“It tends to be the fate of lucid writers that their mistakes, being obvious, are impressive; while the contents of their insights, being rendered obvious by clarity of exposition, appear trivial.” Curt Ducasse
Socrates — to go to the beginning of philosophy — would simply assist his companions in dialogue to note that their hypotheses led to contradictions; which meant, of course, that their hypotheses were wrong, or, in other words . . .
Now I have always been careful not to claim that one can actually escape from bullshit. I deliberately use the word “escaping,” which means that one is trying to escape — only to the extent of having plans which may or may not be realizable.
But to evaluate something as being bullshit, one has to have a knowledge of the criteria of evaluation: one has to have some facility in clarity of language (i.e., as Stuart Chase put it: to be wary of the tyranny of words), general knowledge of the state of the world (i.e., an informed Weltanschuung), and an ability — as Susan Stebbing, in step with Robert H. Thouless, said — to spot twisted and crooked thinking.
What is extremely difficult to change are bullshit political and economic institutions. The greatest immediate danger is the ecological one. The ice caps are melting and the Brazilian rainforest is burning. The UN recognizes these dangers, and is calling for a Summit, September 23, 2019, in New York.
Now, our ecological problems are directly linked to the fact of human overpopulation. More people; the need for more resources and products. The more production, the greater pollution. However, nothing is really done about this — or even discussed.
And why not? Because the world is run by capitalism which controls governments and most of the mass media, and whose only interest is profit.
So, the situation is like this. If you were a slave, how could you escape? If you were a serf, how could you escape? And if you are a proletarian, how do you escape?
Individual escape is possible, but how does one change the institutions for the benefit of all?
Below is an excerpt from section 26. “England: At the London School of Economics and Political Science,” in Karl Popper, Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography, 1985. This book is a reprint of the “Autobiography of Karl Popper,” in The Philosophy of Karl Popper in The Library of Living Philosophers, ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp, 1974.
Early in the academic year 1946-47 I received an invitation from the Secretary of the Moral Sciences Club at Cambridge to read a paper about some "philosophical puzzle". It was of course clear that this was Wittgenstein’s formulation, and that behind it was Wittgenstein’s philosophical thesis that there are no genuine problems in philosophy, only linguistic puzzles. Since this thesis was among my pet aversions, I decided to speak on "Are there Philosophical Problems?". I began my paper (read on October 26, 1946, in R. B. Braithwaite’s room in King’s College) by expressing my surprise at being invited by the Secretary to read a paper "stating some philosophical puzzle"; and I pointed out that, by implicitly denying that philosophical problems exist, whoever wrote the invitation took sides, perhaps unwittingly, in an issue created by a genuine philosophical problem.
I need hardly say that this was meant merely as a challenging and somewhat lighthearted introduction to my topic. But at this very point, Wittgenstein jumped up and said loudly and, it seemed to me, angrily: "The Secretary did exactly as he was told to do. He acted on my own instruction." I did not take any notice of this and went on; but as it turned out, at least some of Wittgenstein’s admirers in the audience did take notice of it, and as a consequence took my remark, meant as a joke, for a serious complaint against the Secretary. And so did the poor Secretary himself, as emerges from the minutes, in which he reports the incident, adding a footnote: "This is the Club’s form of invitation." [The minutes of the meeting are not quite reliable. For example the title of my paper is given on the printed list of meetings as “Methods in Philosophy” instead of “Are there Philosophical Problems?”, which was the title ultimately chosen by me. Furthermore, the Secretary thought I was complaining that this invitation was a brief paper, to introduce a discussion — which in fact suited me very well. He completely missed my point (puzzle versus problem).]
However, I went on to say that if I thought that there were no genuine philosophical problems, I would certainly not be a philosopher; and that the fact that many people, or perhaps all people, thoughtlessly adopt untenable solutions to many, or perhaps all, philosophical problems provided the only justification for being a philosopher. Wittgenstein jumped up again, interrupting me, and spoke at length about puzzles and the nonexistence of philosophical problems. At a moment which appeared to me appropriate, I interrupted him, giving a list I had prepared of philosophical problems, such as: Do we know things through our senses?, Do we obtain our knowledge by induction? These Wittgenstein dismissed as being logical rather than philosophical. I then referred to the problem whether potential or perhaps even actual infinities exist, a problem he dismissed as mathematical. (This dismissal got into the minutes.) I then mentioned moral problems and the problem of the validity of moral rules. At that point Wittgenstein, who was sitting near the fire and had been nervously playing with the poker, which he sometimes used like a conductor’s baton to emphasize his assertions, challenged me: "Give an example of a moral rule!" I replied: "Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers." Whereupon Wittgenstein, in a rage, threw the poker down and stormed out of the room, banging the door behind him.
I really was very sorry. I admit that I went to Cambridge hoping to provoke Wittgenstein into defending the view that there are no genuine philosophical problems, and to fight him on this issue. But I had never intended to make him angry; and it was a surprise to find him unable to see a joke. I realized only later that he probably did indeed feel that I was joking, and that it was this that offended him. But though I had wanted to treat my problem lightheartedly, I was in earnest — perhaps more so than was Wittgenstein himself, since, after all, he did not believe in genuine philosophical problems.
