Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON
LECTURE ONE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d__In2PQS60
LECTURE TWO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Al7O2puvdDA

ALSO AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ONE THROUGH TEN ON IDEOLOGICAL CRITIQUE



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Monday, July 22, 2013

A REPLY TO MAGPIE


Magpie [sigh.  Doesn't anyone have a real name anymore?] posted a comment asking the following question:

"Prof.

Now that we are speaking of leftwing cant, clichés, unthinking people, intellectual fashions and such, there is a question I'd like to ask you (as a philosopher, you are probably in the best position to answer).

But, I want to be fair and not put you in an uncomfortable situation; so, let me warn you before you give any answer: this topic could easily degenerate into a flames war; so, I honestly understand if you decide to pass.

What's your opinion of the so called Sokal affair of a few years back? What do you think of post-modern thought, relativism, Nietzsche and other things like that?"

Since answering that grab bag of questions is a bit of a tall order, I thought I would do it in a blog post, rather than as a comment on a comment.  Let me preface my response by saying that I am a retired seventy-nine year old professor on a secure pension.  Nothing puts me in an uncomfortable position.  Heaven knows, there are lots of topics on which I have nothing remotely useful to say, but someone who has picked as many  intellectual fights as I have over the years can hardly slide away from a topic simply because someone may get angry at what I say.

So.  First of all, the Sokal affair.  Those of you who are unfamiliar with it should read the nice summary on Wikipedia, as I just did.  Briefly, a physicist named Alan Sokal wrote a send-up of fashionable modern leftwing literary commentary which he called "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" [no kidding] and submitted it to Social Text, described on Wikipedia as "an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies."  They published it, whereupon Sokal revealed that it was a hoax.  Needless to say, Jacques Derrida was not amused.

What is my opinion?  I loved it!  The editors of Social Text should be ashamed of themselves.  If they had any sense of honor, they would have committed ritual academic suicide by forthwith terminating the journal.  I have devoted my life to taking extremely difficult ideas and struggling to make them as simple and clear as I can.  It is not for nothing that I introduced my explication of the famously obscure first chapter of Capital with an old Jewish joke.  I have no patience with pseudo-intellectuals who take simple ideas and make them as obscure and difficult as possible by cloaking them in impressive jargon.  Nor do I for a moment imagine that that sort of cant has anything remotely "leftwing" about it.

Let me illustrate with a story that I told in my Autobiography [but, alas, I cannot assume that everyone reading this blog worked through that 800 page monstrosity.]   Many years ago, I was invited to be a member of a panel discussion on "the public responsibilities of intellectuals" hosted by the University of Kentucky.  My co-panelists were two very well known supposedly left-wing intellectuals:  Martin Jay of the University of California, author of an important book on the Frankfort School, and my UMass colleague Sam Weber, a member of the Comparative Literature Department.  Naively imagining that the organizers of the event wanted me to speak on the public responsibilities of intellectuals, that being the announced topic, and mindful of the fact that the panel was aimed at a general audience, not at members of the Kentucky faculty and their students, I wrote a clear, simply expressed, but serious talk on -- the public responsibilities of intellectuals.  Martin Jay chose to speak on images of vision in the writings of nineteenth century French intellectuals [that apparently being his research topic of the moment.]  Weber gave an incomprehensible talk on Heidegger's essay on  technology.  During the discussion period, I made a strenuous effort to get these two post-modern leftwing intellectuals to address a simple question:  What did they think about faculty unions?  It seemed to me that two professed Marxists ought to be able to handle that one without breaking a sweat.  Try as I might, I could not get either of them to take a stand in favor of the unionization of professors.

As I have explained in some of my writings, the failure of Marx's prediction of world socialist revolution -- a failure compounded of the willingness of the French and German working classes to fight one another in the First World War, the fragmentation of working class solidarity by the persistence of a pyramidal hierarchy of working class wages and salaries, and the success of the capitalist class [pace Keynes] in managing economic crises -- sucked the life out of a true revolutionary politics, which then retreated into the Humanities where it took up residence in departments of English and Comparative Literature.  The mocking epithet "tenured radicals" has more than a smidgen of truth to it.

