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

By Bricmont, Jean | Free Inquiry, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.