Psicoanálisis, Ciencia y Posmodernismo

Science, psychoanalysis and post-modernism
(About the book "Impostures Intellectuelles" by A. Sokal and J. Bricmont)
Michel Sauval

First Part: The limits of Sokal’s Critique

"The Sokal’s Hoax"

The first thing to point out is that Sokal did not mince his words in his parody. With the pompous title : "Transgressing the Boundaries, Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" , it begins by stating that the objective reality does not exit , that the prejudice in favor of an independent world from our conscience should be discouraged and whose properties would be independent from any individual , and that the physical reality - as the social reality - would be anything but "a linguistic and social construction" (she holds , for example , that the p of Euclides or the constant G of Newton would have succumbed to the historical reality).

In a later article , entitled "A physicist experiments with cultural studies" , published in the May/June issue in 1996 of "Lingua Franca" , A. Sokal reports his parody ( By doing so , Sokal tried to prove the magazine’s lack of seriousness for having accepted the publication of an article which holds such positions , and , by extension , the general lack of seriousness of those who hold the post-modernist positions.

In his own words ,

" Why did I do it? While my method was satirical , my motivation is utterly serious. What concerns me is the proliferation , not just the nonsense and sloppy thinking per se , but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking : one that denies the existence of objective realities , or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance. At its best, a journal like Social Text raises important questions that no scientist should ignore - questions , for example , about how corporate and government funding influence scientific work. Unfortunately , epistemic relativism does little to further the discussion of these matters.

In short , my concern over the spread of subjectivist thinking is both intellectual and political. Intellectually , the problem with such doctrines is that they are false (when not simple meaningless). There is a real world : its properties are not merely social constructions : facts and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise? And yet , much contemporary academic theorizing consists precisely of attempts to blur these obvious truths - the utter absurdity of it all being concealed through obscure and pretentious language.

Social Text’s acceptance of my article exemplifies the intellectual arrogance of Theory - meaning post-modernist literary theory - carried to its logical extreme. No wonder they didn’t bother to consult a physicist . If all is discourse and "text" , then knowledge of the real world is just another branch of Cultural Studies . If , moreover , all is rhetoric and "language games" , then intellectual logical consistency is superfluous too: a patina of theoretical sophistication serves equally well. Incomprehensibility becomes a virtue; allusions , metaphors and puns substitute for evidence and logic. My own article is , if anything , an extremely modest example of thus well-established genre."

Together with this rejection of the post-modernist relativism , Sokal adds a political worry :

"Politically , I’m angered because most (though not all) of this silliness is emanating from the self -proclaimed Left. We’re witnessing here a profound historical volte-face. For most of the past two centuries , the Left has been identified with science and against obscurantism; we have believed that rational thought and the fearless analysis of objective reality (both natural and social) are incisive tools for combating the mystifications promoted by the powerful - not to mention being desirable human ends in their own right. The recent turn of many "progressive " or "leftist" academic humanists and social scientists toward one or another form of epistemic relativism betrays this worthy heritage and undermines the already fragile prospects for progressive social critique. Theorizing about "the social construction of reality" won’t help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming. Nor can we combat false ideas in history , sociology , economics and politics if we reject the notions of truth and falsity.

The results of my little experiment demonstrate, at the very least , that some fashionable sectors of the American academic Left have been getting intellectually lazy.

( ... )

I say this not in glee but in sadness. After all , I’m a leftist too (under the Sandinista government I taught mathematics at the National University of Nicaragua). On nearly all practical political issues - including many concerning science and technology - I’m on the same side as the Social Text editors. But I’m a leftist (and feminist) because evidence and logic , not in spite of it. Why should the right wing be allowed to monopolize the intellectual high ground?"

This position was reaffirmed by Sokal in an article in "Le Monde" on 31 January , 1997 . In this article he expressed :

"I did not write my parody to defend the so-called barbarian hordes of sociology , but to defend the leftist American University against the irrationalist tendencies which , for being in fashion , are not less suicidal."

In an articled published in "The Times Literary Supplement" on 17 October , 1997 -- after the book written together with Bricmont had appeared -- entitled "The furor over impostures Intellectuelles" , he said :

"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."