After Wittgenstein left us we had a very pleasant discussion, in which Bertrand Russell was one of the main speakers. And Braithwaite afterwards paid me a compliment (perhaps a doubtful compliment) by saying that I was the only man who had managed to interrupt Wittgenstein in the way in which Wittgenstein interrupted everyone else.
Next day in the train to London there were, in my compartment, two students sitting opposite each other, a boy reading a book and a girl reading a leftish journal. Suddenly she asked: "Who is this man Karl Popper?" He replied: "Never heard of him." Such is fame. (As I later found out, the journal contained an attack on The Open Society.)
The meeting of the Moral Sciences Club became almost immediately the subject of wild stories. In a surprisingly short time I received a letter from New Zealand asking whether it was true that Wittgenstein and I had come to blows, both armed with pokers. Nearer home the stories were less exaggerated, but not much.
The incident was, in part, attributable to my custom, whenever I am invited to speak in some place, of trying to develop some consequences of my views which I expect to be unacceptable to the particular audience. For I believe that there is only one excuse for a lecture: to challenge. It is the only way in which speech can be better than print This is why I chose my topic as I did. Besides, this controversy with Wittgenstein touched on fundamentals.
I claim that there are philosophical problems; and even that I have solved some. Yet, as I have written elsewhere "nothing seems less wanted than a simple solution to an age-old philosophical problem".[See Conjectures and Refutations , p. 55.] The view of many philosophers and, especially, it seems, of Wittgensteinians, is that if a problem is soluble, it cannot have been philosophical. There are of course other ways of getting over the scandal of a solved problem. One can say that all this is old hat; or that it leaves the real problem untouched. And, after all, surely, this solution must be all wrong, must it not? (I am ready to admit that quite often an attitude like this is more valuable than one of excessive agreement.)
One of the things which in those days I found difficult to understand was the tendency of English philosophers to flirt with nonrealistic epistemologies: phenomenalism, positivism, Berkeleyan or Humean, or Machian idealism ("neutral monism"), sensationalism, pragmatism — these playthings of philosophers were in those days still more popular than realism. After a cruel war lasting for six years this attitude was surprising, and I admit that I felt that it was a bit "out of date" (to use a historicist phrase). Thus, being invited in 1946-47 to read a paper in Oxford, I read one under the title "A Refutation of Phenomenalism, Positivism, Idealism, and Subjectivism". In the discussion, the defence of the views which I had attacked was so feeble that it made little impression. However, the fruits of this victory (if any) were gathered by the philosophers of ordinary language, since language philosophy soon came to support common sense. Indeed, its attempts to adhere to common sense and realism are in my opinion by far the best aspect of ordinary-language philosophy. But common sense, though often right (and especially in its realism), is not always right And things get really interesting just when it is wrong. These are precisely the occasions which show that we are badly in need of enlightenment They are also the occasions on which the usages of ordinary language cannot help us. To put it in another way, ordinary language, and with it the philosophy of ordinary language, is conservative. But in matters of the intellect (as opposed, perhaps, to art, or to politics) nothing is less creative and more commonplace than conservatism.
All this seems to me very well formulated by Gilbert Ryle: "The rationality of man consists not in his being unquestioning in matters of principle but in never being unquestioning; not in cleaving to reputed axioms, but in taking nothing for granted."" [See p. 167 of Ryle’s review of Open Society in Mind, 56 (1947), 167-72.]
Commentary: By Popper’s own exhortation never to argue about the meaning of words, this seems to be a case of arguing about the uses of the words “puzzle,” “problem,” and “philosophy.” Wittgenstein too seems to be taking a position inconsistent with his idea that some words are ambiguous, vague, and some have a logic of “family resemblances.”
The central question is what to include under the label “philosophy.”
As it turns out the word “philosophy” — as many other words — is both ambiguous, vague, and has “family resemblances.” Wittgenstein is known for claiming that philosophical problems are due to linguistic confusions. Examples of such confusions are the various paradoxes, which can be treated by a distinction of use and mention of words, and the distinction between a language and a meta-language — as pointed out early by Bertrand Russell. Other sorts of linguistic confusions are category mistakes, made much of by Gilbert Ryle. Wittgenstein added to this tool box, the idea that language has many uses. And I suppose it would be a category mistake to confuse these many uses.
Popper saw philosophy as including other concerns (problems) — which he mentions, and which Wittgenstein readily pigeonholes as logical, mathematical or ethical. As a first take on the situation, the word “puzzle” has the connotation of not being urgent or serious; whereas the word “problem” has the connotation of being something requiring at least some urgency and seriousness.
But, really, is there a clear distinction?
This reminds me of the confrontation between Oedipus and the Sphinx. The Sphinx posed a riddle (a kind of puzzle). If Oedipus could not solve it, he would be killed by the Sphinx. And if he did solve it, the Sphinx would commit suicide. If the mark of a problem is its seriousness, then Oedipus had a problem of solving a puzzle (the riddle).
