Read the Review. The story of this book begins with a hoax. For some years, we have been surprised and distressed by the intellectual trends in certain precincts of American academia. Vast sectors of the humanities and the social sciences seem to have adopted a philosophy that we shall call, for want of a better term, "postmodernism": an intellectual current characterized by the more-or-less explicit rejection of the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment, by theoretical discourses disconnected from any empirical test, and by a cognitive and cultural relativism that regards science as nothing more than a "narration", a "myth" or a social construction among many others. To respond to this phenomenon, one of us Sokal decided to try an unorthodox and admittedly uncontrolled , experiment: submit to a fashionable American cultural-studies journal, Social Text , a parody of the type of work that has proliferated in recent years, to see whether they would publish it.
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Read the Review. The story of this book begins with a hoax. For some years, we have been surprised and distressed by the intellectual trends in certain precincts of American academia. Vast sectors of the humanities and the social sciences seem to have adopted a philosophy that we shall call, for want of a better term, "postmodernism": an intellectual current characterized by the more-or-less explicit rejection of the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment, by theoretical discourses disconnected from any empirical test, and by a cognitive and cultural relativism that regards science as nothing more than a "narration", a "myth" or a social construction among many others.
To respond to this phenomenon, one of us Sokal decided to try an unorthodox and admittedly uncontrolled , experiment: submit to a fashionable American cultural-studies journal, Social Text , a parody of the type of work that has proliferated in recent years, to see whether they would publish it.
The article, entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity", is chock-full of absurdities and blatant non-sequiturs. By a series of stunning leaps of logic, it arrives at the conclusion that "the [Pi] of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone".
The rest is in the same vein. And yet, the article was accepted and published. Worse, it was published in a special issue of Social Text devoted to rebutting the criticisms levelled against postmodernism and social constructivism by several distinguished scientists. For the editors of Social Text , it was hard to imagine a more radical way of shooting themselves in the foot. Sokal immediately revealed the hoax, provoking a firestorm of reaction in both the popular and academic press.
Many researchers in the humanities and social sciences wrote to Sokal, sometimes very movingly, to thank him for what he had done and to express their own rejection of the postmodernist and relativist tendencies dominating large parts of their disciplines. One student felt that the money he had earned to finance his studies had been spent on the clothes of an emperor who, as in the fable, was naked. Another wrote that he and his colleagues were thrilled by the parody, but asked that his sentiments be held in confidence because, although he wanted to help change his discipline, he could do so only after securing a permanent job.
But what was all the fuss about? Media hype notwithstanding, the mere fact the parody was published proves little in itself; at most it reveals something about the intellectual standards of one trendy journal. More interesting conclusions can be derived, however, by examining the content of the parody.
On close inspection, one sees that the parody was constructed around quotations from eminent French and American intellectuals about the alleged philosophical and social implications of mathematics and the natural sciences. The passages may be absurd or meaningless, but they are nonetheless authentic.
In fact, Sokal's only contribution was to provide a "glue" the "logic" of which is admittedly whimsical to join these quotations together and praise them. The citations also include many prominent American academics in Cultural Studies and related fields; but these authors are often, at least in part, disciples of or commentators on the French masters.
Since the quotations included in the parody were rather brief, Sokal subsequently assembled a series of longer texts to illustrate these authors' handling of the natural sciences, which he circulated among his scientific colleagues.
Their reaction was a mixture of hilarity and dismay: they could hardly believe that anyone--much less renowned intellectuals--could write such nonsense. However, when non-scientists read the material, they pointed out the need to explain, in lay terms, exactly why the cited passages are absurd or meaningless.
From that moment, the two of us worked together to produce a series of analyses and commentaries on the texts, resulting in this book. The goal of this book is to make a limited but original contribution toward the critique of the admittedly nebulous Zeitgeist that we have called "postmodernism". We make no claim to analyze postmodernist thought in general; rather, our aim is to draw attention to a relatively little-known aspect, namely the repeated abuse of concepts and terminology coming from mathematics and physics.
