Postmodern ideas have gained the status of absolute truths. Relativism, selectively appropriated into the language of both left and right politics, has metamorphosed into dogma. As oversimplification distorts communication, public trust in scientific fact has eroded. Could renewed ideas of objectivity be a way out?
‘A relativism metamorphosed into dogmatic absolutism is obviously logically incoherent, but the most significant danger is that anyone can play the game, including the pseudo-populist extreme right. Postmodernism is no longer the domain of the left. That wonderful phrase ‘alternative facts’ was after all invented for political purposes by Donald Trump’s press secretary..”
Alan Sokal, author of ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’ (a hoax article that exposed some of the more bizarre influences of postmodern philosophy on contemporary scholarship), in conversation with Péter Krekó.
Péter Krekó: In 1996 you famously published a deliberately nonsensical article in a postmodern cultural studies journal,1 which claimed that quantum gravity is no more than a social and linguistic construct. Who were the main subjects of the hoax and of your critique as a scientist, and why?
Alan Sokal: The social sciences are a huge, heterogeneous collection of disciplines, practices, frameworks and people. My hoax targeted particular corners of the social sciences and humanities – including currents in the sociology of science, anthropology, literary theory and cultural studies. These were the areas of academic study in which postmodern and relativist ideas had become most fashionable. They also included ‘women’s studies’ – a subject now called ‘gender studies’.
I should stress that postmodernist approaches were not hegemonic in any of these fields. They were popular but not universally accepted. In feminist studies, for example, there was a range of different approaches: postmodern, liberal, radical and socialist. Even in the sociology of science, the social constructivist view was influential but by no means dominant…
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