But perhaps Popper meant by a problem the finding of a peculiar type of explanation — perhaps a “scientific” explanation. In that case, Popper would be saying something to the effect that science and philosophy have no clear demarcation; while Wittgenstein was looking for such a demarcation. In his earlier book, Tractatus, he said metaphorically that philosophy if either above or below science.
In any case, judging by his book, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper saw philosophy as also concerned with a normative undertaking for a better society.
My own perspective on philosophy has changed from a minimalist perspective of avoiding contradictions such as found in paradoxes and category mistakes, especially within and between religions. This is a form of a priori criticism, which does not seek the truth, but which avoids error. I have also used a broader critique which assumes the reliability of science as a benchmark for what is plausible, and which then criticizes views as incompatible with science. And in the spirit of Popper, I include a further critique of institutions which centers on giving people the opportunity (freedom) to agree or disagree. In other words, I too seek an “open society.”
Also, people are ignorant, stupid, irresponsible, malicious, and manipulative — prone to bullshitting with all sorts of unsavory speeches and actions. I think the phrase “escaping from bullshit” encapsulates this broader concern and critique.
To illustrate the linguistic problem here, consider the case of Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s doppelganger. Both were arch anti-capitalists. But Engels was the son of an owner of textile factories in Salford, England and in Barmen, Prussia. He was, thus, an employer. And if one uses the word “capitalist” as a synonym for “employer,” than we get the paradoxical result that the arch anti-capitalist was a capitalist!
This apparent paradox is due to the ambiguous use of the term “capitalist.” If we were writing a dictionary, we would have to introduce two meanings for the word: Capitalist-1, an employer; Capitalist-2, someone who subscribes to the politico-economic theory of capitalism.
With that distinction, we could then get rid of the paradox by saying that Engels, the capitalist-1, was an anti-capitalist-2.
Using Cohen’s analogy, socialism is the system which provides free access to the Shmoo, or, literally, free access to subsistence land. And capitalism is the system which does not. I understand that capitalism is a market economy — but that cannot be a sufficient condition for capitalism because barter or a free exchange of goods has always existed — under slavery and under feudalism. What unites slavery, feudalism, and capitalism is the denial of free access to subsistence land.
A necessary — though not a sufficient — condition for Capitalism is the prohibition of free access to subsistence land.
By contrast, I propose that the sufficient — though not a necessary –condition for Socialism is the right to a free access to subsistence land, or its equivalent (such as a universal basic income).
This essay, written in the form of a response to a student composition, is intended for a general audience — it is not intended to be a private correspondence.
My good friend Vitalij sent me your composition essay requesting that I respond. Your own essay is, I assume, a response to a series of "letters to the editor" which I had written several years ago [about abortions]. My views are no longer exactly the same when I wrote those pieces — but they are close enough to warrant a defense. [See my “Concepts of Persons and Morality” (1992).]
Let me start with an observation about attitudes toward polemical writing.
(1) As I see it, in engaging in polemical writing one may have victory as a goal — by whatever means. And the easiest way to achieve such "victory" is by misrepresenting the opponent’s thesis or arguments. This can be done in different ways.
(a) A common way is the straw man tactic — simply attribute to your opponent a thesis or arguments which he does not in fact hold, and then destroy the thesis or arguments.
(b) Another one is the red herring tactic. Pick on some irrelevant side issue, draw out its bad consequences, and then claim that you have discredited the main thesis.
(2) A different attitude, the one I prefer, is to try to understand your opponent’s position — even improve it — and then try to find faults with it or agree with it. This attitude expresses an interest in a dialectical search for truth — rather than some kind of "victory" over the opponent.
Writing with the first attitude is a bad policy for two reasons. The first is that it expresses a narrowness or meanness of character. The second is that it is ineffective, except to those who are prejudiced to the conclusion in the first place. The better policy is to work under the assumption that readers are sophisticated enough to see wool pulled over their eyes. And it is for these sophisticated readers that one should write.
Let me try to follow my own advice and try to be critically fair to your essay.
In writing polemically, I assume that whoever is reading my piece is not familiar with my (opponet’s piece; so, my very first task is to quickly tell the reader what was claimed by my opponent and what I think of the claim.
Your thesis, despite what you have written under the heading "thesis," is that most (all?) abortions should be illegal; and the argument that is implicit in your essay can be reconstructed in some such way as follows:
- The legal policy on abortions should be guided by morality.
- Whatever is immoral should be illegal.
- Morality is a matter of following "conscience."
- The "conscience" of the Supreme Court has ruled that many abortions are legal.
- Some decisions ("conscience") of the Supreme Court have in the past been immoral.
- The Supreme Court is, therefore, fallible.
- Never follow the dictates of a fallible source.
- My conscience is infallible.
- My conscience tells me that most (all?) abortions are immoral.
- Therefore, most (all?) abortions should be illegal.
I don’t know if you would agree with this reconstruction of a possible argument for your position, but it does contain the kinds of premises which have to be considered if the argument is going to be valid. As it stands, the argument, unfortunately, is not sound because it contains several false premises. I will point out some of these false premises in section IV. (A sound argument is a valid argument containing only true premises.)