I think that this political dimension of Sokal’s objectives must be underlined. First , because the debate made by the press tends to ignore him , diminishing it to a simple debate between "hard" sciences and the so-called "charlatans" (I even think Sokal himself gives in to this evident pressure by shifting this focal point of the debate) , and this angle reduces the effect that the famous "hoax" could have otherwise. Second , because this angle is one of the most important ones in order to deal consistently with a criticism of post-modernists , taking into account that these belong to a political current (with some international organizations , etc.) rather than to a school of thought. In "A plea for reason , evidence and logic" , published in "New Politics" ( issue number 6 during the winter 1997 , Sokal said ,

"What I believe this debate is principally about -- and what I want to focus on tonight -- is the nature of truth , reason and objectivity : issues that I believe are crucial to the future of left politics.

( ... )

Rather , my goal is to defend what one might call a scientific worldview --defined broadly as a respect for evidence and logic , and for the incessant confrontation of theories with the real world ; in short , for reasoned argument over wishful thinking , superstition and demagoguery. And my motives for trying to defend these old-fashioned ideas are basically political. I’m worried about trends in the American Left -- particularly here in academia -- that at the minimum divert us from the task of formulating a progressive social critique , by leading smart and committed people into trendy but ultimately empty intellectual fashions , and that can in fact undermine the prospects for such a critique , by promoting subjectivist and relativist philosophies that in my view are inconsistent with producing a realistic analysis of society that we and our fellow citizens will find compelling.

( ... ) non-rationalist has historically been among the most powerful weapons in the ideological arsenals of oppressors. The hypersubjectivity that characterizes post-modernism is a perfect case in point."

The Left has been suffering for decades the cost of having been associated and subordinated to the Stalinistic barbarism. However , Sokal’s vindication of the old Marxist ideas and its classic association with the trust in science , based in the materialist position, is somewhat promising.

Personally , I must applaud their explanations (or intentions). And it is just for this, although it may appear contradictory , that this article will be extremely critical of Sokal. This is the case because my thesis , if you allow me to clarify what I will try to develop in it , attempts to show the way in which , despite the public success obtained and the great attention paid to every single detail in his analysis (especially the one in the book), Sokal has not known how (or has not been able) to hit the target of his critique , and my work will also provide some corrections which I consider necessary. In other words , Sokal should not forget that being right in some aspects does not necessarily mean to be right in the critique. Personally , I think that Sokal’s flaws (which I will also try to show) are due to two simple reasons :

To express such an opinion betrays me as being proud. Nevertheless , since I think the debate distorts the truth , it would be useless to take part in it if it were not to express sincerely and honestly what I think about it , even when doing this may show me as being arrogant.


Dialogue of the Deaf

I think that in order to evaluate Sokal’s critique we can arrange it in two moments. First , the "hoax" itself and its following debates , and then the book.

Let us start by the "hoax" itself. This "modus operandi" is striking because in order to criticize a magazine , or the contents and/or articles that are usually published in it, it is not necessary to add another article in the same tone. It was Hegel who taught us that a critique could only be effective if it is capable of penetrating the opposite arguments. Otherwise , the confrontation is kept as a clash between two "absolutes".

However , the paradox of Sokal’s "hoax" , contrary to what many others seem to think (among them Sokal himself , of course), is that his attempt on infiltration was not successful at all, at least in the essential part of it. And the characteristics that the debate later gained are testimony of this.

Sokal himself insists again and again that "the fact that the parody has been published is not a proof in itself ; what really matters is its content" (Sokal and Bricmont , "Impostures Intellectuelles" , Odile Jacob Editions , page 13 , underlined by Sokal) , in which what really matters about the "content" is that the parody "was built with quotations of eminent writers concerning philosophical and social applications of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. The quoted developments are absurd and without sense; yet , they are authentic. In fact , the whole of Sokal’s article is but a "cement" (whose logic is intentionally prone to fantasizing) linking quotations between them.

What Sokal will repeat again and again is that the reprehensible aspect of the post-modernist developments is this cognitive relativism expressed like a senseless amalgam of phrases and texts without empirical consistency or verification. Beyond that , Sokal and Bricmont do not deduce anything else of the logic of those developments. The question for them is that the wrong use of scientific concepts and the lack of empirical correlate of the explanations reveals an expression of irrationalism and imposture contrary to the scientific notion of truth.

