What Did Sokal & Bricmont Really Say?
Francis Wheen was on Start the Week Monday to talk about his new book How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World. The book sounds like just our sort of thing in a way, being about various forms of delusion and what a lot of them there are about nowadays – but in another way it doesn’t, quite, because it apparently doesn’t limit itself the way we do. Mind you, there’s disagreement about how much we limit ourselves, and how much we ought to, which gets back to that ‘What was the question?’ N&C I did a week or two ago. But still. However expansive a view I take, I don’t attempt to cover every kind of delusion I can think of. Wheen has Thatcherism and postmodernism in the same book, and those are two pretty odd bedfellows. Andrew Marr pointed this out, in his jocular-rude way – that the book is in fact about everything that ‘gets up both nostrils.’
Even more interesting than Wheen talking about his book, actually, was Gilbert Adair talking about it. Wheen remarked that he expected Adair would probably disagree with him – Adair said he did agree on the whole, but he was concerned that Wheen failed to make a distinction between ‘populist’ versions of postmodernism – ‘everything is relative and so on’ – and the real intellectual ideas at the core. Lyotard, he said, made the point that the roots of postmodernism go back to the Enlightenment. Hmm. Adair didn’t have time to clarify what he meant by ‘populist’ postmodernism, but the fact is, one can read statements of epistemic relativism coming from any number of academics. I’m not sure they qualify as ‘populist’ in this context – so I’m not sure that assertions that ‘everything is relative’ are really some watered-down or oversimplifed demotic version of postmodernism. It’s pretty widely agreed, by proponents and opponents alike, that epistemic relativism is the very core of postmodernism – so where does the populism come in?
Adair went on to shore up his point by talking about (without actually naming) Sokal and Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense/Intellectual Impostures. He said there was a ‘scandal’ when two physicists wrote a book pointing out that a lot of French ‘intellectual gurus’ inserted scientific ideas they had only the haziest understanding of into their writings in order to intimidate – successfully, Andrew Marr interjected. Yes indeed, Adair agreed, the gurus made fools of themselves, no question. But. When he reviewed the book he was careful to point out what as far as he knew no one else did: that the authors specifically said: ‘we are not attacking the core of the thought of these people, what we are attacking is the one-upmanship.’
Well that’s not quite right. It’s close to right, Adair was paraphrasing, I don’t think he meant to obfuscate – but I think it’s worth clarifying what Sokal and Bricmont actually said on page x:
But what exactly do we claim? Neither too much nor too little…We show that famous intellectuals such as Lacan, Kristeva, Irigaray, Baudrillard and Deleuze have repeatedly abused scientific concepts and terminology…We make no claim that this invalidates the rest of their work, on which we suspend judgment…A second target of our book is epistemic relativism, namely the idea…that modern science is nothing more than a ‘myth’, a ‘narration’ or a ‘social construction’ among many others…[W]e dissect a number of confusions that are rather frequent in postmodernist and cultural-studies circles: for example, misappropriating ideas from the philosophy of science, such as the underdetermination of theory by evidence or the theory-ladenness of observation, in order to support radical relativism.
So. On the one hand, they suspend judgment on the rest of the work of the ‘gurus’, which is slightly different from saying they are ‘not attacking’ it. Admittedly that’s a nice point. ‘Not attacking’ could be taken to be the same thing as suspending judgment – but it could also be taken as more than that. In this context, with the word ‘specifically’ preceding it – it seems to me it sounds more active, not to say semi-favorable, than merely suspending judgment. And on the other hand, they are indeed attacking epistemic relativism and attendant confusions that are rather frequent in postmodernist circles. So in short they are not really as neutral on the fundamental ideas of postmodernism as Adair made them sound. It’s a point worth making, I think, because the ideas in question are 1. such very bad ideas and 2. so very influential. It’s worth knowing who is opposed to them and why.