Exposing the Emperor's New Clothes: Why We Won't Leave Postmodernism Alone

By Bricmont, Jean | Free Inquiry, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview
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Exposing the Emperor's New Clothes: Why We Won't Leave Postmodernism Alone


Bricmont, Jean, Free Inquiry


Few have been more vocal in their criticism of postmodernist academic discourse than Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal. In 1996 Sokal, professor of physics at New York University, shook up academia by submitting a parody of postmodernist thinking on natural science to the leading North American journal of cultural studies, Social Text. The parody - rife with nonsense disguised as profundity - was accepted as a serious article and was published in the spring/summer 1996 issue. Later in the May/June 1996 issue of Lingua Franca, Sokal revealed the hoax, provoking comment and debate among scholars and scientists around the world. Bricmont, a professor of physics at the University of Louvain in Belgium, has also criticized what he and Sokal believe are excesses of postmodernist discourse - chiefly the misuses (and misunderstandings) of science by nonscientists.

In their book, Intellectual Impostures (now published in both French and English by Profile Books, United Kingdom, and to appear under the title Fashionable Nonsense, by Picador Press, in the U.S.), Sokal and Bricmont offer numerous quotations from postmodernist authors demonstrating "sloppy thinking," scientific ignorance, and impressive but meaningless prose. Much of the authentic quoted material sounds like Sokal's own tongue-in-cheek imitation. For example, Sokal declares in his Social Text spoof that "the pi of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone." Universal constants no longer universal? If this is emblematic of postmodernist thinking on science, it's little wonder that two accomplished scientists have declared that enough is enough.

In the following, Bricmont answers common objections to his (and Sokal's) critique and explains why they bother.

The funniest part of the now-famous Social Text parody was not provided by the author, but by various French and American intellectuals who were quoted in the article making absurd or meaningless statements about physics or mathematics. Those quotes were selected from a much larger "dossier" compiled by Alan Sokal that we decided to publish, together with comments explaining why the statements were nonsensical, in our book, Intellectual Impostures (Fashionable Nonsense).

We believe that we have uncovered an extreme form of intellectual abuse - namely, academics trying to impress a nonscientific audience with abstruse scientific jargon that the academics themselves do not understand very well. Our goal was to show that, in some sense, the "emperor is naked" and that generations of students who had to struggle in order to understand obscure texts were sometimes right to suspect that they were wasting their time.

We have distinguished, roughly, two types of abuses:

1. The "importing" of concepts from the exact sciences in psychoanalysis, semiotics, sociology, without giving any conceptual justification.

2. The display of erudition, name-dropping, and plays on words. This derives from the postmodernist attitude: all attempts to "do science" must be given up.

Examples of these problems are plentiful throughout the relevant literature, and many of them can be found in our book. Here, however, I wish to briefly answer some of the objections that are sometimes raised against our critique and explain why such a critique is important.

ANSWERING THE COUNTER-CRITICS

Objection: Your critique is irrelevant, marginal.

Response: Thus far, the incriminating postmodernist quotes that we have cited have been rather brief. But in our book, we collect longer quotes that show that these are not just isolated mistakes. Moreover, we quote secondary sources, which amplify and analyze postmodernist writers and do so approvingly.

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