on 5 August 2001
Sokal and Bricmont, two professors of physics, show that fashionable French intellectuals in the fields of social and cultural studies - Jacques Lacan, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, Julia Kristeva, Jean-Francois Lyotard and Luce Irigaray - habitually misuse scientific concepts and terms. Unable to produce genuine science in their own fields, Lacan et al import concepts from the physical sciences - typically, chaos theory, fuzzy logic and the uncertainty principle - to try to impress. They regard science, evidence, reason and knowledge as oppressive. Kristeva characteristically responded to criticism by calling Sokal and Bricmont Francophobes!
The two physicists attack relativism, the idea that a statement's truth or falsity is relative to an individual or social group. (Some US colleges run courses like 'queer studies', whose very subject is defined in relation to the interests of a social group, not by its field of study.) Relativists imply that modern science is just a 'myth', a 'narration' or a 'social construction'. This allows in the notion that, for instance, creationism is just as valid as the theory of evolution.
The editors of 'Social Text' accepted Sokal's famous spoof article, 'Transgressing the boundaries: towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity', in which he wrote: "Physical 'reality', no less than social 'reality', is at bottom a social and linguistic construct." The editors of 'Science and Culture' accepted the Madsens' supposedly serious article, 'Structuring postmodern science', in which they wrote "A simple criterion for science to qualify as postmodern is that it be free from any dependence on the concept of objective truth." Says it all really!
This book tears apart these postmodernist theorists. Sokal and Bricmont uphold the scientific approach, that knowledge is based on respect for the clarity and logical coherence of theories and on the confrontation of theories with empirical evidence. Knowledge in both natural and social science is cumulative; our understanding of the world grows as we constantly check our ideas against the reality.
This book grew out of the famous hoax in which Alan Sokal published a parody article in the American postmod journal Social Text. The article was filled with non sequiturs and nonsensical quotations about maths and physics by prominent French and American intellectuals, yet it was published unaltered. Sokal then revealed that it was a deliberate parody, to the great consternation of the editors.
Intellectual Impostures broadens the investigation to demonstrate how intellectuals such as Lacan, Kristeva, Irigaray, Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari have repeatedly abused scientific concepts and terminology. They have either used these ideas completely out of context without justification or they have thrown scientific jargon around with no regard for its meaning or relevance, obviously to try to impress their readers.
In the preface to the first edition, Sokal and Bricmont provide the background to the controversy whilst in the preface to the second edition they discuss the four types of criticisms of their book. These are: critics who tried to refute them, critics who attributed to them ideas that the authors themselves had rejected, name-calling and ad hominem attacks, and finally those who agreed but thought that the authors did not go far enough.
Here one is tempted to partly agree with Anne Applebaum who, in her review of the book, claimed that of course post-structuralist theory is rubbish and that we don't need a book to tell us that. I disagree with the second statement, because Intellectual Impostures is mostly an amusing read that will have you rolling on the floor and because it is vitally important that intellectual frauds be exposed. In this regard I also recommend The Illusions Of Postmodernism by Terry Eagleton.
The introduction provides the history of the Sokal Hoax and the response to it. The major part of the book consists of an analysis of various texts by Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Bruno Latour, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and Paul Virilio. Brief explanations of the relevant scientific concepts plus references to popular and explanatory texts are provided. The authors also investigate certain philosophical and scientific confusions behind much of postmodernist thinking, like cognitive relativism, certain misunderstandings concerning chaos theory and so-called postmodern science.
Appendix A is the full text of the famous hoax article: Trangressing The Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. Appendix B consists of comments on the parody and Appendix C serves as an afterword on the hilarious incident. This amusing and illuminating book concludes with a 14-page bibliography and an index.
on 15 January 2014
The authors are even handed but there is no conclusion other than that post modernism is full of impostures, created we therefore infer by impostors. How much time has been wasted and confusion has been sown by the likes of Lacan and Kristeva? Surely this is phenomenon that will merit analysis in the future, cf. the witch craze in early modern Europe. Innocent concepts are taken out and burnt on a pyre of ego. I watch and I feel disgusted. In the future we should give mathematics the respect it deserves.
on 16 December 2008
Sokal and Bricmont acheive their aim of critisizing some postmodernists for their perceived abuse of science. The professors point out some of the blatent abuse of scientific terms and concepts used by the postmodernist authors to augment their own theses. To this end they are entertaining, and to my mind valid.
