Physicists Take Philosophers to Task in Paris (N.Y. Times)

Anders Ekeland (
Sat, 11 Oct 1997 17:41:46 +0200 (MET DST)

Som en etterslenger til debatten om postmodernisme, en snutt fra New York
> October 4, 1997
>Physicists Take Philosophers to Task in Paris
> PARIS -- In 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 Friday, "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."
> Sokal, who has said he considers himself a leftist, insisted in an
> 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 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 Friday.
> "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," 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.
> 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 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."
> 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 mathematics -- notably by 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, 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," 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, at least if these words
> are thought."
> 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," Sokal said, "has to
> be judged author by author, case by case."
> Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company