We shall also analyze certain confusions of thought that are frequent in postmodernist writings and that bear on either the content or the philosophy of the natural sciences. The most common tactic is to use scientific or pseudo-scientific terminology without bothering much about what the words actually mean. If a biologist wanted to apply, in her research, elementary notions of mathematical topology, set theory or differential geometry, she would be asked to give some explanation.
A vague analogy would not be taken very seriously by her colleagues. Here, by contrast, we learn from Lacan that the structure of the neurotic subject is exactly the torus it is no less than reality itself, cf. The goal is, no doubt, to impress and, above all, to intimidate the non-scientist reader. Even some academic and media commentators fall into the trap: Roland Barthes is impressed by the precision of Julia Kristeva's work p.
Some of these authors exhibit a veritable intoxication with words, combined with a superb indifference to their meaning. These authors speak with a self-assurance that far outstrips their scientific competence: Lacan boasts of using "the most recent development in topology" pp. They imagine, perhaps, that they can exploit the prestige of the natural sciences in order to give their own discourse a veneer of rigor.
And they seem confident that no one will notice their misuse of scientific concepts. No one is going to cry out that the king is naked. Our goal is precisely to say that the king is naked and the queen too. But let us be clear. We are not attacking philosophy, the humanities or the social sciences in general ; on the contrary, we feel that these fields are of the utmost importance and we want to warn those who work in them especially students against some manifest cases of charlatanism.
In particular, we want to "deconstruct" the reputation that certain texts have of being difficult because the ideas in them are so profound. In many cases we shall demonstrate that if the texts seem incomprehensible, it is for the excellent reason that they mean precisely nothing. There are many different degrees of abuse. At one end, one finds extrapolations of scientific concepts, beyond their domain of validity, that are erroneous but for subtle reasons.
At the other end, one finds numerous texts that are full of scientific words but entirely devoid of meaning. And there is, of course, a continuum of discourses that can be situated somewhere between these two extremes.
Although we shall concentrate in this book on the most manifest abuses, we shall also briefly address some less obvious confusions concerning chaos theory Chapter 7. Let us stress that there is nothing shameful in being ignorant of calculus or quantum mechanics. What we are criticizing is the pretension of some celebrated intellectuals to offer profound thoughts on complicated subjects that they understand, at best, at the level of popularizations.
At this point, the reader may naturally wonder: Do these abuses arise from conscious fraud, self-deception, or perhaps a combination of the two? We are unable to offer any categorical answer to this question, due to the lack of publicly available evidence. But, more importantly, we must confess that we do not find this question of great interest.
Our aim here is to stimulate a critical attitude, not merely towards certain individuals, but towards a part of the intelligentsia both in the United States and in Europe that has tolerated and even encouraged this type of discourse.
Before proceeding any further, let us answer some of the objections that will no doubt occur to the reader:. The quotations' marginality.
We would respond, first of all, that these texts contain much more than mere "errors": they display a profound indifference, if not a disdain, for facts and logic. Our goal is not, therefore, to poke fun at literary critics who make mistakes when citing relativity or Godel's theorem, but to defend the canons of rationality and intellectual honesty that are or should be common to all scholarly disciplines.
It goes without saying that we are not competent to judge the non-scientific aspects of these authors' work. We understand perfectly well that their "interventions" in the natural sciences do not constitute the central themes of their oeuvre. But when intellectual dishonesty or gross incompetence is discovered in one part--even a marginal part--of someone's writings, it is natural to want to examine more critically the rest of his or her work.
We do not want to prejudge the results of such an analysis, but simply to remove the aura of profundity that has sometimes intimidated students and professors from undertaking it.
When ideas are accepted on the basis of fashion or dogma, they are especially sensitive to the exposure even of marginal aspects. For example, geological discoveries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries showed that the earth is vastly older than the or-so years recounted in the Bible; and although these findings directly contradicted only a small part, of the Bible, they had the indirect effect of undermining its overall credibility as a factual account of history, so that nowadays few people except in the United States believe in the Bible in the literal way that most Europeans did only a few centuries ago.
