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Tuesday, 22 April 2008


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Cited in less academic terms, John Kennedy, Jr. plunged his plane into the sea in 1999 perhaps with strong belief in his momentary 'relativistic' framework of up -vs- down.

In both practical and academic contexts gravity always wins.

Relativism and pomo philosophy are examples of interesting ideas pursued ad absurdum. They are useful paradigms for analyzing all sorts of things, because they can force us to confront the natural biases and culturally determined viewpoints that are part and parcel of having lived our own specific existences. But the problem is that using this sort of analysis makes it entirely too easy to just dismiss one person's ideas as being equivalent to anyone else's.

In short, it appeals to our laziness.

It is a hell of a lot easier to just dismiss an uncomfortable or challenging idea as being just a single cork bobbing in a sea of corks than it is to really examine an idea and rank it in comparison to others.

And unfortunately, this philosophy is viral. I catch my fifteen year-old, who has had no formal exposure to this philosophy at all, saying things like "Well, that is just your point of view. It is not any better or any worse than another". I think there are a lot of ideas that are clearly superior when you examine them. But it is just too easy to take a pass on the whole thinking bit.

It offers the ultimate intellectual cop-out. No need to think. Just throw a good idea in the chum bucket with all the other smelly ideas, and grouse about how they all stink.

Interesting article.

One must remember that the application of "absolutism"/"objectivism" to all aspects of human endeavors was frought with ineptitude and abuse. That is what fueled the rise of "relativism". Similarly, these articles decry the failures of "relativism".

So how does literary discourse evolve post-relativism?

Migawd, what a stupid essay. Despite having an admirably large vocabulary, I sincerely doubt the author has a clue what relativism even is, other than having memorized a bunch of catch phrases and thereby thoroughly confusing the map and the territory (a very typical relativist-101 error, by the way).

The first several paragraphs were a clear enough warning. Sontag pointing out that "brave" and "coward" are not synonyms nor even coincident with "moral" and "immoral" or even "good" and "evil" is not relativism; it isn't even within that realm of discourse.

And is he holding up Coulter as a shining example of absolutism? If he's not, he's wandered far off his point. Or is this guy putting us on!? If not, he makes me want to run as far and fast from absolutism as I can.

Finally his litany of the ways the White House regime has co-opted the language damn them but not the language. Those people will say whatever they think works as propaganda. Of late they've been singing paeans to Martin Luthor King and how they follow in his tradition.

Does anyone reading this seriously think that damning of MLK rather than the White House?

The White House isn't even engaging in the relativism re: science the author claims. They're just using the buzz-phrases, like they did with King. If they were REALLY being relativist about this, they'd be arguing that there is no absolute science possible; that all environmental changes are just tradeoffs for the biosphere, and it's impossible to decide what is good or bad.

They're not doing that. They're claiming the science is incomplete or vague, they're claiming that the benefits of global warming are being ignored, they're claiming that the Other Side is promoting rhetoric over research. They are, in fact, asserting that there is absolute and objective reality one can look to, they just need more data; they claim the Other Side relies on smoke and mirrors rather than stark, factual reality.

Disingenuous as that may be, it ain't relativism!

Personally, on the post-modern scale, I don't think I fall much higher than a 3. But fatuous absolutists like this author strongly incline me to move up to 5, 6 or even 9. Something about the company one keeps.

pax / Ctein

Haven't spent much time in art schools lately, eh? [s]

Again we'll have to agreetodisagree. One doesn't have to be clutching The Complete Novels of Ayn Rand to one's breast and tearfully defending the Western Canon to claim that teaching relativism as a mandatory methodological filter is a dead end. It's not either/or, fer-us or agin-us. I've debated the Sontag argument till I'm blue in the face (my position: any sucker-attack on undefended, non-combatant populations is cowardly, and the hell with it being a political statement. People are individuals, not symbols). As far as global warming is concerned, I don't think you're truly up to speed with Bush's actual pronouncements about it....


Mike J.

I agree with Ctein.

Mike says "... He rightly concludes..."

I don't think he concluded anything. Where is the reasoned argument in support of his opinion -- opinion being all I got from the articles.

(No, I don't like relativism, but I do like reason.)