The professors also enter the arena of philosophy of science in chapter 4 " intermezzo". They offer some critisism of Popper, Quine, Kuhn, Feyerabend and others in a concise form. What's more they also indicate their own philosophy which is based on the verification of facts in a scientific context, along with the possibility of allowing inductive inferences to made from these verifications.
All this is well and good, however it may be that there is another interpretation possible, if one where to act as devil's advocate for the postmodernists :
Sokal ands Bricmont's own philosophy relies on verification, which ultimately relies on tautologies. As such it gives the reader no meaning that may be applied outside a very constrained set of conditions.
The postmodernist author may have taken the scientific concepts and language onboard as a metaphor, in order to enrich his own work and allow the reader to interpret meaning through their text.
"It is a great thing indeed for the poet to be able to make a proper use of these poetical forms, as also of compounds and strange words. But the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. Metaphor consists of giving a thing a name that belongs to something else. " Aristotle cited in Polnayi Meaning 1975.
In this context the postmodernist author may be an accomplished poet, yet a poor scientist.
In his parody Alan Sokal used all possible means available to imitate a piece of postmodernist text. In fact his imitation was so good it was indistinguishable from the 'real' thing.
So was the parody real chocolate or fake merde, or fake chocolate or real merde ? As always the reader must decide.
Alan Sokal was a physicist who submitted a spoof article in the post-modernist journal Social Text: a farrago of gobbledygook, incorporating all manner of scientific and mathematical references, but packaged in the style of postmodernists' `discourse.' He didn't expect it to get published but it was. The resulting `scandal' did more than just leave egg on the faces of the journal's editors: it exposed that a whole intellectual movement's foundation that had taken hold in many social science and humanities departments was based on nothing but hot air.
This book is the follow up - in which Sokal and collaborator Jean Bricmont examine several postmodern writers and expose them for being mere assemblages of pretentious verbiage. Their targets are those thinkers who use mathematical and scientific terms without knowing what they are talking about. The authors do not object to laypeople speaking or writing about science. They object to the misuse of mathematical and scientific language in the pursuit of pseduoprofundity.
The authors give their targets their due, and much of the book damns post-modernist thinkers in their own words. Their obfuscations, the authors assure us, were no more intelligible in the original French in which they were written. One can easily believe it.
However, science itself is couched in language and mathematics that the untrained layperson cannot understand. Does this fact put it then on the same footing as postmodernist writers' obfuscations? No, there is no equivalence. For the concepts and language of science can be explained in lay terms - as writers like Richard Dawkins, Simon Singh et al have clearly demonstrated (read Simon Singh's brilliant Big Bang: The Most Important Scientific Discovery of All Time and Why You Need to Know About It if you don't believe me). This cannot be said of the writers Sokal and Bricmont examine, who depend on keeping the meanings of what they say obscure, because for them to be obscure means to be profound. In as much as the lay public do understand any of it, then it comes down to the sorts of platitudes and banalities one hears in casual conversation, such there is no such thing as objective truth, etc. etc, from people who have never read a single one of these writers. But this can hardly console the writers Sokal and Bricmont examine, wanting as they do to be thought of as deep thinkers, with insights into reality that surpasses those offered to us by science.
I drop one star of the rating because the extensive quotations that Sokal and Bricmont incorporate into the book from the authors they criticise. I accept that they do this legitimately, in the interests of fairness of representation, but for me this hindered the book's flow and readability, as one tries to wade through a swamp of verbiage. I felt that more space could have been added into a positive defence of the scientific method. The chapter in which the authors do just this is the finest of the book, as is their epilogue and their introduction to the book, where the authors answer their critics, both brilliant pieces of exposition. They are right to point out that those who talk about the myths of science cannot point to any experiments or discoveries that expose the theory of relativity (for instance) as `a myth.' They are right to stress the predictive power of science - it's not just about falsification. They are right to point out that paradigm shifts do occur in science but this is not to say that Einstein's physics displaces Newton's. The former complements the latter. When they roll up their sleeves and defend the glories of the scientific method, they shine.
