The Enlightenment — a period of intellectual progress in Europe and North America during the eighteenth century — saw superstition, dogma and ignorance lose ground to reason, science and freedom of inquiry. Enlightenment thinkers questioned received ideas and used rational methods to explore new possibilities in many fields. Despite persecution by government and church, the enormous increase in the publication of newspapers and books spread ideas widely. The result was an outpouring of knowledge and understanding about the way the world works. Western civilisation’s high standard of living and openness today stem from the Enlightenment.
In the last 30 years, however, a fashion called “postmodernism” has challenged all claims to knowledge, including the work of scientists. Postmodernism is a general term for various theories, including post-structuralism and deconstructionism. They have their origin in modern German philosophy (eg Nietzsche) and in the adaptation of this philosophy by various French intellectuals (eg Foucault). This assortment of theories has had little impact in philosophy or science departments, but some academics in humanities and social sciences faculties have seized on it, leading to an ongoing decline in these faculties. Usually they are scholars who are critical of the western world; often they are very concerned about imperialism, racism or sexism. Some are former Marxists who have been forced by world events to abandon that discredited philosophy. Many post-modernists distrust science because it is central to the Western world’s success.
Postmodernism starts from reasonable premises: individuals perceive the world differently, and their opinions can be influenced by their backgrounds. Radical post-modernists, however, push their doubts about objectivity to absurd extremes. The race, class, gender and other attributes of individuals, including scientists, supposedly determine their understanding of the world. Anyone’s beliefs about the world are as valid as anyone else’s. There are no facts, only interpretations. All so-called evidence is in the nature of a text to be read in the light of the presenter’s class, race and other attributes. In May I attended an international conference where a scholar presented a paper in which she stated as a given that there are ways of knowing other than the rational and used the word “rational” as a term of abuse! Radical postmodernists say that all claims to knowledge are attempts to usurp power. The scientific method and empiricism supposedly are approaches that elites insist upon in order to strengthen their own standing.
These supposed insights are often expressed in obscure prose, riddled with jargon. Terms such as “episteme”, “dominant discourse”, “cultural paradigm” and “intellectual hegemony” sit alongside common words that are placed inside quotation marks in order to subvert their meaning. The result can be incomprehensible. An article published recently in the journal Rethinking History is full of sentences such as:
This definition of a ‘secondary break’ can clearly be seen to relate to the articulative function of the micro-period, in that the description of it as ‘secondary’ situates it in a subsidiary relationship to the episteme and suggests that it articulates varying possibilities on the surface without representing a break or rupture in relation to the larger episteme.
I have suffered through academic seminars that were full of such gibberish. I am sure no listener understood them. Out of politeness or timidity, however, no one stood up and said the paper did not make sense — that the emperor had no clothes.
Alan D Sokal, who is a physicist at New York University, was troubled by the decline in intellectual rigour in the humanities. In order to test academic standards, he submitted a nonsensical article to a leading journal of cultural studies. He made the article sound sophisticated and flattered the editors’ prejudices. Thus, Sokal opened by scorning “the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook”:
that there exists an external world, whose properties … are encoded in ‘eternal’ physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the ‘objective’ procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.
The rest of the article was riddled with incoherent references to various philosophers and scientific terms, used nonsensically. The spoof ended by stating that post-modern science has abolished the concept of reality, which “is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.”
The distinguished editors of Social Text published the paper, Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Herm-eneutics of Quantum Gravity, in their Spring/Summer 1996 issue.
Many scholars agree with Perez Zagorin, writing in the journal History and Theory (1999) that postmodernism “is not a tenable set of theories.” The sloppy thinking and prejudice behind postmodernism need to be exposed. There is a real world, we can learn about it by using evidence and logic, and no amount of pretentious prose can avoid these obvious truths. It is amazing that we have to state the obvious, but such is the state of education in corners of today’s universities.
Dr Raymond Richards is a senior lecturer in History and American Studies at Waikato University. He can be reached at ray&64;waikato.ac.nz