...And his opinion is no better than anyone else's, eh Julie?


Mike J.


Had he written primarily about art schools,I might agree with him. I'm not a fan of single-minded dogma. But...

He chose to focus primarily on how relativism has corrupted the real world discourse. In that, he's spouted nonsense (I am using that word very carefully and precisely).

He's no friend of absolutists. Any more than Bush is a friend of conservatives. Idiot arguments never make good friends-in-arms.

I am way too familiar with White House rhetoric on environmental matters. They no more make those folks relativists than their finding 'common ground' with MLK makes them racial-equality radicals.

The Sontag debate is NOT about relativism, it's about semantics and the tools of propaganda. Anyone who tries to tell you its about defending the actions of murderers is just tossing bullshit and trying to co-opt the discussion.

I don't really mind where you fall on the relative-absolute scale. I'd just rather you didn't give a forum to arrant dumbness. People praise your efforts with TOP because it enlightens them. That essay just makes them dumber.

pax / Ctein

Dear Mike,

No, his opinion is a lot WORSE than most peoples'.

All ideas are not created equal, right Mike? [grin back at ya]

pax / Ctein

Responding primarily to the Latour quote (though it does apply to the articles too): the problem with many critiques of relativism, including this one, is that it assumes that the suggestion that truth is relative is tantamount to saying that moral choice is impossible and / or irrelevant. This is not true. What relativism demands is a reflexive morality that recognizes the interest and the subjectivity of the object of moral critique, and that requires that in making that critique, we interrogate our own interest in doing so.

The problem that relativism seeks to address, to provide a quick example, is not our saying that something like sati is morally reprehensible. Rather, it is our saying that the fact that sati is morally reprehensible indicates something fundamentally immoral about the culture that produces the practice, especially when compared to our own. The egis of relativism would have us look at the broader context of the situation, including the context in which we look in the first place, and ask the questions: what is it about Indian culture that produces a practice like sati? What is it about our own conditioning that seeks to condemn it? And if we do condemn it, is our own perspective so virtuous, and our own situation so representative of the entirety of humanity, that we can condemn it categorically?

It is a concept, I think, that is often abused; but taken seriously and judiciously, it leads to a strengthening, not a weakening, of the ability to make moral choices.

Clay said: "And unfortunately, this philosophy is viral. I catch my fifteen year-old, who has had no formal exposure to this philosophy at all, saying things like "Well, that is just your point of view. It is not any better or any worse than another". I think there are a lot of ideas that are clearly superior when you examine them. But it is just too easy to take a pass on the whole thinking bit."

Clay, I really hear you on this point. I wonder, however, if this attitude comes from true intellectual laziness or rather from the educational social style we have adopted during the past 20+ years? Schools seem to eschew the designation of winners and losers, of good ideas versus lame. Every kid wins a trophy just for showing up. Everybody's ideas are considered valid and criticism, especially anything sharply crafted, is frowned upon.

This has created what seems to be an enormous "Whatever" generation that's now reached (technical) adulthood. Toward the end of my business career (late 90's) I began seeing young people who felt that they were entitled to continuous de-facto validation regardless of their effort or the superficiality of their positions. (I'm talking about highly educated youngsters in their 20's here.)

In the final analysis, however, I wonder if my remarks amount to little more than the same old inter-generational twaddle. Time is perhaps the most powerful sieve for ideas and thought frameworks. It is to shrug.

Relativism or no, at sublight speeds, f=ma, and PV=nRT.

At least in this universe, anyway....

Clay wrote: "I catch my fifteen year-old, who has had no formal exposure to this philosophy at all, saying things like "Well, that is just your point of view."

Ken wrote: "This has created what seems to be an enormous "Whatever" generation that's now reached (technical) adulthood."

Clay and Ken: I teach in a large midwestern university, and this is a problem that I often run unto with my students; but I'm pretty sure that a strong sense of relativistic thinking is not the cause, or at least not exactly. Among the things that I teach are bits and pieces of post-modernist and post-colonialist theory, and every semester without fail, the majority of my students -- many of whom provide 'whatever' kinds of answers in class -- simply cannot accept that their sense of truth does not equal absolute truth.

