Alan Sokal & Jean Bricmont – Intellectual impostures: Postmodern philosophers’ abuse of science
London: Profile books (1997)

I’d estimate that over 35% of this book contains rubbish – is pure rubbish or rubbishy. But I’m not stating this to discourage you from reading it. Rather, set in it’s proper context, my estimate should be viewed as an encouragement to read this book. The fact being that the rubbish this book surely contains, was written by Alan Sokal nor Jean Bricmont. Instead, the rubbish was chosen, quoted and reviewed by them. Let me explain.

The conception of this book took place when Sokal submitted a very well-written paper, ‘Transgressing the boundaries: Toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity’ to the American cultural-studies journal Social Text. Except for the fact that is wasn’t written well at all. It was, as Sokal states:

“(…) crammed with nonsensical, but unfortunately authentic, quotations about physics and mathematics by prominent French and American intellectuals.” (p. ix.) [1]

The fact that it was published proves not just that the editors of Social Text are lazy, not just that they are incompetent, but that they are willingly unintellectual. Now, intellectualism should, in my honest opinion, be seen as closely related to a certain basic, sceptical, commonsense, scientificesque attitude towards everything happening around you. Which means asking questions when things seem odd, when questions need to be asked, when much is at stake. But also when, basically, truth is at stake. The source from which these questions spring is a basic interest in the happenings taking place around you. As J.S. Mill wrote:

“A cultivated mind – I do not mean that of a philosopher, but any mind to which the fountains of knowledge have been opened, and which has been taught, in any tolerable degree, to exercise its faculties – finds sources of inexhaustible interest in all that surrounds it: in the objects of nature, the achievements of art, the imaginations of poetry, the incidents of history, the ways of mankind, past and present, and their prospects in the future.” [2]

Now, to make matters worse (for the editors of Social Text), Sokal’s article wasn’t just filled with the type of quotations mentioned above. Apart from the ‘nonsensical’ quotations Sokal interspersed, they were glued together by:

“(…) 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’. The rest is in the same vein.” (p. 1-2. Italics – MG)

The point being, that aside from the nonsense I didn’t italicize, the editors of Social Text should’ve banned Sokals article from publication on the simple grounds of it being filled with bad logic. Overlooking faults in your own area of expertise, maybe because of the fact that you are in the middle of it, is one thing, but overlooking basic, commonsense, proper faults of logic, is quite another matter.

Now, back to the proper content of the book, for the intellectual laziness of the editors of Social Text is just a side-issue here. The goal of Intellectual Impostures is emphatically not to attack postmodernist thought in general, but to show, quite exhaustively:

“(…) the repeated abuse of concepts and terminology coming from mathematics and physics (…)” and “(…) certain confusions of thought that are frequent in postmodern writings and that bear on either the content or the philosophy of the natural sciences.” (p. 4)

The first question one should ask himself now, is what Sokal and Bricmont actually mean with the term ‘postmodernism’? This brings us to a ‘problem’: How to deal with a current of thought you strongly dislike? Richard Dawkins, in his introduction to his review of Intellectual impostures[3] states:

“(…) the fact that the word ‘postmodernism’ occurs in the title given me by the editors of Nature does not imply that I (or they) know what it means. Indeed, it is my belief that it means nothing at all, except in the restricted context of architecture where it originated. I recommend the following practice, whenever anybody uses the word in some other context. Stop them instantly and ask, in a neutral spirit of friendly curiosity, what it means. Never once have I heard anything that even remotely approaches a usable, or even faintly coherent, definition. The best you’ll get is a nervous titter and something like, ‘Yes I agree, it is a terrible word isn’t it, but you know what I mean.’ Well no, actually, I don’t.” (A devil’s chaplain, p. 7)

Which is a strange thing to say for someone who reviewed the book. For Sokal and Bricmont define:

“(…) ‘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 cognitive and cultural relativism that regards science as nothing more than a ‘narration’, a ‘myth’ or a social construction among others.” (p. 1)

