If the musings of French philosophers go over your head, don't worry: it may not be you who's the stupid one

French Academics
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The Independent Online
Bear with me for the next sentence. "What is the transparency of air, water or glass, in other words the `real space' of the things which surround us, when the interface in `real time' takes over from the classic interval and so distance abruptly gives way to the power of instantaneous broadcast and reception?"

What indeed? If you find the above passage from the works of French "urbanist" Paul Virillo a trifle obscure, do not despair. According to a new book which will set the Rive Gauche of Paris aflame with anger (and some laughter), the passage is obscure because Mr Virillo does not have the faintest idea what he is talking about. The book, Intellectual Impostures, written by two respected physicists, an American and a Belgian, has already triggered a transatlantic war of long words. Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont seek to prove - with considerable success - that the writings of some of the most lionised French intellectuals are larded with meaningless verbiage and sprinkled with scientific howlers. "If they seem incomprehensible, it's with good reason," the authors assert. "They have nothing to say."

The targets of this Belgo-American tirade are a dozen or so structuralists, post-structuralists, post-modernists, urbanists, sociologists, medio- logists and self-professed "thinkers" who mingle modern scientific theory and terminology with fashionably opaque musing on the nature of literature, philosophy and life.

The writers - including the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the feminist Luce Irigaray, the mediologist Regis Debray and "thinker" Jean Baudrillard - are respected not only in France, but much praised and copied in liberal and politically-correct university circles in the US.

Messrs Sokal and Bricmont believe they have been responsible - wittingly or not - for shaping a left-liberal intellectual climate on American campuses which favours intuition and dogma over the old-fashioned academic and intellectual virtues of rigour, clarity and rationality. Both Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont are left-of-centre themselves but feel obliged to call attention to the "disastrous effect, on teaching and on culture, of abandoning clarity of thought".

One of their particular bug-bears is Jacques Lacan, a prototypically bow-tied French intellectual, who specialises in works mixing pscyhoanalytical theory with abstruse areas of maths and physics. He is celebrated for, among other things, his attempts to explain neuroses in geometrical terms; and his comparison between the erect male organ and the mathematical symbols for the root of minus 1.

Sokal and Bricmont say that the problem is that Mr Lacan has got many of his mathematical terms wrong or mixed up. His assertions are therefore either completely meaningless, or, if stripped of the veneer of mathematical pseudo-intellectualism, banal or pointless.

They also put the academic boot into the sociologist Jean Baudrillard, known for his fictional-philosophical "letters" in the newspaper Liberation, which muse on current events from an unconventional standpoint: ie "The Gulf war never happened." Sokal and Bricmont say that Baudrillard also has a tendency to babble in a pseudo-scientific way, talking, for instance, of the "multiple refractions of hyperspace" - a concept previously unknown to science.

"It sounds like science but in reality it is as meaningless as it is pompous," Sokal claimed in an interview with the weekly bible of the French intellectual left, Le Nouvel Observateur. The magazine gave over its front page and seven inside pages this week to launch the debate - "Are French intellectuals impostors?". Two French intellectuals sketch out the case for the defence. Pascal Bruckner - a writer and university lecturer, who is not personally criticised in the book - says it demonstrates the "total misunderstanding" between the Anglo-Saxon culture "based on facts and information" and French culture "which depends on interpretation and style".

"French intellectuals are not so much philosophers or sociologists as essayists. The essay is precisely an impure, bastard form, at the crossroads of politics, literature and morality, which has produced the most brilliant strokes of French thought from the 17th century onwards."

Mr Bruckner does allow, somewhat grudgingly, that the "intelligentsia francaise" has something to learn from "the wisdom and moderation" of Anglo-Saxon fact-finding. But, he thunders, "it is to the great honour of French intellectuals that they take, endlessly, the beautiful risk of thinking."

Julia Kristeva, a literary theorist, who is lambasted in Sokal and Bricmont's book, rather unfairly, for juvenile works from 30 years ago, responds that French writers adopt scientific theories and language as "poetic metaphors", not provable assertions. Borrowing between the disciplines of science and the arts has given rise in writers like Freud and Heidegger to some of the most interesting departures of modern thought.

Sokal and Bricmont would almost certainly agree. Their book, if fairly read, is an attack not on enlightenment but the new obscurantism. They accuse certain French intellectuals of using complex scientific theories and language to impress, not to explain; to intimidate, not to elucidate. This, they say, is a form of "intellectual terrorism".

Worse than that, they say, writers like the sociologist Bruno Latour add insult to injury. Having misunderstood the science they steal, they go on to claim that all scientific knowledge is just another form of myth-making or story-telling, and all scientific facts relative.

One aspect of the debate which Sokal and Bricmont somewhat ignore is the linguistic differences between French and English: the capacity of the French language to express abstract theories, which tend to fall apart when forced into English words and idiom. They say that they published the French version of the book first to avoid the impression of insulting France from across the Atlantic. An English version will follow. Sokal admits, however, that he will find it difficult to translate passages of Jacques Lacan - the mathematical psychoanalyst - without bursting into laughter.