The educational issue that I believe leads to 'whatever' kinds of answers is rather that students seem to be taught that their opinions aren't worth stating and aren't worth defending -- that they should keep their mouths shut about what they believe, lest what they believe land them in trouble with the teacher. The result is that when the time comes that students are asked to have opinions, they are afraid to voice them, and worse, don't know how to formulate them; and further, the result is that over the years, they have found that it is not worth having the level of civic engagement that allows them to have well-informed opinions in the first place.

As I said, I think that the problem is not relativism (which is not the same thing as intellectual laziness, by the way), but an educational culture in which students are not expected to think critically for themselves.

You bring up some very thoughtful points. Re your students--when I was young I was quite good at writing papers--it was my major (some might say my only) academic skill, and it actually took me a long way. But I noticed fairly early on that there was a disjunct between the papers I personally considered the most educational for me, and the ones that were rewarded with the highest grades. The latter were papers based on other peoples' thinking--on research--with my sources nicely sorted, quoted, and listed. The papers I considered my best efforts were ones where the writing process itself was an exploration, and which contained original thinking--thinking actually done by me. These could seem a little less organized, and certainly were exposed to error (or perhaps you'd say naivete) due to wheel-reinvention or ignorance of accepted refutations. But although I considered these "better," I knew full well that teachers were happier with the regurgitation strategy, and often as not I would fall back on that just to get the top grade.

Just recently I was writing a proposal for a prospective client and I declined to give sources because, frankly, I know more about the subject than do the authors of the books I might name. But the client came back to me and said yes, we know we're hiring you because you're an expert, but you have to give us a list of your sources, even if you won't be using them as sources.

And the beat goes on....

Mike J.

Mike --

Among other things, I teach Public Speaking, and the main thing that I try to get across to my students is that research and opinion are far from oppositional strategies -- that in order to be taken seriously, a demonstrable grasp on what else has been said on a topic is necessary, and that the ability to argue with the opinions of experts is a key skill in strengthening opinion. On the other hand, I'm a little bit surprised at your recent interaction: it seems to me that there comes a time when status shifts from 'person who is arguing with the experts' to 'expert,' and at that point, the citation of sources becomes less important. Senior scholars in my field, for instance, tend to refer to what other people have written, but rarely do a whole lot of quoting. And they write that way because, clearly, they are the recognized authorities in the field.

Anyway, interesting stuff ... and interesting the places that discussions of relativism take us.

Adam said:
"As I said, I think that the problem is not relativism (which is not the same thing as intellectual laziness, by the way), but an educational culture in which students are not expected to think critically for themselves."

I agree that it is not the same thing, but the point I was trying to make is that relativism is an easy tool to use in the service of laziness.

I also see the point you are making about students unwilling to take risks in stating a firm opinion. You say that this may be due to the desire to not upset the teacher. I'll definitely grant you this point. The pressures that young students today put themselves under is tremendous. It starts with trying to get into the best university, and then continues once they are there with the pressure to get into a good graduate program.

I think some of the blame for this can also be attributed to the way the modern academic game is played. Creative and original thought is not likely to be welcomed, if, for example, that very thought is a deep and biting criticism of post modern philosophy and the prospective student is trying to get in to an MFA program.

That's a fascinating observation and theory, Adam. Indeed, it seems to be the polar opposite of mine. But I wonder if we're observing the same symptoms of polar opposite influences. I generally attributed this to somewhat over-privileged young people with outsized egos who had never been criticized. (The context of my remarks was generally interviewing and observing young recruits in an institutional investment firm.)

But the genesis of your observations comes from younger people who feel too timid, and/or ill-equipped, to criticize or theorize.

Both roads would seem to lead to... Whatever.

Setting aside the fact that Fings Ain't Wot They Used to Be (and accepting that all young people are insolent savages), most versions of the set of ideas / strategies tagged as "relativism" or "pomo" are a blend of two very important insights:

First, that all human institutions are "constructs" and, crucially, are "social constructs". Truth, Beauty, television, good and bad behaviour, the Olympus Mju, money, etc., etc.: none of these has landed fully-formed from space, and none is an example of "absolute truth" (though I'm open to persuasion about the Olympus). As such, all are subject to political / social change by humans (consider the way the truth value has plummetted of a statement like "A woman's place is in the home").

