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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 14.4 (2001) 286-299

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Dewey and Husserl on Natural Science and Values: Learning from the Sokal Debate

Glenn Mcgee
University of Pennsylvania

In May 1996, New York University physicist Alan Sokal created a scandal when he revealed in the academic trade journal Lingua Franca that an article he had published in the cultural studies journal Social Text, purportedly a critique of scientific epistemology, was a hoax designed to reveal the postmodern critique of the scientific enterprise as a fraud, and its proponents scientific illiterates with no more knowledge than needed to push a hazy ideological agenda. In "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," Sokal strung together a number of quotes from "postmodern" critiques of science, threw in some hokey scientific links, and sprinkled the article with inherently contradictory claims. When the article was published and then revealed to be a hoax, what have been called "the Science Wars" broke out on the Internet, with the proponents of postmodern scholarship, it would seem, fighting a retreating battle, and the scientists gleefully announcing that the humanities and science studies communities had egg on their faces. Sokal himself claimed to have performed an "empirical demonstration" that postmodern peer review lacked rigor, and he posited that real postmodern attacks on objectivity and truth originate in a community whose methods were too far adrift of scientific method to be useful.

The aftermath of Sokal's prank is difficult to overestimate even four years hence. His ploy, however amusing, has caused many in the general media, and in the public, to become even more critical about interdisciplinary critique of the sciences. Nonetheless, the scandal may serve [End Page 286] the humanities and social sciences by demonstrating that critique of the sciences must be articulate, substantial, and informed. Certainly, Sokal's farcical publication is a reminder to some philosophers of science that it is not enough to assert that science and ideology are intricately connected, or to give hazy or inferential defenses of the historical movements that shape scientific consensus. Critics now more than ever will be required to demonstrate to a general audience the practical implications of their arguments about the relationship between science and its context.

At bottom, the "culture wars" between some in natural science and in the humanities concern personal and institutional beliefs about the epistemological status of realities measured by natural science. It is easy to point out that whatever objection can be constructed to science's ultimate grasp on reality, the products of science work in the world of the commonplace. The technological innovations ushered in by scientific research regularly amaze and terrify society, and more routine incorporation of technology in cultural life has brought the most esoteric science into the homes of many in the Western world. It is often held as ironic that a sizeable number of technological products are indispensable to even the most vociferous critics of science. But that is of little matter in the seemingly incommensurable debate about the status of realism and scientific truth. Sokal's defenders and those many in the postmodern critique of the natural sciences would have us choose either to see science as value-free, neutral, objective, and therefore the privileged mode of inquiry into reality and truth or as just another institution, infused by values, bias, subjectivity, and ideology. The discourse for a more intelligent debate than that about Sokal does not seem to exist.

In the twentieth century, the two philosophers who devoted the most attention to the relationship between science and its cultural and moral context were John Dewey and Edmund Husserl. These philosophers' contributions to the debate on science and value are not often cited by philosophers of biology or the sciences, though each was prominently engaged in public critique of the idea that science is a value-free realm, and each played an important role in establishing the importance of scientific subject matter for social philosophy and ethics. For both philosophers, two themes emerge in the debate about realism and value...


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