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The Sokal Hoax Fifteen Years Later: A Philosophical Reading of the Controversy
In 1996, the physicist Alan Sokal perpetrated a hoax on the academic journal Social Text intended to text the intellectual rigor of postmodernist thinking. Jonathan Reynolds reassesses the affair
Mixing metaphors, celebrating the 15-year anniversary of what still must be considered a total slam dunk in what was called the “science wars” or the “culture wars” – framed as for or against Truth and Objective Reality – it is worth remembering the publication in 1996 in the spring/summer issue of Social Text, a leading scholarly review of postmodern thought, of a completely over-the-top parodic article called ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’. The article, a savage satire concocted by Alan Sokal, a physicist, and planted like a Trojan Horse in the camp of the enemy, brought to a head a couple of decades of a simmering dispute between presumably some of our best thinkers – certainly those, at the time, with the greatest professional repute and renown on both sides of the Atlantic.
Sokal’s scathing parody paid no attention to the rules of discourse in the academic world. The larger purpose – as he put it, to “counter epistemic relativism” – to him, warranted breaking the rules. Relativism is a a simple and basic issue in epistemology, which asks, how do we know we know the universe or objective reality? What pricked the tender skins of the postmodernists Sokal was attacking was the unbridled vehemence of his outrage – so, defensively, they were outraged, in turn. But to Sokal, the stakes were the highest. To him, PM was threatening not only the standards of determining objective knowledge but the scientific enterprise, itself – the triumph of Western Man since the Enlightenment of reason and what became the scientific method.