Second, that "essentialism" is an enemy of progress, i.e. a frame of mind (usually conservative) that stands in the way of recognising the changeability of those "social constructs". "No, no," says the essentialist, "A woman's place *is* in the home -- it's simply her nature".

Neither of these two is the same as simply saying "all things are relative, depending on where you stand" (duh). Put them together correctly, with a few added ingredients (like a dash of politics), and you have dynamite. Put them together incorrectly, and you have a grey sludge that will eat your brain. An example of the sludge is the quaint idea that science is "just" a male positivist conspiracy: as someone once said, no-one is a relativist about Physics in a plane at 30,000 feet.

what an incredible stinker of an essay.

it is gratifying at least to see that there have been some thoughtful and informed responses already. that gives me some hope (even if it is disorienting to find myself agreeing with ctein ;) .

relativism is not the same thing as saying "everybody's opinion carries the same weight, and there's no way to decide between opinions." that's a really obvious mistake, and is just one of the glaring errors that makes it impossible to take ronald jones’ essay seriously.

the sort of complaint (it can't be called criticism) raised in that article is based on a contradiction from the start: the writer's objection to other people infringing on his right to say anything he wants to, which the writer calls 'respect for the facts.' fact, of course, means anything the writer believes to be true, without reference to any other methodology.

take for example his invocation of croce's refusal to review bill t jones' "still here". first of all, that was not a stand against 'relativism' in any meaningful way. it was a stand against what the critic believed was a situation which would limit what critical opinions she would be able to express in her review. note that this concern is only relevant if you assume two things: first, that your opinion will be altered by what the hoi poloi think (which isn't something croce has often been guilty of), and second, that the artwork about to be reviewed was, in actuality, bad art. i've seen 'still here', and it is amazing, no matter what the serum status of the participants. it is critically misguided--and ridiculously insulting to jones, unquestionably one of the greatest dancers, or for that matter artists in any field, of our time--to assume that one would have to make any special concession to the context of the piece in order to see what it is doing as an artwork. and by the way, i have also seen firsthand seven of the eight forms of dance siegel mentions (and i know personally practitioners of 6 of those dance forms), and i think she is correct to point out that there is no objective basis to separate out ballet from the rest and consider it alone a medium for true art. all of those forms can produce profoundly beautiful works of art; ronald jones’ suggestion that relativism would judge them to be ‘equally’ beautiful is stupid; the point of relativism is to argue against the possibility of making such judgements of equivalence between different contextual constructions of beauty, not to argue that they are all the ‘same’. of course siegel or anyone else can describe in more specific terms, regarding any particular dance, how it works or doesn’t, how it is successful or not in producing the effects which such a work aims to produce.

surprisingly, this argument is NOT hegemonic at art schools i am familiar with (i teach anthropology at a major state university, and i get art majors in my classes; i've compared notes with my brother, who is faculty at the nation's largest art college, and other colleges who teach [mostly anthropology] at other art schools). in fact i just went to the senior thesis dance show at my local arts college, and i happen to know that several of the graduating students presenting there outright rejected the idea that their dance works could be considered in any way similar to dance performances from other cultures (which they are simultaneously reading about in an anthropology class): their work was high art, while those other people only did ‘traditional dance’. so much for the reign of ‘the language of relativism’ at our art institutions.

ronald jones' article persists in confusing any activity he doesn't like with 'relativism' or 'the language of relativism'. this is absurd. relativism is not 'anti-fact'; it simply insists that facts be contextualized (even in very broad contexts). nowhere in bruno latour's article, for example, does he use the term 'relativism', and the much-ballyhoo'd pull quote from latour is not a critique of relativism. the rejection of scientific conclusions about global warming has absolutely nothing to do with relativism. and all that quote from the proto-pope demonstrates is that he desperately needs some of that infallibility to kick in now, ‘cause that statement equating relativism with egoism is not just ass-backwards, it is really silly. (and again with the guys who want us to take their opinions without question attacking what they consider an irreverence towards absolute facts... see a pattern emerging yet?)