On which they elaborate:

“If we (…) employ this term (‘postmodernism’ – MG) for convenience, it is because all the authors analysed 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.” (p. 12)

This, to me, definitely looks like a ‘usable’ or ‘faintly coherent’ definition. So Dawkins seems to be wanting too much: Robbing postmodernism of it’s meaning, while endorsing attacks against statements uttered by proponents of that current. As the saying goes, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Now that we’ve got clean on the meaning of postmodernism, let’s see how the offensive takes place:

Intellectual impostures contains twelve parts: It begins with an introduction, and ends with an epilogue. There are seven chapters on individual ‘philosophers’ and two intermezzo’s (and, additionally, three appendices, containing, respectively, ‘Transgressing the boundaries’, Some comments on the parody and ‘Transgressing the boundaries: An afterword,’ which, incidentally, was refused for publication by the editors of Social Text).

In the chapters on individual philosophers (there is actually one chapter focussing on Deleuze and Guattari, for they published many books together) extensive quotations (being the 35% of rubbish mentioned above) are carefully scrutinized. The reason for the unorthodox lenght of the -sometimes pages long- quotations is that Sokal and Bricmont wanted to make sure they weren’t quoting them out of context (p. 15), something which, sadly, can’t be said of most of the writers they review.

Sokal and Bricmonts’ analysis is meant to show how the famous intellectuals they quote have “(…) repeatedly abused scientific concepts and terminology; either using scientific ideas totally out of context, without giving the slightest justification (…) or throwing around scientific jargon in front of their non-scientist readers without any regards for its relevance or even its meaning. We make no claim that this invalidates the rest of their work, on which we suspend judgment.” (p. x)

But, as Dawkins states: “(…) a philosopher who is caught equating the erectile organ to the square root of minus one [4] has, for my money, blown his credentials when it comes to things that I don’t know anything about.” (Op. cit., p. 49)

The content of the texts they quote is painful and embarrassing. Painful for their obscurantism [5], embarrasing for the shamelessness with which certain preposterous things are proposed [6].

Interesting for their own sake are the two intermezzo’s. The first, on epistemic relativism, deals with the strong (extremely relativistic) conclusions drawn from the works of (amongst others) Kuhn, Quine and Feyerabend. That this is much more than a purely scientific discussion is made clear by the example of a Belgian trial, in which an ‘anthropologist of communication’ was asked to give his views on the conflicting statements (concerning the -alledged- transmission of a key document) that were given by two witnesses. One claimed he had send it, the other denied having received it. The anthropologist (Professor Yves Winkin) claimed that there are only ‘partial truths’ to be found, and that there was therefore no fact of the matter to be decided upon. (p. 91-92) This is heavily disturbing. A child could tell you that it was (a) either send, or it wasn’t, (b) it had, or it had not got lost on its’ way, and that (c) it was either received, or it wasn’t. What’s very important in this matter, is the difference (pointed out by Sokal and Bricmont) between ‘facts’ and ‘the assertion of facts’ which are two fi9fferent things altogether (p. 93). Aside from the relevance epistemic relativism has for criminal investigations, Sokal and Bricmont discuss its relevance concerning education (if one teaches one’s kids there are only partial thruths, relative truths, and not the truth, this discourages the development of a much-needed critical faculty), and the third world (where alternative medicine is still being practicized and sought after by a large percentage of the population [7]).

The second intermezzo, on the abuse of chaos theory by postmodernists, is as valuable for its critical discussion of the abuse of chaos theory, as it is for its generous introduction to that subject. The discussion does much to clarify misunderstandings concerning determinism, the correct interpretation of Laplace’s writings, and the differences between chaotic and non-chaotic systems. [8] 

Concluding this review, I can’t put enough emphasis on the intellectual clarity, brevitas, and honesty of Sokal and Bricmont, who go through great lenghts to clarify their goals and methods, to ensure the correctness of their translations and who consistently annotate their remarks and references. Their clarity and method cannot be contrasted more sharply with anything else than the authors they dissect.

