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Intellectual Impostures by Sokal and Bricmont

Robert Taylor cheers to the rafters the attack by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont on modern French philosophy’s misuse of scientific language.

In their introduction, the authors state “The goal of this book is to make a limited but original contribution to the critique of the admittedly nebulous Zeitgeist that we have called ‘postmodernism’.” Later, and more directly, they say they wish to point out that the Emperor has no clothes. Those caught in the altogether include the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan; the literary critic Julia Kristeva; the sociologist of science Bruno Latour; the social philosopher Baudrillard; the philosopher Gilles Deleuze and linguistic sexologist Luce Irigaray. The book is aimed not so much at these individual writers but at the very tone of voice adopted by cultural and academic intellectuals over the last 25 years. They are accused of appropriating or denigrating the concepts of natural science in their writings and lectures without ever understanding these concepts in the first place.

The first part of the book, based on a well known hoax article that Sokal published a couple of years ago, intends to poke fun at and puncture the reputations of these and other pompous intellectuals and it does so with devastating effect. On Irigaray’s essay ‘Is the Subject of Science Sexed?’ they conclude:

“To link rationality and objectivity to the male, and emotion and subjectivity to the female is to repeat the most blatant sexist stereotypes … to reduce women to their sexuality, menstrual cycles and rhythms … is to attack everything the feminist movement has fought for … Simone de Beauvoir must be turning in her grave.” (pp.112-113). They quote the following beginning of a 193-word sentence from Paul Virilio

“When depth of time replaces depths of sensible space; when the commutation of interface supplants the delimitation of surfaces; when transparence re-establishes appearances; then we begin to wonder whether that which we insist on calling space isn’t actually light.” (p.164) and comment:

“This paragraph … is the most perfect example of diarrhoea of the pen we have ever encountered. And as far as we can see it means precisely nothing.” (p.165).

To be fair, some of the theories from the structuralist seventies – such as Lacan’s attempts to identify mental diseases with certain asymmetrical paper shapes or Julia Kristeva’s extended definition of poetry in terms of mathematical set theory – seem pretty easy targets. They seem so laughably naïve now, but one has to remember that, like flared tartan jeans or avocado bathroom suites, they were very impressive at the time.

As the book explains, the problem is that much of what these authors write is utterly meaningless. Specialised scientific and mathematical concepts are simply scattered around in order to impress the reader with a superficial display of erudition. The conclusions reached are not proved by careful explanation but simply announced with the implication that the reasoning is obvious. The result is that a lot of big name academics get bigger names while the rest of us are none the wiser.

Anyone familiar with contemporary writings in the fields of social science, cultural criticism and continental philosophy will recognise the pompous, verbose, self-important and entirely humourless style that Sokal and Bricmont criticise. These ‘post-modern’ authors often seem to adopt the classic ‘passive aggressive’ attitude of the angry or insecure; the incessant use of convoluted jargon (to stop anyone else getting a word in); constant name-dropping; appeals to emotion or intuition not rationality – it’s all there.

To show this, the authors quote passages from Deleuze and Guattari’s best selling book What is Philosophy? where science is distinguished from philosophy by saying “philosophy wants to know how to retain infinite speeds while gaining consistency”. The words ‘infinite speeds’ and ‘consistency’ seem to be used in a precise and technical sense but the authors do not explain how their normal technical sense may be applied to the distinction of philosophy from science, nor do they give any definition of their own. It might be argued that these concepts are used as metaphors, or are to be understood as analogies, however the purpose of analogy ought to be to make things clearer, where here it serves only to obscure.

The more philosophically interesting parts of the book are the sections on Kuhn and Feyerabend and those who have taken their work as proof of a radical Epistemic Relativism. This is the idea that science is only one theory of knowledge amongst many and that science has no greater claim to legitimacy than any other belief systems. Sokal and Bricmont see this as allowing the rot exposed by the rest of the book to set in. If science has no special or privileged position then what’s to stop hare-brained theorists from adopting or adapting scientific concepts to their hearts content?

The authors argue that just because scepticism about the real world is irrefutable, this is no good reason to believe it is justified. Conversely just because empirical information rests on unproven assumptions is no reason for not following it. They make some interesting points, which are all the better for being uninhibited by the protocol of professional philosophy. One feels they are saying explicitly what is implicit but unsaid in the work of many professional philosophers. They point out that radical scepticism or solipsism is self defeating – not least because no one could live in accordance with it. They also remark that scientific reasoning is not really very different from the way anybody would set about solving an everyday problem. They compare the reasoning of science with the methods of detecting crimes – both develop theories and gather evidence to support them.

However, while trying to bring out the similarity of science and everyday reasoning, the authors are strongly against the conflation of the everyday uses of words and specific technical senses. Prime targets in their sights here are terms like ‘uncertainty’ and ‘relativity’, which are used by scientists and mathematicians in a technical way, but then adopted by those who wish to exploit their everyday sense. Thus Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem is wheeled out to justify anarchist social theories (Debray), and similarly Chaos theory is assumed to prove that the world is fundamentally unknowable and chaotic rather than just extremely complex.

It might be argued that for those without the breadth and depth of scientific knowledge that the authors display (i.e. most of us), accepting their arguments and criticisms involves taking them on trust. Although they make limited attempts to explain the background of scientific concepts, in the end the lay reader will have to either accept what they say or reject it. They are however scrupulous about setting out quotations and references. Obviously aware of the criticism they could expect from those quarters attacked in the book, they made sure their sources were pretty bomb proof.

A question which runs through the book, although expressly avoided, is perhaps the most philosophically fundamental. How far can the social sciences achieve the same goals as the natural sciences? More bluntly are the social sciences ‘scientific’ in any accepted sense of the word? After finishing the book, one is left with the nagging feeling that the wild world of human nature will never succumb to categorisation and prediction. Perhaps simply aping the techniques of physics and chemistry is not a good way to proceed. The radical sceptical solution to this is to allow all systems of reasoning the same credibility – science is reduced to one narrative amongst many. Obviously, the problem with this is that it allows status to the most obscurantist and unpalatable ideas – creation theory, eugenics, all must be allowed their stand. It will still be necessary to evaluate and examine these competing theories however, and to do this some kind of objective stance will always be necessary.

Throughout the book Sokal and Bricmont return to the same theme of devotion to theory over empirical evidence. Most of the authors they criticise have attempted to run off with theory before looking to see if they are on the right track. The quality of a scientific theory is always based on the quantity of evidence. Perhaps we need to look at ourselves longer and more closely before embarking on a science of mankind.

© Robert Taylor 1999

Robert Taylor has a BA in Philosophy and an MSc in Mathematical Logic and Scientific Method. He is a freelance scriptwriter working mainly for BBC TV.

Intellectual Impostures: Postmodern Philosophers’ Abuse of Science, by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, is published by Profile Books at £9.99.

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