then there is the matter of the suicide hijackers. why is it so hard to accept that the idea of bravery, or cowardice for that matter, has neither a single, universal definition, nor any necessary connection to ultimate moral righteousness? why would anyone expect an abstract concept such as this--not a 'thing' that exists in the world waiting for a name, but a concept which is self-evidently a creation of the human mind--to exist in exactly the same way everywhere and forever? ever heard of different languages? furthermore, this is another good example of the mistaken conflation of relativism with indeterminate subjectivity. again, relativism does not and has never implied that anyone can say anything; it argues that things get their significance from their contexts, whether the scope of that context is individual, local, or global.

even within a broad context such as american society, no one would accuse 'kamikazi' pilots of cowardice, or say that no german soldier fought bravely in wwii just because they were all fighting for the wrong cause. very few americans would consider the bombing of dresden cowardly, either--or the bombing of baghdad. when people such as susan sontag (and plenty others) argue that the hijackers were not 'cowards', they are not particularly arguing a 'relativist' position, they are in fact arguing in concert with the opposite of relativism: they are pointing out that we (within a single context, not comparing between different cultures) are being inconsistent in how we categorize objectively similar actions. ironically, when you (and plenty others) argue that no, they were cowards, you are arguing in favor of what that article calls relativism (but is actually subjectivism, at best): you are arguing for your prerogative to ignore the general pattern of what should count as cowardly in this case because you consider there are overriding reasons to make an exception--to wit, that the act was despicable. the thing is, the same people who point out that the attackers were not cowards (in our own terms), also are perfectly ready to agree that the attack was despicable (again, in our own terms). they only make the relativist move when they point out--and this is hardly contentious--that *in the terms of the attackers* (that is, shifting contexts) their actions were probably not despicable; after all, people rarely think themselves despicable. this move is simply an attempt to understand what the attackers thought they were doing; it has nothing to do with whether susan sontag et al thought the attack itself was despicable. in fact, the most obvious reason to try and understand what they thought they were doing, is in order to more effectively stop them from doing it. this has long been one of the principle motivations for relativism; eg, ruth benedict’s _chrysanthemum and the sword_, a study of japanese culture motivated in part to help advise the us government on effective tactics to combat the japanese. however, in the wake of sept 11, we saw a broad movement to condemn any attempt at understanding our enemies, in fact, to consider the act of rejecting any attempt at understanding as a mark of moral rectitude, a ‘litmus test’ as they say of a good person. needless to say, the ensuing wars were led by people who made their own refusal to understand their adversaries a point of pride.

okay, this is started as an off-the-cuff reaction that has gone on too long. i don’t really have time to create an organized response. but i am sorry to see poor thinking like that essay get more exposure than it deserves. i also have to express my sympathy that your best writing in college didn’t get the best reception. obviously that happens too frequently; but it doesn’t always happen. i have had teachers who responded to the best and most creative parts of my work, and i certainly try to do the same for my students. otoh, the students themselves are not, always, the best judge of their own work. sometimes they need a less... subjective perspective. ahem.

I thought the article was awful, but I think these comments are great (notice the "I thought/think" which keeps it subjective).

-Mike, calling it a "cowardly act" keeps the perpetrators from being fully human, which seems to be just how many people want it to be (it's just easier, if not lazier). Calling them cowards makes the reason(s) for them doing what they did downright unimportant, which makes *them* downright unimportant; except -of course- as repositories for our hate and for our wrath.

Imagine instead that you are them in their situation and living their life, and that you feel pushed to commit such an extreme act of violence. In that situation -as a human being- do you really think that a coward would be able to do what they did? Or if *you* had to pick people to commit this extreme act, would you choose cowards? As another example, indian attcks on americans (which WERE pretty-well justified) were considered cowardly (and often still are simply because we "won"), but our attacks on them were considered "heroic" and other BS.

Reading the article made me feel like we are doomed. Reading these comments has made me feel like there is hope!

Having said that (my comment above), I then read this in the blurb for a book on Photo-Eye:

"Yet unlike their Romantic antecedents, the works in this exhibition are historically and politically self-reflexive and problematize the notion of a pure, unchangeable North. Rather than report a uniquely Northern essence or truth, this presentation is premised on the idea that our visions of the North are structured through our own varying positions. A fantastical place of fear, desire, refuge, conquest and decay, the North has played an increasingly important role in the work of contemporary artists interested in the socio-political issues of colonization and pollution, as well as aesthetic notions of the sublime."