Your thesis — the point you are arguing for — is not really the claim labeled ‘thesis’, which you formulate as:
Essentially, I don’t believe that America should restrict itself to following the terms of personhood set forth by a potentially fallible court.
This sentence neither clearly expresses your (polished) thought nor does it express your thesis (which is that most (all?) abortions should be illegal). Let me point out some difficulties with your formulation. The word ‘potentially’ is redundant. And the word ‘restrict’ seems to be doing no work in this context. A neater formulation would be:
Essentially, I don’t believe that America should follow the terms of personhood set forth by a fallible court.
The trouble with this formulation is that I am not clear about the word ‘terms’ in the phrase ‘terms of personhood’. What you meant, I take it, is something like ‘judgment about personhood’. Anyway, that is a better formulation. So, an improved version of your thesis is:
Essentially, I don’t believe that America should follow the judgment about personhood set forth by a fallible court.
Now comes a problem with ambiguity. The Supreme Court can make
(i) judgments about what is true or false,and it can make
(ii) judgments about which rules (laws) to enact.
And these two types of judgments should be distinguished. Conflating them can cause nothing but confusion — as it did in your essay.
The court is, as everyone is, fallible about judgments of fact. However, as concerns the enactment of rules, it is improper to speak of "fallibility" in the same sense. Perhaps some other valuative term could be used for this purpose — like "bad", "imprudent," "unwise," "infelicitous." For illustration, think of the Supreme Court (or the legislature) enacting a rule to the effect that cars will drive on the right side of the road on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday; and on the left side on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Would you say that the rule is "mistaken", and that the court made a mistake in fact? No, the better comment is to say that the court enacted a bad — even a dangerous — rule. The court made a prudential mistake, an unwise decision — not a mistake as to fact. Let us mark this distinction in kinds of mistakes by talking about ‘fallibility-f and ‘fallibility-r’, respectively for ‘factual fallibility’ and ‘rule fallibility’.
Given this ambiguity in making a "judgment" about personhood, did the court make a judgment of fact or did it enact a rule? This can also be put the following way: In providing a definition are we involved in a judgment of fact or in enacting a rule?
To get a better grip on this question, we need to distinguish a lexical definition from a stipulative definition. A lexical definition is a factual report about linguistic usage, and it is the business of (fallible) dictionary writers to discover them. A stipulative definition is one that is made by decree, as in "I decree that the word ‘glaut’ will mean ‘a person who has political clout in a college’."
My approach and the Supreme Court’s is to provide a stipulative definition of personhood. Citing the Riverside Dictionary’s "lexical" definition of ‘person’ as a ‘human being’ is relevant only to a degree. The lesson of the dictionary is this: if the stipulative definition of ‘person’ is to overlap with usage, some human beings must be considered persons. In one of my letters I pointed out that some people describe God as a person, and that it may also be a good policy to describe rational extra-terrestrials as persons. (Did you forget this? Or was this omission a polemical ploy?) On the ground, then, that some people think of God as a person and would consider rational extra-terrestrials to be persons there is reason to depart from the lexical definition of a person and provide a stipulative one instead.
Stipulative definitions — which are a matter of decision — come in degrees of goodness or badness relative to some goal. And you yourself cite some examples of bad decisions which were made by the Supreme Court in the past. However, relative to the question of abortion, the Supreme Court’s decision to define a ‘person’ as ‘a born human being’ was, from my perspective, a favorable one.
(I am puzzled why you wrote "Would Mr. Chrucky have also agreed with that legalistic definition of personhood [in the Dred Scott decision]?" First, the Dred Scott decision was not a decision about how to define a person or a slave, it was a decision about the conditions under which a slave was to remain a slave, and in which state or territory slavery was permitted. Second, surely you don’t want to saddle me with the belief that all Supreme Court rulings are wise! The Supreme Court decisions must be judged case by case. Some decisions are good; some are bad — even terrible. The Dred Scott decision probably had a bearing on precipitating the Civil War — and in this regard alone it may have been a very bad decision.)
Anyway, in light of these considerations, your thesis is better formulated as:
Essentially, I don’t believe that America should follow the stipulative definition of ‘person’ set forth by a Supreme Court which has made unwise decisions in the past.
But this is not your final thesis. In the course of your composition you obviously are adding implicitly something like:
America should follow the dictates of my conscience which says that most (all?) abortions should be illegal.
With this we are back to the argument as I originally formulated it with modifications added about fallibility.
- The legal policy on abortions should be guided by morality.
- Whatever is immoral should be illegal.
- Morality is a matter of following "conscience."
- The "conscience" of the Supreme Court has ruled that many abortions are legal.
- Some decisions ("conscience") of the Supreme Court have in the past been immoral.
- (a) The Supreme Court is, therefore, fallible-r.
- (a) Never follow the dictates of a fallible-r source.
- (a) My conscience is infallible-r. .
- My conscience tells me that most (all?) abortions are immoral.
- Therefore, most (all?) abortions should be illegal.
