Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of ScienceBy ALAN SOKAL and JEAN BRICMONT
So long as authority inspires awe, confusion and absurdity enhance conservative tendencies in society. Firstly, because clear and logical thinking leads to a cumulation of knowledge (of which the progress of the natural sciences provides the best example) and the advance of knowledge sooner or later undermines the traditional order. Confused thinking, on the other hand, leads nowhere in particular and can be indulged indefinitely without producing any impact upon the world. --Stanislav Andreski, Social Sciences as Sorcery (1972, p. 90)
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. In addition, it asserts an extreme form of cognitive relativism: after mocking the old-fashioned "dogma" that "there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole", it proclaims categorically that "physical `reality', no less than social `reality', is at bottom a social and linguistic construct". 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 authors in question form a veritable pantheon of contemporary "French theory": Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Felix Guattari, Luce Irigaray, Jacques Lacan, Bruno Latour, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Michel Serres, and Paul Virilio. 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.
What We Intend to Show
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 word "abuse" here denotes one or more of the following characteristics:
1) Holding forth at length on scientific theories about which one has, at best, an exceedingly hazy idea. The most common tactic is to use scientific (or pseudo-scientific) terminology without bothering much about what the words actually mean.
2) Importing concepts from the natural sciences into the humanities or social sciences without giving the slightest conceptual or empirical justification. 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. p. 20), from Kristeva that poetic language can be theorized in terms of the cardinality of the continuum (p. 40), and from Baudrillard that modern war takes place in a non-Euclidean space (p. 147)--all without explanation.
3) Displaying a superficial erudition by shamelessly throwing around technical terms in a context where they are completely irrelevant. 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. 38) and Le Monde admires the erudition of Paul Virilio (p. 169).
4) Manipulating phrases and sentences that are, in fact, meaningless. 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. 21-22) and Latour asks whether he has taught anything to Einstein (p. 131). 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:
1. The quotations' marginality. It could be argued that we are splitting hairs, criticizing authors who admittedly have no scientific training and who have perhaps made a mistake in venturing onto unfamiliar terrain, but whose contribution to philosophy and/or the social sciences is nevertheless important and is in no way invalidated by the "small errors" we have uncovered. 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 5000-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.
2. You don't understand the context. Defenders of Lacan, Deleuze et al. might argue that their invocations of scientific concepts are valid and even profound, and that our criticisms miss the point because we fail to understand the context. 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. First of all, in cases of legitimate use, the author needs to have a good understanding of the mathematics he/she is purporting to apply--in particular, there should be no gross mistakes--and he/she should explain the requisite technical notions, as clearly as possible, in terms that will be understandable to the intended reader (who is presumably a non-scientist). 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.
3. 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. Moreover, their style is usually heavy and pompous, so it is highly unlikely that their goal is principally literary or poetic.
4. The role of metaphors. Some people will no doubt think that we are interpreting these authors too literally and that the passages we quote should be read as metaphors rather than as precise logical arguments. Indeed, in certain cases the "science" is undoubtedly intended metaphorically; but what is the purpose of these metaphors? After all, a metaphor is usually employed to clarify an unfamiliar concept by relating it to a more familiar one, not the reverse. Suppose, for example, that in a theoretical physics seminar we were to explain a very technical concept in quantum field theory by comparing it to the concept of aporia in Derridean literary theory. Our audience of physicists would wonder, quite reasonably, what is the goal of such a metaphor--whether or not it is apposite--apart from displaying our own erudition. In the same way, we fail to see the advantage of invoking, even metaphorically, scientific concepts that one oneself understands only shakily when addressing a readership composed almost entirely of non-scientists. Might the goal be to pass off as profound a rather banal philosophical or sociological observation, by dressing it up in fancy scientific jargon?
5. The role of analogies. Many authors, including some of those discussed here, try to argue by analogy. We are by no means opposed to the effort to establish analogies between diverse domains of human thought; indeed, the observation of a valid analogy between two existing theories can often be very useful for the subsequent development of both. Here, however, we think that the analogies are between well-established theories (in the natural sciences) and theories too vague to be tested empirically (for example, Lacanian psychoanalysis). One cannot help but suspect that the function of these analogies is to hide the weaknesses of the vaguer theory.