But does any of this matter now - sixteen years after the original hoax? I am not sure if postmodernist thinking holds such appeal as it used to in some quarters of academia but I think the book is still worth reading. The style of mystification in which postmodernist writers have cloaked themselves is comparable to other forms of obscurantist thought that masquerades as science. Plus, as mentioned above, a lot of postmodernist cant has percolated down to everyday conversation, a pernicious consequence that needs to be countered. This book equips one to do this although it should be read with others - a couple of examples that come to mind are Lewis Wolpert's excellent The Unnatural Nature of Science (unaccountably a neglected classic, and out of print) and Ben Goldacre's Bad Science: just two of the many places one could start, alongside this book.
What an ordeal the authors of this book must have endured in researching the material for it! Even wading through the snippets and samples used to illustrate their arguments is a mind-warping exercise. Describing the phenomenon of "postmodernism" as "nebulous Zeitgeist," they expand on the definition with characteristics of postmodernist writings. These elements are abuse of scientific terms and use of meaningless terminology, offering empty opinions on how science works and its impact on society. Manipulating science for philosophic ends might be considered harmless, if it was but an ignorant assault on the discipline alone. Instead, the deconstructionist view wants the whole of society to reconsider its roots in their lights - it is an intellectual revolution. Unlike other revolutions, however, postmodernism is purely destructive having no discernible aims.
The authors make a sincere effort to limit their diagnosis to a limited scope. They avoid judgment on the philosophies in general. By offering lengthy original quotes, countered by an analysis of the scientific principles clumsily interpreted by the PM writers, they invite readers to arrive at their own assessment. The reader is given brief but informative passages on the scientific topics in support of this exercise. It takes, however, a dedicated reader to wade through the morass of "profound prose" the PMs have conceived without querying its fundamental validity. What is interesting in their presentation is the focus on French sources. In this approach, they attack the contagion at its source. A diagnosis of its infection among North American academics isn't presented. That has been done elsewhere.
Yet the authors understand that the postmodernist movement has strong adherents in North America. This reaches far outside the university community to reach government policy makers, educators at all levels and even the business community. Among educators, postmodernist impact on feminist thinking has outstripped its role in other humanist issues. Feminists may not address specific scientific topics as such, but are given to broad sweeping statements castigating half of the human species. Luce Irigary is given much space in this book due to her outrageous assertions and her impact on North American feminism which adopts them gleefully. Sokal and Bricmont, in their conclusion, see this resulting in a violation on educational standards. It is, in truth, a raping of young minds. This book, then, is a sharp warning to those who force artificial standards on behaviour and school curricula. Read it, difficult as the postmodernist passages are, with the intention to look at the issues further. They are before you now and require action. It is your children who will benefit from what Sokal and Bricmont have offered.
This is a most necessary book, which shows with overpowering force that the apostles of postmodernism are naked emperors.
It is deadly devastating for Jacques Lacan (Freud is much more important than Darwin), Julia Kristeva (the novel as a text), Luce Irigaray (the sexual charge of E=Mc2), the tandem Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari (science promotes accelerations), Paul Virilio (a dromocrat) or Jean Baudrillard (the war space became non-Euclidian).
It shows blatantly that structuralism and other postmodernisms are not more that conceptual deliriums (the words of Jean Fourastie, who criticized vehemently the hype pseudo-intellectuals). Their high-brow phraseology is not more than bluff to hide outspoken banalities. Some parts of Europe and France in particular lost (and are still losing) generations of students by forcing them to swallow this debilitating idiotologies.
What is most shameful is the fact that the whole leftist community incensed those false apostles, that the author's incensed themselves mutually (others were also involved like Foucault, Derrida, Barthes or Serres), and that the whole leftist press spread the incense over the whole population. Whorenalism at its worst.
On the literary front, this pseudo-movement culminated in the impotent 'nouveau roman', which reduced literature to texts ... to be explained by structuralism. The French novel sank in the morass of linguistics.
It is a wonder that in this environment Alain Aspect produced his crucial quantum tests.
This book should constitute a warning for all European universities: stop the conspiracy of the pseudos.
On the other hand, in a period where George Orwell's doublespeak (war is peace) is again the main sinister message (which became reality), when obscurantism, religious fanaticism and nationalism are the basis of party politics, we should return to at least some sort of rationalism.
