exist to the same degree in other aspects of the human world, or the natural world.  Practice – and mimesis – are much more chaotic outside of the realm of sports, and it requires something like Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory to track the way a practice evolves.  Or Mahayana Buddhism, another antifoundationalist practice – but I won’t go into that right now.

The problem of practice is a profound one.  It’s not a coincidence that many of the debates around the nature of practice today concern copying.  This is because a very particular way of thinking about copying dominates our legal, economic, political and aesthetic systems — yet the practices of everyday life, the various mimetic modes by which Hardt and Negri’s multitude are constituted, continually exceed those systems.  That surplus is reappropriated through intellectual property law and various kinds of taboos on mimetic activity, generating official or disciplinary practices. Yet the practices of the multitude always reappear again, in one form or another …


  1. Could you expound at all on the psychological ramifications of copying? To whit, how does copying tend to emotionally effect copier and the person being copied? I imagine that copying has an aspect of identity theft to it, a stealing of “who you are” whether for financial gain or not. Certainly, children use copying as a device to annoying the living crap out of siblings — most usually siblings, anyway — in order to provoke. “Quit copying me!” is something one hears children say (often followed by the escalating retort, “Quit copying me!”). In other words, I suggest that the psychological effect of copying is predominantly negative, and restrictions on copying would move from individual to society to moral/legal for a very profound and possibly innate reason — violation of individuality. Or, to put it another way, after the psychological individuation that occurs after infancy, “you cannot be me” is at the very root of self-identification, and copying provokes a strong boundary reaction as object infringes on subject.

  2. marcus3001 says

    I think that’s right, JD, but the question is what do we do about it? And how accurate or reliable is that sense of our individuality as an inviolable original? According to Lacan, when the baby looks in the mirror and sees him/herself there, he/she’s delighted at that image of wholeness, which becomes the basis of his/her idea of being an individual. Yet that image in the mirror is a copy and the baby misrecognizes him/herself in it. With consequences.
    I like René Girard’s work on mimetic desire a lot. He talks about the way we imitate the desire of others. One kid grabs a toy, the next kid is attracted to it and imitates the first kid’s desire for it. They both struggle to express their individuality by copying each other in a sense. It’s not hard to find similar examples in consumer culture and adult life. Capitalism probably couldn’t function without the particular ways in which we identify ourselves as the property owners of ourselves, and our possessions, which are definitely not our selves, as constitutive of who we think we are. At any rate, it’s hard to avoid copying, and, as Girard says, one way we try to deal with it is by scapegoating people. So those who are identified with copying are considered bad and vilified … even tho those who make the accusation are as much involved in copying as anyone else. Necessarily.
    Yes, it might well be traumatic to loosen the boundaries by which we build up ideas of separateness. A certain gentleness, but also discipline would be needed. That for me is where Buddhism comes in. Mahayana Buddhist philosophy proposes that our sense of separateness is ultimately an illusion and that our sense of self is actually dependent on that network of others around us. Tim Morton has taken this notion in interesting directions in his books Ecology Without Nature and The Ecological Thought. If everything is interdependent, then we have to acknowledge our similarity to others (that we are in a sense “copies” even), and that becomes the basis of compassionate action, ecological thinking — without reducing us to clones, which would be a reified version of similarity. So there’s a politics to this that’s interesting ….

  3. Thank you, Marcus, that’s a good answer. I’m in the midst of reading “The Black Hole Wars: My Battle With Stephen Hawking To Make The Universe Safe For Quantum Mechanics”, and the issue of copying/cloning extends down to the tiniest bits of stuff in our universe (and the information/metadata about those bits that “defines” them). I wonder if a copy is ever a true copy anyway, or if a true copy is even possible, according to the ever-changing theories of quantum physics. Maybe by the time I finish the book, I’ll have a more up-to-date opinion of copying as it applies to quantum wave-particles (not that I’m anything more than an amateur dilettante physicist, but I do think it’s becoming in a person to have an opinion on quantum phenomenon, just in case it comes up in conversation yes I’m joking) that I can misappropriate (or copy?) for philosophical purposes.

  4. marcus3001 says

    Let me know if you write something up about copying and quantum physics! I just read Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard and physicist Trinh Xuan Thuan’s book of dialogues on physics and Buddhism and was struck by the way mimesis factors into superstring theories and others. And yes, that an “identical copy” is a physical impossibility is one of the basic tenets of my book — tho I got the idea from Madhyamaka Buddhist philosophy and from Duchamp’s writings.

  5. I’m very much enjoying your book and your blog, but I was puzzled by this criticism of Fish: “if plagiarism is not a moral problem, then surely one should campaign for reform of laws and rules governing plagiarism.” Why? If the institutions are doing what one wants them to do (such as inculcating students in a certain mode of learning and reproducing knowledge), then the fact that a violation of institutional boundaries is not in itself immoral is no reason to change the rules. I don’t think that “no right on red” is immoral; to change the rule you need some other justification. I also have trouble with the equation between copyright infringement and plagiarism. I have yet to see someone fined substantial sums for plagiarism; I have often seen damages awarded for copyright infringement.

    • Thanks Rebecca. I think Fish is being disingenuous in a way that those that espouse an essentially conservative moral position but wish to disguise it often are … he is making moral judgments about plagiarism while presenting them as questions of institutional practice. While “no right on red” may not involve moral judgment, I think plagiarism cases do bring up the taboo on copying that I talk about in third chapter of my book. In order to work through that feeling of moral indignation that a plagiarist evokes (I feel it when I catch a student trying to deceive me) I believe one does have to look philosophically at what’s going on in that feeling, which involves a complex and historically specific set of beliefs about subjectivity, property and so on. So, for plagiarism, I think a “genealogy of morals” is definitely indicated.
      You’re right of course that plagiarism isn’t per se a crime – copyright, trademark infringement is … some plagiarism must also be considered a form of fraud, no? Posner, in his Little Book of Plagiarism, notes that sometimes judges will call copyright infringers “plagiarists”. But why is it that plagiarism isn’t directly addressed by the law?

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