Let me comment on this argument as it stands. I agree with (1), but disagree with (2). For example, some consider masturbation to be an immoral practice. I don’t think it is. But even if it is, I don’t believe it should be an illegal practice. Similarly, although I think that lying to your husband about infidelity is possibly immoral, I don’t think at any case of lying to a spouse about infidelity should be illegal. (2) obviously needs refining:
(2a) Some things which are immoral should also be illegal.
(2b) Some things which are immoral should be legal.
And you seem to favor (2a) when you write: "Morals and laws should combined to protect the human rights of fetuses." Some line should be drawn between what kinds of things should be considered immoral and illegal and what should be considered immoral and legal.
Now I really do not want to saddle you with (8a); but without (8a) your argument becomes very weak. Instead of (8a) — in modesty and humility — you need:
(8b) My conscience is fallible-r.
And combining this with (7a), yields:
(8c) My conscience should not be followed.
But now you are committed to the conclusion that neither your conscience not the Supreme Court’s should be followed. Have you missed some other infallible conscience like the dictates of the Bible, the Koran, the Upanishads, Billy Graham, the CatholicChurch?
What is a conscience anyway? Is it some external voice like Jiminny Cricket for Pinocchio? Or is it an internal voice? Maybe (3) is just false. What is the alternative then? Maybe (7a) should be discarded as well? But now the whole argument seems very insecure. And I’ll leave it at that. (It would be an interesting exercise to patch it up.)
Let me finish with some semi-random comments on some claims and sub-arguments of your main argument.
Granted that the Supreme Court is fallible-f and fallible-r. Does it follow from this alone that it made a mistake in the Roe vs Wade decision? No. If there is a mistake it has to be pointed out in this specific case.
You object to the Supreme Court’s stipulated definition of ‘person’. You apparently hold that the specific decree of the Supreme Court that a person be defined as a born human being is a bad decree. Why? Your only objection is in the form of a question: "would it mean that babies removed by Cesarean section are [not] people because they weren’t actually born?" This is a good point. It shows the need for a further stipulated (decreed) definition of "birth." "Birth" could be stipulatively defined as a natural or artificial removal of a viable fetus from the mother. By this stipulated definition a baby removed through Cesarean section would be a born human being.
You add rhetorically: "May mothers exterminate these non-people because they are property under the law?" Answering this is complicated. You are evidently assuming the following:
Non-people have no rights.
This is false. Non-people, such as dogs, are, at least in principle, protected by law from cruel treatment — in this sense they have a right not to be treated cruelly.
You are also wrong about the legal status of fetuses. The Supreme Court decreed that States may have an interest in protecting the life of a fetus after the first trimester. This is to say that States may legislate (decree) rights to the fetus — even though it is a non-person. Here are the words of Roe vs Wade:
With respect to the State’s important and legitimate interest in potential life, the "compelling" point is at viability. This is so because the fetus then presumably has the capability of meaningful life outside the mother’s womb. State regulations protective of fetal life after viability thus has both logical and biological justification. If the State is interested in protecting fetal life after viability, it may go so far as to proscribe abortion during that period except when it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.
Furthermore, I do not think that the law regards fetuses as "property."
You go on to dismiss the problem of definitions, and flatly assert your counter thesis: "Regardless of word meanings, it was wrong then to treat humans as disposable property and it is wrong now."
If you dismiss word meanings from discussion, then you are presupposing them (i.e. assuming them without argument). By this tactic, I take it, you are assuming that:
A. An unborn fetus is a human being,
A2. Some human beings were treated as disposable property.
A3. | Some human beings are treated as disposable property.
A4 lt is wrong to treat any human being as disposable property.
I agree with (A) and (A4). However, (A2) and (A3) are ambiguous through ellipsis:
Some human beings are (were) treated by ______ as disposable property.
If this blank is filled with ‘some other human beings’, then these are no doubt true statements. But if they are filled by ‘treated by the Supreme Court’, then, I believe, you are mistaken. You may be misrepresenting the status of negroes under the law as "disposable property." You are correct that negroes were decreed to be property, and if you mean by "disposable" the fact that they could be sold — you are again correct. But if you think that negroes were legally allowed to be treated cruelly or killed arbitrarily by their masters in the United States c. 1850 (though they were in fact), then you are incorrect.
You quickly dismiss abortions following rape, and focus on voluntary or accidental pregnancies. And you seem to ascribe to me the position that, in the case of voluntary pregnancies, I view the fetus as an "intruding embryo". I do not. I talked about an "intruding embryo" only with the case of rape. In fact all my discussions concerned rape and incest cases, and no others. I was silent about voluntary pregnancies and consequent abortions.
You write: "Morals and laws should be combined to protect the human rights of fetuses." This can be reformulated as an argument: since (i) fetuses are human beings; and (ii) all human beings have rights; therefore,
(iii) fetuses have rights.
This argument is too abstract to serve any useful purpose. The specific rights of specific human beings have to be mentioned. Not all human beings have the same rights. This depends on age, sex, residency, health, position, and such. You are seeking some universal rights such as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." All these rights are contextually defined. There is after all also talk about the "forfeiture of rights" which again is contextually defined.