Let us emphasize that a half-formulated theory--be it in physics, biology, or the social sciences--cannot be redeemed simply by wrapping it in symbols or formulae. The sociologist Stanislav Andreski has expressed this idea with his habitual irony:
The recipe for authorship in this line of business is as simple as it is rewarding: just get hold of a textbook of mathematics, copy the less complicated parts, put in some references to the literature in one or two branches of the social studies without worrying unduly about whether the formulae which you wrote down have any bearing on the real human actions, and give your product a good-sounding title, which suggests that you have found a key to an exact science of collective behaviour. (Andreski 1972, pp. 129-130)
Andreski's critique was originally aimed at American quantitative sociology, but it is equally applicable to some of the texts cited here, notably those of Lacan and Kristeva.
6. Who is competent? We have frequently been asked the following question: You want to prevent philosophers from speaking about science because they don't have the requisite formal training; but what qualifications do you have to speak of philosophy? This question betrays a number of misunderstandings. First of all, we have no desire to prevent anyone from speaking about anything. Secondly, the intellectual value of an intervention is determined by its content, not by the identity of the speaker, much less by his or her diplomas. Thirdly, there is an asymmetry: we do not purport to judge Lacan's psychoanalysis, Deleuze's philosophy, or Latour's concrete work in sociology. We limit ourselves to their statements about the mathematical and physical sciences or about elementary problems in the philosophy of science.
7. Don't you too rely on argument from authority? For if we assert that Lacan's mathematics are nonsense, how is the non-scientist reader to judge? Mustn't he or she take our word for it?
Not entirely. First of all, we have tried hard to provide detailed explanations of the scientific background, so that the nonspecialist reader can appreciate why a particular assertion is erroneous or meaningless. We may not have succeeded in all cases: space is limited, and scientific pedagogy is difficult. The reader is perfectly entitled to reserve judgment in those cases where our explanation is inadequate. But, most importantly, it should be remembered that our criticism does not deal primarily with errors, but with the manifest irrelevance of the scientific terminology to the subject supposedly under investigation. In all the reviews, debates and private correspondence that have followed the publication of our book in France, no one has given even the slightest argument explaining how that relevance could be established.
8. But these authors are not "postmodernist". It is true that the French authors discussed in this book do not all regard themselves as "postmodernist" or "poststructuralist". Some of these texts were published prior to the emergence of these intellectual currents, and some of these authors reject any link with these currents. Moreover, the intellectual abuses criticized in this book are not homogeneous; they can be classified, very roughly, into two distinct categories, corresponding roughly to two distinct phases in French intellectual life. The first phase is that of extreme structuralism, extending through the early 1970s: the authors try desperately to give vague discourses in the human sciences a veneer of "scientificity" by invoking the trappings of mathematics. Lacan's work and the early writings of Kristeva fall into this category. The second phase is that of poststructuralism, beginning in the mid-1970s: here any pretense at "scientificity" is abandoned, and the underlying philosophy (to the extent one can be discerned) tends toward irrationalism or nihilism. The texts of Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari exemplify this attitude.
Furthermore, the very idea that there exists a distinctive category of thought called "postmodernist" is much less widespread in France than in the English-speaking world. If we nevertheless employ this term for convenience, it is because all the authors analyzed here are utilized as fundamental points of reference in English-language postmodernist discourse, and because some aspects of their writings (obscure jargon, implicit rejection of rational thought, abuse of science as metaphor) are common traits of Anglo-American postmodernism. In any case, the validity of our critiques can in no way depend on the use of a word; our arguments must be judged, for each author, independently of his or her link--be it conceptually justified or merely sociological--with the broader "postmodernist" current.
9. Why do you criticize these authors and not others? A long list of "others" has been suggested, both in print and in private correspondence: these include virtually all applications of mathematics to the social sciences (e.g. economics), physicists' speculations in popular books (e.g. Hawking, Penrose), sociobiology, cognitive science, information theory, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, and the use of scientific concepts and formulas by Hume, La Mettrie, D'Holbach, Helvetius, Condillac, Comte, Durkheim, Pareto, Engels, and sundry others.
Let us begin by observing that this question is irrelevant to the validity or invalidity of our arguments; at best it can be used to cast aspersions on our intentions. Suppose there are other abuses as bad as those of Lacan or Deleuze; how would that justify the latter?
