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TLS January 10, 1997
Sir, - Steve Fuller (Letters, December 20) acts perhaps out of excessive modesty in failing to mention the fact that, as a contributor to the special "Science Wars" issue of Social Text in which Alan Sokal's parody appeared, he is better placed than most to explain and defend that journal's editorial decisions. Unfortunately, his letter is an example of the sort of careless argument that my article deplored.
Fuller claims never to have met a postmodernist who denies that there is a distinction between what is true and what is false. His formulation omits the crucial word "objective"; and he neglects to mention that I also consider postmodernism as a thesis about justification rather than truth. According to Fuller, postmodernists believe only the far more innocuous thesis that a belief's being true doesn't explain its acceptance or persistence. It's certainly encouraging to hear that no one asserts the extreme and, as I argued, incoherent thesis about truth. Alas, Fuller's claim here would appear to be an instance of what Raymond Tallis calls, in his eloquent and impassioned letter (January 3), one of those "U-turns conducted with such guile that no one feels the centrifugal force."
Fuller doesn't tell us whether he thinks that the truth of a belief doesn't necessarily explain its acceptance or persistence, or that it never explains it. The former thesis is so obvious that no one has ever denied it; if the truth of a belief necessarily explained its acceptance, no one would ever believe anything false. So Fuller had better mean the second thesis. But how are we to understand the claim that the truth of a belief never explains its acceptance or persistence? If I believe that there is a cup on my table, and there is a cup on my table, can't that fact sometimes enter into the causal explanation of why I believe what I believe? If, on the other hand, the claim is supposed to be that I can never justify my belief that the cup is on my table by appealing to that very fact, whose view is that supposed to contradict? To appeal to a fact, in order to justify one's belief in that very fact, would be obviously circular and self-serving. What one appeals to is not the fact itself, but the evidence at one's disposal. So I have no idea what interesting thesis Dr. Fuller wishes to attribute to postmodernism, nor how he proposes to explain postmodernist denials of the distinction between science and myth, fact and superstition, explicit examples of which are cited in my article.
Fuller also seeks to defend Social Text's decision to publish Sokal's essay by suggesting that it stemmed from their justified view that it was "sufficiently well crafted to merit academic discussion." Has he not read Sokal's essay, or even my brief summary of it? The essay contains literally dozens of claims that anyone with the least familiarity with their content would see right through, including inter alia: that the geometrical constant pi is a variable; that complex number theory, which dates from the nineteenth century and is taught to schoolchildren, is a new and speculative area of mathematical physics; that the axiom of choice in set theory is intimately related to the issue about freedom of choice in the abortion debate. Does Dr. Fuller really wish to claim that an essay that is basically a tissue of such transparent nonsense is "sufficiently well crafted to merit academic discussion?"
What is much more plausible is that the editors of Social Text were simply not qualified to judge whether Sokal's essay merited discussion and that this fact didn't hinder them in the least. This peculiar behavior seems to me call for special explanation, and I can think of nothing more compelling than to appeal to the independently confirmable fact that they have bought in on a set of misguided philosophical views that allow them to pooh-pooh the importance of reasonable argument, plausible evidence and factual correctness. There are, surely, less charitable explanations also available.
As for David Weissman's contention (Letters, December 27) that Social Text's relativism is akin to the views of Carnap, Wittgenstein, Quine and Putnam, one can at least be thankful that he does not try to beat the sort of hasty tactical retreat that Steve Fuller attempts. However, it would take more than a letter to sort out the various confusions that lead Weissman blithely to rope these important but disparate thinkers together, and to equate their views with the sort of simple-minded relativisms at issue.
Finally, Raymond Tallis wonders whether he is alone in agreeing with the general tenor of my remarks and arguments. I can assure Dr. Tallis, on the basis of the very large correspondence I've received, that he is not.