I know exactly what they mean, but the language does make you cringe, doesn't it? What amuses me is the way so many artists presume to "challenge" and participate in areas of genuine philosophical dispute; have these people actually read anything by, say, Nietzsche or Heidegger or Deleuze? Or any of the writings those writers sought to refute or build on? (rhetorical questions). That "interested in" says it all. Sigh.

"I know exactly what they mean, but the language does make you cringe, doesn't it?"

Certainly does. I think it's pure signifyin' code, plain and simple. Somebody needs to skewer the art world's tendency of employing wild hyperbole but shrouding it in pseudophilosophical jargon.

Mike J.

Mike J. said: "I think it's pure signifyin' code, plain and simple. Somebody needs to skewer the art world's tendency of employing wild hyperbole but shrouding it in pseudophilosophical jargon."

If what you mean is that it is a way of signalling, I totally agree. An artist's statement like that is like wearing the old school tie. A way of winking and letting it be known that 'Hey, I went to art school'.

And to circle this back to the subject at hand, these sort of statements are not really about what is being said so much as the way it is being said. The literal 'text' is indeterminate nonsense, but the meta-text signals that the writer is a member of the club, and can talk the talk. The whole thing is deliciously ironic and self-referential, in a way.

That's what I mean, all right, but I also think hyperbole is an integral part of it. Next time you're at an art photography exhibit, just compare what's being claimed for the pictures with what the pictures actually do for you. I'm not saying all artistic statements or critical appraisals on museum walls are wrong or even insincere, but a good portion of them put forth claims that, once you decode them, turn out to be pretty over the top.

Mike J.

It is surprising that nobody seems to have mentionned "Intellectual impostures" by Sokal and Bricmont, which seems very relevant to many comments here. They debunk a lot of pseudo-philosophical pseudo-scientific jargon and even discuss cultural relativism around the end (iirc).

It should be available from Amazon.

cyril (above) said:
"It is surprising that nobody seems to have mentionned "Intellectual impostures" by Sokal and Bricmont, which seems very relevant to many comments here. They debunk a lot of pseudo-philosophical pseudo-scientific jargon..."

maybe because they really don't succeed in 'debunking' anything. sokal's initial stunt was based on profound dishonesty, and he simply proceeds to go ahead and dishonestly misrepresent that initial move.

sokal, a physicist, wrote an intentionally opaque article and was told by the journal editors that they didn't understand what he was trying to say; they requested that he change it to make his meaning clear. he insisted that it be taken as is or not at all. they deliberated and decided that, while they couldn't see any intrinsic merit to the article, as a sincere attempt by a member of another discipline to engage them, it deserved to be aired, since perhaps it could thereby begin a dialogue which would extract whatever it was he did mean. then sokal revealed that he had never intended to say anything at all, that the whole thing was a joke, and the fact that this one article had been published in extraordinary circumstances proved that all the other articles which to him 'sounded like' his farce were equally devoid of meaning.

the fact that one *can* contrive to write gibberish does not mean that everything else that you don't happen to like the sound of *is* gibberish. a 'scientist' ought at least to know that basic logical principle. indeed, the physicists i know are mostly embarrassed by sokal; he makes *them* look bad, as if physicists don't understand basic methodology.

xtoph's latest comment above is typical of one type of vehement response prompted by the Sokal affair. Unfortunately it seems also entirely misguided.

Nobody mentionned the Sokal prank/hoax. The book "Intellectual impostures" (apparently published in the US under the title "Fashionable nonsense") is of a very different nature and does indeed detail a number of examples of jargon and misuse of scientific terminology by several authors. Whether one is convinced or not by the "debunking" is of course a personal issue -- after all, there are people around who do believe that Appolo 11 never landed on the moon.

Speaking of basic logical principles, "the physicists i know are mostly embarrassed by sokal" is at best anecdotal evidence and hardly strikes as a compelling argument. In fact, my own anecdotal evidence of the past 10 years or so is that scientist by and large do not care much about such controversy
(Maybe they prefer to leave it to the papers).