However, since the question of the grounds for our "selection" is so often asked, let us try to answer it briefly. First of all, we have no desire to write a ten-volume encyclopedia on "nonsense since Plato", nor do we have the competence to do so. Our scope is limited, firstly, to abuses in those scientific fields in which we can claim some expertise, namely mathematics and physics; secondly, to abuses that are currently fashionable in influential intellectual circles; and thirdly, to abuses that have not previously been analyzed in detail. However, even within these constraints, we do not claim that our set of targets is exhaustive or that they constitute a "natural kind". Quite simply, Sokal stumbled on most of these texts in the course of writing his parody, and we decided, after reflection, that it was worth making them public.
Furthermore, we contend that there is a profound difference between the texts analyzed here and most of the other examples that have been suggested to us. The authors quoted in this book clearly do not have more than the vaguest understanding of the scientific concepts they invoke and, most importantly, they fail to give any argument justifying the relevance of these scientific concepts to the subjects allegedly under study. They are engaged in name-dropping, not just faulty reasoning. Thus, while it is very important to evaluate critically the uses of mathematics in the social sciences and the philosophical or speculative assertions made by natural scientists, these projects are different from--and considerably more subtle than--our own.
A related question is:
10. Why do you write a book on this and not on more serious issues? Is postmodernism such a great danger to civilization? First of all, this is an odd question. Suppose someone discovers documents relevant to the history of Napoleon and writes a book about it. Would anyone ask him whether he thinks this is a more important topic than World War II? His answer, and ours, would be that an author writes on a subject under two conditions: that he is competent and that he is able to contribute something original. His subject will not, unless he is particularly lucky, coincide with the most important problem in the world.
Of course we do not think that postmodernism is a great danger to civilization. Viewed on a global scale, it is a rather marginal phenomenon, and there are far more dangerous forms of irrationalism--religious fundamentalism, for instance. But we do think that the critique of postmodernism is worthwhile for intellectual, pedagogical, cultural and political reasons; we shall return to these themes in the Epilogue.
Finally, to avoid useless polemics and facile "refutations", let us emphasize that this book is not a right-wing pamphlet against left-wing intellectuals, or an American imperialist attack against the Parisian intelligentsia, or a simple know-nothing appeal to "common sense". In fact, the scientific rigor we are advocating often leads to results at odds with "common sense"; obscurantism, confused thinking, anti-scientific attitudes and the quasi-religious veneration of "great intellectuals" are in no way left-wing; and the attachment of part of the American intelligentsia to postmodernism demonstrates that the phenomenon is international. In particular, our critique is in no way motivated by the "theoretical nationalism and protectionism" that French writer Didier Eribon claims to detect in the work of some American critics. Our aim is, quite simply, to denounce intellectual posturing and dishonesty, from wherever they come. If a significant part of the postmodernist "discourse" in contemporary American and British academia is of French origin, it is equally true that English-language intellectuals have long since given it an authentic home-grown flavor.
Plan of This Book
The bulk of this book consists of an analysis of texts, author by author. For the convenience of non-specialist readers, we have provided, in footnotes, brief explanations of the relevant scientific concepts as well as references to good popular and semi-popular explanatory texts.
Some readers will no doubt think that we are taking these texts too seriously. That is true, in some sense. But since these texts are taken seriously by many people, we think that they deserve to be analyzed with the greatest rigor. In some cases we have quoted rather long passages, at the risk of boring the reader, in order to show that we have not misrepresented the meaning of the text by pulling sentences out of context.
In addition to abuses in the strict sense, we have also analyzed certain scientific and philosophical confusions that underlie much postmodernist thinking. First, we shall consider the problem of cognitive relativism, and show that a series of ideas coming from the history and philosophy of science do not have the radical implications that are often attributed to them (Chapter 4). Next we shall address several misunderstandings concerning chaos theory and so-called "postmodern science" (Chapter 7). Finally, in the Epilogue, we shall situate our critique in a wider cultural context.
Many of the texts quoted in this book originally appeared in French. Where a published English translation exists, we have most often used it (sometimes noting our corrections); it is cited in the bibliography, along with the original French source in brackets. In other cases, the translation is ours. We have endeavored to remain as faithful as possible to the original French, and in case of doubt we have reproduced the latter in brackets or even in toto. We assure the reader that if the passage seems incomprehensible in English, it is because the original French is likewise.
(C) 1998 Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-312-19545-1
Customers who bought this book also bought:
- A House Built on Sand : Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science; Noretta Koertge(Editor)
- Impostures Intellectuelles (French Language Edition); Alan Sokal
- Higher Superstition : The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science; Paul R. Gross, Norman Levitt
Read more on science, psychology, health, behaviour, and biology in The Human Nature Review
human-nature.com © Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM