An answer to a question
from Alan Sokal
Date: Fri, 2 Apr 1999 19:17:13 -0500 (EST)
From: email@example.com (Alan Sokal)
Subject: Intellectual Impostures
Dear Aziz Yardimli
> postmodernism (or nihilism) is basically the normal academical mentality
> in the market dominated modern consumer society, not a fiction of some
> French writers. It is an act of intellectual adaptation to a world which
> seems to have no sense in it.
Yes, I think this is an astute observation. Postmodernism/nihilism/
irrationalism seem to be a capitulation to consumer society --
and the transfer of that society, with its "star system" and
aestheticizing of cognitive questions -- into the academic world.
One thing that confused me on your Web site was the classification of
Newton, Hume and Einstein as "irrationalism". Are you perhaps using
that word in a different sense than the way I understand it?
Newton is, of course, a complicated case, because of his strong interest
in mysticism and alchemy; nevertheless, his work in physics was
reasonably "rationalist" in the modern sense of the word.
And Hume and Einstein, I think, should be classified unambiguously
as rationalists in the modern sense. Of course, there are subtle debates
within the philosophy of physics about realism vs. positivism (for example)
-- and indeed Einstein's views on these matters seemed to shift over the
course of his life -- but I don't think there's any reasonable sense
in which Einstein could be called "irrationalist".
Many thanks for sending the list of books. Unfortunately (and I am embarrassed
to say this) I am unable to read a Microsoft Word document (I use only Unix).
Would it be possible for you to send it to me as a plain text (ASCII) file?
Department of Physics
New York University
4 Washington Place
New York, NY 10003 USA
Date: Wed, 07 Apr 1999 01:11:56 +0300
From: Aziz YARDIMLI <firstname.lastname@example.org>
X-Mailer: Mozilla 4.5 [en] (Win95; I)
Dear Alan Sokal
We already put your wonderful lightning-rod article and its translation
into our Web site. Other articles which are already translated will also
be included soon, and we will notify you then.
> One thing that confused me on your Web site was the classification of
> Newton, Hume and Einstein as "irrationalism". Are you perhaps using
> that word in a different sense than the way I understand it?
Here is a both rational and emotional answer. In order to keep it short,
I will not elaborate and in many places omit the genealogy of ideas.
That I am ready to provide in case you demand it.
I know that you are already familiar with all the facts and ideas which
I shall indicate below. But on the other hand they all may appear quite
different to us according to our point of view. And that unpremeditated
relativism is the most painful part in any rational debate, and its
universal solution, i.e. the agreement of mankind on truth, will
certainly be nothing less than our liberation.
Rationalism shouldn't have different meanings. In natural sciences, it
is the natural law which is the rational element. Hume's empiricism (or
skepticism), or, for that matter, empiricism in general and so-called
logical positivism, basically consists of nothing but the statement that
material nature has no *causality,* no determinate law. Hume bases every
act of knowledge on his sense-perception, so he simply thinks that we
can not assert the *causality* because we cannot infer that particular
concept from mere observation of the facts. He is right. Senses can not
infer anything. A concept cannot be derived from sense-observation. But
he is innocent of the fact that every observation has an a priori
conceptual form (made of Descartes' or Chomsky's innate ideas). Without
concepts, we have no observation. Only colors, not even the shapes. Hume
thought that those concepts which nevertheless we all have are a matter
of habit. For him causality is only a subjective construct of our minds
which should be deconstructed (=destroyed).
Yet can we imagine a physical event without a physical cause?
Hume could. That is why he is accepted as the irrationalist par
excellence. He believed that objectively and universally the events had
no causal connection whatsoever. He did not investigate the *conceptual*
ability of human reason beyond its psychological aspect. That Kant and
German idealists did. The former reached virtually the same sad black
picture as Hume. The latter, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, in a kind of
collective rational labor, managed to *prove* or reaffirm against
skeptics that the truth is knowable by human reason. And with Hegel's
Science of Logic and its application to the empirical sciences of his
time in his Encyclopedia the Western philosophy came to a conclusion.
The further theoretical process after him is mainly
an anti-philosophical, skeptical, almost sensual attack against reason.
Hume in his reasoning saw that the same destructive conclusion was valid
for *all* concepts: Nothing we accept as concept has anything to do with
real, objective existences. Nothing we think through concepts exists in
reality. Yet if we are to know something outside our minds, it can be
possible only through concepts with objective relevance. So, on his
'theory,' knowledge is impossible, and we must only believe, opine,
imagine. No certainty, but only probability. He was almost heroic in his
acceptance of refutation of all knowledge. And three centuries later, in
his 1917 book, Einstein wrote that he was thankful for the 'great
services' of Hume (which book you can find in our site in German).
