The Furor over Impostures Intellectuelles

What is the fuss all about?

by Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal

[Published, under the title "What is all the fuss about?", in the Times Literary Supplement (London), 17 October 1997, p. 17. The bibliographical footnotes did not appear in the TLS, but are included here for the convenience of the reader.]

The publication in France of our book Impostures Intellectuelles [1] appears to have created a small storm in certain intellectual circles. According to Jon Henley in The Guardian, we have shown that ``modern French philosophy is a load of old tosh.''[2] According to Robert Maggiori in Libération, we are humourless scientistic pedants who correct grammatical errors in love letters.[3] We shall try to explain here why neither is the case.

Some commentators go farther, attacking not our arguments but our alleged motivations for writing the book. Julia Kristeva, writing in Le Nouvel Observateur, accuses us of spreading ``disinformation'' as part of an anti-French politico-economic campaign[4]; she was even quoted (we hope misquoted) by the Italian daily Corriere della Sera as saying that we should undergo psychiatric treatment.[5] Vincent Fleury and Yun Sun Limet, again in Libération, accuse us of seeking to divert research funds from the social to the natural sciences.[6] These defences are curious: for even if our motivations were indeed as ascribed (and they most certainly aren't), how would that affect the validity or invalidity of our arguments? We have the modest hope that calmer heads will soon prevail among both our supporters and our critics, so that the debate can focus on the substantive content of our book.

Which is what? The book grew out of the now-famous hoax in which one of us published, in the American cultural-studies journal Social Text, a parody article chock-full of nonsensical, but unfortunately authentic, quotes about physics and mathematics by prominent French and American intellectuals.[7] However, only a small fraction of the ``dossier'' discovered during Sokal's library research could be included in the parody. After showing this larger dossier to scientist and non-scientist friends, we became (slowly) convinced that it might be worth making it available to a wider audience. We wanted to explain, in non-technical terms, why the quotes are absurd or, in many cases, simply meaningless; and we wanted also to discuss the cultural circumstances that enabled these discourses to achieve such prominence and to remain, thus far, unexposed. Hence our book, the noise and the furore.

But what exactly do we claim in our book? Neither too much nor too little. We show that famous intellectuals such as Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Jean Baudrillard and Gilles Deleuze have repeatedly abused scientific concepts and terminology: either using scientific ideas totally out of context, without giving the slightest empirical or conceptual justification -- note that we are not against extrapolating concepts from one field to another, but only against extrapolations made without argument -- or throwing around scientific jargon to their non-scientist readers without any regard for its relevance or even its meaning. We make no claim that this invalidates the rest of their work, on which we are explicitly agnostic.

Note that we do not criticise the mere use of words like ``chaos'' (which, after all, goes back to the Bible) outside of their scientific context. Rather, we concentrate on the arbitrary invocation of technical notions such as Gödel's theorem or compact sets or non-commuting operators. Also, we have nothing against metaphors; we merely remark that the role of a metaphor is usually to clarify an unfamiliar concept by relating it to a more familiar one, not the reverse. Suppose, for example, that in a theoretical physics seminar we were to explain a very technical concept in quantum field theory by comparing it to the concept of aporia in Derridean literary theory. Our audience of physicists would wonder, quite reasonably, what purpose such a metaphor served (whether or not it was apposite), if not merely to display our own erudition. In the same way, we fail to see the advantage of invoking, even metaphorically, scientific concepts that one oneself understands only shakily when addressing a non-specialist audience. Might the goal be to pass off as profound a rather banal philosophical or sociological observation, by dressing it up in fancy scientific jargon?

A secondary target of our book is epistemic relativism, namely the idea -- which is much more widespread in the Anglo-Saxon world than in France -- that modern science is nothing more than a ``myth'', a ``narration'' or a ``social construction'' among many others.[8] (Let us emphasise that our discussion is limited to epistemic/cognitive relativism; we do not address the more difficult issues of moral or aesthetic relativism.) Besides some gross abuses (e.g. Irigaray), we dissect a number of confusions that are rather frequent in postmodernist and cultural-studies circles: for example, abusing ideas from the philosophy of science such as the underdetermination of theory by evidence or the theory-dependence of observation in order to support radical relativism.

We are accused of being arrogant scientists, but our view of the hard sciences' role is in fact rather modest. Wouldn't it be nice (for us mathematicians and physicists, that is) if Gödel's theorem or relativity theory did have immediate and deep implications for the study of society? Or if the axiom of choice could be used to study poetry? Or if topology had something to do with the human psyche?

