American literary theorist and legal scholar, Stanley Eugene Fish, was born and grew up in Providence, Rhode Island. He did not start out with such career plans; indeed, he began as a medievalist. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Pennsylvania, and then enrolled at Yale University, where he received a Ph.D in 1962. He then began a teaching career, first in the English department at the University of California, Berkeley, and then at Johns Hopkins University.
Later he taught both English and law at Duke University, despite the fact that he held no law degree and has never undertaken formal study of the law. Next he accepted the position of Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he taught in the departments of political science and criminal justice. During this time he was also chairman of the religious studies committee. The Institute for the Humanities at UIC established a lecture series named for Fish.
From 2005 to 2010 he was employed as the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Humanities and Law at Florida International University, where he also taught law. Despite all of these accolades, Fish is best known for his expertise in literary theory, which is also applied across the humanities and the social sciences. His analysis of interpretive communities provides an explanation of how the interpretation of a given text is dependent upon individual readers and their own subjective experiences.
Fish uses this part of his theory to argue that a given reader's interpretation of a text is necessarily not completely subjective. Fish has also taken on challenges to his own discipline, the humanities. He has argued that the humanities hold only intrinsic worth; in other words, they are of no use whatsoever. Fish sees this as an honorable response. As he has stated, "An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said diminishes the object of its supposed praise."
Fish is married to fellow academic, Americanist Jane Tompkins. She also taught at Duke, but once her husband left the university, along with several other prominent professors he had hired, his wife left as well. She basically gave up teaching and went to work at a local health food restaurant.