To this arguments , post-modernists have answered that anyone has the right to use any word or concept metaphorically , no matter its origin , and that neither Sokal nor any other scientist can arrogate to himself the right to censure such choice.

For example , Kristeva answered in the following words in an article published in "Le Nouvel Observateur’ on 25 September , 1997 : "The human sciences , and particularly the interpretation of literary texts and the analytic interpretation , do not follow the logic of exact sciences. They do not always "apply" those "models" , but borrow them, export them , and make them work as traces , which are modified in a transference between the subject and the object , interpreter and evidence.
In the interior of such an economy , the imported element is no longer a model , but it is transformed , shifted , impoverished or enriched. The reflection that would come out of this is closer to the poetical metaphor rather than to modeling. This modulation of thought gives rise to interesting epistemological debates (see works such as Carlo Guinzburg’s , Bernard Ogilve’s , etc.)."

Apart from the central questioning about the right "use" of metaphors , the rest of the reproaches or criticisms are more of a political kind and of a strong inconsistency , for example , a supposed Francophobia on the part of Sokal and the Yankee academic media ( "nowadays we are being witnesses to a real Francophobia" , Kristeva) , or a revival of the Yankees’ cold war now against the French and post-modernist intelligentsia ("we are being witnesses to the last frights of a science of cold war raised against religion, against the Red , against the masses’ irrationalism , etc. " , Latour) , etc.

Leaving aside this kind of nonsense , which only shows the political level of those who hold it , the rest of the debate of the "hoax" develops as a dialogue of the deaf :

What really matters about the previously-mentioned dialogue of the deaf is that it is the proof that Sokal’s "hoax" could not really penetrate the opposite arguments. After his hoax , Sokal said nothing but what had already been said by some others , without being able to affect his critique.

The famous "hoax" has only served so that all this unfolds in the public sphere of the great means of communication, thus acquiring a more public turn. In this respect , Sokal should not forget that this has been possible not only for the contents of the debate but also for the intervening "personalities" , that is , because of the well-known international authors being criticized.

Dear Sokal , Hegel could have had little knowledge about infinitesimal calculus , but he did not miss the opportunity of leaving us a new teaching : it was a long time ago that he warned us that , "the truth is not minted money which can be given and taken just as it is" (Hegel , La Fenomenologia del Espíritu" , F.C.E. , page 27). "Science cannot reject any untrue knowledge by only considering it as a vulgar point of view and stating that it is a completely different knowledge , and that such a knowledge is absolutely nothing in that regard; it can neither refer to a assumption of a better knowledge in itself. Through that statement I would say that its force is found in its being ; but also an untrue knowledge remits itself to the fact that it is and states that science is nothing in its regard , and a succinct statement is as valid as the other one." (page 53)

To sum up , the first of Sokal’s critique has simply been a mimicry (that is , a strategy at the imaginary level) instead of being a penetration of the arguments and reasons which were the objects of the critique.

Sokal himself -- as we will try to demonstrate in the following chapter -- is not conscious of this , since , when the time comes to develop the debate deeply (nothing better than a book) , he places it at a definite level , by hypothesis , by the probity of the individuals in relation to the "truth" , but he does not do it at the conceptual critique level.

Let us then pass on to the analysis of the second moment , the book.

Why not Derrida?

The book seems to take account of the already mentioned critique of Derrida: the analysis of the wrong uses of scientific concepts by several authors has been systematized, being treated one by one on separate chapters. But this new contribution, rather than making up for the flaws stated earlier in Sokal’s critique, does not but insist upon the same point, and therefore, enlarges them.

There are two points in Sokal and Bricmont’s book which are definitely noticeable. First, that a book originated in the criticism of the post-modernists, especially of Yankee kind, ends up focusing its criticism on different, mainly French thinkers. Second, that on the one hand, Jacques Lacan is included among these authors, and on the other hand, Derrida is excluded. The analysis of these two directions will allow us to define the problems in play.

