Book review:

Alan Sokal's new anti-postmodernist book: Fashionable Nonsense

by Tim Hall
(from Communist Voice #20, Mach 28, 1999)


. Fashionable Nonsense, a book by the physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont attacking postmodernism's misuse of science, which first appeared in France, has now appeared in English, both in Great Britain and the U.S. (The title of the British edition is Intellectual Impostures.) In 1996 Sokal published an article in the postmodernist journal Social Text parodying many pomo (postmodernist) ideas and supporting them by false references to science. The pomos not only published this parodic mish-mash without investigating its truth, but later defended their actions on the grounds that Sokal's false scientific references did not invalidate the postmodernist conclusions. Sokal's latest book, co-written with Belgian scholar Jean Bricmont, has two aims: 1) to attack the wholesale misuse of scientific concepts by a variety of writers popular in postmodernist circles, and 2) to attack the philosophical relativism expounded by these and other authors in the postmodernist current.

. My knowledge of modern science is very limited so I will make some brief comments on Sokal's first aim and then dwell a little longer on the philosophical drift of the book.

. Sokal reproduces lengthy quotes from the (predominantly French) writers Jacques Lacan, Julia Kirsteva, Luce Irigaray, Bruno Latour, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and Paul Virilio. These pomo gurus rely heavily on apparently scientific concepts to support their postmodernist conclusions. Devoting a chapter to each, Sokal asserts that these writers' use of scientific terminology is almost entirely false and inaccurate. Sokal explains some of the inaccuracies to the lay reader, but in many cases the reader is left with argument from authority, the authority being Sokal himself. However, the reader is readily inclined to believe Sokal because these writers make complete asses of themselves, constructing piles of the most obscure and ridiculous gibberish imaginable. And the pomo followers of the world have failed to notice this misuse of science by their leaders, just as the editors of Social Text missed the absurdities in Sokal's parody. Immersing oneself in the study of these frauds must have broken the hearts of many a poor graduate student. Imagine throwing away all of your knowledge of the real world and of clear expression to build a career speculating in such obscurantism! If anything, Sokal is too kind with the pomo gurus, only using the world "charlatan" once; they should be mocked as frauds and demanded to express their idiocies in clear language.

. Sokal's exposure of the fraudulent nature of these authors' use of science is a real blow to the postmodernist current. Knocking a few bricks out of a foundation can destabilize a whole building. When geological science long ago exposed the falsity of the Bible's genesis version of the history of the universe, this only discredited a small part of the Bible, but still it shook the entire foundation of the credibility of the Christian religion. Similarly, Sokal's exposure of the pomos' misuse of science sharply raises the question of the philosophical foundations of the entire postmodernist current.

. Interestingly, Sokal asserts in his preface that the pomos' misuse of scientific concepts is only loosely related to their philosophical relativism. On the contrary, these seem to be to be quite tightly related. If knowledge is completely a social construct, as the relativist pomos assert, and not a reflection, more or less accurate, of the objectively existing material world, then it is perfectly logical to play fast and loose with scientific concepts and not to feel constrained by truth based on evidence. Perhaps this reluctance to see the connection between the two targets of his book is the reason why Sokal, in his chapters on Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, and Virilio, refers to long quotes as utterly meaningless. In terms of precise reference to scientific concepts, these writings certainly seem to be nonsense, but if one looks at their over-all drift they are all asserting the same thing in different ways: that the subject determines the object, that the material world is socially constructed -- the very relativism that Sokal denounces in his chapters on relativism. (I am referring to the last several quotes in each of the chapters, pp. 150-3, 166-8, 174-5 in the U.S. edition.)

. Be that as it may, Sokal strikes a serious blow at the illogical, irrational and unsupportable pomo trend of thinking. As I pointed out in an earlier CV article ("Postmodernist philosophy is old subjectivist wine in new bottles" in the CV of Oct. 25, 1997), pomo attempts to destroy rational assessment of the real world, thereby removing any basis for science, democratic decisions, progressive struggle and, especially, the revolutionary theory of Marxism. Pomo thereby opens the door to all sorts of reactionary religious, national-chauvinist and other dogmas, which enforce many varieties of oppression and exploitation of the working people. Sokal's parody and his new book show that the pomo emperor has no clothes. This blow for clear expression, logical thought and the necessity of evidence is a blow for the materialist world view. As such it not only tears away the mantle of scientificity worn by the pomos but makes the debate over such matters far more accessible to the working class and other ordinary people. Sooner or later (if it hasn't already happened) the pomo rhetoric was sure to erode the clarity of the work of science itself; consequently, Sokal's defense is also a defense of scientific research.

. The fact that Sokal and Bricmont first issued the book in France, in the French language, was a bold stroke, since the fountainheads of the pomo stream are largely French. Taking the fight against the lion into the lion's den shows an admirable boldness. And the complaints by some of the French press that Sokal is an American imperialist trampling an oppressed France are absurd. Poor little French imperialism, only able to slaughter Africans nowadays! Since the gurus of pomo are French, and not Anglo-American, what was Sokal to do -- issue the book only in the U.S.? Would the French chauvinists then have shelved the "imperialist" charge? Of course not! This illustrates how national chauvinism and postmodernism work together: apparently there is a French science, a French rationality, a French logic, not open to question by anyone else. And if pomo relativism were true, that would indeed be so, as well as a French method of suppression of African neo-colonies, plus -- by logical extension -- an American method of imperialist oil war, none of which are open to question by anyone from anywhere else. Not imperialist Sokal, but imperialist pomo!

. But Sokal's book, while a real blow to the pomo gurus and their relativism, seems to me to have weaknesses which leave unanswered a number of serious questions on the minds of progressive people and which may leave his book vulnerable to a certain line of criticism by the pomos.

