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Intellectual Impostures

The July 9 issue of Nature has a review by Richard Dawkins of Sokal and Bricmont's little opus, Intellectual Impostures. Three pages are spent trashing the icons of modish French philosophy; a good time is had by all. The review begins:

Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of reverent disciple and have students anoint your pages with respectful yellow highlighter. What kind of style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your lack of content. The chances are that you would produce something like the following:

The ingenious and clever among my readers (which is to say, all of them) will instantly deduce that Dawkins is not outraged by Sokal and Bricmont's foray into debunking, a deduction supported by the title for the review - Postmodernism disrobed. The opening paragraph is followed by a quote from Guattari which is indeed quite juicy. We are also treated to a paragraph by Deleuze from which the aroma of bogosity wafts enticingly, Lacan's endearing foray into phallic algebra, a bit from Lyotard that, despite its thorough abuse of language, makes sense, and some truly charming feminist philosophy by Luce Irigaray. Katherine Hayles, a Social Text contributor whose thought might best be served by a thicker layer of obfuscation, produced the following translation of a paragraph by Irigaray:

The privileging of solid over fluid mechanics, and indeed the inability of science to deal with turbulent flow at all, she attributes to the association of fluidity with femininity. Whereas men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, women have openings that leak menstrual blood and vaginal fluids... From this perspective it is no wonder that science has not been able to arrive at a successful model for turbulence. The problem of turbulent flow cannot be solved because the conceptions of fluids (and of women) have been formulated so as necessarily to leave unarticulated remainders.

The term, codswallop, springs to mind although I prefer unmitigated twaddle. Even if one knows no physics at all one should be able to detect the aroma of ripe fish.

Dawkins cites with approval the Postmodern Generator at http://www.cs.monash.edu.au/cgi-bin/ and cites with amusement a paragraph generated by that automaton of automated postmodern turgidity.

It is should be clear that Dawkins is no great fan of postmodernism; he does, however, devote a paragraph which makes a pass at even-handedness. (This is the norm for book reviews in Nature - the writing of reviews in Nature is done not with the pen but rather with the halbard and the cestus.) It is conceded that:

No doubt there exist thoughts so profound that most of us will not understand the language in which they are expressed. And no doubt there is also language designed to be unintelligible in order to conceal an absence of honest thought. But how are we to tell the difference? What if it really takes an expert eye to detect whether the emperor has clothes?

He goes on to point out that Sokal and Bricmont have confined their critique to works that invoke (and abuse) Physics and Mathematics. I am confident that B&S are often right in their particulars and that the cited works and authors are indeed guilty of egregious piffle - in their usage of Physics and Mathematics.

Dawkins, without much thought to the contrary, appears to believe that the matter is settled - these people are mountebanks and charlatans. However the matter is not that simple. In the first place it is tolerably clear that these thinkers are not simply charlatans. Whether they are sound thinkers is open to question (or not in the case of some.) If an author misuses terminology does this represent simple slop, an innocent misappropriation of currently fashionable vocabulary, a cancer in his or her thought, or even legitimate usage - it quite often being the case that a word has one meaning in one field and a quite different one in another field. I am not the person to answer these questions or even to pose them properly. The point is that it doesn't even occur to Dawkins that there is a question to be asked.

For example, Dawkins quotes the following sentence by Baudrillard:

Perhaps history itself has to be regarded as a chaotic formation, in which acceleration puts an end to linearity, deflects history definitely from its end, just as such turbulence distances effects from their causes.

He quotes S&B as saying of it, "though constructed from scientific terminology, is meaningless from a scientific point of view" and continues:

I won't quote any more, for, as Sokal and Bricomont say, Baudrillard's text "continues in a gradual crescendo of nonsense". They again call attention to "the high density of scientific and pseudo-scientific terminology - inserted in sentences that are, as far as we can make out, devoid of meaning." Their summing up of Baudrillard could stand for any of the authors criticized here and lionized throughout America.

Now this passage is quite damning, not of Baurdillard, but of Sokal and Bricmont and, at second remove, of Dawkins himself. The comment that it meaningless from a scientific point of view is bizarre. The physicists do not own words such as acceleration, turbulence, and chaos; they have meanings beyond the narrow definitions of physics. The quoted sentence is not a bit of scientific analysis; it is a discussion of the nature of the passage of history. Above all, the quoted sentence is not even obscure - the meaning seems quite clear. One cannot even in justice condemn it as being clumsy since it is, I presume, a translation.

Some of the passages that Dawkins pulls out are definitely nonsense, e.g., the quoted passage by Irigaray and Lacan's derivation of the the phallus as the square root of minus one. Judging from this example though, Sokal and Bricmont are deficient in their ability to sort out sense from nonsense, which makes their entire enterprise suspect.


This page was last updated August 1, 1998.

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