As far as the first point is concerned, Sokal and Bricmont justify their selection by the fact that all the authors criticized by them are "used as basic references in the post-modern discourse in the United States" (Sokal and Bricmont. "Impostures Intellectuelles", Ed. Odile Jacob, page 21).

In other words, they consider that the bibliographic references of the post-modernists give the clue to the cradle of this school of thought, which would not be in USA but in Europe, and more precisely, in these French thinkers. The critique would therefore go back to the beginnings.

We might perhaps agree with them, but what is important to stress here is that the way in which Sokal and Bricmont use the relations of the origin does not explain much: they refer back to the bibliography of the present post-modernists without going beyond the deduction that the "older" ones did the same that the "young" ones, or that, at least, what can be criticized in the "young" ones was already present in the "old" ones. But even assuming that this is the case, it is not clear what the advantage would be of criticizing the "old" ones more than the "young" ones, since the latter are not regarded as an "effect", a logical consequence of the impasses and problems present in the development of the "old" ones but as their simple repetition.

Focusing criticism on an "old" rather than on a "young" one only makes sense provided that it is a concept that is to be criticized, in which case the possible choice of the "old" one will not be for being "old" (that is, pure chronology) but for being the starting point of the concept, the "cause" of the "young" one’s development, and the "young" one will not be left aside for being "young" but because their arguments are considered to be implicit in the "old" one’s; in which case, the criticism of the "old" one reaches the "young" one as well, since he is assumed as an "effect", a derivation, a logical consequence of the "old" one.

If there is no genetic relationship between "old" and "young" other than the simple reproduction of the same, there is no sense whatsoever in attacking one before the other.

This is why Sokal and Bricmont are forced, in contradiction with the great precision in the selection of authors that the book has entailed, to an infinite extension in the object of their critique: "we want, simply, to denounce the intellectual imposture wherever it comes from" (page 22) (underlined by me).

The three dictionary definitions of impostor are:

Assuming, at its best, that Sokal and Bricmont only make reference to these last senses, the result is that the whole debate is directed towards a matter of "truth" whose preestablished value would allow for the division between those who lie (impostors) and those who do not.

The result, paradoxically, is that this places us in a fundamentalist war between honest ones and impostors. Thus, we go back to the question of why particularly focusing on these French authors rather than on any other possible "charlatan". And, needless to say, that which would make the peculiarity of post-modernism a criticizable school of thought is becoming less and less precise.

I believe that the point Sokal and Bricmont try to explain but cannot make clear, is that if the cradle of post-modernism is in Europe and not in USA (where it currently has its largest center of growth) it is because the origin derives, in turn, from post-structuralism. Which in turn derives from structuralism. The genetic sequence leading from the latter to post-modernism is what Sokal and Bricmont cannot infer. And that is why, their critique, no matter how thorough, is not conceptual but moral.

In other words, Sokal and Bricmont do not seem to have understood that it makes little sense, for instance, to say that Hegel is an "impostor". His idealism may be criticized, or the impasse of his dialectics in the final synthesis or things like that. But the accusation of impostor teaches us absolutely nothing about his arguments and the possible problems deriving from them.

It is the same case with the structuralists, the post-structuralists and the post-modernists as well. As I stressed earlier, the moral nature of Sokal and Bricmont’s critique is but the result of not having understood the basis of post-modern thought and not having achieved, with their parody, more than a simple inoffensive mimicry of it.

The final evidence is, basically, the slip in the treatment concerning Derrida. In the aforementioned article from "Le Monde" of November 20, 1997, where Derrida portrays Sokal and Bricmont as not very serious, one of the reasons for that consists in pointing out this slip: "At the beginning of the imposture, in the United States, after Sokal’s hoax having been sent to Social Text, I was one of the favorite targets, particularly in the newspapers (...) One of the falsehoods that most shocked me was stating today that they had nothing against me."

Whether Sokal likes it or not, they must acknowledge that in the book their position has changed as regards Derrida.

Between the hoax and the book, Derrida was repeatedly quoted by Sokal as well as Bricmont, as being part of the group of thinkers who were the object of their critique.

In the parody Derrida is one of the quotations from the collection of quotations of authors who would not use scientific concepts properly.

