Some brief comments on Michael Bérubé's review of Beyond the Hoax

(Bérubé's review was published in the American Scientist, January-February 2009)

Excerpt of an e-mail from Alan Sokal to Michael Bérubé (November 22, 2008).

Dear Michael,

I agree that it's good to be in contact again, after all these years!


I think your sociological explanation of the allure of anti-science and anti-Enlightenment ideas makes a lot of sense. I will have to look up What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts? (when I'm back in London or New York -- I doubt I can find it here in Paris!) to read the detailed explanation. Many thanks for the reference.

But I think the last part of your review is a bit off the mark, because (unlike Harris) I most definitely do not advocate a realist view of ethics in my book. Quite simply, I do not feel I know enough about the philosophy of ethics to adopt any position on the foundations of ethics. I therefore explicitly limit my philosophical discussion to cognitive questions (i.e. questions of fact) and avoid any discussion of ethics or aesthetics.

Chapter 3, p. 106:

Let me make one clarification from the beginning. A lot of the discussion this afternoon may come to revolve around the word "relativism", and it's important to understand that this word is used commonly to refer to three very different things: cognitive relativism (that is, relativism about truth and knowledge); ethical or moral relativism (about what is good); and aesthetic relativism (about what is beautiful artistically). I think it's very important to keep these three issues separate. My remarks in this talk will concern only cognitive relativism. Obviously that's not the end of the story: in our political work we have to make assertions both about facts and about values. But I'm going to have to stick to what I feel competent to discuss.
Chapter 6, p. 174:
One may distinguish different forms of relativism according to the nature of the statement in question: cognitive relativism when one is dealing with an assertion of purported fact (that is, about what exists or is claimed to exist); moral or ethical relativism when one is dealing with a value judgment (about what is good or bad, desirable or pernicious); and aesthetic relativism when one is dealing with an artistic judgment (about what is beautiful or ugly, pleasant or unpleasant). Here we shall be concerned only with cognitive relativism and not with moral or aesthetic relativism, which raise very different issues.
Chapter 8, p. 265, footnote 7:
Please note the limitation to questions of fact. I intentionally exclude from my purview questions of ethics, aesthetics, ultimate purpose, etc.
Chapter 10, p. 447:
In this book I have been at pains to distinguish clearly between factual matters and ethical or aesthetic matters, because the epistemological issues they raise are so different. And I have restricted my discussion almost entirely to the former, simply because of the limitations of my own competence.

Now, I think it's fair to say that this avoidance of the philosophical foundations of ethics constitutes a hole in my book, because I clearly am interested in political questions (not just in the pure philosophy of science), and politics obviously involves disputes both about factual matters and about ethical values. So my argument is clearly incomplete to the extent that I am unable to provide a theory of ethics in at least the same kind of detail that I provide for the philosophy of science (and cognitive knowledge in general). But I don't think it's fair to saddle me with views about the philosophy of ethics that I have not even discussed, much less endorsed. (As far as I can see, a realist about factual matters can hold, without contradiction, a wide variety of views about the foundations of ethics -- there is no necessary linkage, as far as I can see.)


OK, I think that's all for now. Let's keep in touch!

Best wishes, Alan