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IMPOSTURES INTELLECTUELLES
by Alain Sokal and Jean Bricmont

Available to purchase from Amazon.com
Jacob, Paris, 1998, 276 pages, 140fr., ISBN 2 7381 0503 3
Reviewed by
Kevin Mulligan, Geneva, Switzerland

April, 1998: Encouraged by the success of Sokal's masterly and now notorious experiment, the publication in Social Text of a parody of postmodern thought (see Paul Boghossian's description and discussion in TLS 13/12/96), Sokal and Bricmont have undertaken a much more thorough exercise in intellectual and moral hygiene. Dismayed by postmodernism's popularity, especially in North America, they concentrate on two aspects of the phenomenon: first, the extraordinary level of misuse of science and scientific terminology in recent Parisian thought; second, relativistic currents in analytic philosophy. Their nosology of Parisian thought addresses a bewildering variety of symptoms: Lacan's claim that elementary topological structures explain the structure of mental illness; Irigaray's suggestion that the equation E = mc2 might be sexed ("sexuée"); Baudrillard's assertion that

    In the Euclidean space of history, the quickest path from one point to another is a straight line, that of Progress and Democracy. But this holds only of the linear space of the Enlightenment. In ours, the non-Euclidean space of the end of the century, an evil curvature invincibly diverts all trajectories.
Then there is Deleuze and Guattari on the nature of philosophy. They write that the first difference between philosophy and science is to be found in their respective attitudes towards chaos. Chaos
    ...is defined less by its disorder than by the infinite speed with which every form which opens up in it is dissipated. It is an emptiness which is not a nothingness but something virtual, containing all possible particles and extracting all possible forms which arise and immediately disappear, without consistency, without reference, without repercussions. It is an infinite speed of birth and disappearance. Philosophy asks how to maintain infinite speeds whilst gaining in consistency by giving a knowledge which is peculiar to the virtual.
Régis Debray on the nature of society:
    The statement of the "secret" of collective misfortunes, that is to say, of the a priori condition of all political history, past, present and to come, is to be found in a few words, simple and childish...This secret has the form of a logical law, a generalization of Gödel's theorem: there is no organized system without closure, and no system can be closed with the help only of the elements belonging to the system...
And then, in his discussion of what he generously calls the "principle of Gödel-Debray," there is Michel Serres' claim that
    Régis Debray applies to social groups or finds in them the theorem of incompleteness, which holds for formal systems, and shows that societies only organize themselves on the express condition that they are founded on something other than themselves, external to their definition or boundary. They cannot be self-sufficient. He calls this foundation religious. By way of Gödel he completes Bergson.

Sokal and Bricmont quote a large number of claims in this vein--by Kristeva, Latour and Virilio in addition to Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari, Irigaray and many others who are discussed in a more cursory fashion. They describe their contexts, document their view that the passages they quote are not atypical and show how the different claims fit into their wide-ranging taxonomy of cavalier approaches to science. This involves giving rapid and lucid explanations of what a number of different expressions in physics and mathematics actually mean, thus enabling the reader to make up his own mind about where the texts dealt with belong on the continuum between honest attempts to further knowledge and culpable conceptual insouciance. When Lacan confuses irrational and imaginary numbers, when Kristeva misunderstands the axiom of choice, we are not, the argument goes, to think that the confusions are isolated; nor that there are an awful lot of them. Rather, the claim is that the confusions and parade of ill-understood scientific terminology or superficial erudition are designed to impress, and are part and parcel of an enterprise which is indifferent to the real content of the concepts employed. To use a phrase due to Debray, in a text subsequent to that quoted above, "Gödelity is an illness that has become widespread." And, one might add, the family of illnesses to which Gödelity or Gödel-mania belongs has also grown. To many a topic in physics, logic and mathematics there now corresponds a distinct Parisian illness which is parasitic on the terminology peculiar to the topic. Its main symptom is the tendency to regurgitate portions of the relevant jargon in more or less random ways.

