- Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science
In their preface to this English edition of Impostures Intellectuelles (first published in 1997 in France), the authors, both physicists, explain that their book “grew out of the now-famous hoax in which one of us published in the American cultural-studies journal Social Text, a parody article crammed with nonsensical, but unfortunately authentic, quotations about physics and mathematics by prominent French and American intellectuals” (p. ix). The motives behind the hoax are made evident in two interlocking halves which form the structure of this follow-up work. One side gives specific postmodernists—among them Lacan, Kristeva and Latour—individual chapters where lavish quotations of their published declarations on matters scientific and mathematical are shown, by pointed comparison with the facts, to be merely “a profusion of scientific terms, used with total disregard for their meaning and, above all, in a context where they are manifestly irrelevant” (p. 153). The other, related, side to the book is a number of interspersed chapters (“Intermezzo”) which provide, in the authors’ words, “our critique of epistemic relativism and misconceptions about ‘postmodern science’” (p. xi).
While on the face of it Fashionable Nonsense seems philosophically designed, to defend “the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment” (p. 1) by elaborating “the critique of the admittedly nebulous Zeitgeist that we have called ‘postmodern’” (p. 4), the book’s true “concern is explicitly political: to combat fashionable postmodernist / post-structuralist / social-constructivist discourse— [End Page 240] and more generally a penchant for subjectivism—which is inimical to the values and the future of the Left” (pp. 269–70). Sokal and Bricmont state their politics frankly: Fashionable Nonsense is a counter-play by the Old Left in its contest with the New Left (Bertrand Russell quotations are frequently-played trumps; Noam Chomsky is always aces). The Right, when it does appear, is merely the joker card.
This explains why the two physicists bothered to occupy half a book humiliating prominent postmodernists—really, shooting fish in a barrel. In their wider struggle, it is practical argumentum ad baculum: laying about the opposition with the stick of public ridicule. But as with military punishment, well though the malefactors may deserve it, third parties only witness the treatment properly as an unpleasant duty. Nevertheless, readers will respect Sokal and Bricmont for laboring through “usually heavy and pompous” (p. 10) and all-too-often ungrammatical writing to uncover scientific sense or nonsense. At times they confess failure, for instance with Paul Virilio: “This paragraph . . . is the most perfect example of diarrhea of the pen that we have ever encountered. As far as we can see, it means precisely nothing” (p. 175).
The philosophical crux dividing the Old and New Lefts is revealed, unwittingly, in this statement: “Here we shall be concerned only with epistemic relativism and not with moral or aesthetic relativism, which raise very different issues” (p. 52). Raised under the moral, ethical, and aesthetic relativism which the Old Left argued reliably against religion and the socio-politics of the Right, a New Left does not at all accept that absolutism in matters concerning “assertion of fact . . . that is, about what exists or is claimed to exist” (p. 52) in any way “raises very different issues.” Failure to perceive objectively this intellectual evolution is explanation in part why the Intermezzo half of Fashionable Nonsense is devoted to defending the epistemic absolutism of the Enlightenment, and that by a misguided attack on historical relativism. The consequence is both philosophical error and political gaffe.
Astonishingly, Sokal and Bricmont attribute the origin of the postmodernist attitude toward science directly to David Hume. As they see it, any relativist arguments concerning scientific knowledge past the superficial are “mere reformulations, in one guise or another, of Humean radical skepticism” (p. 60). And by “radical” they do mean an extreme position: “one sometimes encounter[ed] in place of solipsism” (p. 54); where “the universality of Humean skepticism is also its weakness” (p. 55). This view of Hume, amplified in detail, forms the base of...