Physicists Take Philosophers to Task in Paris
The following review was published in The New York Times, October 4, 1997.
by Craig R. Whitney
n the country that invented Cartesian logic, the philosopher is king. So Alan Sokal, professor of physics at New York University, and Jean Bricmont, a colleague at the University of Louvain in Belgium, may be in big trouble.
In a book published here today, Intellectual Impostures, they argue that such revered French philosophers as Jacques Lacan, Luce Irigaray and Gilles Deleuze just don't know what they're talking about when they try to use scientific and mathematical concepts. Indeed, they dare to suggest that some postmodern philosophizing may just be "true intoxication by words, combined with complete indifference to what they mean." Professor Sokal, who has said he considers himself a leftist, insisted in a pre-publication interview in the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur that their intention was not to attack the American left but to awaken it from cult-like fascination with postmodern notions like the idea that modern scientific theories can be deconstructed like novels and debunked as sexist fallacies.
"Our goal," he and Professor Bricmont say in their book, "is precisely to say that the emperor has no clothes." But hell hath no fury like a nation of philosophers with its honor at stake, and the book was attacked even before Editions Odile Jacob officially brought it out today. "What can be the real reason for such a polemic, so far removed from present-day concerns?" one target, the philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, said in Le Nouvel Observateur. "It seems to be an anti-French intellectual enterprise."
"Faced with the aura of French thinkers in the United States, francophilia has given way to francophobia," she said. Le Monde, in an article about the book that took up an entire page, sniffed that only in American academia was "postmodernism" recognized as a philosophical-cultural movement in any event. "I am very disappointed by the nationalist tone of the reaction to the book in France," Professor Bricmont said in a telephone interview from Louvain. "Since I am not American at all, I don't think it's fair to see this as an American anti-French attack." He said they hoped to find an American publisher.
Professor Sokal is no stranger to controversy. Last year he got a respected American postmodern journal, Social Text, to publish a philosophical treatise that he later revealed was a hoax, a parody filled with scientific non sequiturs that had sailed right past infatuated editors. "I hope this book will not set off a war between France and the United States, or France and Belgium for that matter," he said in New York City before heading to Europe this week. "I hope it will provoke a discussion of the underlying issues."
That may not be easy. Even in France, where Descartes, Diderot and Voltaire have long been held up as models of the cardinal French virtue of clarity, texts like the following, by Mr. Deleuze, were cited as evidence of his brilliance after his suicide last year: "An exhausted man is much more than a weary man. Does he exhaust the possible because he is himself exhausted, or is he exhausted because he has exhausted the possible? He exhausts himself by exhausting the possible, and inversely."
Professor Sokal and his colleague make only passing reference to that kind of wordplay, insisting that all they are qualified to criticize is the misuse of science and mathematicsnotably by Mr. Lacan, once, in a published lecture that compared the male sex organ to an imaginary number, the square root of -1. Postulating that a signifier, S, divided by what is signified, s, equals a statement, s, Mr. Lacan said that if the signifier is -1, the statement becomes the square root of minus one. "Thus the erectile organ comes to symbolize the place of enjoyment, not in itself, or even in the form of an image, but as a part lacking in the desired image," he said. "That is why it is equivalent to the square root of minus one of the signification produced above, of the enjoyment that it restores by the coefficient of its statement to the function of the lack of signifier -1."
Get it? Neither did the two physics professors. "Even if his 'algebra' made sense, obviously the 'signifier,' the 'signified' and the 'statement' contained in it are not numbers," they wrote. There was also no attempt to explain what the male sex organ had to do with the square root of minus one. "We do recognize that it is worrisome to see our erectile organ identified with the square root of minus one," they wrote.
Fragments taken out of context, perhaps? "His analogies between psychoanalysis and mathematics are more arbitrary than can possibly be imagined, and he gives absolutely no empirical or conceptual justification (neither here, nor elsewhere in his work) for them," they wrote. "Finally, as far as showing off superficial erudition and manipulating sentences devoid of sense is concerned, we think the above texts speak for themselves."
The Belgian-born psychoanalyst and philosopher Luce Irigaray comes in for an equally hard time with her theories, eagerly adopted in some American feminist circles, that much science is sex-biased. Not that the idea should be dismissed out of hand, the authors say, but with better logic than she uses when suggesting that male science favors solid mechanics over fluid mechanics because men do not menstruate. "Irigaray, in sum, does not understand the nature of the physical and mathematical problems posed in fluid mechanics," Professors Sokal and Bricmont conclude.
In a long attempt to come to grips with Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's writings, they quote extensively from passages running along these lines: "It happens that the constant-limit can itself appear as a link in the whole of the universe in which all the parts are subject to finite conditions (quantity of movement, force, energy )." The two iconoclasts say: "Obviously, it could be retorted that these texts are just profound, and that we do not understand them. But on examination, they contain a high density of scientific terms used out of context and without apparent logic." But Roger-Pol Droit countered in a review in Le Monde: "By insisting that everything that is not mathematically proved or experimentally confirmed is 'devoid of sense.' They may be in favor, to fight the distortions of the 'politically correct,' of an equally impoverished 'scientifically correct.' Is recess over?" Maybe. "The ultimate validity of our criticism," Professor Sokal said, "has to be judged author by author, case by case."
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