Well aware that postmodernism in the US also often draws on what are felt to be congenial developments within analytic philosophy of science, Sokal and Bricmont interrupt their sottisier to provide a long critique of the cognitive relativisms encouraged by Kuhn and Feyerabend, of their roots in Popper's (non-relativistic) philosophy of science and of the relativisms they detect in recent sociology of science. Their own epistemology is refreshingly old-fashioned, although by no means popular today with most of their philosophical allies. We are, they hold, directly aware only of our own sensations and infer from these to the existence of an external world which explains better than anything else the regularities of our experience. Similarly, the main reason for believing in the truth of science is that it explains the coherence of our experience. Rationality in science and in everyday life are of the same general type; the scientist functions like a detective and there is as little reason to be a relativist about the results in one case as in the other. They note that philosophical relativism about factual propositions--the view that the validity of such propositions is relative to an individual or group--contradicts the conception scientists have of their activities. One philosophical response to this is to question the relevance of this or any other philosophical conviction to scientific activity. But Sokal and Bricmont provide a number of telling anecdotes about the extent to which relativistic platitudes have now seeped into the culture at large which suggest that the stock philosophical views about the relations between science, common sense and philosophy, in particular about the continuities and discontinuities between these, need rethinking.

What is the relation between Parisian abuses of science and the relativisms defended by analytic philosophers? As far as I can tell, they merely coexist in the "discourses" of contemporary postmodernism. Indeed Sokal and Bricmont stress that their criticisms of the abuses are independent of their critique of relativism. They also mention a fundamental difference between these two components of postmodernism. Relativism has been defended within analytic philosophy, but a recurring feature of the pseudo-scientific verbiage they quote is that it occurs in contexts (and, it is worth adding, in traditions) in which no attempt is made to defend what seems to be said. They note, too, some intermediate cases between these two extremes, such as "subtle" misunderstandings of chaos theory.

Sokal and Bricmont do not investigate in any systematic way the relations between the two components of postmodernism on which they concentrate. But they provide a French translation of Sokal's original parody and a commentary thereon which together go some way towards documenting their view of how postmodernism's parts hang together in contemporary thought in the US. In an epilogue they provide some conjectures about how these aspects of postmodernism came about: the failure to distinguish between empiricism and the empirical attitude and between scientism and science; the role of traditional philosophico-literary education; the assumption that only postmodernism can provide a philosophical basis for "the politics of difference;" the possibility that philosophical consumerism and hostility to science have come to be seen in some milieux as easy alternatives to politics.

Are their Parisian targets intellectual impostors? Sokal and Bricmont tend to assume that this is at least in part always the case. They attribute to their targets a number of intellectual vices. When they mention the choice between the two hypotheses of conscious fraud and self-deception they claim to be not particularly interested in settling the question. They assume, too, that in one way or another the texts they discuss are supposed to belong to some sort of identifiable theoretical enterprise. Although I think they are right about this, it is by no means obvious that this is so. In their most explicit discussion of this question, their account of Lacan, they point out that admirers of Lacan and of other Parisian thinkers often claim that their texts are contributions neither to science, nor to philosophy nor to literature. In the case of Lacan, Sokal and Bricmont conclude that the genre in question is that of a "secular mysticism" designed to evoke a religious response and, of course, reverent exegesis.

The philosophical background to the Parisian texts is what is often called, except on the Continent, Continental Philosophy. If one thing stands out in this large and varied tradition, from its German beginnings in the writings of Dilthey, the later Husserl and Heidegger to its later Gallic transmogrifications, it is the turn away from the conception of philosophy as a theoretical enterprise. The most obvious symptom of this is the relative absence in Continental Philosophy of the traditional theoretical apparatus of elucidations, distinctions, justifications and objections, an absence that also characterizes anglophone "Theory." Furthermore, Continental Philosophy is marked not so much by relativism as by one or another form of hostility to realism. Relativism, after all, is a view about the truth of propositions or theories. But, for those who take Heidegger seriously, whether pure or jumbled together with Freud, semiology or mathematics, the primary locus of truth is not propositions and their ilk at all. I say "hostility" to realism since "antirealism" and idealisms of different stripes, like any philosophical position, can be and have been defended in a properly theoretical fashion. But in Continental Philosophy atheoretical or anti-theoretical modes of writing--in all their unsurveyable variety, writing which is, through and through, expressive, declamatory, allusive, hagiographic, programmatic, metaphorical etc.--are the norm.