In the case of abortion, we have to decide which rights of which parties take or should take precedence. We have to have procedures for deciding cases of conflict of rights. When does a mother’s right to life take precedence over the fetus’s? That there are such rights of these parties was evidently expressed by Roe vs Wade:
… the State does have an important and legitimate interest in preserving and protecting the health of the pregnant woman . . . and that it has still another important and legitimate interest in protecting the potentiality of human life. These interests are separate and distinct. Each grows in substantiality as the woman approaches term and, at a point during pregnancy, each becomes "compelling."
Does a young girl’s (13 years) right to freedom from motherhood take precedence over an accidental pregnancy? What about the rights of the father? Of grandparents? What about the right of the fetus not to be born a chronic sufferer of pain? Obviously we need to specify rights, whose rights, and in what circumstances they take precedence — but that is an issue I did not discuss in my letters except for the case of incest and rape.
I take note of your observations that most pregnancies occur through voluntary sexual activity, and therefore the parties involved are responsible. I agree. But this brings with it the question of degree of responsibility. And it is clear to me that some cases of abortion may very well be immoral. But should it ever be the case that an immoral abortion should also be an illegal abortion?
I will conclude with a passage from Roe vs Wade:
"organized groups that have taken a formal position on the abortion issue have generally regarded abortion as a matter for the conscience of the individual and her family."
These writings and these people were exposed in the following book: Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science, 1998.
Below is a review of this book by Richard Dawkins, published in Nature, July 9, 1998, vol. 394, pp. 141-3.
Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of reverent disciples and have students around the world anoint your pages with respectful yellow highlighter. What kind of literary style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your lack of content. The chances are that you would produce something like the following:
We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously.This is a quotation from the psychoanalyst Félix Guattari, one of many fashionable French ‘intellectuals’ outed by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont in their splendid book Fashionable Nonsense, previously published in French and now released in a completely rewritten and revised English edition. Guattari goes on indefinitely in this vein and offers, in the opinion of Sokal and Bricmont, “the most brilliant mélange of scientific, pseudo-scientific and philosophical jargon that we have ever encountered”. Guattari’s close collaborator, the late Gilles Deleuze, had a similar talent for writing:
In the first place, singularities-events correspond to heterogeneous series which are organized into a system which is neither stable nor unstable, but rather ‘metastable’, endowed with a potential energy wherein the differences between series are distributed . . . In the second place, singularities possess a process of auto-unification, always mobile and displaced to the extent that a paradoxical element traverses the series and makes them resonate, enveloping the corresponding singular points in a single aleatory point and all the emissions, all dice throws, in a single cast.This calls to mind Peter Medawar’s earlier characterization of a certain type of French intellectual style (note, in passing, the contrast offered by Medawar’s own elegant and clear prose):
Style has become an object of first importance, and what a style it is! For me it has a prancing, high-stepping quality, full of self-importance; elevated indeed, but in the balletic manner, and stopping from time to time in studied attitudes, as if awaiting an outburst of applause. It has had a deplorable influence on the quality of modern thought . . .Returning to attack the same targets from another angle, Medawar says:
I could quote evidence of the beginnings of a whispering campaign against the virtues of clarity. A writer on structuralism in the Times Literary Supplement has suggested that thoughts which are confused and tortuous by reason of their profundity are most appropriately expressed in prose that is deliberately unclear. What a preposterously silly idea! I am reminded of an air-raid warden in wartime Oxford who, when bright moonlight seemed to be defeating the spirit of the blackout, exhorted us to wear dark glasses. He, however, was being funny on purpose.This is from Medawar’s 1968 lecture on “Science and Literature”, reprinted in Pluto’s Republic (Oxford University Press, 1982). Since Medawar’s time, the whispering campaign has raised its voice.
Deleuze and Guattari have written and collaborated on books described by the celebrated Michel Foucault as “among the greatest of the great . . . Some day, perhaps, the century will be Deleuzian.” Sokal and Bricmont, however, think otherwise: “These texts contain a handful of intelligible sentences — sometimes banal, sometimes erroneous — and we have commented on some of them in the footnotes. For the rest, we leave it to the reader to judge.”
But it’s tough on the reader. No doubt there exist thoughts so profound that most of us will not understand the language in which they are expressed. And no doubt there is also language designed to be unintelligible in order to conceal an absence of honest thought. But how are we to tell the difference? What if it really takes an expert eye to detect whether the emperor has clothes? In particular, how shall we know whether the modish French ‘philosophy’, whose disciples and exponents have all but taken over large sections of American academic life, is genuinely profound or the vacuous rhetoric of mountebanks and charlatans?