[1] All page numbers, above and below, unless stated otherwise, refer to (quotations in): – Sokal, A. & Bricmont, J. (1998) Intellectual impostures: Postmodern philosophers’ abuse of science. London: Profile Books. (Published in the United States as: Fashionable nonsense. Both are translations of the French original: (1997) Impostures intellectuelles. Paris: Éditions Odile Jacob.)

[2] Mill, J.S. (2001) Utilitarianism. 2nd edition. Indianapolis: Hackett. (p. 14.)

[3] ‘Postmodernism disrobed,’ reprinted in: Dawkins, R., (2003) A devil’s chaplain. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, pp. 47-53.

[4] Dawkins is referring to Lacan, p. 25.

[5] Lacan: “It is there, however, that the meaning of the saying delivers itself, of that which, conjugating the nyania that noises the sexes in company, it makes up for the fact that, between them, the relation isn’t.” (p. 31)
Jean Baudrillard: “We shall not reach the destination, even if that destination is the Last Judgement, since we are henceforth separated from it by a variable refraction hyperspace. The retroversion of history could very well be interpreted as a turbulence of this kind, due to the hastening of events which reverses and swallows up their course. This is one of the versions of Chaos Theory – that of exponential instability and its uncontrollable effects. It accounts very well for the ‘end’ of history, interrupted in its linear or dialectical movement by that catastrophic singularity…” (p. 141)
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: “This time, following Lagrange’s presentation, the depotentialisation conditions pure potentiality by allowing an evolution of the function of a variable in a series constituted byb the powers of i (undetermined quantity) and the coefficients of these powers (new functions of x), in such a way that the evolution function of that variable be comparable to that of the others. The pure element of potentiality appears in the first coefficient of the derivativ, the other derivatives and consequently all the terms of the series resulting from the repetition of the same operations.” (p. 154)
Félix Guattari: “The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously. A machinic assemblage, through its diverse components, extracts its consistency by crossing ontological thresholds, non-linear thresholds of irrversibility, ontological and phylogenetuic thresholds, creative thresholds of heterogesis and autopoiesis.” (p. 157)
(Of course I am quoting things out of their context, but, to make up for it, I warmly recommend readingIntellectual impostures.)

[6] Jacques Lacan: “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 dimunition of reality, and I think it is reality itself.” (p. 19) A ‘torus’, according to the definition given by Sokal and Bricmont, is: “(…) the surface formed by a hollow tire” (p. 18).
Luce Irigay (according to “One of Irigay’s American interpreters” i.e. Katherine N. Hayles) modestly proposes: “The privileging of solid over fluid mechanics, and indeed the inability of science to deal with turbulent flow at all, she [Irigay – MG] attributes to the association of fluidity with femininity. Whereas men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, woman have openings that leak menstrual blood and vaginal fluids.” (p. 101) Sokal and Bricmont drily note: “(…) solid mechanics is far from being complete, it has many unsolved problems (…) fluids in equilibrium or in laminar flow are relatively well understood. Besides, we know the equations (…) that govern the behaviour of fluids in a vast number of situations.” (p. 104)
Irigay again: “If women have felt so terribly threatened by the accident at Chernobyl, that is because of the irreducible relation of their bodies to the universe.” (p. 113)

[7] The Dutch philosopher Rudy Kousbroek tells a story about Gandhi, who was strongly opposed to ‘Western’ health care (which was sinful, and the study of which was nothing less than deepening the slavery of the people of India), but, when faced with appendicitis, chose to be taken care of by criminal European doctors (Kousbroek, R., (1997) Hoger honing. Amsterdam: Meulenhoff.).

[8] For another accessible (as well as philosophical) introduction to chaos theory and related subjects see: Ekeland, I. (2006) The best of all possible worlds: Mathematics and destiny. Chicago: Chicago U.P.