But the Sokal affair forces us to confront a larger and more serious issue:  the utter ignorance on the part of most humanists of science and mathematics.  How else to explain the inability of the editors of Social Text to recognize what any moderately educated person should have been able to spot as a hoax?  This is an old problem, associated in my mind with the English chemist and novelist C. P. Snow and his famous 1959 lecture, "The Two Cultures."  Those of you who are interested can seek it out and read it.  Snow was addressing a problem that was peculiar to the English educational system, which segregated students at the high school level into a classics and literary track and a science math track, but his observations have considerable truth for Americans today.  I find it appalling that pompous, self-important people who feature themselves intellectuals know so little about science and math.  And it is particularly appalling that some of them should wrap themselves in the mantle of Karl Marx!  Just imagine what Marx would have thought of  "radicals" who could not be troubled to inform themselves about physics, chemistry, or biology!

As some of you will know, I have tried in my own explication of Marx's theories to bring together in fruitful conjuncture considerations drawn from literary criticism and formal mathematics, all in the service of a radical critique of capitalist society.

As for the remainder of Magpie's questions:  Nietzsche was a brilliant thinker and writer,  whose works have not inspired me personally.  From that same period, I find more to love in the writings of Kierkegaard.  But Brian Leiter has written about Nietzsche, and champions his thought, and I recommend you to him for enlightenment.

I will offer an opinion about post-modernism if someone will please tell me what on earth it is.  I could tell you what I think the term "post-modern" means, but I doubt anyone would be interested or find what I had to say useful.

As for "relativism," presumably in ethics [I cannot make much sense out of the notion of relativism in science!], I have written a good deal about that subject in the course of trying to understand Kant's ethical theories.  This post is running too long as it is, so I shall bring it to a close.  If anyone is seriously interested in hearing me say again what I have said before about relativism in ethics, I will have a go at it.

15 comments:

Jim Westrich said...

It is not just the humanities that are so easily hoaxed. It seems to me that modern computer science is easily amenable to BS:

http://apps.pdos.lcs.mit.edu/scicache/647/scimakelatex.9566.James+L+Westrich.Robert+P.+Wolff.Magpie+Q.+Bird.pdf

(Some MIT students created a "hard science" paper generator that quite literally spouted randomly generated jargon around 10 years ago. They did not get any accepted in journals but got some accepted in conference proceedings. It is nice to know that this website is still online:
http://pdos.csail.mit.edu/scigen/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SCIgen

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Another publication! I am on a roll. :)

Chris said...

I recently checked out a book by Martin Jay on the concept of totality in Marxist thought. I read a 20-30 page introduction where Jay informed the reader that he was a self-admitted academic Marxist who really had no stance on unions, and only read the entire Marxist tradition as a way of clarifying philosophical problems, but not to make good on Marx's 11 thesis.

I never made it past the introduction...

Robert Paul Wolff said...

a wise allocation of your time, I should think.

imcdpe said...

The editor of "Social Text" at the time was Stanley Fish, and his acceptance of the Sokal paper did not prevent him from enjoying a career culminating with regular column in the NYT.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I did not know that. That is too perfect!

Magpie said...

Prof.

I'm glad to find that you keep your fighting spirit! And I am also relieved that, against my fears, your post did not attract obnoxious internet trolls.

I'm sorry my question was less than precise. In my defense, I have to say that I haven't been able to find the label "post-modernism" precisely defined, so my vague request appears to reflect a more general vagueness.

Any way, what I've gathered is that some modern thinkers, mostly in literature and arts/architecture, but also in philosophy, developed a number of theories, which they then applied outside literature.

I believe part of the ambiguity in the term "post-modernism" could be due to it being a kind of umbrella for a hodgepodge of different notions (including literary Critical Theory, which you mentioned, but also structuralism and post-structuralism), which, when applied to the sciences in general and social sciences in particular, may end up implying that there is no possibility for real scientific knowledge, or at least that scientific knowledge had no especial claim to validity, as compared, say, with religion.

