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A Letter to the Editor

Steve Fuller

Times Literary Sup..  20 December 1996
page 17

Sir -- Although I have never considered myself much of a postmodernist, the more I have read attacks on the decision of Social Text's editors to publish Alan Sokal's bogus article, the more I sympathize with the editors. Paul Boghossian (December 13) provides a perfect example of the source of my irritation. If we should beware of cultural studies scholars passing themselves off as experts on cultural implications of contemporary science, we should even be more wary of philosophers who try to reduce cross-disciplinary scholarship to lessons in elementary logic.

Postmodernists may talk a lot about blurring 'genres', but I do not recall any of their number ever saying they wanted to blur the difference between true and false. Their claim, rather, is that the difference between true and false -- however clearly one wishes to draw it -- does not explain either the initial acceptance or the subsequent persistence of beliefs. The reason is that the embrace of truth and avoidance of falsehood is something that everyone claims for themselves and can usually demonstrate to their own satisfaction. The deeper question is how does a particular way of drawing the true/false distinction come to predominate over other possible ways. An adequate answer transcends the resources of logic and requires some understanding of the history and sociology of knowledge production. From this perspective, Boghossian's brief on behalf of 'realism' and 'objectivity' is, as philosophers like to say, 'true but trivial'.

Not surprisingly, then, when Boghossian tries to find a reason for why postmodernists appear to deny the true/false distinction, he is forced into a far-fetched speculation about their need to believe whatever satisfies their political prejudices. He tries to make this speculation stick in the case of the Social Text editors by presuming that to accept an article for publication is to agree with its conclusions. Unfortunately, had Boghossian read the introduction to the offending Social Text issue, he would have noticed that the editors failed to mention Sokal's piece altogether in their attempt to lace together the political interests that unify the issue's contributors. Considering Sokal's strained efforts to play to the gallery by evoking a 'liberatory science' led by cultural studies scholars, this fact is rather striking. It would seem, then, that the editors are guilty of no more than being able to tell the difference between what they agree with and what they are willing to publish.

Although I, unlike Boghossian, do not presume to be privy to the psychological make-up of Social Text's editors, their actions seem to imply that they believed Sokal's piece to be sufficiently well-crafted to merit academic discussion, which presumably includes discussion of whether or not its inferences from scientific to cultural matters are warranted. These inferences may well be unwarranted, but I would stand behind the editors in arguing that it is better to have this point revealed in open debate than to have had the article censored in the editorial board room. To my mind, Sokal does the most damage to postmodernism when his own designation of his piece as a 'hoax' is taken as the authoritative reading of it.

STEVE FULLER Department of Sociology & Social Policy, University of Durham. END

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