Einstein's debt to Hume goes further than being only a pretence. Hume
refuted Geometry before Einstein did it, since without abstract concepts
like point, line, plane etc. there cannot be any geometry. On Hume's
observations, two lines, for instance, intersect on more than one point
because of the ‘thickness’ of the line on the paper. For him, the line is
not a concept but a faint idea of an impression. Centuries ago, a Greek
sophist had already declared that a tangent line contacts a curved line
on more than one point. Those statements too were of course the result
of the *physicalisation of the space*.
The concept of causality for Hume is simply an association of ideas in
our minds, a subjective fancy without any objective value. According to
his reasoning—which is admirably consistent and that gives to that fat
boy his fame as the First Speaker among the irrationalists—, we even
cannot assert the existence of matter, or of our minds, because they can
not be sense-perceived. The same objective existence of matter was to be
rejected in the same way by Einstein in plain words: ''the material
bodies which exist in so far as they are thought ...'' the Enc.
Britannica (1926) article, 'Space-Time' (if he were alive, I would
invite him — like you did somebody else — to my second floor apartment,
not for a Gedankenexperiment, but for a similar physical jumping
experiment). Those kind of statements cannot be seen as isolated or
careless statements contrary to his real meaning. They are
'philosophical' principles of his theory. In the opening 'philosophical'
passages of his consummate work, 'The Meaning of Relativity,' he showed
the kind of logic which was at work behind his theory. It was the same
empiricist method which produced only *probability*, was absolutely
unable to produce knowledge, let alone science. Vienna Circle (Carnap
and others), and the rest of the positivists like Popper, Kuhn etc. all
polished and perfected the same skeptical idea regarding the *causality*
with the result perfectly in accord with Hume that all natural law is
only an verifiable/falsifiable induction derived from individual
observations, that it does not have objective truth, that therefore all
reality is really a social or individual construct of human mind. That
is again perfectly in line with skeptical Immanuel Kant's idea that what
we know is only subjective phenomenon, mere appearance, not the real
thing. We can never know better.
Postmodernist argument in its scientific imposture simply sensed and
took over this line of reasoning and carried it into its very obvious,
very startling, and therefore mediatic implications. The 'hyper-reality'
of Baudr., or the 'text' of Derr. etc., is exactly the same thing as
'the reality as appearance' of the skeptical empiricists. And probably
slowly and gradually they came to recognize that reason and rationality
meant the destruction of their fancies. They found a lot of respectable
reason-haters to support their ideas like Nietzsche, Heidegger,
Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, etc. Their hate of reason is equal to that of
Hume, or Russell, or Popper. (Popper declared rationalist Platon and
Hegel as the Enemies of 'open society,' that is, of the
capitalistic-militaristic modern society as we know it with its deadly
implications, and together with Adam Smith he is one of the most
influential defensive players of the open capitalistic society; you must
have seen the Popper sites on Internet; or the Soros.com site, that
business-man 'philosopher' educated in Popperian tradition.) As to the
matter of 'value' or the 'meaning of life,' both nihilists and
positivists are in perfect accord since without reason, without truth,
without rational proof, without universal common sense nobody can talk
about right and wrong, good and bad except in a relativistic sense. That
creates a world without feeling.
They all gave expression to the value-free mental development of Western
civilization. Max Weber wrote that the end of Western rationalism was
the 'iron cage' of a soulless legality. It keeps humanity in its closed
logic, without conscience, without feeling, without love, but with
permanent violence. Sigmund Freud condemned the same culture as
sadistic. Normal people can manage to live in it, become a part of it,
with only a reduced, minimized conscience—and with a maximum of
aggressively sublimated instinctual energy. It is only in that way, it
is only with less moral resistance that the modern society as well as
the modern individual can exist and work smoothly. The idea of Justice
is the most harmful, rather most dangerous concept if modern
(Protestant) civilization really is to preserve its closure tightly.
(Eastern civilizations, as we know them, are long since conceptually
dead, and what is modern or semi-modern besides the Protestant culture
is only a hopeless simulation to it—Italy, Spain, Turkey; East European,
Asian, Latin American countries, even Orthodox Russia and
Buddhist-Communist China, etc.)
> And Hume and Einstein, I think, should be classified unambiguously
> as rationalists in the modern sense. Of course, there are subtle debates
> within the philosophy of physics about realism vs. positivism (for example)
> -- and indeed Einstein's views on these matters seemed to shift over the
> course of his life -- but I don't think there's any reasonable sense
> in which Einstein could be called "irrationalist".
Einstein of course looks rational since he defended 'reason' (that is,
causality) against the Copenhagen School. But by showing himself to be
rational, he only managed to convince many people that reason itself is
irrational. The *physicalisation* of geometry, his funny idea that the
expansion of the solid object brings about the expansion of the space
itself, the idea of moving spaces, etc. should strike us at once to be
irrational, that is illogical. Yet he, exactly like Newton before him,
simply took over what the others produced through real scientific
effort, and made a Piccaso picture out of it. That can be called
'paradigm' in the real and senseless sense of the word. Even the
inference of E=mc^2 does not belong to him, and was produced before him
by somebody else. David Bohm demystified the theory of special
relativity to a considerable extent (of whom a book on the subject I've
already translated into Turkish and will publish after some extra work),
but he was a dissident, a 'leftist' in the eyes of the establishment.