The institutional background of Continental Philosophy throws some light on the way it is done. The philosophers and thinkers dealt with by Sokal and Bricmont form--together with the small embattled band of French analytic philosophers--almost the whole of contemporary philosophy in France. For by far the greater part of what is called philosophy there is in fact not philosophy at all but rather the history of philosophy. This is in turn connected with the close links in French universities between philosophy and the humanities and thus with the fact that there is so little philosophy of hard science in these and other French institutions. (Of all the French thinkers criticized by Sokal and Bricmont perhaps only Michel Serres and Alan Badiou, who are discussed only in passing, would claim to be philosophers of mathematics.) Even in 1944, Julien Benda noted the widespread French preference for a philosophical method, which is that of literature where it is not that of music.

Sokal and Bricmont wisely do not attempt to delve into the background of the abuses they bring into such sharp focus, with one exception. They trace the sad story of Bergson's persistence in misunderstanding the theory of relativity and the continued failure of French and Belgian philosophers to appreciate just how sad a story this is. Bergson was not, they note, a postmodern philosopher. But if Benda is right, Bergson played an important role in teaching French philosophers to do philosophy as if it were literature.

Sokal and Bricmont have some predecessors--Julien Benda, Louis Rougier, Jean-François Revel and Jacques Bouveresse. But their detailed focus on just one aspect of recent French thought is new and has, I suspect, provoked more and more violent reactions than other contributions to the genre. Unsurprisingly, one feature of French responses to their book has been to suggest that they are francophobes. This is particularly cruel since, in spite of their pronounced political correctness, Sokal and Bricmont persist in writing "anglo-saxon" instead of, say, "anglophone," like good francophiles.

A more distant predecessor is the Austrian novelist-philosopher Robert Musil who, in 1921, carefully dissected Spengler's casual approach to mathematics and physics in order to lay bare some of the key features of the irrationalisms prominent in German thought at that time. Musil reflected at length on the relations between philosophy as a theoretical enterprise and as a nontheoretical enterprise and often argued that, although the latter is as necessary as the former, it should not fall theoretically short of the former. Where Sokal and Bricmont betray their exasperation with writers who simply could not be bothered even to consult scientific popularizations, Musil suggests that the important thing is to "go to the end of the trampoline of science before jumping off."

Sokal and Bricmont are distressed by the popularity of postmodernism on the left in the US. They might take comfort from the fact that when Musil noted the connections before the Second World War between irrationalist philosophies and their attitude towards science, on the one hand, and politics and styles of life, on the other hand, the irrationalisms he attacked, such as that of Spengler, were more often to be found on the right than on the left.

Sokal and Bricmont are, by and large, content to accuse most of their Parisian targets of impostures and deliberate obscurantism. They do not consider the more severe verdict envisaged by Russell in a passage they quote in which Russell predicted that to give up the conception of truth as something which depends on facts largely beyond our control would be to take a step down the road which leads to a sort of madness. Nor the only slightly less severe diagnosis that Musil might well have envisaged. Of the "higher, pretentious form of stupidity," Musil said in 1937 that it

    ...is not so much lack of intelligence as failure of intelligence for the reason that it presumes to accomplishments to which it has no right... This higher stupidity is the real disease of culture... and to describe it is an almost infinite task. It reaches into the highest intellectual sphere [Geistigkeit]... Years ago I wrote about this form of stupidity that "there is absolutely no significant idea that stupidity would not know how to apply; stupidity is active in every direction, and can dress up in all the clothes of truth. Truth, on the other hand, has for every occasion only one dress and one path, and is always at a disadvantage." The stupidity this addresses is... a dangerous disease of the mind.

Copyright © 1998, Kevin Mulligan

Kevin Mulligan is Professor of Analytic Philosophy in the University of Geneva.

This review was first published in the Times Literary Supplement on May 1, 1998. It was reproduced in naturalSCIENCE on May 23, 1998.

LINKS:

Dawkins, R. 1998. Postmodernism disrobed. Nature 394:141-143.
Richard Dawkins' review of Intellectual Impostures by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. (Profile, London, 1998, pp 274, 9.99 pounds sterling.)
This is the first english-language edition of Impostures Intellectuelles. An American edition, titled Fashionable Nonsense, will be published by Picador in November, 1998.

Sokal, A. 1996. Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. Social Text 46/47:217-252.

The Sokal Affair--A Physicist vs Postmodern Intellectuals: an annotated list of Web links

Alan Sokal's Web Page: with links to articles relating to the "Sokal Affair"

Undressing the Emperor, Alan Sokal and his role in the "Science Wars:" a profile for the Scientific American by Madhusree Mukerjee"

Subjectivity in Science: a naturalSCIENCE Commentary

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