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Proves intended point
on May 3, 2001
I guess no one needs a 48th review, but having read the other reviews maybe mine will add some perspective. First, it seems there are several versions of this book floating around, or else some people are simply poor readers. The version I bought, paperback, in London new in July 2000, can be characterized in this way: Far from trying to make blanket statements about philosophy, postmodernism, the social sciences, etc. or from advocating their own agendas, the authors are clear in defining their goal. They intend to expose what they see as misuse of mathematical and scientific (mainly physics) jargon and theories by some very well known (not necessarily highly regarded) postmodern writers, and some not-so-well-known ones as well. If we assume that this kind of thing might be more pervasive than is demonstrated in the book, we might not be wrong, but the authors don't seem to imply that this is a wild trend or that all postmodernists are guilty by any means.
Having read the book and these reviews, I would suggest would-be readers to find a chair and read the book a bit before buying it to get a better idea. The authors succeed in proving that at least some of these well-known writers don't understand the scientific jargon they used, or that they understood it but misused it anyway. Okay. The point that some of these writers may have legitimately used the terminology, at least as metaphor, and that Sokal/Bricmont simply didn't realize this because they didn't examine the ideas of the writers they attack closely enough is a good one but needs more analysis to yield a firmer opinion.
This brings me to the next point: some have mentioned here that the authors don't fully understand the writers they attack. Probably right, but doesn't necessarily mean at all that their central point is mistaken. A central complaint of many reviewers is that the value of the authors' work, because it is in such a narrow focus, is questionable even if they are right. I think it is best not to go overboard here. In the realm of science, nitpicking can mean an experiment works or it doesn't. Scientists then are used to being careful. If one claims that philosophers or social scientists don't need to be so careful, one either must admit that the scientific jargon used here is not used as it must be in a scientific context (ie. as metaphor), or that philosophers and social scientists can afford to be sloppy. Few philosophers or social scientists would be happy with the idea that their fields allow such fuzzy practice, I'm afraid. In my experience in (AngloSaxon) philosophy, even outside the obvious case of symbolic logic, "nitpicking" of one's terminology and definitions is the rule and not the exception. If the writers in question have intended their jargon here to be used only as metaphor, they need to have made that clear in their writing. It seems they have not.
A few reviewers fall victim to the tu quoque fallacy and point out that scientists have also been known to be less than honest, or to ignore evidence, etc. This might be an effective argument for consistency on the part of Sokal/Bricmont if they had claimed that scientists in fact never commit these erros, but they do not make any such claim. Finally, many complain that the authors did not take on the postmodernists in more depth. This seems an empty complaint. It was not their goal to do so, and if they had done that, as physicists and not philsophers, psychologists, etc. they may have been seriously overstepping their realistic qualifications. Perhaps those reviewers should take comfort that Sokal/Bricmont at least offered their expertise where it could be put to best use on this subject.
In any case, one must ask how much this "exposure" adds to the landscape of philosophy and the social sciences. Ultimately I think it makes a small contribution for the (largely AngloSaxon?) plea for academic clarity. Was it worth the effort? Those who seriously ask this question are obviously coming from outside these disciplines (especially the sciences) where a lot of sweat often results in "only" a very small step forward.