First, let us be clear that I was trying to describe how Marx and Freud themselves actually went about their work. In the case of Freud, I was speculating about how he would respond to recent work in neuroscience, were he alive today.
But underneath these historical and biographical observations was a more general point, and that is what I wish to talk about here. I have enormous respect for serious thinkers who spend a great deal of time -- perhaps even their entire lives -- working hard at the details of the subject they are interested in. Marx spent endless hours in the British Museum reading the periodic field reports of the Parliamentary Factory Inspectors. [I have read some of those reports, and they give us a fascinating window into the reality of factory work in the first decades of the nineteenth century.] Freud spent a lifetime, as I pointed out, seeing patients six or eight hours a day.
I really do not think one can speculate philosophically about complex subjects like capitalist economics or psychoanalytic treatment of neuroses or the neurophysiology of the brain without immersing oneself in the latest research on the matter. What would we think of someone who watched a bit of a baseball game on TV and then started to pontificate about the Ontological Significance of Sport, remarking along the way that the part of a baseball game that he liked the best was the halftime show? Or the aesthetician whose mother took her to a Fourth of July performance of the 1812 Overture by the Boston Pops and thought that was enough background to offer opinions about the ideological significance of modern performances of classical music? We would mock them, and we would be right to do so.
At the moment, I am reading The Art of Being a Parasite by a French biologist, Claude Combes [which, my sister says, has the best illustrations she has ever seen in a scientific book.] Parasites are not exactly a sexy subject, but they are fascinating and important if one wants to understand how living things actually flourish and develop. Just as an example, a billion years ago, give or take, a little bacterium made its way into a primitive ancestor of a cellular creature [a Eukaryote, as Biologists say], looked around, decided it was a nice place to live, and set up light housekeeping. When the cellular organism reproduced, the bacterium did also and each of them went along for the ride. Fast forward one billion years, and almost all animals, plants, fungi, and such like have these mitochondria [as they are called] inside each cell, serving as the source of the chemical energy that fuels life. This is pretty big deal stuff, but that is not what Combes talks about, for the most part. He goes on at length about little buggers that parasitize bivalve mollusks and such like beasties [complete with diagrams.]
Every page of Combes' book rests on lifetimes of research that he and vast numbers of other biologists have done, research without which we would simply not know in any detail how living things actually function. You don't have to be a research scientist to think philosophically about the nature of life or about the status of scientific theories. But you do have to know a very great deal of real hard science before you pop off on those subjects. Sokal was ridiculing people who had no hesitation pontificating about those things when they could not even recognize an obvious send-up masquerading as a serious discussion. That really is the equivalent of not knowing that there are halftime shows in football, not in baseball