The postmodernists' new clothes

Wednesday, March 24, 1999

Intellectual Impostures: Postmodern philosophers' abuse of science
By Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont
Profile Books, 1998
274pp., price?

Review by Neville Spencer

The complexity and difficulty of most writing by postmodernist theorists is widely recognised, even by their many supporters. While much of the writing of postmodernism's gurus is incomprehensible, it has not stopped them gaining an unassailable dominance in academic social theory. Indeed, their incomprehensibility is often taken to be the sign of their erudition and profundity. In this atmosphere, the 1996 Sokal hoax sent a minor shock wave through the world of academic social theory.

Postmodern theory has traditionally taken a dim view of natural science: its usual contention that the world does not exist in and of itself, but is socially or linguistically constructed, does not leave much room for it.

Postmodern theory's relativist thrust — that different social or linguistic constructions create different realities — rejects the possibility of a single truth about the way the world is. Natural science, which attempts to discover the "single truth", is treated as a regrettable product of outdated, 19th century enlightenment thought.

Nonetheless, as US physicist Alan Sokal discovered, the use of concepts borrowed from mathematics and physics is surprisingly popular among postmodernists. He noticed, however, that the manner in which these scientific concepts are used (or, more accurately, abused) bears little or no relation to their true meanings.

While borrowings from topology, quantum physics and chaos theory seem to have impressed the postmodern theorists' intended audience, Sokal reports that they proved to be a great source of amusement to physicists.

Shocked at such intellectual dishonesty, Sokal decided to write his own parody of such postmodernist writing and submit it to the well-known postmodern-leaning journal Social Text. His essay, entitled "Transgressing the boundaries: Toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity", was crammed with nonsensical, but unfortunately authentic, quotations about physics and mathematics by prominent French and US intellectuals. Sokal's article pretended to argue that modern physics shows the correctness of postmodernism's relativist view of the world.

It claimed that physical reality, no less than social reality, is a social and linguistic construct. As Sokal and Jean Bricmont write in the introduction to Intellectual Impostures: "By a series of stunning leaps of logic, it arrives at the conclusion that the of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity."

Social Text published the article as part of a special issue rebutting criticisms directed at postmodernist relativism by a number of well-known scientists. The hoax, as well as causing outrage in academic circles, made the front page of newspapers such as the New York Times after Sokal revealed it.

In Intellectual Impostures, Sokal and Bricmont attempt to show, in a more conventional way, that the emperors of postmodernism have no clothes. Though they distance themselves from a claim to be making a general philosophical critique, and limit themselves to criticising the abuse of science by postmodern philosophers, they do point out that such charlatanism reflects on the general postmodernist intellectual project.

The book recounts numerous examples of abuse by theorists. Not all those cited can correctly be considered postmodernists, and some might reject the label. But they all fall into the same general current which began in France as structuralism in the 1950s and 1960s, and evolved into post-structuralism (a term usually used interchangeably with postmodernism) in the 1970s and 1980s.

Chapters target Jacque Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Bruno Latour, Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.

The authors point to several common abuses. One is taking theories from natural science and inserting them into the humanities without any argument as to why they are applicable or how an analogy with social sciences can be made. Other forms of abuse involve using scientific theories while possessing only a vague idea about what they involve, or simply throwing around scientific or scientific-sounding words without any regard to their meaning.

One of many examples of the first kind of abuse is Lacan's boast that he uses "the most recent development in topology" in his psychoanalytic theory. In one lecture, he explains that the torus corresponds to the neurotic subject. Just how he doesn't explain.

When queried that surely he must mean this only as some sort of analogy, Lacan replied, "This torus really exists and it is exactly the structure of the neurotic. It is not an analogon; it is not even an abstraction, because an abstraction is some sort of diminution of reality." Lacan's answer includes much exotic verbiage but no explanation as to how topology applies to mental disorders.

For sheer meaninglessness, Baudrillard's work provides some gems. In The Gulf War Did Not Happen, Baudrillard makes the bizarre assertion, to prove the title of his book, that "the space of the event has become a hyperspace with multiple refractivity" and "the space of war has become definitively non-Euclidean".

For postmodernists, science, or any other view about the world, is a social and linguistic construction and does not reveal anything about the world in and of itself. Either the world doesn't exist independently of what we know or say about it, or if it does exist, there is no way to know anything about it. It follows that any point of view about the world is as good as any other.

Sokal and Bricmont give a brief and convincing, though not detailed or rigorous, rejection of this central tenant of postmodernism and related theories. They point out that even people who assert such points of view cannot possibly take them seriously. Everyone, postmodernist or not, has to believe and act as if the cup of water sitting on the table in front of them does really exist and is not simply a linguistic construction. Life would be impossible if they did not.

Postmodernism rejects the Enlightenment's privileging of reason and logic, and champions irrationalism. As Sokal and Bricmont go through the ideas of various theorists who argue for this point of view, each lapses into self-refutations. Trying to rationally argue a case for irrationalism is a contradiction in itself.

Intellectual Impostures also looks at some particular theories in physics and mathematics, misinterpretations of which have become popular for appropriation into social theory. In particular, chapters are devoted to the abuse of chaos theory, Gödel's theorem and set theory.

Terms associated with modern scientific theories, such as relativity, indeterminacy, uncertainty principle, chaos or non-linearity, have been seized upon to show how traditional scientific rationality is being undermined within science itself. Theorists such as Lyotard have pointed to this as evidence of the emergence of a non-rationalistic, postmodern science "producing not the known, but the unknown".

Looking at what the terms actually mean in the context of the relevant scientific theories, though, provides no evidence of this. Bruno Latour, for instance, tries to use Einstein's special theory of relativity to show that "the content of any science is social through and through". One thing he seizes upon is the talk of different "observers" being in motion relative to each other.

Not all, or even most, of the exotic verbiage of postmodernism is related to science. Throwing around difficult words or creating new ones without bothering to explain their meanings has become acceptable and even admirable in academia.

If you have ever tried reading the proliferating volumes of postmodern theory and been unable to make sense of it, it may well be because there is no sense in it at all.