In the text published in "Lingua Franca" ("A physicist experiments with cultural studies"), where Sokal explains his hoax, he mentions him again, as part of a series: "Derrida and general relativity, Lacan and Topology, Irigaray and quantum gravity". From the series, the only deduction that can be made is an equivalence in the relations between each mentioned author and the associated topic.

In "La verdadera significación del asunto Sokal" in the January 14, 1997 edition of "Le Monde", Bricmont expands the series again: "among the French authors we find Derrida and Latour on relativity, Lacan and Irigaray on Topology, Lyotard on Physics, Serres on time and Deleuze and Guattari on chaos". In addition, in this series Derrida is also grouped in a subseries with no less than B. Latour, one of the most important objects of Sokal’s later critique.

Again in "Le Monde" of January 31, 1997, Sokal will comment on his parody in these terms "the most comic parts have not been written by me myself, since they are direct quotations from the "Teachers" (whom I proudly praise). And among these we certainly find Derrida and Lacan, Aronowitz and Haraway".

As can be seen, in none of these cases do Sokal or Bricmont mark a difference between Darrida and the rest.

On the other hand, they will insist in doing so since the moment of the critique of Derrida.

In an article in "Libération" from October 18-19, 1997 entitled "Que se passe-t-il?" ( modified version for France of an article published in the "Times Literary Supplement") they state: "We also point out that in no way do we criticize all the contemporary French philosophy. We just refer to abuses in concepts of physics and Mathematics. Renowned thinkers like Althusser, Barthes, Derrida and Foucault are essentially absent from our book". Clearly, this series as well as its signification differs from the previous ones.

This later shift of position and the difference thus established between Derrida and the authors criticized in the book are based on "quantitative" aspects.

In the introduction to the book they state that "although the quotation of Derrida referred to in the parody may be quite funny, it seems to be isolated in his work; therefore we have not included a chapter on Derrida in this book" (page 17) (underlined by me).

In the direct reply to Derrida ("Le Monde", December 12, 1997) they say: "Our book, unlike the parody, has got a strictly defined focus – the systematic abuse of terms and concepts from Physics and Mathematics – and Derrida is not part of this category". (underlined by Sokal and Bricmont).

In another reply, this time to V. Fleury and Yun Sun Limet, they insist on the fact that there is no attack against Derrida on their part "we have only focused on the authors who have abused scientific concepts in a significant way" (underlined by Sokal and Bricmont).

We now proceed to count the "mistakes", and such sum would reveal the signification, the value, of the imposture.

Sokal on more than one occasion has referred, by way of an example, to the comment by B. Russell on how he departed from Hegel after having read his passages on infinitesimal calculus, which he considered a "nonsens brouillon" (page 17), in the sense that the presence of a mistake of this kind "gives us the right to question the rest of his work, which is deeper but above all more difficult to asses" (page 17)

Should we build, then, a scale of "reliability" according to the number of spotted "mistakes"?

Thus, Lacan would be less "reliable" than Derrida because of the accumulated number of "mistakes".

However, if it was a question of quantity, we would be faced with the following paradox admitted by Sokal himself in the mentioned article in "Libèration" from October 1997: "Let us contrast this with Newton’s work: 90 % of his writings is considered to be mysticism and alchemy. So what ? The rest is based on empirical considerations and a solid rationale and survives for this reason".

How shall we know, for instance, if Lacan survives because of the art of his imposture or because of a 10 % eventually as consistent as Newton’s ?

As Sokal and Bricmont themselves admit their inability to judge that part of Lacan’s work as well as that of the rest, their criticism yields at the same point as had been pointed out by Derrida. Let us repeat it once more: "it would have been interesting to study such scientific metaphors meticulously, their role, their statute, their effect upon the incriminated discourses (...) This would have demanded a serious reading of so many difficult pieces of discourse, their agencement and their theoretic strategy. This has not been done".

Because Sokal is an honest man, he has no other way to conclude than the following: " if the same applies (he refers to the example about Newton) to the authors quoted in our book, then the importance of our criticism is marginal".

But if criticism cannot sort out the good from the bad, then it is not criticism. Therefore, it is not a question of detecting whether there are "wrong" uses of scientific concepts, but rather of defining clearly what is that a certain text, a certain author, a certain piece of work is actually and basically stating.