The last destruction of geometry and finitudizaton of universe belongs
to Einstein (he gave the almost exact 'length' of Radius of the universe
and the almost exact 'amount' of matter contained in it in his famous
1917 booklet which I translated with an expository foreword into
Turkish). Today all physical garbage, the Big Bang mythology with its
zero starting point in time and with zero mass, the Creation of the
universe from a singularity, the multitude of dimensions of time and
space, time travel, etc., comes directly out of his non-Euclidean theory
of universe. His collaborator Hilbert, who helped him in polishing the
tensor calculus (which was chosen and elaborated simply to fit his
prematurely determined ideas), did not have even a slightest notion of
*quantity.* He fancied that he deconstructed *continuity* and *infinity*
both from the ordinary human mind and sciences, and gave both a
mathematics working with only *discrete units.* (Hilbert in a very
interesting anti-dialectical, pro-analytical 1925 article exposes his
own logic; it is available in English; the title: 'On The Infinite,'
which we'll include in our Web site in English soon; Schrödinger gave a
lecture about the situation of physics in 1950's, and rejected Hilbert's
analytical opinions and asserted both continuity and discontinuity for
matter; it will be soon included in our site in English. Title: 'What is
It is difficult to imagine the damage done by the fallacies of the
empiricist to the consciousnessess of millions of the students
throughout the world. But without that kind of damage in reason how
could the global sadism manage to produce 70.000 nuclear bombs only in
Einstein is known much less as an ethically corrupt man, throwing his
own child to an orphanage, etc., than as a 'pacifist.' He was some
pacifist, indeed. But in that respect, too, he was double-faced. He was
the most influential person to urge the U.S. President Trumann to
produce A-bomb. He did it in the name of science, and as a 'pacifist'.
He was of course already trapped by the unrefutable logic of the
one-dimensional society in which and for which he worked. But to a
pacifist it is unbecoming to act as the most prominent defender of the
bomb. To believe in oneself both as a pacifist and as a nuclear-bomb
supporter should be considered as irrational. It is not something what
we call normal. Yet what postmodern mind today asserts proudly is that
it is able to carry inconsistent, even conflicting ideas together
comfortably within itself. (Even Newton had much more common sense than
Einstein: According to one of his biographies, he resolutely opposed to
the production of mass killing weapons in his time.)
> Newton is, of course, a complicated case, because of his strong interest
> in mysticism and alchemy; nevertheless, his work in physics was
> reasonably "rationalist" in the modern sense of the word.
I will be short on Newton. As you said, ''his work in physics was
reasonably 'rationalist.' '' Everybody agrees with that. It was
mathematical. It was pure, extremely, even unnecessarily, complicated
Euclidean logic, exercised by a real master. It was almost an artistic
product, so delicate that today it can be read and understood by only a
few. But the most important thing is that his theoretical/conceptual
work was done *completely* by *others,* and he took the results before
they were proven geometrically and finished the job. The picture or
interpretation of universe he presented in Principia was not
mechanistic, nor was it rationalistic. It was Hermetic. He did not hide
anything in that respect. (You can find parts of his work in our Web
site; I selected mostly the parts of his Principia in which he explains
his 'natural philosophical' view of universe.) He opposed any
mechanistic interpretation of the universe by all his means. He rejected
every rationalistic idea in physics (even his 'natural' laws are
modifiable by his Hermetic God, that is, they are always falsifiable).
He was logically so unbalanced, rationally so weakened that it was
absolutely impossible for his mind to grasp and accept the pure
mechanical working of the cosmos, the rational order of universe.
One can not discover something which one can not understand.
* * *
There are a lot of facts which fit very reasonably into a whole picture.
The postmodern culture is only the newest logical transformation of a
continuous irrational intellectualism in modern existence. Yesterday it
was positivism, existentialism, crass nihilism. Tomorrow it may evolve
yet into another form. But in spite of all change, its substance, its
absolute rejection of truth and the ideal of justice, remains. Truth
seems to it to be a super-human affair. Justice, right, equality seems
to it to be something even undesirable. Beauty seems to be something to
From the rational point of view, postmodernism is only the symptom, not
the disease itself. Any healthy society can afford to be disturbed a bit
by its schizophrenic parts. If it can not, that may mean that it has
become mature enough to be history. This time it is a failure of reason
in academia. But the working and suffering humanity is sound. It is, as
always, only stupid, not mad. It can be communicated with, educated by the