. The attack of subjective idealism on the materialist world view of science has been going on for a long time, actually since the scientific revolution began at the end of the Middle Ages. But by the middle of the 19th century Newtonian science had won wide victory and seemed to have found a great number of certainties within its mechanical system. However, toward the end of the 19th century, and continuing into the 20th, a whole series of discoveries of the mutability of things hitherto thought changeless threw Newtonian mechanics into a crisis. Since the old materialism had lost some of its adequacy and new phenomena were hard to explain or were as yet inexplicable, subjective idealism (what Sokal calls "epistemic relativism") leapt into the breach and reasserted its old saw of the unknowability -- or non-existence -- of the material world. This can now be seen as the beginning of a long crisis in science and philosophy.

. Engels, writing in 1886, pointed out that materialism "has to change its form with each epoch-making discovery in the sphere of natural science." (Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, Peking, 1976, p. 22) This means that while new discoveries cannot compel the materialist (and most scientists are instinctive materialists in the philosophical sense) to reject the existence or knowability of the external material world, they require that materialism itself cannot be satisfied with merely reasserting its old truths (though that does play a positive role, a role that Sokal is playing). Materialism must adapt its form to the new knowledge without throwing away its essence.

. This problem seems to arise with respect to Sokal's parody and his book. Fashionable Nonsense is quite helpful in exposing the unsupported nonsense of the pomo gurus and in reasserting the indispensability of physical evidence for theory. But in the beginning of his parody Sokal cites several of the major discoveries of quantum mechanics which I think are fundamental to recent science but which may seem to the lay person to confirm relativism. These are: 1) Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which is supposed to show that the behavior of a particle cannot be separated from the process of its observation and that there is an unbreakable interaction between the scientific observer and the quantum particle. Heisenberg's principle has long been cited as overthrowing the objectivity of materialism/science. 2) The quantum-mechanical "principle of complementarity or dialecticism" (Sokal, Fashionable Nonsense, p. 216), which expresses the observed fact that the components of material reality behave both as waves and as particles and that neither characteristic alone sufficiently describes the behavior of the components. This seems, to relativists, again to defy the objectivity of observation and hence of knowledge.Finally, 3) quantum physics recognizes "discontinuity or rupture" (Sokal, ibid, p. 218), expressed in the popular term "quantum leap." This concept has been used by relativists to attack the continuity and logic of Newtonian and all science.

. In his parody, Sokal cites these discoveries as supporting relativism. As far as I know, these are well-known discoveries of quantum mechanics; as a (very) lay person I do not know whether or not they have been either disproven or re-interpreted. In the parody, these are left standing as a foundation of the false structure of postmodernist philosophy. Sokal certainly adds a lot of gibberish to this false structure as he goes on, but the problem is that these first three concepts do seem to raise questions about the adequacy of scientific materialism. Then comes Sokal's book, but it contains no explanation of these discoveries in the light of a materialist world view. Instead it devotes itself to dismissing what seem to me to be much easier targets -- outright absurdities cloaked in obscure double-talk. Thus, the much bigger challenges thrown by 20th century science to materialist philosophy remain unanswered. Sokal's book exposes much pomo rhetoric as nonsense, but major questions remain. The crisis in science and philosophy continues.

. I do not pretend to be able to answer these questions. But I will make a few tentative remarks. The world view of science, while largely materialist, has long been and, I think, remains, largely mechanical. While scientists may, in their specialities, deal with leaps, abrupt changes, flux and indeterminacies, they generally have an overall mechanical view of their fields and of science in general. This is why -- in part -- the discoveries of quantum mechanics were such a shock to the 19th century scientific world view. But Marx and Engels had long since challenged this mechanical materialism in the social sciences and in natural science with another materialism, one more flexible, more able to explain change, breaks, dualities -- in short, a materialism of a new form, a materialism which sees matter as essentially in motion, in transformation, generally following a few principles which are in sharp contrast to the inflexibility of the earlier materialism. This is the change of form of materialism required by a scientific revolution of which [Engels] spoke. It is still only beginning to take place, provoked by such discoveries as quantum mechanics. These scientists, who are not dialectical philosophers, are themselves beginning to express this. (Sokal in his parody, speaks of "dialecticism.")

. In this situation it's not enough to simply reassert the centrality of empirical evidence. That's fine, Sokal does it well, and it dispenses with a lot of pomo garbage. But if the above-mentioned quantum discoveries (and possibly others) still stand, here are examples of empirical observation seemingly contradicting science's previously-held view of material reality. They are not apparently results of the intervention into science of relativism, but are products of science itself.The relativists, of course, leap into the apparent breach in materialism, asserting that the new discoveries refute materialism. (They conveniently forget that the new discoveries are themselves products of a very high level of development of materialist science and its instruments of observation.) But what to do when the fruits of materialism seem to defy materialism? That is the question. If one does not want to abandon materialism, one can re-investigate materialism itself to see whether perhaps some of its philosophical principles were insufficiently or incorrectly developed, leading to a contradiction which is real enough but which only expresses the need of a revolution of form.

. That revolution can be provided by dialectics.

. Certainly, upon mention of this term, a whole chorus will arise denouncing Soviet science and declaring that it demonstrated the falsity of dialectics when applied to science. To this I can only answer that many articles in Communist Voice and its predecessor The Workers' Advocate have shown that in social and political theory the Soviet leaders since the early 1920's have mangled dialectics in many ways. Is it hard to imagine that they might have also done so in the natural sciences? I am not equipped to make that study but some day it will be made, if it has not already been started somewhere. For reality is dialectical and it confronts us.

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