At least some of these thinkers seem to identify "modernism" with Karl Popper's philosophy of science (and they apparently put Thomas S. Kuhn in the pot, for good measure): hence, the "post" prefixed to modernism.

(I believe this is what motivated Alan Sokal to produce his "paper": he wanted to show these lines of thought were nonsensical).

In particular, I know of at least one of these post-modernists, working in economics, who appears to privilege Nietzsche as expounding a better kind of subjectivism, one he seems to consider for some unexplained reason superior to the subjectivism of authors like Jevons, Menger and Walras (which appears to be increasingly discredited after the financial crisis and subsequent depression).

That particular post-modernist/post-Keynesian also speaks of these theories in an attempt to show that Marx, by focusing on the material, objective, is utterly mistaken.

At any rate, that's the general impression I get.

In short: can you give me some tips on how to argue with these people?

Chris said...

I think the best way to argue with them is the same way Richard Dawkins argues with creationist; don't engage them at all! It gives the appearance as if there is even a debate to be had, and there isn't.

Magpie said...

@Chris

I'll confess that I've thought of that solution.

Although it is possibly the most rational course of action, to me it feels a bit like a cop out.

Chris said...

Well if you want a good defense of scientific realism, I'd suggest reading Roy Bhaskar's book Scientific Realism, or Andrew Collier's introduction to the thought of Roy Bhaskar.

Magpie said...

Thanks for the tip!

Matt said...

The editor of "Social Text" at the time was Stanley Fish

As much as I dislike Stanley Fish (*), this isn't true. Fish was the Executive Director of Duke University Press, which published Social Text, but he wasn't the editor (there were two, though I can't find their names now) and almost certainly had nothing to do w/ the day-to-day running of the journal. He did publish a less-than- brilliant "reply" to Sokal, in the NY Times, which you can find here:

http://www.physics.nyu.edu/sokal/fish.html

There are some okay points in it, but it's mostly not that good.

(*) I'm told that some of Fish's actual work on literature is good, especially his early work. When he plays at being a philosopher or a lawyer he's usually quite bad. It nearly ruined David Lodge's academic novels for me when I found out that Morris Zapp was based on Stanley Fish.

Matt said...

The editor of "Social Text" at the time was Stanley Fish

As much as I dislike Stanley Fish (*), this isn't true. Fish was the Executive Director of Duke University Press, which published Social Text, but he wasn't the editor (there were two, though I can't find their names now) and almost certainly had nothing to do w/ the day-to-day running of the journal. He did publish a less-than- brilliant "reply" to Sokal, in the NY Times, which you can find here:

http://www.physics.nyu.edu/sokal/fish.html

There are some okay points in it, but it's mostly not that good.

(*) I'm told that some of Fish's actual work on literature is good, especially his early work. When he plays at being a philosopher or a lawyer he's usually quite bad. It nearly ruined David Lodge's academic novels for me when I found out that Morris Zapp was based on Stanley Fish.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I have just read Fish's defense of the journal that published the hoax, and it is a systematic, elegantly written non sequitor. The point of Sokal's hoax, as I pointed out, is that the folks at SOCIAL TEXT [and too often elsewhere in the world of the Humanities] are dead ignorant of elementary science. Can you imagine what Fish would have to say if some supposedly serious science journal published a supposedly serious article on recent advances in metallurgy by Orcs, blithely unaware of the fact that THE LORD OF THE RINGS is fiction? He would be all over them like white on rice. Notice, by the way, that in his defense, Fish assumes a rigid demarcation of academic disciplines and their appropriate tasks that is the complete opposite of the mindset of the people he is defending. God, what an ass!

Magpie said...

Prof.

The note below is not by the guy I am speaking above (at least I don't think so, but one can never be sure on these Internet times), but it may give an idea of what I am talking about:

On the subjective theory of value
http://www.pieria.co.uk/articles/on_the_subjective_theory_of_value_and_its_present_relevance