Impostures intellectuelles

Posted: November 29, 2018 in Uncategorized
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Impostures intellectuelles.jpgI was first amused then horrified and finally saddened by reading Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science, where physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont review some of the complete nonsense written on scientific subjects by French intellectuals of great media and often academic success, roughly abscribed, in the authors’ words, to «the admittedly neboulous Zeitgeist that we have called “postmodernism”».

To my fault and dishonor, the book reached my attention only today, more than twenty years after its first publication in French in 1997.

From the late Sixties to the early Nineties, French authors Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Bruno Latour, Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio and many of their sometimes religiously devoted disciples wrote totally meaningless lengthy pages trying to import mathematical and physical concepts into their disciplines, such as psychoanalysis, linguistics or philosophy.

In so doing, they showed superficial and often outdated knowledge of most of the terms employed, such as e.g. function, abscissa, chaos, infinite, velocity, topologyuniversal constant, transfinite cardinals, irrational numbers, imaginary numbers, Gödel‘s theorems, Riemann’s or euclidean geometry and many more. Surprisingly, scientific naïveté did not prevent them from stuffing many of their writings, including the most important and celebrated, with loads of scientific terminology.

Perhaps they did that with the honest intention of showing the applicability of certain scientific concepts in their disciplines. In such case, however, they should have as a minimum explained (if not proved) such presumed applicability. But they never did it.

Help yourself through this PDF of the book or, as I warmly suggest, get a fresh copy from the library or bookstore, and watch

>>> Lacan meander in “psychoanalytic topology” (pages 19-24); confuse irrational numbers with imaginary numbers (25); write ludicrous formulae (which make the authors suspect that he must be pulling his reader’s leg, page 26); build up an imaginary link between mathematical logic and linguistics (30); and essentially show off a very superficial erudition (36);

>>> Deleuze and Guattari spit out words like chaos, abscissa, function or particle accelerator in complete disregard of ther respective scientific meanings and without any purpose other than perhaps a mysterious metaphorical one which they do not explain (pages 156-157); ignore the evolution of calculus in the previous two centuries (160-161); delirate about biology (166-167);

>>> Kristeva confuse the set [0,1] of Boolean logic with the interval [0,1] containing infinite real numbers (pages 39-40); apply the axiom of choice, which she does not understand, to the study of poetic texts, offering no justification whatsoever, whether literal or metaphorical (43-44); and ultimately «attempt to impress the reader with fancy words that she obviously does not understand» (page 48);

>>>> Irigaray think that Einstein was interested in “accelerations without electromagnetic reequilibrations” (a nonsense concept, page 107); confuse special relativity and general relativity (107); argue that E = mc2 is a “sexist equation” because “it favors the speed of light over other [undefined, NdT] speeds that are vital for us” (109); ravage of fluid mechanics (110-116); mess with the ABC of mathematical logic (117-120);

>>> Latour discuss Relativity without understanding the concept of frame of reference (125-128); and close a messed up essay on the subject claiming to have “taught something” to Einstein (130)

Once caught with their pants down, the “postmodernist” stars replied that scientific terminology in their writings is used metaphorically and should not be taken literally. At times, they went as far as to claim that their texts are actually neither straight nor metaphorical and that “hard science” criticists simply do not have the cultural instruments to understand.horror

Alas, for those of you who are at least in their sophomore year studying math or physics or chemistry, there is an extremely simple way to sort out that polemy: just read the pages I pointed to above

Eventually, the stars’ defenders stated that Sokal and Bricmont’s book was part of a wider American conservative attack on leftist French intellectuals. Um… What’s clear to me, and to any other reader who can tell a Taylor series from a Mercedes Benz, is that even if the book were handcrafted in Langley, VA, the original texts contained therein have never been disowned: that is, the CIA might have fabricated the commentary, yet the source French text is there for us to contemplate, unfortunately shall I say. Deleuze’s Logique du sens or Lacan’s séminaires have never been republished after removing their loads of pseudoscientific stupidities.

Authors Sokal and Bricmont are striken by the fact that those intellectuals did not bother to offer explanations of how the various scientific concepts they brought up (however ackwardly) could be applied to their disciplines: how those dei ex machina might turn out useful in psychoanalysis or linguistics, that is to say.

On my part, I was shocked that someone who deliberately abuses concepts which she is clueless upon and stuffs them into texts merely aimed to épater les bourgeois may not only become famous in the media but win tenures at major Parisian universities 😓. Or are these excesses over, after the fury of the Seventies?

And then, the million-dollar question: are those occasional slips? Accidents that can happen to anyone, including great people, even in writing, and that do not stain one’s complete works?

What the hell! We knew it all the time that people like Lacan or Deleuze were not interested in science, but who cares? It did not prevent them from being important and profound. I too suspect, with Polonius, that Truth may be a Liar; with Dylan, that Truth is a drunken speech; with Hamlet, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt in science.

Yet: one who can be a studied scoundrel for 50 pages, can then be credible for the remaining 250?

And: if they did not reverse a little after the book in question, does it mean (a) that they really believed the crap they had written or (b) that they were so glorified and ostentatious to consider themselves safe from radical criticism?

(And then Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, incensing them for those nonsense-laden works… My Goodness! 😭)

Post scriptum –

Physics hystorian Mara Beller wrote (on Physics Today in 1999) that it was not entirely fair to blame contemporary postmodern philosophers for drawing nonsensical conclusions from quantum physics, since many such conclusions were drawn by some of the leading quantum physicists themselves, such as Bohr or Heisenberg when they ventured into philosophy. True. But neither Bohr or Heisenberg got their fame and academic positions for writing nonsense: they started bullshitting after becoming legends…

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