Profile of Alan Sokal

A talk wth the author of the Sokal hoax. Some interesting excerpts:

… after the Social Text affair, most analytically-minded philosophers embraced Sokal as an ally. “The reaction from philosophers, at least in the English-speaking world, was generally supportive,” he says. “Most philosophers in the English-speaking world don’t go for relativism in general and certainly don’t go for the extreme, sloppy versions of it that you get from post-modernist oriented literary critics. Philosophers have been critical of that sort of sloppy philosophy for a long time. There was the famous debate in the New York Review of Books between John Searle and Jacques Derrida. So most philosophers were genuinely supportive.”

But I wonder if they should be. Just as his kind words about what philosophers of science could contribute to physics masks the fact that, actually, it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly they have contributed, so the hoax and its aftermath in a sense diminishes philosophy by showing that you don’t need to be an experienced professor with a detailed knowledge of the subject to wade in and settle some pretty big philosophical scores.

“I should make clear that I don’t think my parody article settles anything,” says Sokal. “It doesn’t by itself prove much – that one journal was sloppy. So it wasn’t the parody itself that proved it, it was the things that I and other people wrote afterward which I believe showed the sloppiness of the philosophy that a lot of postmodernist literary theory types were writing. But again, I wasn’t the first person to make those criticisms. It was only after the fact that I went back into the literature and found philosophers had made many of these criticisms long before me. All I did in a certain sense was to find a better public relations method than they did …

People sometimes unjustly accuse Harris and Dawkins at least of being strident when in fact all they’re doing is refusing our culture’s double standard for religion. The double standard is you can say more or less anything you want about Tories or Labour, about Republicans or Democrats; about capitalists or socialists; but you can’t say anything even remotely critical about a religion. Now why not? If you read Harris’s book or Dawkins’s book – certainly if you read what I’ve written – you don’t find anything half-way as harsh about religion as you read everyday in the paper about politics.”

When thinking about why Sokal gets involved with these debates, it’s important to remember his political motivations. Sokal is a man of the left who once spent a few summers teaching maths at the National University of Nicaragua during the Sandinistas’ rule. Underlying his work outside of physics is a strong conviction that it is a disaster for the left to abandon a commitment to reason.

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4 Responses to “Profile of Alan Sokal”

  1. THR Says:

    Sokal’s right – it was a good hoax, but it didn’t prove much. The postmodern turn hasn’t just influenced the left, either – it was Bush Jnr who said around 2003 that the US ‘makes its own reality’.
    And Sokal’s got several things wrong in his later attacks on pomo, and the things he got right (attacks on Irigary, for instance, and her insistence of ‘white male science’) were fish in a barrel stuff. So Sokal may be justified in criticising some aspects of Derrida’s work (like the verbiage), but misses the occasional (but important) kernel of truth that comes through. Likewise, Sokal’s critique of Lacan was wrongheaded. Lacan used topology throughout his career as an analogy of certain conceptions of the unconscious. This owed as much to Hegel’s Science of Logic as it did to mathematics, but Sokal thinks that Lacan is doing something radically unscientific, ‘relativist’ and meaningless. For these reasons, the kneejerk dismissal of pomo, whether on the left or elsewhere, is more a sign of ignorance than ‘reason’, which isn’t to say that criticism is unjustified.

  2. THR Says:

    I should also say that some people on the left are in denial about the fact that ‘pure’ class-based leftism has been in decline since around the 1950s. This isn’t to say it’s irrelevant, but it doesn’t hold centre-stage on every issue. On the other hand, a range of political movements, like feminism, the civil rights movement, and the anti-colonial struggles have emerged in the meantime, all of which are in some sense ‘postmodern’, but none of which ought to be dismissed merely because they don’t fit some cartoonish Marxist template.

  3. Jacksonfour Says:

    Obviously no need to post that comment or this one. 😉

  4. ufc Says:

    Get back to blogging thanks, you lazy chopstick.

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