Intellectual Impostures: Postmodern Philosophers' Abuse Of Science by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont - review by Anne Applebaum

Anne Applebaum

When Kicking a Dead Dog Can Upset the Applecart

Intellectual Impostures: Postmodern Philosophers' Abuse Of Science


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For most people, I imagine the smell of dusty books, or the sound of church bells, or even the gentle scent of marijuana would be enough to conjure up memories of university years. For me, however, it is passages like this that make me smile, close my eyes, and think dreamily of the past:

In the context provided by Irigaray we can see an opposition between the linear time of mathematics problems of related rates, distance formulas, and linear acceleration versus the dominant, experiential cyclical time of the menstrual body. Is it obvious to the female mind-body that intervals have endpoints, that parabolas neatly divide the plane, and indeed, that the linear mathematics of schooling describes the world of experience in intuitively obvious ways?

Oh youth! Oh springtime! Oh season of love! And oh, how keen was my nostalgia when I came upon this passage, too:

The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a centre. It is the very concept of variability – it is, finally, the concept of the game. In other words, it is not the concept of something – of a centre starting from which an observer could master the field – but the very concept of the game …

The latter is straight Derrida; the former is a commentary upon the works of Luce Irigaray, a famous French feminist literary critic. As a university student, I read the works of both with enthusiasm, or at least with the sense that if I could just concentrate on them hard enough, I would eventually discover something wise and important. Alas, I never did, and about ten minutes after I left university, I stopped worrying about it, too. Still, when talking to those in the know, I feel a certain pride in telling them that I studied in the Yale comparative literature depart­ment in the mid-1980s, back when the department was the height of post-structural fashion and everyone who was anyone on the Yale campus was conversant in deconstructionism, post-Marxism, theoretical feminism and Michel Foucault. It is like having been in Paris in 1968, or in Berlin in 1989 when the Wall fell. ‘Yale comp lit 1985’ was a historic moment that will never be repeated.

Perhaps for that reason, I find serious, straight-faced attacks on post-structural theory almost as hard to take as post-structural theory itself. This book, the cause of a sensation in France (‘C’est La Guerre!’ exclaimed Le Figaro), is precisely that: a po-faced, long-winded attack upon Irigaray and Derrida as well as Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, Regis Debray and other famous French intellectuals of whom you rationally-minded Anglo­ Saxon readers of Literary Review have probably never heard. The authors are two scientists, one American and one Belgian, whose (perfectly worthy) aim is to expose philosophers and literary critics who are guilty of ‘holding forth at length on scientific theories about which they have, at best, an exceedingly hazy idea’, and ‘displaying a superficial erudition by shamelessly throwing around technical terms in a context where they are completely irrelevant’. The problem is that this is the intellectual equivalent of kicking a dead dog. Of course the erudition is superficial. Of course Luce Irigaray doesn’t understand the scientific theories she deploys. Of course it is all rubbish. Why do we need a 294-page book to tell us that? Surely if I, with a mere Bachelor’s Degree in comparative liter­ature, can figure out that most of this is nonsense, all of those senior professors and heads of department out there will sooner or later work it out, too. As with all fash­ions, it is just a matter of time before the whole post structural edifice collapses of its own accord. Ultimately, this book will prove to have been unnecessary.

I do accept that this postmodernist nonsense is in the meantime capable of doing some damage, at least to those who aspire to careers in the humanities. I have, for example, a very brilliant friend who is wasting away in the nether regions of the Harvard English department, where he is thought to be a great eccentric because he is interested in facts rather than theory. I do not accept, however, as Sokal and Bricmont rather pompously claim, that postmodernism is also dangerous because it is destroying the ‘progressive’ Left. For one, the ‘progressive’ Left has much more important problems, such as the fact that its economic theories lead to lower living standards, its social theories lead to higher crime rates, and its educational theories lead to illiteracy.

More to the point, Sokal and Bricmont’s fear that the students who come to universities seeking to Do Good will be waylaid by literary theory into a moral cul-de-sac is unfounded. Plenty of those who are temporarily way­laid will emerge unscathed; I did, and so did most of my friends. Those who do get stuck spending years and years trying to parse sentences Like ‘henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will pre­serve an independent reality’, probably should never be let loose on the real world anyway, and should certainly never be let anywhere near the realm of politics and policy-making. Who knows, perhaps post-structuralism, by thus entrapping the cream of intellectually pretentious youth, has saved society from far worse.

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