The reaction in France thus far has been mixed. Kristeva and others have accused us of being Francophobes. But for us, ideas have no nationality. There is no such thing as French thought or any country's thought, though there may of course be fashions and fads in certain places and certain times. It is understandable that the individuals criticised in our book would like to paint it as a global attack against French culture, but there is no reason for their compatriots to fall for such a maneuver. No one should ever feel obliged to follow the ``national line'' of the place where he or she happens to have been born, and no one has the right to define such a ``line'' for others. And as for the notion of ``French thought'', what do philosophers such as Diderot and Deleuze have in common, anyway (apart from the language)?

Nor do we attack all of contemporary French philosophy. We limit ourselves to abuses of physics and mathematics. Such well-known thinkers as Althusser, Barthes and Foucault -- who, as readers of the TLS will be well aware, have always had their supporters and detractors on both sides of the Channel -- appear in our book only in a minor role, as cheerleaders for the texts we criticise.

Pascal Bruckner, writing in Le Nouvel Observateur in defence of Baudrillard, contrasted ``an Anglo-Saxon culture based on facts and information'' with ``a French culture that plays rather on interpretation and style''.[9] Coming from a British or American commentator, that assertion would be an expression of national prejudice, an insulting confusion of haute culture with haute couture. Is it any better coming from a Frenchman?

But these ``nationalist'' reactions are not typical. Many French scientists of course agree with us, but many French social scientists and literary intellectuals do as well. That makes sense: far from being an attack on the human sciences or philosophy in general, the purpose of our book is to support serious workers in these fields by publicly calling attention to cases of charlatanism. Should criticism of Lysenko be viewed as an attack on biology? And if we had refrained from pointing out these abuses -- even though we regularly criticise much less blatant errors in our own research fields[10] -- wouldn't that constitute a insulting double standard, as if to say ``Why bother, the social sciences are all nonsense anyway''?

The revelations contained in our book should serve merely as an eye-opener. Bertrand Russell once explained that, having been educated at Cambridge within a Hegelian philosophical tradition, he changed his mind when he read what the master (Hegel) had written about mathematics, which he regarded (rightly) as ``muddle-headed nonsense''.[11] This doesn't prove that what Hegel says about other subjects is rubbish, but it does make one think. Especially when beliefs are accepted on the basis of fashion or dogma, they are sensitive to the exposure of even a marginal part of them. Consider, by contrast, Newton's work: it is estimated that 90% of his writings deal with alchemy or mysticism. But, so what? The rest survives because it is based on solid empirical and rational arguments. If the same can be said for the work of our authors, then our findings are of marginal relevance. But if these writers have become international stars for sociological rather than intellectual reasons, and in part because they are masters of language and can impress their audience with a clever abuse of sophisticated terminology -- non-scientific as well as scientific -- then what we say may indeed be useful.

Jean Bricmont is professor of theoretical physics at the University of Louvain, Belgium.
Alan Sokal is professor of physics at New York University.


Paris: Éditions Odile Jacob, 1997. An English translation is currently in preparation.

Jon Henley, ``Euclidean, Spinozist or existentialist? Er, no. It's simply a load of old tosh'', The Guardian, 1 October 1997, p. 3.

Robert Maggiori, ``Fumée sans feu'', Libération, 30 September 1997, p. 29.

Julia Kristeva, ``Une désinformation'', Le Nouvel Observateur, 25 September 1997, p. 122.

Ulderico Munzi, `` `Francesi, intellettuali impostori': Americani all'attacco di Parigi'', Corriere della Sera, 26 September 1997. Julia Kristeva's views are quoted as follows:
La prima a reagire con vigore, anche perché è viva e vegeta e intravede un inutile ``crimine di lesa maestà'', è Julia Kristeva, filosofa e critica letteraria. Dice: ``Il sandinista Sokal e Bricmont fanno disinformazione. Oltre tutto sono dei francofobi''. A suo parere, dovrebbero sottoporsi entrambi a cure psichiatriche.

Vincent Fleury and Yun Sun Limet, ``L'escroquerie Sokal-Bricmont'', Libération, 6 October 1997, p. 5. For a reply to the dishonest claims in this article, see Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal, ``Réponse à Vincent Fleury et Yun Sun Limet'', Libération, 18-19 October 1997, p. 5.

Alan D. Sokal, ``Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity'', Social Text #46/47 (spring/summer 1996), pp. 217-252.

Concerning misuses of the notion of ``social construction'', see Ian Hacking, ``Taking bad arguments seriously'', London Review of Books, 21 August 1997, pp. 14-16.

Pascal Bruckner, ``Le risque de penser'', Le Nouvel Observateur, 25 September 1997, p. 121.

See, for example, the critique by one of us of the work of Prigogine and Stengers: Jean Bricmont, ``Science of chaos or chaos in science?'', Physicalia Magazine 17, no. 3-4 (1995). Available on-line in gzip'ed (compressed) Postscript.

Bertrand Russell, ``My Mental Development'', in The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell, edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp (New York: Tudor, 1951), p. 11.