Consider, by contrast, Isaac Newton's work: it is estimated that 90 percent of his writings deal with alchemy or mysticism. But, so what? The rest survives because it is based on solid empirical and rational arguments. Similarly, most of Descartes' physics is false, but some of the philosophical questions he raised are still pertinent today. If the same can be said for the work of our authors, then our findings have only marginal relevance.
But if these writers have become international stars primarily for sociological rather than intellectual reasons, and in part because they are masters of language and can impress their audience with a clever abuse of sophisticated terminology--non-scientific as well as scientific--then the revelations contained in this essay may indeed have significant repercussions. Let us emphasize that these authors differ enormously in their attitude toward science and the importance they give it.
They should not be lumped together in a single category, and we want to warn the reader against the temptation to do so. For example, although the quotation from Derrida contained in Sokal's parody is rather amusing, it is a one-shot abuse; since there is no systematic misuse of or indeed attention to science in Derrida's work, there is no chapter on Derrida in this book.
By contrast, the work of Serres is replete with more-or-less poetic allusions to science and its history; but his assertions, though extremely vague, are in general neither completely meaningless nor completely false, and so we have not discussed them here in detail. Kristeva's early writings relied strongly and abusively on mathematics, but she abandoned this approach more than twenty years ago; we criticize them here because we consider them symptomatic of a certain intellectual style.
The other authors, by contrast, have all invoked science extensively in their work. Latour's writings provide considerable grist for the mill of contemporary relativism and are based on an allegedly rigorous analysis of scientific practice. The works of Baudrillard, Deleuze, Guattari and Virilio are filled with seemingly erudite references to relativity, quantum mechanics, chaos theory, etc. So we are by no means splitting hairs in establishing that their scientific erudition is exceedingly superficial.
Moreover, for several authors, we shall supply references to additional texts where the reader can find numerous further abuses. You don't understand the context. Defenders of Lacan, Deleuze et al. After all, we readily admit that we do not always understand the rest of these authors' work.
Mightn't we be arrogant and narrow-minded scientists, missing something subtle and deep? We would respond, first of all, that when concepts from mathematics or physics are invoked in another domain of study, some argument ought to be given to justify their relevance. In all the cases cited here, we have checked that no such argument is provided, whether next to the excerpt we quote or elsewhere in the article or book.
Moreover, there are some "rules of thumb" that can be used to decide whether mathematics are being introduced with some real intellectual goal in mind, or merely to impress the reader.
Secondly, because mathematical concepts have precise meanings, mathematics is useful primarily when applied to fields in which the concepts likewise have more-or-less precise meanings. It is difficult to see how the mathematical notion of compact space can be applied fruitfully to something as ill-defined as the "space of jouissance " in psychoanalysis.
Thirdly, one should be particularly suspicious when abstruse mathematical concepts like the axiom of choice in set theory that are used rarely, if at all, in physics--and certainly never in chemistry or biology--miraculously become relevant in the humanities or the social sciences. Poetic licence. If a poet uses words like "black hole" or "degree of freedom" out of context and without really under standing their scientific meaning, it doesn't bother us. Likewise if a science-fiction writer uses secret passageways in space-time in order to send her characters back to the era of the Crusades, it is purely a question of taste whether one likes or dislikes the technique.
By contrast, we insist that the examples cited in this book have nothing to do with poetic licence. These authors are holding forth, in utter seriousness, on philosophy, psychoanalysis, semiotics, or sociology. Their works are the subject of innumerable analyses, exegeses, seminars, and doctoral theses.
Their intention is clearly to produce theory, and it is on this ground that we criticize them.
Fashionable Nonsense : Postmodern Intellectuals\' Abuse of Science
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Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science
Sokal is best known for the Sokal affair , in which he submitted a deliberately absurd article  to Social Text , a critical theory journal, and was able to get it published. The book was published in French in , and in English in ; the English editions were revised for greater relevance to debates in the English-speaking world. According to some reports, the response within the humanities was "polarized". Responses from the scientific community were more supportive.
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