Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont

Intellectual Impostures

Postmodern philosophers' abuse of science

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (1999).

The origin of this book was a hoax perpetrated in 1996 by one of the authors, Alan Sokal. He wrote a spoof article with the title 'Transgressing the boundaries: Towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity', and it was published in a journal called 'Social Text'. The article included abundant quotations from French postmodernists. Sokal and Bricmont, who are professors of physics, make an unanswerable case for the view that the original authors of these quotations had no understanding of the mathematics and science they were using to support their arguments. The article is printed, with explanatory footnotes, in an appendix to the book,

Predictably, the original French version produced a storm of outrage in avant-garde circles in France. It has now been translated and published in a revised form in English. As the authors point out, the intellectual climate in English-speaking countries is different from what it is in France. The writers whom they quote are in the French mainstream and have a profound influence on higher education, the media, the publishing houses, and the intelligentsia; in England and America they are still a minority faction. Probably few Anglo-American readers will have encountered any of these writers previously. This may limit its appeal to English-speaking readers a little, but it shouldn't, because the main point that Sokal and Bricmont want to make is of wider significance.

The book is a treasure-house of examples of pretentiousness, pomposity, pseudo-profundity, and gobbledygook. Often it is difficult or impossible to understand what the quoted authors are saying; when it can be understood, it is generally wrong. The texts are dissected and their absurdities pointed out, often with the help of detailed footnotes. The general method is to take individual authors and look at each in some detail, but there is a lengthy 'intermezzo', in the form of an attack on the view, popular among some sociologists, that the truth or falsity of a statement is relative to an individual or a social group. Science, according to critics of this persuasion, is comparable to other types of discourse about reality, such as religion, myths, or astrology. Sokal and Bricmont provide ample reasons for dismissing such claims as unsustainable.

Throughout, Sokal and Bricmont keep protesting that they are not attacking those parts of their victims' writings that are not concerned with science. They remark, in a preface, that some critics say they should have done just that; why didn't they demolish the whole of postmodernism, or even all modern French philosophy? No doubt the temptation was there but I think they were wise to resist it; on science they are authoritative, but if they went beyond their area of expertise they would be wide open to attack.

This book is worth reading, even if you have no interest in the authors who are criticised and no intention of reading any of their writings. There are two reasons for this. One is that it is amusing: it contains some of the most remarkable instances of nonsense being mistaken for profundity that I have ever seen. It is hard to believe that anyone could be taken in by some of the quoted texts, yet numerous self-styled intellectuals were so taken in. How paradoxical, by the way, that French prose, so often held up to us, justifiably, as a model of clarity, should also be capable of unparalleled obscurity. I should add that Sokal's and Bricmont's own prose is a model of clarity.

The book is also worth reading by anyone who wants to learn to write, for the quoted texts provide a wonderful illustration of how not to do it. Pretentiousness, pseudo-profundity, and obscurity are not the only faults a writer can commit, of course, but they are among the most widespread, and one can learn a lot by seeing them dissected in a humorous fashion, as here. As Sokal and Bricmont remark in an Epilogue, 'It's a good idea to know what one is talking about', and 'Not all that is obscure is necessarily profound'. How true.

%T Intellectual Impostures
%S Postmodern philosophers' abuse of science
%A Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont
%I Profile Books Ltd
%C London
%D 1999
%G ISBN 1 86197 124 9
%P xiii + 276 pp
%O First published in French in 1997 by Editions Odile Jacob
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