Finally I find the report of the Sokal hoax given by xtoph highly dubious. It would be out-of-place to revive this controversy in these columns (the host would probably not allow it anyway ;-) ) but there are enough information on-line for the interested reader to make up his mind.


i am working from direct knowledge of the controversy, not from online sources. (you're welcome to choose not to believe me, of course, but that won't change the fact that it is true--or are you one of those subjectivists the jones article was railing against?;) the opinions of the physicists i referred to were occasioned by a seminar with sokal in which they also participated, along with colleges from other disciplines--and they were acutely embarrassed to be grouped 'with' sokal. yes, it is anecdotal evidence; it doesn't conflict with your own anecdotes; and the point was simply that sokal represents himself as the voice of science, irresponsibly. it is probably fair to say that on the whole, the entire 'controversy' was pretty much the exemplar of a tempest in a teapot--not all that significant, nor nearly as polarizing as some would claim.c

to imply that sokal's 'prank' is completely unrelated to his book is kind of disingenuous, don't you think? any vehemence you detect in my response--yes, of course it is there--comes from my usual reaction to hypocrisy and poor thinking; sokal and bricmont's book is merely one example, in which they berate non-specialists for dabbling in, as they see it, their own speciality, and getting things wrong, by their own definitions. linguists and discourse specialists, of course, roll their eyes at the rank amateur mistakes made in their book, in turn, the most obvious of which--and the fundamental point sokal and pals fail to understand--is that language and meaning are not susceptible to being fixed once and for all by simple authorial definition. proving that someone doesn't meet one's own standards for saying something meaningful within one's own framework of significance does not prove that they are not saying something meaningful to other people, or that no one else has or can use the same words to say something meaningful.

it is interesting to note that physicists have long been prone to sneer at the failure of outsiders to truly understand their science, and to secretly suspect that a lot of it is mumbo-jumbo. given that history (undeserved, maybe, but galling nonetheless) their reaction here to the incursions of marauding outsiders is rather too easy to diagnose.

Guys, let's put a lid on the Sokal hoax, okay? And move on to religion and politics and other things we can decide here. [g]

Mike J.

Maybe I was guilty of reading into the Jones article what I wanted it to say. I think Clay nailed it when he said, "Relativism and pomo philosophy are examples of interesting ideas pursued ad absurdum" and etc. Of course relativism used PROPERLY is a useful tool--what I took Jones to be talking about are the ways in which it can be abused and taken too far.

Is there any doubt it is one of the most abused methodologies of recent times? I don't think it's deniable that relativism is often taken too far, that it's been pressed into the service of ends it was never intended to serve, and has encouraged conclusions it never warranted. *Obviously* when "newsman" John Stossel (a true tool of neoconservatism, literally, in that he willingly takes all his marching orders from conservative think tanks) gets up in front of an audience and states that "All the scientists he knows" and has read don't believe global warming exists, much less that it has human causes, and asks, in an apparent hypothetical question, why his interlocutor's scientists can be presumed to be any better or wiser or more informed than his (Stossel's) scientists, well, it seems obvious to me that he's co-opting the methodology of moral relativism and turning it against its intended uses. When the cartoonist Scott Adams opines on his blog that all human being are really computer-controlled holograms that were programmed long ago, and thus have no free will, and he defends this conception by stating that it's no more absurd than the idea of evolution; and when he contends that anyone who wants to believe he (the person) had an ancestor in common with an ape, but that he (Adams) doesn't have, and that they're both equally entitled to their own beliefs about themselves, isn't it *obvious* that what he's doing is co-opting the "skill" of relativism--wielding it like a sword--to demean the very notion of scientific consensus and the best means we have of coming to a likelihood of the truth?

Relativism can be a very worthwhile means of getting at truth, but it's also very easily turned to propaganda and advocacy of absurd (and worse, sinister) positions. It's at least as dangerous as it is useful, unless we're being careful.

Mike J.

Mike: I honestly thought the lid had been on for a while (hence the attempt to lift an imho relevant reference from the bin!).

I am surprised that 10+ years after the affair it still seems to elicit such strong reactions. You would think someone disparaged the 450D in a Canon forum, or something. ;-)

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