Alan Sokal is known for having written a splendid parody known as the "Sokal Hoax", a paper submitted and published in the journal "Social Text" whichAlan Sokal is known for having written a splendid parody known as the "Sokal Hoax", a paper submitted and published in the journal "Social Text" which criticizes certain academic trends in literary criticism, philosophy, and sociology, such trends being largely influenced by certain French philosophers. Categorizing these trends and philosophies under the regrettably vague moniker "postmodernism" (a term whose vagueness owes itself in no small part to the tendency for obscurity, inconsistency, and incoherence of philosophies so called), Sokal and co-author Jean Bricmont take to task some of the most famous and influential of these so called postmodernist (PoMo) thinkers. Just about every chapter in the book is devoted to a particular PoMo thinker, the exceptions being a couple of fascinating "intermezzo" chapters dealing with epistemic relativism and chaos theory respectively. The criticisms of the PoMos was confined to abuses of concepts in math and science.
The chapters dealing with the PoMo thinkers consist of textual excerpts analyzed by Sokal and Bricmont. These excerpts are painful to read. They exhibit what the authors call "superficial erudition", an obscure and technical verbiage laden form of writing that turns out to be either incoherent or trivial when unpacked. A person reading such passages who doesn't understand the technical math and science concepts invoked may well think "wow, this is so profound that it goes over my head", and that seems to be one of the motivations behind this kind of writing, to wow laypeople with superficial, pedantic intellectuality. In other words it is intellectual masturbation. In the quoted excerpts from the PoMos, it always turns out that they don't understand the technical concepts that are using, or that the use of them is gratuitous, that the comparisons and analogies made between a math or science concept and something in literature or sociology is not adequately justified.
I found the first intermezzo chapter dealing with epistemic relativism to be the most interesting chapter in the book. Feyerabend's "epistemic anarchy" as put forward in his putative "Against Method" is analyzed, as is a radical interpretation of Quinean underdetermination and incomensurability, and Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions". ...more
I read this book around 9 years ago, so I'm pretty fuzzy on the details, but this book was perhaps the most important, life-changing read of my life.I read this book around 9 years ago, so I'm pretty fuzzy on the details, but this book was perhaps the most important, life-changing read of my life. My interest in science and rationality is owed more to this book than any other. In short, this book is a classic in the promotion of science and rational scepticism. As I recall, Sagan takes a more diplomatic approach towards religion than the New Atheists, arguing that religion is fine insofar that it is amenable to scientific discovery. I'm going to have to reread this in the near future to see how well my fond rememberances stack up to a contemporized analysis. ...more