Sloppy end to a coup

June 14, 1996

Alan Sokal's coup (THES, June 7) should be applauded. But in the interest of the "evidence and logic" he upholds, may I point out that it does not follow from his exposure of a widespread and lazy-minded epistemic relativism that there is no genuine article.

That conclusion, which Sokal unfortunately accepts, is itself sloppy. It also plays into the hands of a powerful campaign, which includes the work of Gross and Levitt (whom he applauds), to discourage critical questioning and any democratic control of science.

I do not believe that any serious and responsible philosopher has contradicted Sokal's checklist of "obvious truths", as far as it goes: that "there is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter". The problem is that this does not go very far. A real world does not guarantee a single set of truths about it. If there is no construal of its properties that does not incorporate particular social, moral and intellectual perspectives, then there is no perfect template against which some construals can be "mere" social constructions. And of course facts and evidence matter; but they can only matter within certain sets of discursive traditions, assumptions and conditions.

If Sokal wants to return to "obvious truths", these are some which his discussion is the worse for omitting. And I cannot vouch for Derrida, but he could have found them in the works of Paul K. Feyerabend, Barbara Herrnstein Smith or Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. What he will not find in any of them is the kind of sloppy vulgar relativism that he seems to think his experiment has shown is the only kind that exists.

Patrick Curry

Redan Street, London W14

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