Therefore, I strongly disagree with the author's attack on cognitive relativism and more specifically Popper's critical rationalism.
I believe that, when we don't know 90 % of the matter in the universe, perhaps 1 % of all virusses on earth, when 'I' exists only by comparison (V. Ramachandran) and when 'is' is an illusion (L. Smolin), some kind of critical rationalism (and testing) is more than needed. Popper's proposition of falsification instead of inductivism with its illimited corroborations gave scientific research a jump of lightyears.
Nevertheless, this book is a brilliant exposure of phraseologies and a most painful blame for European philosophy.
This is a highly entertaining book, and much overdue.
Following the famous hoax Sokal perpetrated, the authors have followed up with this book.
If you've ever suspected that Post Modernism was pretentious rubbish, here's your evidence. The scope of the book is limited by the author's expertise, but they pretty much skewer famous French philosophers/ commentators when they start to use Scientific sounding concepts and phrases to puff up their empty ideas. In fact some of the writing analysed resembles the kind of bluff you'd come up with in desperation in an exam when you hadn't done the revision.
The authors possibly over-extend themselves when it comes to epistemology (the chapter on epistemic relativism) but it's a pretty robust defence of science and honest philosophy, and great fun too.
on 17 March 2011
This book goes well towards explaining some of the problems inherent in a philosopher like, say, Lacan; notoriously difficult to read to the point where charlatanism is an oft-leveled charge. Clarity would on the surface seem to be the best way to present any kind of philosophical idea which purports to have any kind of 'real-world' applicability, whatever that dubious phrase means. The biggest criticism, however, is that the Sokal and Bircmont pick out select passages from the people they seek to debunk and argue the points on their own, scientific, terms, as opposed to showing how in any way this misappropriation of scientific concepts bears much, if any, significance to the overall philosophical arguments inherent in modern thought. The argument presented is an unconvincing kind of guilt-by-association: that if thinkers are 'wrong' in their application of scientific terminology (emphasis on the word 'terminology') then they are, by extension, wrong about everything else they say or must at least be treated as if they were.
The reason the book is unfortunate is because so far as I can see it's been used as a means by which those curious about philosophy can instantly regard themselves as superior to it by dismissing the arguments per se, without further exploration. How much easier it would be to simply read one book which selectively highlights segments and then argues against them via means not present in the original text (Irigaray, for instance, doesn't claim to be a scientist) than to read the philosophers themselves? It reminds me of people who claim to read Nietzsche, but limit the reading largely to incomplete Wikipedia articles, the 'Maxims' in Beyond Good and Evil and the critiques of Kant (presumably to repeat them verbatim, so one can claim to have refuted the father of philosophy), or people who claim to be Marxists because they are fans of Rage Against the Machine. Similarly, this text has been appropriated by some as a precursor to study, rather then part of a broader spectrum of intellectual inquiry: read this book and you won't have to read or attempt to understand others.
There is a great deal of obscurity in the social sciences, particularly the fields of philosophy and psychoanalysis. There is, also, a great deal of inconsistency and complete nonsense. But it doesn't follow that from this all 'modern thought' is to be dismissed outright as the work of charlatans. Terms like 'discursive hegemony' and 'masculinist signifying economy' have meanings which might not be immediately apparent, but that because they are not immediately apparent doesn't imply that those meanings are not there. They are technical terms which refer to other people's work and a broader understanding of the fields in which the discussion takes place makes them clearer. The dismissal of academic thought as being intellectually worthless by virtue of its difficulty or obscurity is an unfortunate development by conservative commentators who, in seeking to defend thought from being cloaked in terms which are incomprehensible to non-specialists, become defenders of anti-thought - unwilling to explore new ideas because of their apparent difficulty. It's a strange kind of intellectual laziness; made stranger by virtue of it coming from otherwise exceptionally intellectually disciplined scientists. Though it doesn't appear that misappropriation was the authors' intention, it is nonetheless what has happened with this text.
on 5 December 1998
Sokal, a physicist, was shocked to find that many 'post-modernist' thinkers used physics and maths to bamboozle their readers - so hoaxed the post-modernist bible Social Text into publishing an article full of elementary errors. The authors demonstrate that, at least in certain areas, revered 'thinkers' like Irigarry, kristeva, Lacan, Beudrillars and Deluze are charlatans...