Sokal and Bricmont are professors of physics at, respectively, New York University and the University of Louvain in Belgium. They have limited their critique to those books that have ventured to invoke concepts from physics and mathematics. Here they know what they are talking about, and their verdict is unequivocal. On Jacques Lacan, for example, whose name is revered by many in humanities departments throughout US and British universities, no doubt partly because he simulates a profound understanding of mathematics:
. . . although Lacan uses quite a few key words from the mathematical theory of compactness, he mixes them up arbitrarily and without the slightest regard for their meaning. His ‘definition’ of compactness is not just false: it is gibberish.They go on to quote the following remarkable piece of reasoning by Lacan:
Thus, by calculating that signification according to the algebraic method used here, namely:You don’t have to be a mathematician to see that this is ridiculous. It recalls the Aldous Huxley character who proved the existence of God by dividing zero into a number, thereby deriving the infinite. In a further piece of reasoning that is entirely typical of the genre, Lacan goes on to conclude that the erectile organ
S (signifier)/s (signified) = s (the statement), with S = (-1), produces s = square root of -1
. . . is equivalent to the square root of -1 of the signification produced above, of the jouissance that it restores by the coefficient of its statement to the function of lack of signifier (-1).We do not need the mathematical expertise of Sokal and Bricmont to assure us that the author of this stuff is a fake. Perhaps he is genuine when he speaks of non-scientific subjects? But a philosopher who is caught equating the erectile organ to the square root of minus one has, for my money, blown his credentials when it comes to things that I don’t know anything about.
The feminist ‘philosopher’ Luce Irigaray is another who gets whole-chapter treatment from Sokal and Bricmont. In a passage reminiscent of a notorious feminist description of Newton’s Principia (a “rape manual”), Irigaray argues that E=mc2 is a “sexed equation”. Why? Because “it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us” (my emphasis of what I am rapidly coming to learn is an ‘in’ word). Just as typical of this school of thought is Irigaray’s thesis on fluid mechanics. Fluids, you see, have been unfairly neglected. “Masculine physics” privileges rigid, solid things. Her American expositor Katherine Hayles made the mistake of re-expressing Irigaray’s thoughts in (comparatively) clear language. For once, we get a reasonably unobstructed look at the emperor and, yes, he has no clothes:
The privileging of solid over fluid mechanics, and indeed the inability of science to deal with turbulent flow at all, she attributes to the association of fluidity with femininity. Whereas men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, women have openings that leak menstrual blood and vaginal fluids . . . From this perspective it is no wonder that science has not been able to arrive at a successful model for turbulence. The problem of turbulent flow cannot be solved because the conceptions of fluids (and of women) have been formulated so as necessarily to leave unarticulated remainders.You do not have to be a physicist to smell out the daffy absurdity of this kind of argument (the tone of it has become all too familiar), but it helps to have Sokal and Bricmont on hand to tell us the real reason why turbulent flow is a hard problem: the Navier-Stokes equations are difficult to solve.
In similar manner, Sokal and Bricmont expose Bruno Latour’s confusion of relativity with relativism, Jean-François Lyotard’s ‘post-modern science’, and the widespread and predictable misuses of Gödel’s Theorem, quantum theory and chaos theory. The renowned Jean Baudrillard is only one of many to find chaos theory a useful tool for bamboozling readers. Once again, Sokal and Bricmont help us by analysing the tricks being played. The following sentence, “though constructed from scientific terminology, is meaningless from a scientific point of view”:
Perhaps history itself has to be regarded as a chaotic formation, in which acceleration puts an end to linearity and the turbulence created by acceleration deflects history definitively from its end, just as such turbulence distances effects from their causes.I won’t quote any more, for, as Sokal and Bricmont say, Baudrillard’s text “continues in a gradual crescendo of nonsense”. They again call attention to “the high density of scientific and pseudo-scientific terminology — inserted in sentences that are, as far as we can make out, devoid of meaning”. Their summing up of Baudrillard could stand for any of the authors criticized here and lionized throughout America:
In summary, one finds in Baudrillard’s works a profusion of scientific terms, used with total disregard for their meaning and, above all, in a context where they are manifestly irrelevant. Whether or not one interprets them as metaphors, it is hard to see what role they could play, except to give an appearance of profundity to trite observations about sociology or history. Moreover, the scientific terminology is mixed up with a non-scientific vocabulary that is employed with equal sloppiness. When all is said and done, one wonders what would be left of Baudrillard’s thought if the verbal veneer covering it were stripped away.But don’t the postmodernists claim only to be ‘playing games’? Isn’t the whole point of their philosophy that anything goes, there is no absolute truth, anything written has the same status as anything else, and no point of view is privileged? Given their own standards of relative truth, isn’t it rather unfair to take them to task for fooling around with word games, and playing little jokes on readers? Perhaps, but one is then left wondering why their writings are so stupefyingly boring. Shouldn’t games at least be entertaining, not po-faced, solemn and pretentious? More tellingly, if they are only joking, why do they react with such shrieks of dismay when somebody plays a joke at their expense? The genesis of Fashionable Nonsense was a brilliant hoax perpetrated by Sokal, and the stunning success of his coup was not greeted with the chuckles of delight that one might have hoped for after such a feat of deconstructive game playing. Apparently, when you’ve become the establishment, it ceases to be funny when someone punctures the established bag of wind.