Then, the thorough analysis of the mistakes made by Lacan and the other authors proves nothing because they remain in an external position with respect to the analyzed text, because it cannot pass judgment on the text itself.

The withdrawal concerning Derrida reveals the limits of Sokal’s critique. Since Derrida has not referred much to scientific concepts in his works (has not needed to, has not wanted to), he is exempt from criticism.

Paradoxically, however, Derrida is one of the most important theoreticians of post-modernism, as well as one of its main political leaders.

Sokal’s inability to see this, his inability to approach the criticism of Derrida, means in practice an inability to criticize any of the other selected authors, since he acknowledges that the essential could lie precisely in the part he admittedly does not understand.

Sokal simply finds that in many passages some author or other does not use words and concepts in the way he does. But that never proved anything. It is like arguing about colors with a daltonian.

The art of criticism lies precisely in getting to understand how and why someone else uses words in a different way and showing the flaws and impasse of the logic implied in that use.

Not needing a great scientific knowledge, and most important, not needing to be guided by this criteria, others have been able to criticize Derrida much more consistently. For instance, in political terms (which I guess must be of interest to Sokal) in the magazine "En defensa del Marxismo", issue 18 ( a piece of criticism by Eduardo Sartelli, professor at the Facultad de Ciencias Sociales de la UBA, entitled "Marx, Derrida y el fin de la era de la fantasía" can be found. (

In short, despite the trick of "infiltration" in the very trails of post-modernism, Sokal and Bricmont have not been able to overcome their "exteriorness" in relation to the problems which the revival of structuralism has arisen, one of whose derivations is post-modernism. And in that sense, the infiltration is as inconsistent and impotent as the previous and subsequent criticism.

The "mask" which Sokal took off after publishing his parody in "Social Text" did not lay bare the post-modern so much as he himself.

"The king is naked". There is no doubt about that. The question has always been to perceive not nakedness in itself but rather the robes under which it is covered, since it is among these that things get difficult.

The problem with Sokal and Bricmont is, precisely, to think that they do manage to see nakedness. That is the reason why they think it is all a question of the lens of the robes through which, without noticing, they have dressed the nakedness. It should be remembered that the material nature of physical reality does not imply that it is indecent or that it can be shown in public without concealing part of it.

Unfortunately Sokal and Bricmont have not the slightest idea of the problems that have been faced by the so called "social sciences" nor do they realize in what sense structuralism was the most "scientific", or at least "Galilean" attempt in that field, and in what way post-modernism is a derivation of its impasses.

For this reason they cannot infer the derivations of post-structuralism and later of post-modernism from the internal problems of structuralism; although, paradoxically, they have mimicked it to attempt to denounce it. But we have already stated it: mimesis does not necessarily imply having understood the logic at play, it only works at an imaginary level. Which is what seems to have happened. For this reason, criticism is also situated at an imaginary level. Imposture!

In short, Sokal and Bricmont wanted to "deconstruct the reputation these texts have (referring to the texts by the authors analyzed in their book) of being difficult because they are profound", however, as they did not manage to discriminate the important from the superfluous, such "deconstruction" has been a failure. The "imposture" has not been proved.

The moment has come, now, to attempt a more precise presentation of the question of the "truth" and the "real" in science and in other disciplines, particularly in psychoanalysis.


1 The term "hoax" can be translated as "broma". However, due to the significant presence of this issue in Internet, it should be clearly stated that this term is also used in English to refer to those false virus warnings that pullulate in Internet and spread on the basis of the ignorance of those who multiply them in all the mailing lists and newsgroups.

2 "Canular" is a joking latinization of "canuler", which means "to importunate somebody by repeating the same purposes" and comes from the term "canule" (small pipe for introducing liquid or gas into a cavity).

3 Not a few times do we have to remind some rightist (to their great surprise) who intends to spit in our face that the coming down of the Berlin Wall would mark the leftists’ collapse and their historic archives as an antique, that it has been from some left-wing movements that this fall has been fought for, as well as the fact that they have been the first victims of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Bolshevik’s revolution (Trotsky is undoubtedly the most outstanding figure among these).