As is now rather well known, in 1996 Sokal submitted to the US journal Social Text a paper called “Transgressing the boundaries: towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity.” This page is part of another website. From start to finish the paper was nonsense. It was a carefully crafted parody of postmodern metatwaddle. Sokal was inspired to do this by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), an important book that deserves to become as well known in Britain as it is in the United States. Hardly able to believe what he read in this book, Sokal followed up the references to postmodern literature, and found that Gross and Levitt did not exaggerate. He resolved to do something about it. In the words of the journalist Gary Kamiya:
Anyone who has spent much time wading through the pious, obscurantist, jargon-filled cant that now passes for ‘advanced’ thought in the humanities knew it was bound to happen sooner or later: some clever academic, armed with the not-so-secret passwords (‘hermeneutics,’ ‘transgressive,’ ‘Lacanian,’ ‘hegemony’, to name but a few) would write a completely bogus paper, submit it to an au courant journal, and have it accepted . . . Sokal’s piece uses all the right terms. It cites all the best people. It whacks sinners (white men, the ‘real world’), applauds the virtuous (women, general metaphysical lunacy) . . . And it is complete, unadulterated bullshit — a fact that somehow escaped the attention of the high-powered editors of Social Text, who must now be experiencing that queasy sensation that afflicted the Trojans the morning after they pulled that nice big gift horse into their city.Sokal’s paper must have seemed a gift to the editors because this was a physicist saying all the right-on things they wanted to hear, attacking the ‘post-Enlightenment hegemony’ and such uncool notions as the existence of the real world. They didn’t know that Sokal had also crammed his paper with egregious scientific howlers, of a kind that any referee with an undergraduate degree in physics would instantly have detected. It was sent to no such referee. The editors, Andrew Ross and others, were satisfied that its ideology conformed to their own, and were perhaps flattered by references to their own works. This ignominious piece of editing rightly earned them the 1996 Ig Nobel prize for literature.
Notwithstanding the egg all over their faces, and despite their feminist pretensions, these editors are dominant males in the academic establishment. Ross has the boorish, tenured confidence to say things like, “I am glad to be rid of English departments. I hate literature, for one thing, and English departments tend to be full of people who love literature”; and the yahooish complacency to begin a book on ‘science studies’ with these words: “This book is dedicated to all of the science teachers I never had. It could only have been written without them.”
He and his fellow ‘cultural studies’ and ‘science studies’ barons are not harmless eccentrics at third-rate state colleges. Many of them have tenured professorships at some of the best universities in the United States. Men of this kind sit on appointment committees, wielding power over young academics who might secretly aspire to an honest academic career in literary studies or, say, anthropology. I know — because many of them have told me — that there are sincere scholars out there who would speak out if they dared, but who are intimidated into silence. To them, Sokal will appear as a hero, and nobody with a sense of humour or a sense of justice will disagree. It helps, by the way, although it is strictly irrelevant, that his own left-wing credentials are impeccable.
In a detailed post-mortem of his famous hoax, submitted to Social Text but predictably rejected by them and published elsewhere, Sokal notes that, in addition to numerous half-truths, falsehoods and non sequiturs, his original article contained some “syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever”. He regrets that there were not more of these: “I tried hard to produce them, but I found that, save for rare bursts of inspiration, I just didn’t have the knack.” If he were writing his parody today, he would surely be helped by a virtuoso piece of computer programming by Andrew Bulhak of Melbourne, Australia: the Postmodernism Generator. Every time you visit it, it will spontaneously generate for you, using faultless grammatical principles, a spanking new postmodern discourse, never before seen.
I have just been there, and it produced for me a 6,000-word article called “Capitalist theory and the subtextual paradigm of context” by “David I. L.Werther and Rudolf du Garbandier of the Department of English, Cambridge University” (poetic justice there, for it was Cambridge that saw fit to give Jacques Derrida an honorary degree). Here is a typical passage from this impressively erudite work:
If one examines capitalist theory, one is faced with a choice: either reject neotextual materialism or conclude that society has objective value. If dialectic desituationism holds, we have to choose between Habermasian discourse and the subtextual paradigm of context. It could be said that the subject is contextualised into a textual nationalism that includes truth as a reality. In a sense, the premise of the subtextual paradigm of context states that reality comes from the collective unconscious.Visit the Postmodernism Generator. It is a literally infinite source of randomly generated, syntactically correct nonsense, distinguishable from the real thing only in being more fun to read. You could generate thousands of papers per day, each one unique and ready for publication, complete with numbered endnotes. Manuscripts should be submitted to the ‘Editorial Collective’ of Social Text, double-spaced and in triplicate.
As for the harder task of reclaiming US literary departments for genuine scholars, Sokal and Bricmont have joined Gross and Levitt in giving a friendly and sympathetic lead from the world of science. We must hope that it will be followed.
Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe (1994);
Gulag: A History (2003);
Gulag Voices: An Anthology (2011);
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 (2012)
Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (2018)
Disinformation & the Threat to Democracy (Jan. 4, 2019 at the Library of Congress)
In Jan. 2013, she gave a lecture. Putinism: the Ideology. I would add to this title: Fake democracy by Fake opposition, by Real control, and by Real assassination.